Homemade Sauerkraut (Choucroute)

Homemade sauerkraut

A little over a month ago during an intense moment of food geekery, Claire, Stephane and I decided to make our own choucroute (sauerkraut) and saucisse(sausage) from scratch. The deal was that I’d make the sauerkraut and they’d tackle the sausages.

The next day I went out and bought a large head of cabbage and got started on my epic sauerkraut fermentation experiment. The following is a chronicle of the high and low points of the past 34 days.

Day 3: I walked into the bedroom last night and thought to myself “what died in here”. The bottles are bubbling and it’s getting stinky. I’m hoping it’s one of those things where it gets worse before it gets better, otherwise I may need to toss the whole batch out.

Day 5: Either the stench has dissipated or I’ve lost some smell receptors. The cabbage is taking on a bleached appearance.

Day 12: Opened it up and cautiously tasted it. Briny, tart, delicious! Needs more time though.

Day 34: While still quite firm and crunchy, it’s almost white in color and has the perfect balance of tartness and brine.

Finished sauerkraut (choucroute)

During the winter months, the cold weather results in cabbage with leaves that are dense, thick and very sweet, making them perfect for sauerkraut. When you pick the cabbage (regardless of the season), look for a head that is relatively dense. You can judge this by picking the heads up and comparing the weight to other heads. You can also test it by pressing into it with your thumb. A really good head of cabbage should be very heavy for its size and should not give at all, under moderate pressure.

Fermentation is a bacterial process where microorganisms (typically yeast or in this case Lactobacillus) on the fruit or vegetable, break down the sugars and form new compounds. In the case of booze, the end product is alcohol, but for sauerkraut, the lacto-fermentation creates organic acids that gives it its tart flavour.

Sauerkraut used in Choucroute Garnie

The key to fermenting anything is sanitation and temperature control. We want to create an ideal condition for the right types of bacteria to flourish, while making it difficult for the undesirable type to colonize our cabbage. That’s why it’s critical to make sure all cutting surfaces, bowls, plates, knives, containers, and most importantly your hands are as sterile as possible, so we don’t introduce any organisms that will make the sauerkraut go funky. I always start by running any implements I plan to use through the dishwasher and thoroughly scrubbing my hands with anti-bacterial soap.

While filling them can be a bit of a pain, I like using clear plastic water bottles for a few reasons. First, the bottles are sterilized at the bottling plant, so as long as you haven’t been drinking straight from the bottle, they should be sterile. Second, it’s the perfect size to hold 2 liters of brine and half a head of cabbage. Third, with this particular type of bottle, there’s a taper at the very top, so if it’s filled almost all the way, there’s less surface area in contact with air (usually where mold forms). Lastly, because it has a lid (which you’ll need to poke holes in), you can shake the bottle every couple of days without using some kind of stirring implement that might introduce new bacteria. If you decide to use a mason jar, or other container, make sure you wash it with bleach and rinse it well before use.

Homemade Sauerkraut (Choucroute)

1 large head of cabbage
1/2 C kosher salt (less if using table salt)
4 liters of water (about 16 cups)

2 empty 3 liter water bottles (only use clear plastic) or a glass mason jar

First, we need to prepare the bottles. Because fermentation releases gasses, it’s critical that we put holes to vent the gases, otherwise your bottle will explode and you will have a nasty, stinky mess to clean up. For these plastic bottles, I just take a long pin, get it red hot over a burner and poke about 6 holes in the lid.

Lid with holes in it to release gasses from fermenting sauerkraut

Cut off any part of the bottom of the cabbage that looks like it’s been cut before (around the stem). Remove the exterior layer of leaves on the cabbage and rinse the head of cabbage well. On a sterile cutting board, cut the head in half.

Use a French mandoline (the Japanese ones typically shred the cabbage too thin for this purpose) to shred half a head of cabbage into a clean bowl.

