I’ve been experimenting with lactic acid fermentation for a couple years now. I’ve always enjoyed anything salty and sour, but always thought pickling was responsible for all of it, and that ‘pickled’ things were just a yummy treat for the senses and the mouth.
It wasn’t until I went on antibiotic therapy for my Lyme disease that I started paying more attention to things like gut health, and probiotics. I began taking probiotic supplements daily, but also began eating a lot of yogurt to help ward off all the nasty side effects of the antibiotics like diarrhea and recurrent yeast infections. I didn’t realize then that these were symptoms of something bigger.
Fast forward a few years, and I kept hearing things about gut health and words like microbiome and gut flora. As I dug, I learned more and more about the importance of internal bacteria and the balance that keeps our bodies and overall health in tip-top conditions. To be quite honest, I really have to be in the mood for yogurt. It’s not something I want daily, or even often, so I started looking for other sources and discovered the world of fermented food!
I began drinking kombucha and eating any truly fermented thing I could find. I found out that canned sauerkraut, somthing I had always loved and bought regularly, doesn’t have any of that good bacteria left, even if it was originally fermented…which isn’t always the case. Same with anything else canned, as the high heat in the canning process kills it all. Still delicious, but doesn’t have that extra nutritional kick. But, fermented food continues to ferment, especially when not cooled, and most manufacturers are concerned with shelf stability over nutritional richness, so I get it. What I could find at the fancy-food stores and farmers’ markets were so overpriced, I would end up eating sparingly to make that $10 jar last as long as possible. So I decided to learn how to do it myself. After all, if people have fermenting for the last millenia or so, it can’t be all that hard, right?
I’m not going to go into the science of fermentation. I figure, if you’re here, you a) know what it is, or b) are perfectly capable of finding out as much more information as you desire. But if you are interested in learning more, I do highly recommend The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Katz. He simplified things for me, and made the whole process waaaaay less intimidating. The book also opened up a whole world of possibility for me for how to get, and enjoy, more bacteria in my family’s diet. I now keep an active sourdough starter going. I did try to make kefir water, but my little kefir guys died. And so far, I’ve lacto-fermented (which incidentally has nothing to do with milk) beets, carrots, pearl onions, bell peppers, hot peppers, swiss chard stems, radishes, homemade siracha, and of course, sauerkraut! It’s all so super easy, and inexpensive, especially when I use the stuff from the garden or when the cabbage is on sale.
All you need is a container, something that keeps the dust out, the thing you want to ferment, and some salt. And sometimes some water.
You can find and buy a fancy kraut crock. They have fantastic reviews, and are the traditional method. But this girl is on a budget and those things are expensive. By design, they are about perfect, but expensive. I use glass jars.
I started with just a jar, repurposed or a new canning-type. But I’ve since moved on to just the wide-mouth canning jars because…
…I started using fermentation lids that fit on my wide-mouth jars.
As a quick background, fermentation happens when the naturally existing bacteria on the cabbage (or whatever you’re fermenting) starts to break it down. While it’s “eating,” it gives off carbon dioxide. You don’t want dust and bugs in your ferments, but you also don’t want a sealed glass jar filling up with extra gas (think fermented explosion of glass!). There are a whole slew of venting solutions to choose from. I don’t really think any one is better than another when used correctly. The good thing about a venting lid, is once the carbon dioxide builds up in the headspace of the container, it pushes out all the oxygen and greatly reduces the risk of anything undesireable growing in your ferment. But to be honest, when I started I simply set the lid loosely on top to let the gas escape with little issue. As long as all the cabbage (or whatever you are fermenting) stays under the liquid, the good bacteria stays happy and plentiful. Which brings me to…
When I started, I used a ziplock baggie full of water to weigh down my ferments. Once, I even used a large outer cabbage leaf and some scrubbed-clean stones from the garden. Both methods worked, mostly, but I have since broken down and bought some glass fermentation weights. Of course the downside is the weights and the purchased lids do limit me to what container I can use, so I do sometimes go back to the baggies of water for other jars.
The weight is simply to keep all the plant material under the liquid, which is essential to maintaining the good bacteria and keeping the bad bacteria at bay. If you take nothing else from this post, keep all the plant material under the liquid to keep the bad bacteria at bay!
A head of cabbage, the fresher the better
- Peel off a couple of the outer leaves of the cabbage and shred the rest of the head in a large bowl. I find a wide glass bowl to be the easiest, but anything will work, I’m sure. I use the term shred loosely too. I don’t enjoy using a shredder at all, and one should definatly enjoy this, so I thinly slice the cabbage, and that works just as well.
- Sprinkle salt over the shredded cabbage. I usually start with 2 TBSP.
- With clean hands, start massaging the salt into the cabbage. Really knead it in, squeezing and turning. You will almost immediately start to notice the liquid being drawn out by the salt and your massaging.
- Taste the cabbage from time to time for saltiness, and add more to your taste.
- Massage until the bulk has reduced by about two-thirds, and there’s a good amount of liquid in the bottom, and the cabbage is nice and limp.
- Put the cabbage in your clean (sterilized or washed, whatever level you are comfortable with) jar and push it all down into the bottom, squeezing more liquid out.
- Top off with any remaining liquid from your bowl, leaving at least an inch of space from the top of the cabbage to the rim of the jar (“headspace”).
- Make sure all the plant material is under the liquid! If you need more, add some water.
- Take one of the outer leaves you saved and push it into the jar, covering the shredded cabbage, and again ensuring all the shreds are under the liquid.
- Place whatever weight you have/choose on top of the outer leaf, and cover with a fermenting lid, or loosly cover with something to keep the dust out.
- Leave the sauerkraut in a cool place, out of direct sunlight. Some say put it in the dark, but honestly, I forget things in my pantry, so I leave my ferments in a protected part of the kitchen so I can keep an eye on them daily.
After a couple days, you’ll see bubbles forming around the cabbage (the carbon dioxide). Push down any plant material that escapes your weight, or scoop it out and discard it.
I encourage tasting a lot. After 5 days. After a week. After 2 weeks. The taste will change with time and since you are making it, only you can really tell when it’s done right for you. Go with your taste. If you like it after 5 days, fish out the large leaf and the weight, lid it, and stick it in your fridge to (almost) halt the fermentation. If you want to wait a month or two, that is fine too! But note these things:
- it should never smell repulsive
- it should never taste bad
- mold grows sometimes. it can be scooped off the surface and the rest of the ferment is most likely still ok
- it should never taste bad
- it should never smell repulsive
If your taste buds, your nose, or your body says it’s not good, It’s Not Good. Toss it out. There is no saving it. Don’t try. Trust your senses. Trust yourself.
Yes, it can be very serious if something bad gets in your ferment and you consume a lot of it. But, if you pay attention through the whole process, and especially to your own senses, that isn’t likely to happen.
And if you still have apprehension, read The Art of Fermentation, You’ll feel better about the whole thing after. 🙂 enjoy!