By Mark Spigos, Lehman’s Hardware

Taking the great leap into home fermentation, such as making sauerkraut, can be an intimidating proposition. The prospect of throwing a bunch of vegetables into a container for weeks on end can be, well, disconcerting.

If you’ve left berries in your refrigerator too long, you know what fermented foods can look and smell like, and it’s not always pleasant. To a beginner like me, it is easy to become entangled in thoughts of a fermentation project gone wrong: mold, slime, harmful bacteria, and oh, the scents. That said, fermented foods have a long history for a reason, and acquainting myself with methods of old helped alleviate my fear. With a bit of due diligence in keeping a sanitary environment, it can actually be quite easy to produce a delicious, nutritive ferment at home. As with all things “first”, I did some things right, and some things that had me ruing the day I ever decided to make sauerkraut. Rather than a conclusive How-To post, here is a quick list of Things Learned Along the Way.

Note on the ferment: I made a 15-pound batch of basic sauerkraut (cabbage, salt, and caraway seed) in a 3-gallon water-sealed fermentation crock.

Lessons Learned Making Sauerkraut

Lessons Learned From My First Sauerkraut Ferment

Water-Sealed Fermentation Crocks are Your Friend 

While I am no expert when it comes to fermentation methods, I can speak to the consistency of the anaerobic (the absence of oxygen) environment created in a water-sealed crock. After much research, I landed on the water-sealed fermentation crock for its ease of use. After packing the crock and placing weights inside, the lid is placed into a moat, which is then filled in with water. The water creates an airtight seal that keeps oxygen out while allowing carbon dioxide gases to bubble out. Beautiful. Now that I am on the other side of a five-week fermentation project, I can say with confidence that the Lehman’s European-style Fermenting Crock is a gem.

Lessons Learned Making Sauerkraut

Prepare Sauerkraut Ingredients in Smaller Portions 

For all the research I did on how to avoid mold (no air, got it) or spoilage (clean wooden spoons, check), I failed to do much research on how to efficiently pack the ferment into the crock. My wife and I made a mistake by mixing the salt and caraway seeds into an enormous bowl’s worth of shredded cabbage. We filled it to the brim. Fifteen pounds worth of cabbage becomes overwhelmingly cumbersome the moment you start trying to evenly distribute salt and spices. We painstakingly tried to avoid losing much cabbage to the floor, sacrificing our wits instead. Some research told us that preparing the salt with the cabbage in small batches — say, 5 pounds — makes quick work of a tedious step. Next time!

Pack Sauerkraut as You Go

Similar to preparing ingredients in smaller batches, packing the ferment into the crock in layers is critical. By pounding the cabbage down, you are in effect encouraging the release of moisture from the cabbage. This becomes the anaerobic brine the cabbage needs to live in for the duration of the fermentation process. You need liquid to rise above the surface level of the cabbage. This is infinitely easier if you pack in layers.

Rookie mistake number two. We schlepped all fifteen pounds of cabbage into our crock at once and consequently spent an hour packing it down. Our goal was to minimize the number of surfaces the cabbage came into contact with. This is what kept us from taking it out layer by layer. Say what you will about our approach, but most of all learn from our mistake! Your biceps will thank you. Also: a kraut pounder may be a worthy investment, considering we snapped a wooden spoon while we were at it!

Lessons Learned from Making Sauerkraut