Homemade sauerkraut is so superior to what we can purchase in supermarkets that the supermarket brands, canned or refrigerated, should be dumped. They are all too salty, too sour, or both. This recipe for making sauerkraut from fresh heads of cabbage is one I learned from my mother, Dorothy, who in turn learned it from my paternal grandmother, Cora. It is amazingly good, as attested to by many friends and relatives once I started making it in New Hampshire, in 2005.
My interest in sauerkraut was marginal as a child, for neither my grandmother or my mother made any while I was growing up. We only had the canned store bought stuff. I didn’t know what I was missing. It turns out that my grandmother got her shredder, crocks and stomping tool from her parents, and that she used them only while her children lived at home.
I inherited (asked for) the shredder, crocks and stomping tool simply because I was interested in how things were done on the farm in the past. I had no plan to make sauerkraut. But then my wife Pat and I bought our home and I had a very large garden for the first time ever. This goes all the way back to 1973 through 1975.
Well, I grew a variety of vegetables and fruits in quantity, including enough cabbage that I could use some of it to make a crock of homemade sauerkraut. My first experience making sauerkraut was fabulous and Pat and I and our children gobbled it up quickly. Alas, I only made it one time as later unforeseen life circumstances killed my interest in gardening.
I never had a good place to garden or to grow any crops in quantity after leaving that property, for my subsequent homes either had poor growing environments or too little space to grow a lot of food of any one type. Then, very many years later, I made a garden in New Hampshire large enough to grow anything I wanted, and so I did, in 2005.
I happened to remember how great the sauerkraut was when I made it back in 1973, so I decided to do it in grand style with enough quantity to last for a year as well as be used for gifts to friends and family. And yes, I still had the stomper, but the crocks and shredder were long gone.
By fortunate circumstance Marie and I visited an antique barn in Massachusetts with our great friends Linda and Joe Lange. I found an old shredder just like the one my grandmother used though it was in poor condition. I bought it anyway and proceeded to make it as good as new. I even created a sliding rail box and pushing tool so the safety of anyone shredding cabbage would be excellent. The two blades were razor sharp and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. That year I had my adult children and a few of my grandchildren visiting and then shredding cabbage for making sauerkraut. It was a neat family experience.
At one point, I think it was in 2006, I was growing enough cabbage that I made 120 quarts of sauerkraut at one time. Wow! I used five gallon white plastic pails with lids, purchased at Home Depot®, each of which held four gallons of sauerkraut, or, 16 quarts. Yes, I did eight pails just from my cabbage crop in that year. That was a lot of canning! But I had upgraded the shredding process. I retired the old shredder and bought a professional grade Kitchen-Aid® food processor. That sure helped with the shredding of large amounts of cabbage.
For a few years I provided pails of sauerkraut to my children, and they held a family event annually, a day of canning and sharing the final product.
In 2007 I bought a vacuum sealer and I vacuum sealed the sauerkraut instead of canning it, with great results, for simply refrigerating it instead of canning it kept the kraut very crisp. Shelf life was no issue at all due to the natural acidity and saltiness of the sauerkraut. Thus, refrigerated vacuum sealed bags of it lasted a full year with no product deterioration. I sure was pleased with that result, for ninety percent of the package processing labor was eliminated by not having to can the sauerkraut.
I literally scooped the completed sauerkraut and liquid from the pail and put them directly into vacuum sealing bags. Then I vacuum sealed them and stored them in our extra refrigerator. Later I gave many away as gifts … very welcome gifts I might add.
Enough historical narrative. The recipe and procedure are simple and the labor almost all on the front end in processing the heads of cabbage. If you grow very large heads of cabbage one head will make a gallon of shredded, stomped cabbage. Figure on about eight medium size heads of cabbage to make four gallons of shredded stomped cabbage for one five gallon pail.
The only ingredient besides cabbage is kosher salt, which is pure, without any non-caking agents added. Sometimes I would have to make a small amount of salt brine with some water to properly cover the shredded cabbage during the fermentation process.
