What do I Need to Make Sauerkraut?

I got a couple e-mails over the weekend expressing interest in what is needed to make successful batches of sauerkraut, how expensive everything is, etc.  In a couple conversations I had with people, it seemed that the general picture people had in their heads was something like this:

This is a picture of my mother making our 2011 batch of sauerkraut.

This is a picture of my mother making our 2011 batch of sauerkraut.

This is my own mother (who dresses in an old pair of her work scrubs for big, dirty projects) setting up a big batch of sauerkraut in my grandmother’s basement.  She shreds and salts batches of cabbage into her biggest mixing bowl, then runs everything to the basement and puts it into a huge, 8-gallon stoneware crock.  Then she tamps it all down using a big, glass inverted cake plate she has and repeats the shredding, tamping process until the crock is pretty much full.  Then she rinses off the cake plate, pops it on top of the cabbage (and under a bit of the brine), then sets that white jar on top to weight it all down.  That white jar is an empty 2-gallon jar of my brother’s protein powder, and Mom fills it with saltwater to act as a weight.  She uses saltwater just in case the jar has a leak or gets punctured or something.  The saltwater won’t dilute the sauerkraut brine overmuch and make the whole batch unsafe to eat.

Now, this is pretty much the way we’ve done sauerkraut for years, and none of us have died yet.  However, there’s some major drawbacks to this method.  The first is that we’re putting all our eggs in one basket.  If the crock goes bad, the entire batch is wasted.  The second is that our crock, lovely as it is, is so heavy that we put off sauerkraut day until we just can’t wait any more…or we just give away our cabbages and buy our kraut.  That crock is also a pain in the ass to properly clean–which you have to do twice, once when you’re finished with the kraut and once when you’re starting up your batch.  And you have to rinse the hell out of it, especially if you use anti-bacterial soap since a tiny bit of the soap trapped in a microcrack can ruin the whole batch.  Third, I get nervous when my mom whips out the cake plate to use as a tamper.  If it gets chipped or shatters with the repeated blows, we’ve just ruined the whole batch.

This is my own huge kraut pounder.  I put it next to my athame for scale.

This is my own huge kraut pounder. I put it next to my athame for scale.

The tamper is an easy fix.  Just get a block of wood.  You can even get fancy and get yourself a proper kraut pounder.  I’ve got two of them.  This one here is Big Bertha.  She’s a maple beauty with a 4-inch diameter striking surface, and she’s 21 inches long.  She’s roughly the size of a toilet plunger.  Now, I’m not going to lie to you.  Huge pounders like Bertha are kind of hard to find.  I came across Bertha in a store here in Olympia, the Eastside Urban Farm and Garden Center.  A local artist, Jay Shepard, makes them for the store out of upcycled and reclaimed woods.  Either the store or Jay might be willing to ship.  I got Bertha for about $55, but most of the pounders are a touch smaller and go for about $45.

Obviously, Bertha only gets used during the major kraut batch.  For smaller stuff, I use a pounder I got in Eugene.  The foundation makes them up and ships them pretty much anywhere.  The large end is perfect for a wide-mouth mason jar, and the smaller handle can actually be used in a standard-mouth mason if needed.  They go for about $30.

Anchor Hocking's Heritage Hill jars make for great fermentation vessels.

Anchor Hocking’s Heritage Hill jars make for great fermentation vessels.

Now all you need is a container.  If you want to go the crock style, I recommend just getting a few Anchor Hocking Heritage Hill containers in the 2-gallon or 1-gallon sizes (they also have 3-quart, 2-quart, and 16 oz sizes).  Glass cleans well, is a lot lighter than stoneware, and is transparent–which means you can visually monitor the progress of your kraut without getting into it.  These jars also come with a non-airtight lid, which helps a lot in keeping your culture clean.  The 2-gallon jar is also usually just about $15 or so at most Targets and Walmarts, so it’s not going to break anyone’s bank.