To prepare the brine. Add 2 liters of water to the bottle. Add 1/4 C of kosher salt to the bottle, secure the lid then shake to dissolve, making sure you cover the holes in the lid with the palm of your hand.

Cabbage funnel made of foil for sauerkraut

The hardest part of this whole process is getting the cabbage into the bottle. I used a 4 layer strip of foil that I folded into a funnel to help move this process along. Just pinch some strands of cabbage between your thumb and fingers, then put them in the funnel and force them down into the bottle with your fingers. As long as you’re putting them in lengthwise, you should be able to get quite a bit into the bottle in each batch. Repeat until the cabbage is gone.

Now do this again with the other half of cabbage and the other bottle. The bottles should be more or less filled, but you may want to make some additional brine using the same water/salt ratio if they are not coming close to the top. You want to leave about 1″ of air at the top, since the contents will bubble during fermentation, and you don’t want it to overflow.

Secure the lid then shake to make sure the cabbage is evenly distributed. Loosely tent some plastic wrap over the lid to prevent dust from getting into the holes.

Plastic wrap covering the holes of the water bottle

Put the bottles in a cool (under 70 degrees F) dark place for about 1 month. Shaking the bottles every day or two to redistribute. Start tasting the sauerkraut after 2 weeks and keep fermenting until you are happy with the flavour. A foul sulfur-like smell is normal, but should dissipate after a few days. The sauerkraut should never get mushy, slimy or moldy and needs to be thrown out if any of this happens.

When the sauerkraut is ready, use a knife to cut the top off the bottles, drain the sauerkraut and rinse lightly. To store for a longer period of time, drain the sauerkraut, reserving the liquid. Then boil the liquid. Pour it back over the sauerkraut and keep it in the fridge.

  • http://kitchensidecar.blogspot.com/ katiek @kitchensidecar

    love it.

    great instruction. great documentation.

    I am researching how to brine soy sauce for the summer months. Sanitation and heat are going to be a major problem… not to mention where I will store it. In SF it doesn’t get as hot as ny so I am unsure about the outcome.

    It will also smell like hell.

    Must try.

  • http://kitchensidecar.blogspot.com katiek @kitchensidecar

    love it.

    great instruction. great documentation.

    I am researching how to brine soy sauce for the summer months. Sanitation and heat are going to be a major problem… not to mention where I will store it. In SF it doesn’t get as hot as ny so I am unsure about the outcome.

    It will also smell like hell.

    Must try.

  • http://www.weareneverfull.com/ we are never full

    great post… i can only imagine the smell during those ‘early days’.

    nice work putting the cabbage through that small neck of the bottle. you totally macgyvered it.

  • http://www.weareneverfull.com we are never full

    great post… i can only imagine the smell during those ‘early days’.

    nice work putting the cabbage through that small neck of the bottle. you totally macgyvered it.

  • http://www.shesimmers.com/ Leela

    Very impressive. I’m tempted to green papaya sauerkraut (papaya sauer*kraut* – ugh). In grade school, we were served hot dogs with green papaya sauerkraut as snack a few times a month. Back then I thought it was the most repulsive thing in the world. Now oddly enough, I crave it.

    You think green papaya would work, Marc?

    • marc

      Wow that’s brilliant. Where did you go to school? I love tart green papapaya salads and think it might work really well if fermented. I say go for it! Maybe with some fish sauce?

      • http://www.shesimmers.com/ Leela

        It’s a laboratory school that belongs to a university known for agriculture and forestry. We were supposed to be lab rats for its Education Dept, but as it turned out, the Department of Agriculture teamed up with the Department of Nutritional Sciences and came up with all sorts of weird stuff with which to destroy the memories of our childhood. Green papaya sauerkraut was one of those things.

        Fish sauce? Don’t put an idea in my head; I might run with it. :)

      • http://www.shesimmers.com/ Leela

        The school is in Bangkok – forgot to say that.

