When you have a lot of cabbage from your garden, you can make sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage. Homemade fermented cabbage is much better than anything you could purchase in a store as it has a nice bite to it and is crunchy. It’s perfect for putting on a sandwich or on beer-braised bratwurst, and you won’t need any special tools or equipment to make it. We’re going to break down several ways to make fermented cabbage and how to use it below.
This tasty side dish doubles as a slightly sour, crunchy condiment that is very popular on hot dogs or bratwurst.
Fermented Cabbage History
The Chinese were the ones that first fermented cabbage in rice wine over 2,000 years ago. Europeans didn’t adopt this strange habit of making fermented cabbage until the 16th century. Even though it’s seen a decline in popularity as a side dish in German cuisine today, it has health properties and it’s very versatile. This has helped fermented cabbage to explode in popularity in recent years. When large groups of Germans immigrated to America in the 18th century, fermented cabbage became an American tradition.
While it’s still a staple in restaurants and homes in Germany, the consumption rate has dropped. Today the average per capita consumption of fermented cabbage is roughly 2.6 pounds, and this is a drop from the 4.4 pounds it was 40 years ago. When you compare this to the annual 3.75 pounds of fermented cabbage eaten by the French and the 49 pounds per person of kimchi Koreans consume, Germany is no longer at the top of the list for sauerkraut consumption.
Along with the great taste and versatility, fermented cabbage has a reputation for being a superfood, and it’s usually at the top of the lists to include in a healthy diet. It offers just 27 calories per cup, and each serving comes loaded with vitamin B6, folate, thiamin, riboflavin, and vitamin K. It gives you roughly ⅓ of your daily recommended intake of vitamin C, and it’s rich in minerals like potassium, iron, and magnesium. Fermenting cabbage will increase the nutritional benefits, making it much more digestible and giving you a probiotic effect.
How the Fermentation Process Works
You make fermented cabbage by a process called lacto-fermentation. To put it as simply as possible, there is a beneficial bacteria found on the surface of your cabbage, and on any fruit or vegetable. Lactobacillus is one beneficial bacteria, and this is the same thing you’ll find in cultured products like yogurt or sour cream. When you submerge it in brine, the bacteria will convert the sugars into lactic acid, and this is the natural preservative that stops the growth of harmful bacteria.
Why Ferment Cabbage
For centuries, cultures have used lacto-fermentation to preserve seasonal vegetables far beyond what they’d normally last. The fermentation process is safe and reliable, and you can keep it around 55°F safely for months. If you don’t have a cellar, you can store it in your refrigerator. Along with preserving the cabbage, the fermentation process also transforms it into something that is very tasty and comes with a host of health benefits.
Difference Between Pickled And Fermented Cabbage
The important difference between pickled and fermented vegetables is the the pickling process involves putting food into an acidic brine to give you a sour flavor, and fermenting gives the food a sour taste without adding more acid.
Fermented cabbage or sauerkraut is a very finely cut cabbage that lactic acid bacteria has fermented. It has a very distinct sour note due to the lactic acid forming when the bacteria ferment the sugars found in the cabbage leaves. Salt is another very important ingredient in the fermentation process as it’s the ingredient that makes sauerkraut taste great. You want to follow whichever recipe you use when you make fermented cabbage to ensure you use the correct amount of salt.
Pickling doesn’t require fermentation. You’ll take your cabbage and slice it very thinly and combine it with a marinade, usually featuring water, vinegar, black pepper, salt, and whatever herbs you want. You may also add sugar, and the marinade can be cold or hot. You allow the cabbage to soak in your marinade for two hours or pop it into the refrigerator for 48 hours. Pickled cabbage will last for up to two weeks if you keep it in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
Pickling is more popular for cucumbers, but it’s possible to get pickled cabbage if you want a more mild or sweet taste.
How to Make Fermented Cabbage – 7 Ways
Like a lot of recipes to make fermented foods, this fermented cabbage recipe requires time and a jar. It does take between 10 and 14 days for the cabbage to ferment and it’s ready to go after you thinly slice it and seal the jar. If you want to ferment whole heads of cabbage, you’ll need a larger container and more patience as it takes longer.
