There are numerous recipes for making sauerkraut. The method I want to share with you is the one my grandmother used. I helped her pack layers of cabbage into a large brown churn when I was too young to be trusted with a sharp knife. She would cut the cabbage and pile it in a dishpan and I would put handfuls into the churn. Over the years I have tried making sauerkraut other ways but this is the method that works best for me.
To make sauerkraut first you need several heads of cabbage. You can purchase cabbage from a produce market or you can grow your own. If you purchase your cabbage look for firm, solid heads. The outside leaves should be dark green and the inside should be white and unblemished.
We have always grown our own cabbage, some years from seed and some years we have bought plants from our local farm and garden store. To start from seed put one or two seeds per container in potting soil. You can use styrofoam cups, yogurt cups or any small plastic container. Keep them watered well and in good sunlight. The seeds need to be planted while it is still cold outside in order for them to be ready to set out in the early spring. Most varieties take from 6 to 8 weeks to be ready for transplanting from their container to your garden.
We usually have one planting in the spring but you can also set out cabbage plants in late summer. Dig holes about 12 inches apart and fill with water. Add a little plant food or fertilizer to the hole and cover the plants to about one and a half to two inches below the bottom leaves. Periodically treat your plants for bugs and worms that will eat the leaves. We plant marigolds between the cabbages to deter harmful insects. Also I use a dust from the farm and garden store to keep cabbage worms from eating the leaves. They can eat down into the cabbage head and ruin several layers!
When your cabbage heads have reached maturity they should be firm and should tightly fill up the entire space between the outside leaves. When they reach this stage go ahead and cut them. I have found that if they are left too long the heads will begin to split open especially in wet weather. Cut the stem off just under the head and peel off the darker outside leaves down to the smooth lighter cabbage head – probably just two or three leaves. I don’t always have time the same day I cut the cabbage to use them but they are fine in the refrigerator for several days.
Check an almanac to see which phase the moon is in. This is important – the barometric pressure changes with the moon’s phases and this can affect the outcome of the process. During the incorrect phase your cabbage may mold or even rot and all your work and ingredients will be wasted! The best time for making sauerkraut is a few days after a full moon in its waning stage. An almanac is a good guide for this and many other seasonal projects. Grandma consulted the almanac for planting, harvesting and “putting up” vegetables.
Wash the cabbage heads and place them on a clean towel to drain. Rinse out the churn that you will pack the cabbage in and if there is a drain hole in the bottom it will need to be plugged before putting anything in. I use my grandmother’s churn and pack plastic wrap in the hole and also put a layer of plastic wrap in the bottom of the churn, flat against the sides so that none of the liquid that will form can leak out.
Next you will need to prepare the cabbage. Cut it into quarters and if necessary cut them again until the pieces are manageable. I use a food processer with a slicing blade to shred the cabbage into the size I want for my sauerkraut. It cuts the cabbage quickly and more safely than using a sharp knife – just be careful to keep your fingers clear of the blade at all times! .
When all the cabbage has been chopped you are ready to start packing it into the churn. I use my fist to press down and pack. Put in a layer of cabbage and press it down firmly then add a layer of sea salt. Continue to layer and pack down until all the cabbage has been put into the churn. The last layer should be salt. Do not add water – the process will produce its own liquid.
Place a dinner plate on top of the cabbage and a layer of plastic wrap over the plate. Fill a clean gallon milk jug with water and lay it in the dinner plate. Put the entire churn inside a dishpan with a large towel over the top of the churn. Set this in a cool place where it will remain undisturbed for 14 days.
At the end of the 14 days take the top off and test the sauerkraut to see if it is the flavor you want. There may be a small amount of soft cabbage on top that you can dip off and discard. If the taste is what you are looking for you can bring the churn out and get ready to put the sauerkraut into jars. If your sauerkraut is not salty enough you can leave it in the churn and check it again in a day or two. The flavor can be made less salty by rinsing the cabbage before canning it.
Sterilize jars and lids and pack the cabbage loosely into the jars. I use the liquid made by the cabbage while it was in the churn but you can pour this off and replace it with clear boiling water for a less salty taste. Seal the jars by placing them in a pan or cooker of boiling water with a lid. Turn the heat off and let the jars sit in the hot water in the covered pot. After two hours if there are any jars that have not sealed put them in the refrigerator and use them first. Label the sealed jars with the date and store them for future use.
I have a block smokehouse-type building with shelves for storing my canned food. Sauerkraut keeps its color and texture well in this dark, cool place. Enjoy this project and be sure and pass it along to someone else to keep these old methods alive.