In any event, shredded cabbage is put into the pail two to three quarts at a time and spread evenly to form a layer about two inches thick when lightly compressed. Then about two tablespoons of kosher salt are sprinkled evenly over the cabbage. Then the stomper is used to bruise and partially crush the cabbage, initiate the salt mixing in, and get some liquid from the cabbage. I made my own stomper from a piece of oak tree trunk about 15 inches long and five inches in diameter. I drilled one end to accommodate a broom handle and glued it in place. The stomper is used about 12 times per layer of cabbage, just enough to hit each spot twice, being sure to cover the entire exposed area in the pail.
Once four gallons of shredded stomped cabbage and salt are in the pail make sure there is enough liquid to cover the cabbage. If not, mix two tablespoons of kosher salt with one quart of water and add it to the pail.
Put a dinner plate or other type of plate on top of the cabbage, large enough that the clearance between the plate and the interior surface of the pail is no more than ¼ inch around. Then put some type of clean non-metallic weight on top of the plate to push it down … this will keep the cabbage submerged under the liquid, which is an absolute necessity to avoid mold formation in the cabbage during fermentation. I’ve used everything from stacks of small ceramic tile to bowls or sealed bottles of water or sand as weights. Always cover the pail with the pail lid as the last step to keep out insects and any foreign matter, not to mention mold spores or bacteria from any source. This infers that prior to processing the cabbage that all pails, stomper, etc. should be sterilized/washed with hot water.
Fermentation is done best at temperatures between 60ºF and 70ºF, so it is best to make the sauerkraut in a cool basement. If the room temperature is as high as 75º F the final sauerkraut will be far too soft and not worth eating. If the room temperature is below 55ºF then fermentation will be too slow. Done within the right temperature range the sauerkraut will be done in two to three weeks.
The pails should be checked every two days during fermentation. The first reason is to assure that the cabbage remains under the liquid brine. If it has pushed up and is exposed to air then add up to a quart of salt brine as described earlier, and/or perhaps increase the weight on the plate to force the cabbage under the liquid. The second reason is that some pails of fermenting cabbage will develop mold on the surface of the liquid, and it should be removed completely. My technique is to lay a dry paper towel on the surface of the liquid to contact the mold, then I pull the towel into a bunch and remove it and discard it. I use two or three paper towels to assure that all of the mold is removed, wiping the interior surface of the pail at the liquid level if needed. The liquid level may have to be adjusted as some liquid is lost in the paper towels during mold removal. As before, simply add some salt brine. Recover the pail with the lid.
The sauerkraut should be checked after two weeks for fermentation progress. That means remove the weights and the plate long enough to collect a sample of sauerkraut from about halfway down into the pail. Then replace the plate, weights and lid. When the sauerkraut is done it will be obvious by taste alone, for it will no longer taste like cabbage or have the crunchiness of raw cabbage. It is your choice when to end the fermentation, but be sure to give it long enough to get some sourness in the final product. I like a mild sauerkraut, as do my friends and family, one that is obviously sauerkraut but not too acidic/sour.
At this point you are ready to can, vacuum seal or use some of the sauerkraut in a meal. Be sure to save the pail liquid with the sauerkraut as it will flavor foods that you make later. Also, do not simply leave the sauerkraut in the pail or fermentation will continue and ruin the product. I love sauerkraut best when it is cooked with a pork shoulder roast in a covered pot with liquid from the sauerkraut and maybe a small water addition to keep the meat mostly submerged. You don’t want to use much water or the sauerkraut taste will be weakened. Also, cut slits in the roast to facilitate cooking and to provide meat flavor to the broth. After an hour or two of slow cooking on low heat, turning the meat over a few times, drop dumplings can be added and the pot covered for ten minutes to steam the dumplings.
A simple recipe for drop dumplings is one cup of flour, ½ teaspoon salt, two teaspoons of baking powder and enough milk to form a soft dumpling consistency when all the ingredients are mixed in a bowl. Some folks like to add an egg to the mixture to produce a heavier dumpling.
Yummy! What a satisfying meal!