- Filtered Water
- Large jar with a lid
- Salt – preferably sea salt or Himalayan (pink or white ) salt
- Make sure you clean and wash everything thoroughly, including the jars, lids, cutting boards, and knives.
- Cut your cabbage very thinly and place it into your sterilized bowl.
- Sprinkle the salt over the cabbage and massage it in for five minutes. This should encourage the cabbage to soften up and release liquid.
- Pack the soft cabbage into the jars, cover it loosely, and put a weighted item on the top. Allow the jars to sit for 24 hours to release more liquid.
- At the end of the 24 hours, check the cabbage. If there isn’t enough water to cover the cabbage in the jar, add enough salt water to do so. To make your salt water, you’ll add a teaspoon of your chosen salt per cup of water.
- Pour the liquid over the cabbage until it’s completely submerged and top the cabbage with weights and cover it loosely.
- Allow your cabbage to ferment at 60°F to 75°F away from direct sunlight for 3 to 14 days.
- After day three, you’ll start checking for doneness. When the fermented cabbage takes on your desired taste, remove the weight, screw the lid on, and refrigerate for up to two months.
Alsatian Fermented Cabbage
This fermented cabbage recipe is very popular in France’s Alsace region and in Germany, and it features cabbage and salt mixed with herbs like bat leaves, juniper berries, and caraway seeds. This is a very tangy and light fermented cabbage, and it makes a nice side for heavier dishes like meat-heavy or cold cut ones.
This recipe also forms the base for choucroute garnie, and you serve it with sausages from the French terroir. If you’re looking to highlight cabbage’s natural taste, this is one recipe to try.
- 2.2 pounds white and/or red cabbage
- 4 teaspoons sea salt
- 1 teaspoon caraway
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon inspiring spices* (juniper berries, cumin seeds, or coriander seeds)
- Using a chef’s knife or mandolin, chop your cabbage and put it in a bole, keeping one outer leaf intact. Add your salt, caraway, pepper, and any other inspiring spices you choose.
- Massage the vegetables in the bowl with your hands for five minutes, and you’ll see the cabbage start to disgorge.
- Transfer your cabbage and spices to a glass jar or fermentation jar in small quantities. You’ll squeeze the cabbage each time you move it to the jar. You want to produce enough liquid to cover the cabbage in the jar.
- Put a whole cabbage leaf on the top of your mixture to prevent the minced cabbage from coming into contact with the air. Add weight to the cabbage leaf as needed to encourage more liquid production.
- Close the jar while allowing the air to seep out.
- Put your jars in a cool, dark space and let them sit for three weeks.
- Remove any weights and discard any cabbage leaves that float to the surface before using.
You can make this fermented cabbage more sour or hot, depending on which spices inspire you when you cook.
Eastern European Fermented Cabbage
In many Eastern European countries like Russia, fermented cabbage is either a standalone thing or done with other vegetables like beets, carrots, or peppers to make this option. Also, Eastern European countries and Russia are very big consumers of fermented cabbage. Traditionally, they used the fermenting process to make the vegetables last longer in the winter, and it also helped to preserve and improve the nutrient content of the food. Once they’re fermented, you can eat the vegetables cold as a salad or turn it into a soup.
- 1 beet (10oz)
- 1 green apple
- 1 medium green cabbage (2.2lb)
- 1 teaspoon black pepper powder
- 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
- 1 yellow or red onion (3.5oz)
- 2 tablespoons salt
- 3 carrots (10oz)
- Spices to taste
- Mince your onion and cabbage very finely and grate your apple, beetroot, and carrots. Put everything into a large bowl.
- Add the pepper, salt, caraway seeds, and your chosen spices to the bowl and mix well. Massage the cabbage and spice mixture for five minutes or so until the brine starts to come out of the vegetables. You can also leave it to stand for 15 minutes after you add the salt to get the same result.
- Transfer the mixture to jars and compress everything. Cover the jars with a fermentation weight to keep the vegetables submerged in the brine they created.
- Close the lids while allowing the air out, or use an airlock to secure them.
