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southern sauerkraut

Ryan Hughley

Five varieties of homemade sauerkraut

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How to make your own sauerkraut, Southern-style

Fermenting your own pickles at home may sound intimidating for the uninitiated, but is is, in fact, one of the simplest (and most cost effective) do-it-yourself kitchen projects you can make. And sauerkraut tops the list as the easiest home ferments around. With little more than a head of cabbage — any color works — and a hefty pinch of salt, you can have your own 'kraut in a matter of days. Throw in some uniquely Southern ingredients, and you can make a condiment that you'll never be able to find on a grocery shelf. 

Here's how.

Start with a head of cabbage. A small-ish one will yield several jars of 'kraut, so there's no need to go super nuts and buy the biggest cabbage you can find. You can even make use of a leftover chunk of cabbage you've got sitting in your fridge from the last time you made Chinese chicken salad. (Do people still make that?)

Slice the cabbage into quarters and carefully use your knife to remove the core. Then, pulling out your excellent knife skills (you know you've got 'em), slice up the de-cored cabbage quarters into thin-ish ribbons. Pretend like you're making coleslaw. Move all of those cabbage shreds to a bowl that's larger than you think you'll need.
cabbage
Next, sprinkle over some salt. We like to use about one tablespoon for every two-and-a-half pounds of cabbage, but this isn't really an exact science. Toss the salt throughout the cabbage and then prepare for a hand workout. Get in there and crinkle and massage the salt into the cabbage. You'll want to keep massaging until the cabbage begins to soften and release a good amount of its liquid, and this will take some time. Plan to get in there for a good 10 minutes or so. The liquid released is actually pretty crucial. As is mixes with the salt and cabbage, it forms a brine that will keep the cabbage protected from the air, and any undesirable bacteria inside it, allowing it to ferment into distinctly tangy sauerkraut. 

(For those who want a little more science: The good bacteria that transform cabbage to 'kraut are what's known as lactic acid bacteria, and they thrive in somewhat salty, anerobic (a.k.a. oxygen-free) atmospheres. Initially, the salty brine will prevent any additional bacteria from taking root in the cabbage, and as the kraut ferments, the lactic acid bacteria take over and, again, prevent anything wonky from growing.)

Once you've got a good brine going, it's time to talk mix-ins. Traditional sauerkraut is made with caraway seeds, which you can totally add if you'd like. However, I'd encourage you to be a little more creative. Add some pieces of Southern grown apples (bonus points if you pick them yourself) or, if you're lucky and still have some around, peaches make a surprisingly delicious addition. Or go in a chow-chow direction and mix in diced green tomato for a bit of tang. And these are only a few suggestions. Divide your sauerkraut into several jars and add a different new ingredient to each one! You may not love every result, but there's no reason not to experiment when the pickling is this easy.
sauerkraut and beer
Next, once you've got your sauerkraut base together, transfer it to as many glass jars as you need and press down on the cabbage to submerge it beneath the brine. Loosely cover the jars with their lids or wrap the top with cheesecloth. You can fully tighten the lids if you're brave, but I've experienced one too many jar explosions from overactive pickles to do so myself.

Place the jars on a tray and tuck them away somewhere safe in your kitchen. In my opinion, sauerkraut tastes best when it is fermented relatively slowly, so keep your jars away from the stove and any other hot appliances you may have. Warmer ambient temperatures will accelerate the fermentation process.

Here comes the hardest part — the waiting. Again, depending on the temperature, your sauerkraut will take anywhere from three days to a week to ferment, so I recommend trying to ignore it as best as you can. Open a jar and taste your kraut after those first three days. Is it tender and tangy yet? More importantly: Do you like it? If not, return the jars to their fermentation zone and check on them again in 24 hours. Repeat this process until the 'kraut is lightly effervescent and, again, has the right level of tang and tenderness for you. 

Once you're happy with your 'kraut, cover your jars (you can seal them now) and pop them in the fridge. The sauerkraut will continue to ferment in the refrigerator, but it'll be at a much slower pace. You'll be able to continue to enjoy it for months on end.

Now — who has a hot dog

Get the full recipe for Southern sauerkraut

Photo (cabbage): freestocks.org/Pexels
Photo (sauerkraut): ELEVATE/Pexels


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Kate Williams is the former editor-in-chief of Southern Kitchen. She was also the on-air personality on our podcast, Sunday Supper. She's worked in food since 2009, including a two-year stint at America’s Test Kitchen. Kate has been a personal chef, recipe developer, the food editor at a hyperlocal news site in Berkeley and a freelance writer for publications such as Serious Eats, Anova Culinary, The Cook’s Cook and Berkeleyside. Kate is also an avid rock climber and occasionally dabbles in long-distance running. She makes a mean peach pie and likes her bourbon neat.

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