  • http://www.shesimmers.com/ Leela

    Very impressive. I’m tempted to green papaya sauerkraut (papaya sauer*kraut* – ugh). In grade school, we were served hot dogs with green papaya sauerkraut as snack a few times a month. Back then I thought it was the most repulsive thing in the world. Now oddly enough, I crave it.

    You think green papaya would work, Marc?

    • marc

      Wow that’s brilliant. Where did you go to school? I love tart green papapaya salads and think it might work really well if fermented. I say go for it! Maybe with some fish sauce?

      • http://www.shesimmers.com/ Leela

        It’s a laboratory school that belongs to a university known for agriculture and forestry. We were supposed to be lab rats for its Education Dept, but as it turned out, the Department of Agriculture teamed up with the Department of Nutritional Sciences and came up with all sorts of weird stuff with which to destroy the memories of our childhood. Green papaya sauerkraut was one of those things.

        Fish sauce? Don’t put an idea in my head; I might run with it. :)

      • http://www.shesimmers.com/ Leela

        The school is in Bangkok – forgot to say that.

  • http://fivestarfoodie.blogspot.com/ Natasha – 5 Star Foodie

    How wonderful that you made a homemade sauerkraut. My grandmother used to make a Russian version of this and I do remember how it smelled in the process :) I never tried to do it myself but I really should see if I can because now I am curious to remember what the differences are between the sauerkraut and the Russian cabbage.

  • http://fivestarfoodie.blogspot.com Natasha – 5 Star Foodie

    How wonderful that you made a homemade sauerkraut. My grandmother used to make a Russian version of this and I do remember how it smelled in the process :) I never tried to do it myself but I really should see if I can because now I am curious to remember what the differences are between the sauerkraut and the Russian cabbage.

  • http://onlinepastrychef.wordpress.com/ Jenni

    Wow–sounds like the stinky closet was definitely worth it! I guess having that small opening in the bottle is better for all the reasons you say, but I am an Impatient Person, so I think I’d go with a wide crock and then weight the kraut down with a plate or something, so it would stay under the brine.

    Tin foil funnel! Not only does it help you get your cabbage in the bottle, it also interferes with transmissions from the mother ship! ;)

  • http://onlinepastrychef.wordpress.com/ Jenni

    Wow–sounds like the stinky closet was definitely worth it! I guess having that small opening in the bottle is better for all the reasons you say, but I am an Impatient Person, so I think I’d go with a wide crock and then weight the kraut down with a plate or something, so it would stay under the brine.

    Tin foil funnel! Not only does it help you get your cabbage in the bottle, it also interferes with transmissions from the mother ship! ;)

  • http://colloquialcookin.canalblog.com/ colloquial cook

    How you found the patience to force the chou in the bottle is beyond me but I’m glad some of us are more persistent than others ;-)
    SO. When are we starting a second batch?
    héhéhé

    • marc

      The hole is about 1 1/2″ in diameter so it really wasn’t that bad. Only took a few minutes per bottle.

  • http://colloquialcookin.canalblog.com/ colloquial cook

    How you found the patience to force the chou in the bottle is beyond me but I’m glad some of us are more persistent than others ;-)
    SO. When are we starting a second batch?
    héhéhé

    • marc

      The hole is about 1 1/2″ in diameter so it really wasn’t that bad. Only took a few minutes per bottle.

  • http://www.danatreat.com/ Dana

    My husband’s family eats sauerkraut on Thanksgiving and he always teases me that I should make my own. Maybe I will this year. Great job!

    • Michele Grant-Joll

      You husband must be from Maryland.

  • http://www.danatreat.com Dana

    My husband’s family eats sauerkraut on Thanksgiving and he always teases me that I should make my own. Maybe I will this year. Great job!

