Post #G29: Illustrated guide to making red cabbage sauerkraut

Posted on September 29, 2020

This post illustrates the process of making sauerkraut, starting from 10 pounds of red cabbage, and ending up with a two half-gallons of kraut, ready to ferment.  For detailed written instructions for lacto-fermentation of vegetables, see Post #G23.

Let me start by noting one big advantage of red cabbage sauerkraut compared to more traditional green cabbage sauerkraut.  Aside from the looks (a deep purple) and the taste (tangier than regular sauerkraut), it is exceptionally crisp when it is done. 

So crisp, in fact, that you can freeze it.  And by that I mean, you can freeze it and still be willing to eat it afterwards.  It won’t be as crisp once you’ve done that, but it is still on the right side of “edible”.  It ends up just about as crisp as traditional sauerkraut.  By contrast, if you freeze traditional sauerkraut, you pretty much get mush when you thaw it.  It’s still edible, but it’s not something you’d care to eat raw.

For the casual reader, that may not seem like much.  But those of you who are into lacto-fermentation or probiotics or food preservation understand the advantage to this:  You don’t have to can it to preserve it.  Canning is a lot of work, and it (by definition) kills all the bacteria in the sauerkraut.  But with red cabbage sauerkraut, you can make a big batch, eat some fresh, put some in the fridge for the next couple of months, and put some in the freezer for next year.  And in each case, those probiotic bacteria will still be alive.  And it’s all good enough to eat raw.  It’s better when it’s fresh, but it’s still not bad after it’s been frozen.

And that’s why I’m not afraid to make it by the gallon, as shown in this posting.  Some will go in the fridge.  The rest will go in the freezer.

And that means I can do this seasonally.  When the new cabbages start showing up at the farmers’ markets in the fall, that’s when I make kraut.  Sometimes I get some odd looks, buying half-a-dozen cabbages at a time.  But they’re always willing to take my money.

The only disadvantage of red cabbage sauerkraut is that you can’t cook with it.  Not unless you like (e.g.) purple pork chops.  It will dye any food that it is cooked with.

If you’ve never made sauerkraut before, everything you really need to know about the basics of making sauerkraut can be found in the USDA guidelines, Section 6 (.pdf).

1:  Gather equipment.

  • Scale (for weighing the cabbage, so you know how much salt to use).
  • Slaw board (to shred the cabbage).
    • If not available, use a mandoline, a food processor, or a knife to shred the cabbage.
  • Large stock pot (to hold the shredded cabbage).
  • Large knife (for cutting and coring cabbage heads).
  • Two half-gallon mason jars (to hold the finished kraut for fermenting)
  • Large wooden spoon (for compacting the kraut in the jars)
  • Salt and tablespoon.
  • Cutting board, bowls, etc.
  • Lid or air lock for the mason jars (not shown).

A note on the slaw board.  The only specialized equipment here is the slaw board.  You don’t absolutely need to use that.  Anything that can produce finely-shredded cabbage will do, from a food processor right on down to just using a sharp knife.  I think a three-blade slaw board, such as the one above, makes the work go faster, particularly for a large batch of sauerkraut  And it is traditional.  But it’s not necessary.

If you are thinking of buying a slaw board, here’s my two cents:  Think small.  For two reasons.  First, some of the larger ones are really, really big.  This is the smallest one I could find, and even with that, I store it by hanging it on the wall.  Check the dimensions before you buy.  Second, it’s a lot easier to push a quarter-cabbage over a narrow set of blades, than to push a half-cabbage over a much wider set of blades.  I’m a fairly big guy, and I’d say my tiny little slaw board takes me right up to the edge of “comfortable to use”.  Some of the bigger slaw boards, I view them more as outdoor equipment, rather than something I’d use in the kitchen.

If you want to know why I use mason jars, read Post #G23.

2:  Weigh cabbage.

Weigh your cabbage.  You need to do that because any simple rule-of-thumb (e.g., use three medium heads) is apt to be wildly off.  For example, red cabbage tends to be much denser than green cabbage.  Fresh cabbage heads are denser than old cabbage heads.  The point is, you can’t reliable estimate the weight — and so, figure out how much salt you need — with a simple head count.

