Let’s face it: Sauerkraut has an image problem. At best, the fermented food elicits memories of an Oktoberfest side dish served alongside bratwurst, and probably only consumed after drinking a boot (or two) of beer.

But this isn’t your grandmother’s sauerkraut anymore. New and improved kinds are popping up on everything from burgers to health blogs—and for good reason.

The Facts of Fermentation

Sauerkraut’s name has German roots—literally translating to “sour cabbage” (hence the image problem). But the food’s ancestry dates back more than 2,000 years to China, making it a cousin to kimchi.

Despite the not-so-appealing name, sauerkraut packs a serious health punch. For starters, it’s made through fermentation, a process that produces good, lactic acid bacteria that helps ward off bad bacteria and preserves the cabbage in a delicious state. The lactic acid bacteria also functions as probiotics, which improve digestion, strengthen the immune system, and help the body better absorb nutrientsProbiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health. Parvez S., Malik K., Ah Kang S., et. al. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 2006 Jun;100(6):1171-85Clinical indications for probiotics: an overview. Goldin B.R., Gorbach S.L., Tufts Clinical Infectious Diseases, 2008;46..

Sauerkraut is also a great source of several vitamins (that’s C, K, B1, B6, and B9 for those of you keeping score at home) and dietary fiber. And if you’re still on the fence about this wonder food, cruciferous veggies (like cabbage and broccoli) have been found to protect against certain cancersPhytochemicals from cruciferous plants protect against cancer by modulating carcinogen metabolism. Talalay P, Fahey JW. J Nutr. 2001;131(11 Suppl):3027S-33S.Epidemiological studies on brassica vegetables and cancer risk. Verhoeven D, Goldbohm R, van Poppel G, et al. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 1996;5(9):733-48..

Kraut’s nutritional credentials come primarily from the fermentation process. Which unfortunately means store-bought varieties may not boast the same benefits, as they’re often treated with heat to increase its shelf life. Luckily it’s easy to make sauerkraut at home, and it will taste a lot better than the store-bought stuff too!

Note: Although the acidic conditions associated with fermentation generally keep the food safe, it is possible to promote harmful bacteria. Be sure to follow directions and consider sitting this one out if you’re at greater risk for foodborne illness.

DIY Sauerkraut in a Mason Jar

DIY Mason Jar SauerkrautWhat You’ll Need:

  • 5 pounds cabbage
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt (canning or pickling salt work, too!)
  • 6 quart-size wide-mouth mason jars
  • 6 jam jars (to fit inside mason jars), or Ziploc bags
  • 6 small cloths
  • 6 rubber bands
  • 6 small weights (Rocks work well. They’ll need to fit inside the jam jar or Ziploc bags)
  • Canning funnel (optional)

What to Do:

  1. Rinse cabbage under cold water, removing outer leaves and any damaged areas. Remove hearts and chop or grate cabbage to desired texture.
  2. As cabbage is shredded, put it in a bowl. Sprinkle with salt. Continue alternating shredded cabbage and salt, and mix well with clean hands.
  3. Prepare the mason and jams jars by cleaning thoroughly with soap and water (we’re playing with microbes here, after all!)
  4. Put the cabbage and salt mixture into the mason jars. Add cabbage in small batches using the canneling funnel and pack down before repeating. The combination of pressure and salt will draw water out of the cabbage, which will serve as the brine. Pour any extra liquid remaining in the mixing bowl from step 2 into the mason jars.
  5. If the liquid does not cover the cabbage, prepare a brine: Combine 1 1/2 teaspoons salt for every quart of water. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then pour cooled brine into the crock. Leave enough room at the top of each mason jar to insert a jam jar or Ziploc bag inside.
  6. Place weight in jam jars or Ziploc bags, and place jam jars/bags inside mason jars to push down on the kraut and continue to force water out of it.
  7. Cover mason jars with small towels; fasten with a rubber band to ensure the towel stays in place.
  8. Store the covered mason jars in a 70-75F room while fermenting. The whole fermentation process takes three to four weeks. Temperatures as low as 60° F are also okay, but the fermentation will take a few weeks longer.
  9. Do not disturb the kraut, but check the jars at least two times a week. The sauerkraut will lose volume at it ferments. It may also produce a mold or “scum” on the top where the brine interacts with the air. Skim as much of this material as possible, but don’t worry. This is perfectly normal and does not affect the sauerkraut.
  10. After 10 days, you’ll be able to begin eating your kraut. Check and see if the taste is desirable. If you’d like the sauerkraut to be more pungent, let it ferment longer. When kraut is removed, carefully repack the crock, making sure that the kraut remains submerged in brine (if not, add additional brine, as describe above). The kraut will keep for several months, although the flavor will change over time as it continues to ferment.

Ingredients, equipment, and instructions slightly adapted from Wild Fermentation, University of Minnesota-Extension, and The Kitchn.