  • http://caviarandcodfish.com/ codfish

    Thanks for the post, Marc, and the bottle info. I’ve had less-than-stellar results using mason jars – when the top gets mold on it it’s pretty icky. Are your bottles heavy-duty plastic, or does that not matter? Oh and, you’ve just got to make Bittman’s duck with sauerkraut. Maybe I can figure out a way to get you one of the ducks from my friend’s farm… :D

    • marc

      The water bottles I used are like the small clear water bottles you can buy at the corner market only they’re much larger (3 liters). The tops are easily cut off with a knife, so I guess it’s not that heavy duty. It is important that the plastic is clear (the cloudy plastic on the gallon milk jug style ones will impart a funny taste).

      Figure away! That duck with sauerkraut looked amazing:-)

  • http://caviarandcodfish.com codfish

    Thanks for the post, Marc, and the bottle info. I’ve had less-than-stellar results using mason jars – when the top gets mold on it it’s pretty icky. Are your bottles heavy-duty plastic, or does that not matter? Oh and, you’ve just got to make Bittman’s duck with sauerkraut. Maybe I can figure out a way to get you one of the ducks from my friend’s farm… :D

    • marc

      The water bottles I used are like the small clear water bottles you can buy at the corner market only they’re much larger (3 liters). The tops are easily cut off with a knife, so I guess it’s not that heavy duty. It is important that the plastic is clear (the cloudy plastic on the gallon milk jug style ones will impart a funny taste).

      Figure away! That duck with sauerkraut looked amazing:-)

  • http://www.palatetopen.com/ Jen

    Homemade Sauerkraut! Your culinary adventures never cease to impress!

  • http://www.palatetopen.com Jen

    Homemade Sauerkraut! Your culinary adventures never cease to impress!

  • http://culinarydisaster.com/wordpress Jeff

    Nicely done! I got lucky and was able to get my grandma’s old vessel she made for making kraut. I need to bust it out but I like your idea for making more manageable portion sizes.

  • http://culinarydisaster.com/wordpress Jeff

    Nicely done! I got lucky and was able to get my grandma’s old vessel she made for making kraut. I need to bust it out but I like your idea for making more manageable portion sizes.

  • http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/ lisaiscooking

    Wow, it seems so simple. I thought vinegar of some sort would be involved. Looks like fun.

  • http://lisaiscooking.blogspot.com/ lisaiscooking

    Wow, it seems so simple. I thought vinegar of some sort would be involved. Looks like fun.

  • http://www.gourmettraveller88.com/ Janet

    This is great! Sauerkraut is very common here in Switzerland and Germany. My excolleague made it herself, when she described how she made it, I felt like it’s similar to Kimchi as she stored them underground in a traditional way. Somehow sauerkraut, potato, bacon & pineapple do match, my hubby made a baked dish for me one time and it’s a dutch dish.

  • http://www.gourmettraveller88.com Janet

    This is great! Sauerkraut is very common here in Switzerland and Germany. My excolleague made it herself, when she described how she made it, I felt like it’s similar to Kimchi as she stored them underground in a traditional way. Somehow sauerkraut, potato, bacon & pineapple do match, my hubby made a baked dish for me one time and it’s a dutch dish.

  • http://voodoolily.blogspot.com/ Heather

    The smell of fermenting crucifers is what makes me ginger about homemade sauerkraut (and tsukemono). I guess now’s the time to do it though, when I can throw open some windows and it’s not too hot out.

  • http://voodoolily.blogspot.com Heather

    The smell of fermenting crucifers is what makes me ginger about homemade sauerkraut (and tsukemono). I guess now’s the time to do it though, when I can throw open some windows and it’s not too hot out.