- Ferment your cabbage for three to six weeks in a dry, cool space. After you open them, place them in the refrigerator.
This fermented cabbage recipe is a Haitian speciality that features carrots, cabbage, and thyme with Scotch bonnet peppers. This pepper is up to 140 times stronger than jalapenos, so you get a very strong flavor with a spicy kick. Many Haitian kitchens have a pot of this fermented cabbage around as it goes very nicely with traditional fried pork or grillot, or any dish that needs a boost.
It’s also very easy to customize this fermented cabbage recipe by adding or removing vegetables and spices. You’ll notice that several recipes for this specific fermented cabbage call for bitter orange juice marinade. This is because they citrus zest plays a role in adding a fresh twist to the dish.
- 1 green pepper
- 1 scotch bonnet or habanero chili pepper, hulled and seeded
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 to 3 cloves
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 Jamaica peppers
- 2 medium carrots
- ¼ cabbage
- ¼ yellow or red onion
- Zest of half a lime
- Mince your cabbage, onion, carrots, chili pepper, and garlic very finely. Put the minced mixture into a large bowl.
- Add salt, spices, and zest before mixing it well. Massage the mixture for several minutes until you start seeing the brine seeping out of the vegetables. You can also leave it for 15 to 20 minutes.
- Compress everything into the fermentation jars using your hands or a tamper. Cover it with a fermentation weight or a cabbage leaf to help keep the vegetables under the brine.
- Close the lid, but don’t make it an airtight seal as the air will have to leak out.
- Ferment your mix for three to six weeks, until it gets to your preferred taste. After you open it, store your fermented cabbage in the refrigerator.
Kimchi is a variety of fermented vegetables, and it’s very popular in Korea. The kimchi that is the best known is Baechu kimchi, also called Nappa Kimchi. This is a very special fermented cabbage recipe that uses the gochugaru pepper. This is a Korean chili pepper that is mildly spicy, vibrant, and it has a slightly smoky flavor. Along with the pepper, it’s common to have onions, daikon, ginger, Asian pears, fish sauce, and garlic mixed in.
- 1 carrot
- 1 daikon or 5 red radishes
- 1 tablespoon dried fish or shrimp sauce
- 1 yellow onion
- 2 chopped garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons sea salt
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
- 3 teaspoons Korean chili peppers (or crushed chili peppers)
- 6 lbs Chinese cabbage (napa cabbage or giant bok choy)
- Cut your cabbage and onion into a very fine mince.
- Grate the carrot and daikon.
- Chop your ginger and garlic to a fine mince.
- Mix all of the ingredients into a large bowl and allow them to sit for 15 minutes to release the brine.
- Portion your ingredients into a jar and compress them well.
- Add more weight to ensure all the vegetables are below the brine level, and close the jar.
- Let your kimchi ferment for at least three days before you taste it. It’s usually best three or four days after fermentation. If it’s ready, you can transfer it to the refrigerator or allow it to ferment more, tasting it every two days.
Kimchi is an immensely popular and filling dish from Korea that incorporates a decent amount of fermented cabbage.
The fermented cabbage recipe is halfway between a relish and salad made out of carrots, cabbage, and onions. It’s spiced with oregano and jalapenos, and it’s a very crisp, fresh, and pleasantly spicy food. You typically see it served with El Salvador’s national dish, pupusas. This is a flatbread made out of corn and stuffed with vegetables, meat, and cheese. It’s very easy to make, and it’s common to use vinegar to pickle it.
- 1 medium green cabbage ( 2.2lb)
- 1.6 cups carrots (7oz)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 yellow or red onion (3.5oz)
- 2 tablespoons salt
- ½ to 1 jalapeño (to taste)
- Mince your jalapeno, cabbage, and onion before grating the carrot and adding it all into a large bowl.
- Add oregano and salt and mix well.
- Massage this mixture for several minutes, until you start to see a brine emerge from the vegetables, or allow it to stand for 15 minutes.
- Compress everything into a fermentation jar. Cover it with a fermented weight or a reserved cabbage leaf to keep the vegetables submerged in the brine.
- Close the lid semi-tightly, leaving enough space for the gasses to come out. An airlock works well here.
