Super Food Nerds: Make Your Own Sauerkraut

By: Jonathan Milder

©2013

2013

In my corner of the food universe, everyone's crushing on kimchi these days. We — friends, co-workers, me — make it, share it, gift it, and put it in and on everything. When we see kimchi on a menu, we know instantly what we'll be ordering. We are, it's fair to say, obsessed; and in this we are far from alone. But while kimchi soaks up all the plaudits, nobody, it seems, swoons over its European cousin in cabbage-y fermentation, sauerkraut. Who will sing of sauerkraut?

I, for one. Here, let me begin. Sauerkraut — nothing more than shredded cabbage, salt and time — is vegetable fermentation in its purest form. It is to cabbage as wine is to grapes: a complex, lively, astonishingly delicious ennoblement. (Kimchi, which involves more flavoring and manipulation, is a nearer analogue to beer.) The comparison to wine may seem a bridge too far for sauerkraut if all you know is the dull jarred stuff that upholsters billions of hot dogs. But as anyone who has ever made it at home understands, good sauerkraut, with its irresistible mix of salty and savory, crunchy and tangy, is a sophisticated thing of beauty.

And the good news is that the homemade stuff is something anyone can make. It's not just that the requirements are minimal — cabbage, salt, jar — it's that cabbage wants to become sauerkraut. Everything necessary for the magical transformation — the bacterial strains that do the fermenting, the sugars they metabolize in lactic acid, even the brine the cabbage will ferment under — they're all right there before you’ve even begun, native to every head of cabbage. The only thing missing is salt, and even that is not absolutely necessary.

©2013

2013

This sense that at some level sauerkraut is already there, and that in making it you are merely stewarding a natural process of self-actualization, accounts for the soft spot many fermentation enthusiasts have for the stuff. My friend Jeffrey Yoskowitz, a fermentation expert and founder of The Gefilteria, an artisanal producer of traditional Jewish foods, counts sauerkraut, which he describes as "the simplest and most intimate" of fermentation projects, as his favorite ferment. I couldn’t agree more.

Sauerkraut is distinguished by not only its profound simplicity but also its duration: It is slow — weeks slower than kimchi, dill pickles or just about any other vegetable ferment you can name. (In this regard too, it begs comparison with wine.) Four to six weeks is the general rule for high-quality 'kraut. The reason for this lengthy gestation is that the journey from cabbage to 'kraut is a process of very slow acidification, involving the succession of three species of lactic-acid bacteria. Basically, it's a slow-moving bacterial relay race: The Leuconostocs get things started, producing lots of carbon dioxide and enough lactic acid to set the conditions for Lactobacillus plantarum to take over. When the ‘kraut reaches 1.5 percent lactic acid, Lactobacillus pentoaceticus goes to work, until eventually all the remaining cabbage sugars have been converted to lactic acid. At that point the sauerkraut is about 2.5 percent lactic acid and ready for the refrigerator. The final product is highly acidic (kimchi, by contrast, clocks in at 1 percent lactic acid) and highly complex, with interesting fruity and floral components contributed by low levels of alcohol and yeast.

But you hardly need a Ph.D. in sauerkraut biology to make sauerkraut. In truth, the process is almost too simple to merit a recipe: Shred cabbage, salt it, submerge it under a brine of its own making, and keep it there for a good long time. But attention to the finer points yields big rewards.

Click here for the sauerkraut recipe and step-by-step photos.

Super Food Nerds is a column written in alternating installments by Rupa (food and beverage editor, culinary staff) and Jonathan (research librarian, same place). Each post will be dedicated to a particular topic — how to DIY something you don’t normally DIY, how to perfect a dish usually taken for granted, plus the best techniques, underlying chemistries and a handful of inexplicable preferences. Basically, if they can overthink it, they’re on it.

Keep Reading

Next Up

Super Food Nerds: Make Your Own Chorizo

Make chorizo from scratch with this recipe and cooking tips from Cooking Channel.

Super Food Nerds: Make Your Own Kimchi

Make kimchi from scratch with this recipe and cooking tips from Cooking Channel.

Super Food Nerds: Make Your Own Almond Milk

Making almond milk is a less daunting feat than you'd think. Discover how from Devour the Blog by Cooking Channel.

Super Food Nerds: Make Your Own Creme Fraiche

Make creme fraiche from scratch with this recipe and cooking tips from Cooking Channel.

Super Food Nerds: How to Make Your Own Yogurt

The fundamentals of yogurt making are really pretty simple. They break down into four steps.

Super Food Nerds: How to Make Your Own Bacon

It's awesome. You should try it. It's insanely easy and it pays off in spades.

On TV

Food Quest

10am | 9c

Carnival Eats

10:30am | 9:30c

Carnival Eats

11am | 10c

Carnival Eats

11:30am | 10:30c

Carnival Eats

12pm | 11c

Carnival Eats

12:30pm | 11:30c

Carnival Eats

1pm | 12c

Carnival Eats

1:30pm | 12:30c

Good Eats

2pm | 1c

Good Eats

2:30pm | 1:30c

Good Eats

3pm | 2c

Good Eats

3:30pm | 2:30c

Cheap Eats

4pm | 3c

Cheap Eats

4:30pm | 3:30c

Cheap Eats

5pm | 4c

Cheap Eats

5:30pm | 4:30c

Cheap Eats

6pm | 5c

Cheap Eats

6:30pm | 5:30c
On Tonight
On Tonight

MasterChef Canada

8pm | 7c

Big Bad BBQ Brawl

10:30pm | 9:30c

Good Eats

11pm | 10c

Good Eats

11:30pm | 10:30c

Big Bad BBQ Brawl

2:30am | 1:30c

Good Eats

3am | 2c

Good Eats

3:30am | 2:30c
What's Hot
What's Hot

The Best Thing I Ever Ate

New Episodes Sundays 8|7c

Pick a Side!

The Snackdown

In our new animated series, we debate the most-pressing food matters of our time, like is cereal a soup?

So Much Pretty Food Here