  • http://chefholly.typepad.com/ Holly

    I have always wanted to make my own sauerkraut and never could find a recipe. Your wife must be an angel for putting up with your “food nerd” ideas:)

  • http://chefholly.typepad.com/ Holly

    I have always wanted to make my own sauerkraut and never could find a recipe. Your wife must be an angel for putting up with your “food nerd” ideas:)

  • http://simplyrecipes.com/ Elise

    Hi Marc, great post. BTW, have you ever seen a cabbage slicer? I saw one at a yard sale a few years ago. Imagine a HUGE mandoline, made of wood, with a wicked looking carbon steel blade. The whole contraption is probably 5 feet long. I showed it to my father and he told me that everyone in his home town in Minnesota had one when he was a kid. For making sauerkraut. Which everyone did in their basements. He would have nothing to do with making sauerkraut himself, claiming it to be way too stinky, and he gets all the sauerkraut he wants from Bubbies (good quality brand of fresh refrigerated sauerkraut). I told him you made some in your apartment and he just rolled his eyes, “what is he thinking?” Heh. Bravo Marc.

  • http://simplyrecipes.com Elise

    Hi Marc, great post. BTW, have you ever seen a cabbage slicer? I saw one at a yard sale a few years ago. Imagine a HUGE mandoline, made of wood, with a wicked looking carbon steel blade. The whole contraption is probably 5 feet long. I showed it to my father and he told me that everyone in his home town in Minnesota had one when he was a kid. For making sauerkraut. Which everyone did in their basements. He would have nothing to do with making sauerkraut himself, claiming it to be way too stinky, and he gets all the sauerkraut he wants from Bubbies (good quality brand of fresh refrigerated sauerkraut). I told him you made some in your apartment and he just rolled his eyes, “what is he thinking?” Heh. Bravo Marc.

  • http://fotocuisine.com/ PeterMarcus

    You know, I’ve had this itch to make sauerkraut the last couple weeks. I’ve been looking up recipes and techniques for a few days. I’m glad you posted this — the 3-liter bottle idea is pretty cool!

  • http://fotocuisine.com PeterMarcus

    You know, I’ve had this itch to make sauerkraut the last couple weeks. I’ve been looking up recipes and techniques for a few days. I’m glad you posted this — the 3-liter bottle idea is pretty cool!

  • http://zencancook.com/ zenchef

    I’d like to report that Claire didn’t share the leftover choucroute with me yet. Is there an official complaint form i can fill up? hehe.

    Very informative post Marc. Great job! Too bad wordpress doesn’t come with a smell-o’ widget allowing you to share the joy of fermenting cabbage with your readers. :-)

  • http://zencancook.com zenchef

    I’d like to report that Claire didn’t share the leftover choucroute with me yet. Is there an official complaint form i can fill up? hehe.

    Very informative post Marc. Great job! Too bad wordpress doesn’t come with a smell-o’ widget allowing you to share the joy of fermenting cabbage with your readers. :-)

  • http://constableslarder.com/ Giff

    I second Stephane’s request for a smell-o-widget, just not for day 3. L. is a patient soul. I don’t know that my wife would let it stay in the house :)

  • http://constableslarder.com Giff

    I second Stephane’s request for a smell-o-widget, just not for day 3. L. is a patient soul. I don’t know that my wife would let it stay in the house :)

  • http://www.justcookit.co.uk/ Alex

    Really great post.

  • http://www.justcookit.co.uk Alex

    Really great post.

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com/ Daily Spud

    Excellent to see your process Marc – having had a go at kim chi, I’m keen to try sauerkraut and I’m willing to suffer the stinky stage I think!

  • http://www.thedailyspud.com Daily Spud

    Excellent to see your process Marc – having had a go at kim chi, I’m keen to try sauerkraut and I’m willing to suffer the stinky stage I think!

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  • http://cookappeal.blogspot.com/ chef E

    Marc, if you only knew how many times I have been over here looking at this dish, and thinking about the kraut! Your stuff is always making me hungry and crazy all at the same time!

  • http://cookappeal.blogspot.com chef E

    Marc, if you only knew how many times I have been over here looking at this dish, and thinking about the kraut! Your stuff is always making me hungry and crazy all at the same time!

