Along with sourdough bread and yogurt, sauerkraut is the most basic of fermented foods, and among the oldest. Though the dish as we know it comes from eastern Europe (the word means “sour cabbage” in German), it has its origins in China, where some form of fermented cabbage has been eaten for around 2,000 years (think kimchi).
Sauerkraut is little more than shredded cabbage and salt that is left to ferment for several weeks or more. Naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria (present on the outside of the cabbage, on our hands, and in the air around us) devour sugars in the cabbage, producing lactic acid in the process. The high acidity along with the salt protect the sauerkraut from attack by harmful or spoiling bacteria. Sauerkraut can be produced from any type of cabbage, but it is generally made using firmer globe-type cabbages, which remain crispest after fermenting.
Aside from when used to top Reuben sandwiches, sauerkraut is typically served at the beginning of meals, since it gets the digestive juices flowing. It goes exceptionally well with fatty meats, a pairing that finds its apotheosis in the Alsatian dish choucroute garnie, a dish of sausage, cured meats, and potatoes braised in sauerkraut. And don’t neglect the “juice” at the bottom of the bowl or jar—it’s delicious on its own, and makes for a mean “dirty” martini when mixed with gin (especially when the sauerkraut already contains juniper).
Sauerkraut is a snap to make, practically foolproof, and leaves lots of room for flavor experimentation. Here’s a good place to start.
After discarding any soft or discolored outer leaves, cut the cabbage into quarters and slice it as thinly as possible, (about ⅛-inch across), because I think it eats best in fine shreds. How you slice it is entirely up to you: thick or thin, long or short, it’ll work fine. (In fact, sauerkraut can even be made with whole cabbages, but they take a long time to ferment that way and are somewhat of a bear to eat.) You can even cut or shred the core and add it to the kraut as well.
Transfer the shreds to a bowl and sprinkle a little salt over them. Salting the cabbage a little bit at a time, rather than just at the end, helps to distribute the salt evenly and jumpstarts the process of drawing out water.
Once the cabbage is completely chopped, add any remaining salt, and then knead the hell out of it until it softens and really starts to shed water. It'll take a few minutes to get to this point, right about when your hands start to cramp up.
Next, add your spices, tossing the mixture to combine them well. Being a gin lover, I'm partial to a juniper berry-flavored kraut myself—but the sky's the limit when it comes to spice or herb add-ins, so long as you don't use too heavy a hand (a tablespoon or so total per 5 pounds is a good starting point).
Then transfer the cabbage a handful at a time into a clean 1-gallon crock and tamp it down firmly with your fist (a flat-headed potato masher will work here as well). Tamping it down removes any air pockets and insures that the cabbage is fully submerged in the brine.
Pour over any brine remaining in the bowl.
In order to keep the cabbage covered with brine, place a small plate on top of it. You want to use one that is large enough to cover the kraut well, but not so big that it can't be removed easily.
After pressing the plate firmly into the kraut, cover it with a rock to weigh it down. (I dug up a good-sized rock from my garden, scrubbed it clean, and then ran it through my dishwasher. In lieu of a rock, you can also use a zipper-locking bag full of water as a weight.)
Then cover the crock with a piece of cheese cloth and secure it with a rubber band to keep out dust and flies, set it on your kitchen counter, and began the waiting game. After the first 24 hours or so, check to make sure that the cabbage is completely submerged. If not, add more brine as needed (made by dissolving 1 teaspoon of salt per cup of water). Allow the cabbage to ferment at room temperature, somewhere between 65 and 75 degrees F; in the heat of summer you might want to find a cool spot in your basement for fermentation. At higher temperatures, fermentation will proceed more rapidly and, while it will be perfectly edible, the sauerkraut will soften excessively.
Here's the same batch of sauerkraut 10 days later. It’s still quite crisp, but has plenty of tang. At this point, transfer it into jars and place them in the fridge, where it will keep for a month or two. One of the great things about sauerkraut is that it is "ready" to eat almost as soon as it starts to ferment (usually about 3 or 4 days in). How far you take the fermentation is entirely up to you; some prefer the crisp, mildly acidic favor and texture of a young kraut, while others prefer the mouth-puckering acidity and slightly softer texture of a long fermentation. At least with your first batch, it’s worthwhile tasting the kraut regularly, to get a sense of its virtues at any given point along the way. If you start fermenting a new batch of sauerkraut before the last one is fully consumed, you can use the leftover brine to top off the next one, which will jumpstart the fermentation.
I like to serve sauerkraut with a sprinkle of smoked paprika for a dash of color and a little heat.
Here's another batch of red cabbage sauerkraut, which I spiced with celery and dill seeds.