It is common to enter the world of fermentation through sauerkraut; It is easy, requires only simple equipment and the end product will be tastier and healthier than anything you will find in the store. Sauerkraut is alive with beneficial bacteria and I like putting it on just about everything. My favorite is to put it on crackers with cheese. You can buy cabbage cheap but growing your own will make a superior kraut. Keep reading to learn how to grow cabbage and how to make sauerkraut.
How to Grow Cabbage
Cabbage can be difficult to grow. It does not like hot weather and a number of pests are attracted to it. But, with proper planning you can get a spring and fall harvest.
Cabbage shares the Brassica family with broccoli, cauliflower, kale and Brussels sprouts and has similar requirements. First, choose the right varieties for your situation:
Tiarra: The small heads (about 3 lbs.) of tiarra cabbage are packed with flavor and can be planted densely.
Red Express: A red cabbage that, like tiarra, produces smaller heads of cabbage and can be planted more densely. Grow red express and tiarra together to make a purple and green sauerkraut.
Brunswick: This is a large cabbage that is very tolerant of cold weather. Plant in early fall for winter harvest.
Prep the Soil
Cabbage is a heavy feeder. Work compost into the soil before planting. If your soil is low on nitrogen you can work in an organic blood meal.
Planting and Watering
Start cabbage seeds indoors 4 – 6 weeks before last frost. Transplant outside after last frost for an early summer harvest. Plant cabbage in mid-summer/early fall for winter harvest. When planting your late summer crop plant next to corn or pole beans to provide afternoon shade.
Depending on your variety and how large you want your cabbages (ones packed too closely will grow smaller), plant your cabbages 12 – 24 inches apart.
Cabbages require consistent water throughout the growing season.
Harvest heads of cabbage as soon as they are desired size and firm. Use a sharp knife to cut cabbage heads off at the base and store in a cool dry place. For sauerkraut you want to use cabbage within 48 hours to ensure proper water content in the leaves.
If harvesting cabbage early in the season try leaving the rest of the plant in the ground. It will produce multiple small heads of cabbage that you can use fresh in salads.
Pests are drawn to cabbage. Some of the most common visitors include cabbage worms, cabbage loopers, cutworms and slugs. Prevent caterpillars by placing floating row cover over your plants and hand picking bugs. Practice crop rotation and plant a diverse garden to attract beneficial insects.
How to Make Sauerkraut
Recipe adapted from Sandor Ellix Katz’s Wild Fermentation.
- 5 pounds cabbage
- 3 tablespoons sea salt
- Chop or grate cabbage, finely or coarsely, with or without hearts, however you like it. Try mixing green and red cabbage for a colorful kraut. Place cabbage in a large bowl as you chop it.
- Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage (through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy, by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it. 3 tablespoons of salt is a rough guideline for 5 pounds of cabbage. I like to massage the salted cabbage to release the liquid.
- Add other vegetables if you would like. I usually keep it simple with a handful of black peppercorns and some garlic cloves. But the possibilities are endless; carrots, onions, seaweed, greens, Brussels sprouts, small whole heads of cabbage, turnips, beets, and burdock roots. You can also add fruits like apples, and herbs and spices like caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, and juniper berries. Experiment.
- Mix ingredients together and pack into a crock or Mason jars. Pack just a bit into the crock/jars at a time and tamp it down hard using your fists or any (other) sturdy kitchen implement. The tamping packs the kraut tight in the crock and helps force water out of the cabbage.
- Cover kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock. Place a clean weight (a glass jug filled with water) on the cover. This weight is to force water out of the cabbage and then keep the cabbage submerged under the brine (if fermenting in Mason jars use a small glass filled halfway with water placed directly on the kraut). Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep dust and flies out.
- Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force water out of it. Continue doing this periodically (as often as you think of it, every few hours), until the brine rises above the cover. This can take up to about 24 hours, as the salt draws water out of the cabbage slowly. Some cabbage, particularly if it is old, simply contains less water. If the brine does not rise above the plate level by the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine level above the plate. Add about a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water and stir until it’s completely dissolved.
- Leave the crock to ferment. I generally store the crock in an unobtrusive corner of the kitchen where I won’t forget about it, but where it won’t be in anybody’s way. You could also store it in a cool basement if you want a slower fermentation that will preserve for longer.
- Check the kraut every day or two. The volume reduces as the fermentation proceeds. Sometimes mold appears on the surface. Skim what you can off of the surface; it will break up and you will probably not be able to remove all of it. Don’t worry about this. It’s just a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air. The kraut itself is under the anaerobic protection of the brine. Rinse off the plate and the weight. Taste the kraut. Generally it starts to be tangy after a few days, and the taste gets stronger as time passes. In the cool temperatures of a cellar in winter, kraut can keep improving for months and months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid. Eventually it becomes soft and the flavor turns less pleasant.
- Enjoy. You can place all of your kraut in the fridge to slow down fermentation or keep it fermenting moving small amounts at a time to the fridge.
- Develop a rhythm. I try to start a new batch before the previous batch runs out. I remove the remaining kraut from the crock, repack it with fresh salted cabbage, then pour the old kraut and its juices over the new kraut. This gives the new batch a boost with an active culture starter.