  • http://passionateeater.blogspot.com/ Passionate Eater

    You of great patience! You know, Costco sells these huge containers of artichokes that sometimes I buy just for the glass jar. That jar would be perfect for your sauerkraut/chocroute, so you wouldn’t have to shimmy all of that cabbage into the narrow throat of that bottle!

  • http://passionateeater.blogspot.com Passionate Eater

    You of great patience! You know, Costco sells these huge containers of artichokes that sometimes I buy just for the glass jar. That jar would be perfect for your sauerkraut/chocroute, so you wouldn’t have to shimmy all of that cabbage into the narrow throat of that bottle!

  • piercival

    Marc,

    I was able to get this right the first time. After that the stuff has gone bad on me every time. Exasperating, and now we are in the heat in the Bay Area. So it’s Saul’s in Berkeley; expensive but great quality.

  • piercival

    Marc,

    I was able to get this right the first time. After that the stuff has gone bad on me every time. Exasperating, and now we are in the heat in the Bay Area. So it’s Saul’s in Berkeley; expensive but great quality.

  • Renato Neto

    Dear Marc,
    Great Recipe. I am just wondering what is the difference between your recipe that uses a closed system and the ones with an open one as those with a plate on the top of the cabbage.

    Do you take out some of the brine at the beginning?

    I´ve got a system for beer fermentation. I think I will put gabbage+salt+water there and see what happens…

    Cheers

    • http://profiles.google.com/nathan.oberle Nathan Oberle

      An open system would introduce the possibility of aerobic bacteria, like acetobacter. They would make vinegar, which may not taste bad. 

  • Renato Neto

    Dear Marc,
    Great Recipe. I am just wondering what is the difference between your recipe that uses a closed system and the ones with an open one as those with a plate on the top of the cabbage.

    Do you take out some of the brine at the beginning?

    I´ve got a system for beer fermentation. I think I will put gabbage+salt+water there and see what happens…

    Cheers

  • Vadion

    Hi, Mark! I like most of your recipes and your bravery in experimenting with foods. But… It is always “but” … That sauerkraut method is very sophisticated from engineering point of view, but (again) it takes to many efforts. First – proportions: Old Russian and probably Poland, Slovak, Ukraine looking for 1Funt salt and 1 Pood cabbage, classic. 1 Foont = 1 Pound; 1 Pood = 16 Kilos = 35.5 pounds. Process: shred the cabbage, some carrots, spread it over a clean table (countertop is perfect) sprinkle over with some caraway seeds and salt and few peppercorns. Then mix and squeeze it with your hands to release juices and pack tightly in glass or ceramic jars with wide neck, leaving some space on top (for juices). Put some weight on top (I use small jar with water) and put jars on soup dishes or bowls, to collect outcoming juices. stick (stainless skewer is OK) Put some weight on top (I use small jar with water) and put jars on soup dishes or bowls, to collect coming out juices. Pierce the cabbage in few places to the bottom with clean stick (stainless skewer is OK) 1-2 times a day to release gases. In couple of days you will see the drop of level of brine in jars, just pour back collected juice. After one week put your cabbage in refrigerator. And in 2 weeks it is ready. NO WATER. Only natural juice.
    You can replace carrots with red beets. It will make kraut purple color.

    Very easy lunch recipe: Dice boiled potato, onion into bowl, add plenty sauerkraut, sprinkle with oil of your choice, add some fresh herbs, have a slice of ray bread and enjoy!

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  • Anonymous

    In ma BELLEY!

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  • Hungry Native

    Isn’t homemade sauerkraut amazing and infinitely better than the store bought stuff. We try to keep a crock going at all times! Great photos! Thanks!

  • Namonox

    plastic.. really?  hope its at least BPA free

    • http://norecipes.com Marc Matsumoto

      I used Poland Spring water bottles, which are BPA-free. But you can certainly use glass mason jars.

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  • Frenchfarmer

    The bit you cut off the plastic bottle when you empty it is a funnel so if you cut the very top of the cap off a bottle you can screw one on top of the other and away you go.

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