At root, what you’re aiming for here is a brine — a salt-water solution of a known concentration.  To do that, you need to have the right ratio of salt to water.  By weighing the cabbage, you are (to a close approximation) figuring out how much water you have.  If you don’t do that, you can’t be sure you’ve got a brine of appropriate strength.

I’m not trying to make this out to be rocket science.  It’s not.  You just need to be in the ballpark.  You can probably do this by the seat of your pants, and it’ll probably turn out OK.  But the only way to be sure you’re in the ballpark is to weigh the cabbage.

Ten pounds should make two half-gallons of kraut. That’s just about as much as I care to make at one sitting.

Fresher cabbage means less work.  Cabbages dry out as they age, which makes it harder for them to generate the brine needed for sauerkraut.  All those instructions you may read, about having to pound on the cabbage and so on, that’s not necessary if the cabbage is really fresh.  These cabbages are fresh from the farmers’ market.  That will be clear below, as they produce more-than-enough brine with little effort on my part.

Avoid bald cabbages.  By that I mean that the first thing to go, as a cabbage ages, are those loose outer leaves.  You want to choose cabbage that feels dense and has all those loose outer leaves intact.  If the cabbage looks bald — just a smooth ball of densely-packed leaves, all the loose outer leaves gone — chances are good that it’s old and dry.  You can still use it, but you may have to “top up” your sauerkraut with some salt-water brine if it won’t weep out enough liquid on its own.

3:  Measure salt.

Use a scant three tablespoons salt per five pounds of cabbage.  (So, for this 10-pound batch, that’s six tablespoons.) Measure and set aside now, as your hands will be messy by the time you add the salt.



4:  Strip, rinse, halve.

Strip and save the loose outer leaves.  Rinse the leaves and the heads of cabbage.  You’ll need a couple of leaves later in the process.



Cut the heads in half.  Stand the cabbage on its head, center the knife across the exposed base of the cabbage core, and cut straight down through the middle of the core.


5:  Core

Make two deep, angled cuts and remove the core.  Don’t stint.  Take a big chunk out.  Any pieces of core left in the cabbage will generate hard bits in the resulting sauerkraut.  Save the core for use in a later step.

7:  Quarter

One cabbage, quartered.  Quarter them if need be, to fit your slaw board.  If half a head will fit, there’s no need to quarter them.



7:  Set up slaw board.

Here are the stock pot and slaw board, in the sink.  The back edge of the board rests against the back edge of the sink.  This way, all you need to do is stabilize it a bit, by holding that handle as you shred.  That makes it much easier to shred the cabbage, compared to trying to do that without the slaw board braced against something.  (As I said above, this little slaw board takes me right up to the edge of “comfortable to use”.  Bracing it this way is not a necessity, but it is surely a nicety.)  And doing this in the sink minimizes the mess.

This is the smallest slaw board I could buy.  If your slaw board is too big to fit in the sink, and you have to do this on the counter top, just be prepared for making a  mess.

8:  Shred.

The bottom end of the cabbage is in the heel of the hand.  You want to push the cabbage across the blades from cabbage-top to cabbage-bottom.  For some reason, this is much easier than pushing it the other way.  (I’m not the one who figured that out, but I can no longer find the website I got that tip from.)

In this picture, I’m not using cut-proof gloves, but using cut-proof gloves might be a good idea, particularly if you haven’t done this before.  The blades are sharp and they will cut you.  For me, instead of gloves, I find that if I do this right, the outermost leaf or two won’t shred.  I use those to keep my hand off the blade while I shred the rest of the head.  But if you’ve never done this before, you probably want to use a cut-proof glove here.

For me, this part of the task is oddly satisfying.  If you do it right, it goes lickety-split, and it sounds like you’re sawing wood.  Here’s the sound of one cabbage quarter being shredded.

9:  Admire shredded cabbage

In no time, you’ve got a pot of shredded cabbage.  Here it is, both heads shredded and packed down a bit.  (Un-packed, they would completely fill the pot.) You might look it over a bit, here, and as you mix it below.  If you accidentally left parts of the core in the cabbage, they’ll show up here as big, mis-shapen shreds.  If you see any, pull them out.


10:  Admire sink.