- Leave the fermented cabbage for three to six weeks. After you open it, put it in the refrigerator.
Vietnamese Dua Cai Chua
Did you know that there are more cabbage varieties than green cabbage? In Vietnam, mustard cabbage is very popular. It looks a lot like bok choy, but it has a stronger taste. It’s delicious when you get cai chua, and this is a fermented salty, sweet brine with a little chili and onion. You’ll get a tangy, crunchy, and tasty dish that is great to go into everyday meals.
- 4 lbs mustard cabbage or 1 lb of bok choi
- 1/2 white, yellow or red onion and/or 6 green shallots cut in sections
- 1 tablespoon white sugar or brown sugar
- 1 to 2 Thai peppers
- 2.8 cups water
- 2 cloves garlic
- 4 tsp salt
- Cut the bottom of your mustard cabbage and detach the leaves from the stem. Clean it briefly and cut the leaves in small pieces. Cut the onions into quarters and mince in the garlic and cloves.
- Put your cabbage, Thai pepper, garlic, and onions or shallots in the fermentation jar, compressing slightly with a tamper or your hands.
- Add sugar and salt to the jar and fill the jar with water. Seal it and shake it well to dissolve the sugar and salt.
- Using your hands or a tamper, compress the cabbage to remove the air bubbles. Cover it with a fermentation weight to keep the vegetables submerged.
- Close the lid and use an airlock to allow air to escape.
- Allow it to ferment for four to seven days before tasting it. You can ferment it for up to a month before moving it to your refrigerator.
Easy Tips For How To Make Fermented Cabbage
While you now know there are many methods and tweaks to make fermented cabbage, there are a few common tips that can help improve your results.
1. Create an Anaerobic Environment for Your Fermented Cabbage
Any fermented cabbage recipe isn’t complete without this step. You have to completely submerge your cabbage under a brine and away from oxygen to give the lactic acid bacteria a chance to proliferate. This step is critical for protecting your lactic acid fermentation from unwanted mold. The main reason we see fermented cabbage fail is because of the oxygen left behind during the fermentation process that can lead to bacteria, fungus, and mold growth. These can make your batch indebile.
It is possible to seal up your jars and burp them every day, but there are now tools that will vent the additional CO2 safely without letting oxygen back in. They fit over small and regular-mouth mason jars and wide-mouthed canning jars. For larger fermented cabbage batches, you can use a ½ gallon vegetable fermenter.
You’ll also want to get fermentation weights to keep the cabbage submerged under the brine to prevent mold growth. There are several easy-cleaning fermentation weights that you can get to fit your specific jars. There are even two piece weights for larger containers.
2. Give Your Fermented Cabbage Time
You can ferment cabbage for a few days before you move it to cold storage. But, giving your cabbage a longer fermentation time and a lower temperature can develop the flavor and make the texture better. You should ideally allow it to ferment for two weeks before you take it out.
3. Use Fresh Cabbage
For great fermented cabbage, you should start by using fresh ingredients. The better your ingredients are, the better your final product will be. Pulling fresh cabbages and vegetables from your garden to use will yield some of the best results possible. However, fermented cabbage is also very forgiving, so even cabbage from midwinter from the grocery store can give you solid results.
4. Use The Right Type of Salt
Salt is a traditional ingredient in fermented cabbage because it increases the texture, shelf life, and flavor profile. It also inhibits the growth of bad fungi, bacteria, and mold. The amount of salt your recipe calls for is largely up to personal taste, but we typically go with one to three tablespoons per quart of water used.
When you make fermented cabbage, it’s important to pick out the right type of salt. Normal table salt has anti-caking agents and iodine that can inhibit beneficial bacteria growth. The best results usually come from using unrefined sea salt. Much of this salt is hand harvested using traditional methods, and it comes 100% unrefined and dried from the ocean. This gives you minerals and a flavor you can’t get anywhere else.
Now you know several different ways to make fermented cabbage, so you can save some of the cabbage from your garden and turn it into a lovely side dish for your meals. The tips can help ensure you get a nice batch of fermented cabbage that lasts and explodes with flavor and texture whenever you eat it.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.