Fermented veggies are packed with nutritious probiotics that are great for your gut health! One of my favorites to make is fermented cabbage, otherwise known as sauerkraut. While you can use any variety of cabbage (red, green, Napa, etc.), I typically use red. The color is beautiful, and it tastes great as a sauerkraut.

Materials needed:

  • Large mixing bowl
  • Pounder
  • Jar weights (not critical, but definitely helpful)
  • Mason jars and lids
  • Organic cabbage
  • Sea salt
  • Whey or starter from a previous batch

The Steps:

1. Shred the Cabbage

 Thinly slice your cabbage by hand, or cut it into large chunks and use a shredding attachment on a food processor. I’ve grown to appreciate the ease of the food processor method. Add your shredded cabbage to a large mixing bowl. I have a huge one that holds about 3 heads of shredded cabbage, so that’s about the limit I can make at one time. Make sure the mixing bowl is made of something that won’t break easily (stainless steel, wood, or plastic would be acceptable choices), as you will need to pound the cabbage in a later step. 

Cabbage WedgesCredit: Christine HitzlerShredded CabbageCredit: Christine Hitzler

2.  Add Sea Salt and Whey

Use approximately 1 Tablespoon of sea salt and about a 1/4 cup of whey per head of cabbage. If you don’t have any whey or juice from a previous batch to use, add a little extra sea salt instead. (If you’re unfamiliar with whey, it’s the liquid part that separates from yogurt. You can make your own whey by straining some plain yogurt through cheesecloth into a bowl or jar.)

3. Pound the Cabbage

 You will need to put your arm muscles to work in this step! Pound the cabbage, salt, and whey for about 15 minutes to release the juices from the cabbage. I used to use the pestle piece from a mortar and pestle set for this, but since then I’ve purchased a cabbage pounder and it works much better and is easier to grip.

 While it’s tempting to take a shortcut on this step and not pound for the full 15 minutes, I have had better luck when I stick it out for the full length of time. It allows more juices to release, which is necessary for the process and to prevent spoilage. 

Pounding CabbageCredit: Christine Hitzler

4. Rest the Cabbage

 After you’ve finished pounding the cabbage, let it rest and wilt for about 30 minutes. Use this time to clean up some of the mess that has accumulated and to prepare your canning jars.

5. More Pounding 

Pound the cabbage about five more minutes.

6. Pack the Cabbage into Jars

Pack the cabbage tightly into clean glass mason jars using your pounding implement of choice. The goal is to have it completely submerged in its juices to prevent spoilage and mold from growing. If you don’t have enough juices, you can add a little filtered water to top it off with. Do not use tap water, as the chlorine will kill the good bacteria needed to make the fermentation process work. 

Packing the JarsCredit: Christine Hitzler

The cabbage will expand as the fermentation process takes place, so leave a couple inches of room on top for expansion. (If you don’t, you will have a fun volcano on your hands when you go to open the jar!) The cabbage that you’ve so carefully packed down will naturally want to float upward out of its juices; to prevent this, some glass canning weights are very helpful to keep it down below the liquid. If you don’t have these, you’ll probably need to check your jars periodically and keep pressing the cabbage back down below the liquid. 

Place the lids on the jars, and tighten the rings. 

Cabbage Press and WeightsCredit: Christine Hitzler

7. Ready, Set, Ferment!

After you’ve packed your jars and sealed them up, your work is mostly done. Now the good bacteria on your cabbage will take over and preserve the cabbage turning into naturally fermented sauerkraut.

Leave your jars sitting at room temperature as they begin working. Warmer temperatures will allow the process to happen more quickly, so if it’s wintertime, or you keep your house at a cooler temperature, try placing the jars inside your oven with just the oven light on for the first day or two. The oven light gives off just enough heat to give your cabbage a good head start. If you make your sauerkraut during the summer, the counter top is just fine.

Over the next few days, you should start to see some tiny bubbles on the cabbage and feel pressure building up on the lids of your jars. If you can no longer easily push down on the lid, unscrew the lid to release some of the pressure, and then retighten it. This is called “burping” the jar. You may want to do this over a sink, especially if the cabbage has expanded and the jar looks very full, as you may experience some overflow.

Your sauerkraut should be ready to eat in about 3 or 4 days, but you can let it keep fermenting for two weeks or so. The longer it goes, the more sour it will get, and the more plentiful the probiotics will become.

Once it’s done, you can move it to the refrigerator for storage, but it will also keep for quite a while at room temperature.

Finished Cabbage JarsCredit: Christine Hitzler

 8. Enjoy!

Your homemade sauerkraut is great eaten straight from the jar as a stand-alone snack or side dish. You can also mix in some black pepper, sliced red onion, and some balsamic vinegar for a tasty salad.

While technically you could serve this warm, heating it would destroy the probiotic nutritional properties, and would render all your hard work pointless. Enjoy it as a cold dish for the maximum health benefits. 

9. Troubleshooting

I’ve personally had very good luck fermenting cabbage, and I’ve never had a batch go bad, but if yours doesn’t turn out, here are a few things to check:

Was your cabbage completely submerged in liquid?

This is the one problem I have struggled with. Sometimes I notice that the cabbage on top of my jar is turning brown instead of the deep purple color of the rest of the jar. This just means that it didn’t stay below the liquid and started to rot. If this happens, simply spoon off the brown layer and give the rest of cabbage another good press down into the liquid. If you don’t have a jar weight on top of the cabbage, you’ll really have to keep on top of this each day, as it will want to expand above the liquid level. I run into this problem most often when I try to cut the pounding step short, and I’m not left with sufficient cabbage juice.

Did you use organic cabbage?

Non-organic cabbage is likely sprayed with pesticides which kill the beneficial bacteria that are critical to the fermentation process. It’s important to always use organic so that all the good bacteria are alive and in tact.

Did you use enough sea salt?

Sea salt creates an environment that makes it difficult for the bad bacteria to survive, while allowing the good bacteria to take over to do their work. If there wasn’t enough salt, it would be possible for the cabbage to spoil before the good bacteria had a chance to work.

Did you use filtered water?

I do rinse the outside of my cabbage quickly with a little tap water and then dry it off before using it, and I haven’t had a problem with my sauerkraut not working;  but theoretically, if too much chlorinated tap water made its way into the cabbage, it could prevent it from working. While I don’t usually need to add any water to my jars, if you do need extra liquid, make sure you use filtered water that does not contain chlorine.

10. Variety 

Once you’ve mastered the basics of fermenting cabbage, you can experiment with different variations. I love making kimchi by using green or Napa cabbage and mixing in some shredding carrots, ginger, garlic, green onions, and red pepper flakes. It’s just as easy, and the possibilities are endless!