Back before people realized raw fermented foods were full of gut health-promoting bacteria, long before it was trendy to pick up an $8 jar of raw sauerkraut at the grocery store, people were just salting their food to preserve it for the winter and hoping for the best.
So today, we’re kicking it old school. No, I’m not talking about sitting around listening to Rapper’s Delight (though, everyone does need a good fermentation playlist, am I right?), I’m talking about the OGs who didn’t have refrigerators and needed to preserve their produce for the long, cold winter.
If you’re still with me, hello, hi, thanks for reading: today we are making some raw, fermented sauerkraut. The process seems scary (you essentially let salted cabbage sit at room temperature for several week and hope nothing goes wrong), but other than the first day where you chop and salt your cabbage and pack it into a jar, there’s no work involved until you finally stick it in the fridge and enjoy the tangy, probiotic-filled fruits of your labors.
I ended up making this sauerkraut by chance: I bought a head of Napa Cabbage on my last trip to Atlas Farm with the plan of turning it into Kimchi. Then, I found myself buying jar after jar of the raw sauerkraut with cucumbers from Trader Joes, ignoring my big, beautiful head of cabbage in the fridge. Well, one thing led to another and I decided to quit spending all my hard earned cash on a trendy little jar of cabbage, and turn the cabbage in my fridge into sauerkraut.
A little internet research led me to the realization that the expensive sauerkraut I was eating was truly just cabbage, cucumbers and salt. My internet research also led me to realize that people stress out about fermentation a lot more than seems necessary. I mean, if our ancestors were fermenting food thousands of years ago, I think we can still do it ourselves today without any expensive gear, right? Right.
After reading the history of fermented foods four hours (hello, history nerd), I came across a little tidbit that changed everything. Today everyone stresses about creating an anaerobic environment for their sauerkraut- that is, making sure no oxygen gets into the veggies while they ferment, so mold doesn’t grow. Thousands of years ago, people just poured a few inches of olive oil on top of their salt-preserved veggies to keep the bugs out and inadvertently sealed out the oxygen, too. I still can’t find the link to the article where I read about the olive oil (I was in deep at this point- maybe reading about ancient Greece?) but as soon as I read about the oil layer on top I knew I could go forth and make my own sauerkraut with confidence.
Only, I had a little lightlbulb moment while making my sauerkraut and decided to use coconut oil instead. Here’s why: even though I love olive oil, I didn’t want to end up with oily sauerkraut. I love the clean, crisp, briney flavor of the one I’m used to buying at the store, which doesn’t have any oil. That’s when I realized that using an oil that hardens when it’s cold- like coconut oil- would be easy to just pop off the top of the sauerkraut when it was done fermenting. Maybe this coconut oil epiphany doesn’t seem so impressive to you, but it was a total game changer for me.
Okay, let’s get down to business. To make this raw, fermented, super healthy, perfectly tangy, not-scary sauerkraut, you are going to need:
Cabbage. I used Napa cabbage since I had it on hand, but regular green or purple cabbage both work just as well.
Sea Salt. The salt helps draw out the moisture from the cabbage, and acts as a preservative so things don’t get too funky.
Pickling Cucumbers. These are optional, but I really love combination of cabbage and cucumbers. You could also use some shredded carrot or thinly sliced onion if you have either of them laying around.
Extra Flavors like garlic, chili flakes, or fresh dill. Or all three! These are truly optional: to make sauerkraut you only NEED cabbage and salt. I personally love the addition of garlic, so I never skip it.
Coconut Oil to pour on top. The coconut oil doesn’t add any flavor to the sauerkraut, but acts like a lid that seals the cabbage away from the oxygen (and, any mold that might want to grow as a result of being exposed to oxygen).
The cabbage and cucumbers get thinly sliced and tossed with the salt in a big bowl, then sit at room temperature for at least an hour. During this time, the cabbage releases much of it’s moisture, providing the liquid that will cover the sauerkraut while it ferments. The extras get stirred in (garlic, chili flakes, dill, etc), and everybody get’s packed tightly into a half-gallon jar (or several quart-sized mason jars). All that’s left to do is cover it with a layer of melted coconut oil, secure a paper towel on top of the jar with a rubber band, and wait.
Technically speaking, you can ferment sauerkraut at room temperature for a month or more, and then transfer it to your basement for the duration of the winter without worrying about spoilage. Remember, fermentation was first used as a way to preserve produce before refrigeration, so it’s not exactly a strict science.
For those of us not living in the bronze age, though, a fermentation time of anywhere from 1-3 weeks at room temperature is a good starting point. I let this batch sit for 12 days, then stuck it in the fridge, scooped out the hard disk of coconut oil on top, and dug in.
Although it takes a lot of patience, the reward is well worth the wait. Plus, did I mention fermented foods are full of gut health-promoting bacteria, and are downright delicious?
Seriously, if you haven’t ever tried fermenting anything before, this sauerkraut needs to go on your to-do list this weekend! I’m already dreaming of how pretty a purple cabbage sauerkraut would look. Maybe with some shredded beets? Clearly, my gift is my curse; is there a limit to how much sauerkraut one person should have in their house at one time? I hope not.
- 1 medium-sized head of cabbage (green, purple, or Napa cabbage can all be used)
- 2 1/2 Tablespoons sea salt
- 1/4 cup coconut oil, melted
- 3-4 pickling cucumbers (can omit or use carrots or onion instead)
- 2 cloves garlic, 2 teaspoons chili flakes, or 1/4 cup fresh dill
- 1 large wide-mouth jar (at least a half gallon/2 qt capacity), or several quart jars
- 1 paper towel or clean cheesecloth
- 1 rubber band
- 1. Thinly slice the cabbage and cucumbers (if using), and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Add salt, and massage/toss with your hands to fully cover all the cabbage with salt. Cover the bowl, and let sit at room temperature for at least an hour, until the cabbage has wilted and there is at least an inch of liquid in the bowl. The cabbage can sit for up to 12 hours at this step, if you are pressed for time or want to do this before leaving for work in the morning or before bed at night.
- 2. While cabbage wilts, clean and dry a large jar or several wide-mouth mason jars and finely chop any flavor additions (garlic, dill, etc).
- 3. When cabbage has sat for at least an hour, mix in garlic or other spices, and pack tightly into the jar, pouring all liquid into the jar as well. If the liquid doesn't cover the cabbage, you can add a splash of water, but there should be enough liquid released from the cabbage to fully submerge the sauerkraut mixture.
- 4. Pour coconut oil on top of the sauerkraut (don't worry if some mixes in with the cabbage, it will all settle back to the top), and secure a paper towel (or cheesecloth) over the top of the jar with a rubber band. Depending on the size of your jar, you may need more or less oil to form a layer on top of the sauerkraut. You're looking for about a half inch of oil on top, give or take.
- 5. Let sit at room temperature for 1-3 weeks. If at any point you notice the cabbage expanding up above the water/coconut oil line, press it down with a wooden spoon, then cover with the paper towel and continue to let it ferment. When it's done depends on your taste preferences. I've found that somewhere between 10-15 days is perfect for me, but the only way to find out is to taste it! Just reach a clean fork in and take a taste. If it's tangy enough for you, it's done. If not, keep fermenting and sample again in a few days.
- 6. Put a lid on the jar and transfer the finished sauerkraut to fridge. Once cold, remove hardened disk of coconut oil from the top, and enjoy. Sauerkraut lasts in the fridge for at least 6 months.