Now, a few people eschew glass for fermentation because it isn’t light-proof.  That drawback is easily remedied if you keep your ferment in a cabinet or basement, or even just throw a towel over it (or make a cozy like this lady).  But–honestly–as long as you’re not parking it in direct sunlight, you’ll be fine.  You will, however, need a weight if using a crock.  Just get a glass plate big enough to hold the bulk of the kraut below the brine and hold it down with a mason jar full of salt water.  Done.

A Mason Jar with an airlock top

A Mason Jar with an airlock top

As I mentioned earlier, I tend to just use glass jars for most of my small-scale kraut purposes.  Mostly, I use mason jars just because I have oodles and oodles of them.  You don’t really have to fuss with a weight or anything when your scale is this small; the only thing you have to worry about is the lid.  See, standard mason jar lids actually can become airtight even if they are not processed.  This can be slightly problematic if you’re fermenting in them since the ferment will create gas.  If the jar fails to off-gas, it will explode.  And the mess is terrible.

What I do is make an airlock top for my mason jars.  It’s really easy.  I just buy the Ball white plastic storage caps (they come in standard and in wide mouth) or the Tattler reusable lids and drill a 1/2″ hole into the top.  Then, I insert into the hole a rubber grommet that has a 1/2″ outer diameter and a 3/8″ inner diameter.  Then you just stick a standard homebrewing airlock into the grommet until it is tightly inserted, and then follow the manufacturer instructions to fill the airlock.  If I’m using the Ball lid, I do slide a Tattler gasket into it before screwing it onto the jar so that the lid and jar seal will be airtight.  If I’m using the Tattler lid, I just make sure to set the gasket onto the jar and get a clean canning ring to screw everything together.  But if all this is too much, different companies make the assemblies:  There’s the Perfect Pickler, the Pickle-Pro, and Kraut Kaps, which all really just use the same materials I’ve mentioned above.  Also, some people use Re-Caps with standard bungs and airlocks, and that works out well.

If I was going to sink some money into this style of airlock, however, I would probably go with Fermentools.  They’ve manufactured a stainless steel lid that you can use in conjunction with a Tattler gasket and standard home-brew bungs and airlocks.  This pretty much eliminates the whole fear of letting a plastic near your acidic ferment.  (They also have nice glass weights, too.)  If you think you can just re-create the Fermentools lid by drilling a hold in a metal jar top, think again.  I’ve drilled many a hole into a metal lid, and it is exceedingly difficult to get it smooth enough so that there aren’t many burrs or very sharp edges.  I’ve torn up tons of gaskets trying:  just don’t do it.

European Canning Jars--look for Fido or Le Parfait brands--make excellent fermentation containers all on their own.

European Canning Jars–look for Fido or Le Parfait brands–make excellent fermentation containers all on their own.

Finally, you can eliminate the whole airlock mess just by throwing your ferment in a European-style canning jar.  They’re not considered safe for home canning in America since the gasket will allow off-gassing, which can hide spoilage and potentially lead to death if a person doesn’t inspect the food before consuming it.  But it is that property of naturally off-gassing that makes them perfect small-scale fermenting vessels.  Two favorite brands in America are Fido and Le Parfait.  Fido jars are usually easier to find, especially at discounted stores like T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods, Ross, and Marshalls.  The full range of sizes can also be found in stock at most Sur La Tables.  The main difference between the two is that Fido jars are shaped like squares with rounded corners (except for the largest size, which is round) and Le Parfait jars are round.

There are many smaller companies that do make airlock tops as described for mason jars for these European jars, too.  Pickl-It is a prominent one, and does put out a quality product.  If you’d like to try your hand at DIY-ing it, The Seasoned Homemaker has an excellent tutorial complete with links to all the specialized tools.  However, as Lea Harris from Nourishing Traditions has tested time and time again, the extra airlock isn’t necessary at all.  Very rarely someone may allow some brine or something to overflow and make the jar’s gasket sticky, and that could prevent the primary airlock from working.  However, in the hundreds of cases I’ve heard from fermenters, only a couple Fidos have exploded–and the person always understood why it did.  If you have questions about this method, I highly recommend joining the Fido Fermentation Facebook group.  They’re always willing to share stories and recipes!

So, there you go:  all you really need is a glass jar and a pounder.  The rest is up to you.

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