This is actually a lot neater than usual.  But this starts to show you why you want to do this in the sink. In a more typical batch, there are shreds of cabbage everywhere.



11:  This step intentionally left blank.

12:  Salt and mix

Toss in a tablespoon of salt.  Mix the cabbage around.  Repeat until all the salt is mixed in.  Don’t be gentle.  You really want to go at it with both hands.




Keep mixing until this happens.  Note the greatly reduced volume, and the liquid brine beginning to puddle in the bottom of the pot.  You can stop when that happens.


For this nice fresh cabbage, that took no more than about a minute from the time the last of the salt was added, to this condition.  The older and dryer the cabbage, the longer you will need to keep at this.


13:  Pack jars

Put the mason jar in the pot.




Take big sloppy handfuls of shredded cabbage and pack them into the jar.  Let any excess just fall back into the pot.



Stop occasionally and pack it down with a wooden spoon or other stout utensil.  You really want to pack this in as tightly as you reasonably can.  Stop packing when you get to the bottom of the shoulder of the jar.  Or earlier, if you run out of cabbage.  It’s perfectly fine to make a less-than-full jar of sauerkraut.

14:  Admire jars

Well, actually, these are quite a mess.  But you’re done packing them.  Now you start cleaning up.



15:  First clean-up

At this point, you can begin rinsing the cabbage shreds off your utensils, various surfaces, your hands, and so on.  Just generally clear the decks and get rid of as many stray cabbage shreds as you can.


16:  Clean jars.

Rinse the outside, push the shreds into the brine on the inside, and you should end up with something that looks like the third picture.  (These are actually a little too full, but I’ll deal with that later.)

17:  Add leaf.

Cut circles out of the large leaves that you saved.  Make them just a fraction larger than the diameter of the jar below the shoulder.  These will serve as “lids” to keep the cabbage shreds under the brine.  Work those down into the jar so that they cover the brine surface, and then submerge them slightly under the brine.

In an ideal world, no cabbage would sit above the brine.  This minimizes the potential for mold to grow.  In the real world, it doesn’t much matter if a bit of the edge of this leaf is above the brine.  You’re going to toss it out when you eat the finished sauerkraut anyway.

18:  Weight or wedge.

At this point, either place a weight on top of that big cabbage leaf (left), or wedge it in place with a piece of cabbage core, wedged in at the shoulder of the jar (right).  The glass weights are cleaner (do not attract mold), but the wedge method does a better job of keeping the kraut from expanding as it ferments.


19:  Air lock or loose lid

Add an airlock device — these are Pickle Pipes.  I have used a brewer’s air lock, stuck through a lid.  Pickle Pipes are more expensive, but a lot easier to use.  Or just loosely screw on a cap.  You have to leave it loose so that fermentation gasses can escape.

Note that the jar on the right is clearly over-filled, and I’ll have to drain off some liquid at some point.  I’ll get to that tomorrow.

I’m going to sit these on dinner plates, just in case anything spills.  As these ferment, gasses from fermentation displace the liquid, and the liquid level rises.  That’s why you can’t fill them beyond the bottom of the shoulder.  They’ll overflow and make a mess.  I can pretty much guarantee that the over-filled jar is going to overflow.   So I’ll just plan accordingly.

At this point, you’re done.  All you have to do is wait for it to ferment.    See see Post #G23  for a brief overview of the fermentation and shelf life of your sauerkraut.

20:  Waste not.

As you clean up, you’ll note that there’s a lot of cabbage that didn’t make it into the kraut.  Here, there’s about a pound and a half of leaves that can, in theory, be eaten.  And some people actually eat the cores (I don’t).  But I do strip the veins out of these large leaves and saute them down until they are soft enough to eat.

In the end, assuming I did the math right, just 70 percent of the initial weight of cabbage makes it into the finished sauerkraut.  The other 30 percent is taken up by the cores, the large outer leaves, and the smaller pieces that are lost in the shredding process.

21:  Finale

One thing that did not come across in this batch was the appearance of the kraut.  This batch has a little bit too much brine, owing to the freshness of the cabbage.  But with an average batch, with less brine, the kraut-in-the-jar is quite decorative, alternating purple and white leaf sections.  It’s the only pretty lacto-fermented food I have ever made.