Fermenting & Pickling / Recipes

Ruby Kraut (and Why It’s So Good For You)

Ruby kraut

Ruby kraut has sass. It’s like the sexier, sleeker, red lipstick-wearing sister of sauerkraut. And Ms. Ruby packs a healthful punch into one little jar.

The secret is in the red cabbage: The compounds that give the vegetable its distinctive dark color, anthocyanins, also act as antioxidants and are believed to have analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. (Pigment-rich and anthocyanin-filled fruits like blueberries, black tomatoes, and Concord grapes have these same health benefits… as in most things “green,” the darker it is, the better it is for you.)

Combine all that antioxidant power with the immunity boost of lacto-fermentation, and you could live forever on ruby kraut. (Okay, maybe not, but keep reading…)

Sauerkraut is one of the most common examples of lacto-fermentation, a process of preserving cabbage with lactic acid bacteria (also known as the “good bacteria”). Lactic acid bacteria is already present in the air and on the vegetable; under the right conditions, it will flourish and create an acidic environment that’s unsuitable for bad bacteria. When this happens, the resulting ferment is full of highly beneficial Lactobacillus, Leuconostoc, and Pediococcus bacteria that work to improve your gut flora and balance your digestive system.

Why is gut flora so important, anyway? At any given time, about 100 trillion (!) teeny tiny creatures (a network of microorganisms also known as your gut bacteria, gut flora, microflora, microbiota, or microbiome) live in your intestines and work diligently to absorb, digest, and synthesize all the enzymes, vitamins, and minerals in the food you eat. To put it in perspective, we have 100 trillion of these little guys in our intestines alone, while the entire body comprises just 10 to 50 trillion human cells. So in a way, we are more them than they are us… make sense?

This is why the mantra “You are what you eat” is 100 percent true and so very important to our health, if not the foundation of our whole health and well-being. The gastrointestinal tract makes up a large part of our immune system — up to 80 percent.

There’s a whole bunch of metabolic processes that occur in our digestive tracts on a daily basis, and most of us take it for granted. Our gut flora work overtime to keep us healthy and strong, so long as we provide them with the appropriate energy and nutrient sources. Quite simply, our bodies are built around our digestive systems.

Once in a while, the gut flora gets a little wonky and that’s why we get sick. What’s happening — in a nutshell — is the good bacteria isn’t able to fight off the bad bacteria that enters our system.

Enter lacto-fermentation. Lacto-fermented foods (like sauerkraut) are high-acid foods full of probiotics that battle bad bacteria in our guts. Probiotics (such as Lactobacilli and other beneficial bacteria and yeasts) supplement the existing good bacteria and, in effect, overwhelm the bad bacteria by lowering the pH of your digestive tract and creating an unfriendly environment for the bad guys.

Best of all, lacto-fermentation is easy when you’re only making small batches. You can ferment any of your favorite fruits or vegetables, with the most common being cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes… the sky’s the limit. But today we’re doing cabbage, because I grew a beautiful crop of Mammoth Red Rock cabbage this spring and I finally harvested the heads a couple weeks ago!

Mammoth Red Rock cabbage

Chantenay Red Core carrot and Mammoth Red Rock cabbage

(As an aside, growing red cabbage in your garden can help you ballpark the pH value of your soil without a soil tester. Because of the anthocyanins, red cabbage tends to develop deep red leaves in acidic soil, dull purple leaves in neutral soil, and greenish-yellow leaves in alkaline soil.)

My ruby kraut is rather simple — just cabbage, carrots, and a handful of spices — but you can add anything else from the garden. Apples, onions, and ginger are classic additions, and you’ll want to use the highest quality foods you can find (think farmers’ market, organic, or homegrown) for the most benefit. You can do up the spices differently too — try juniper berries and caraway seeds for an old-world flavor, or even cumin, coriander, or fennel seeds.

However you mix it up, try to keep a ratio of 5 pounds of vegetables to 3 tablespoons of pickling salt. (Too much salt, and your kraut may take a long time to ferment — though this might be useful for people who live in the tropics and need to slow down fermentation.) You can also use unrefined sea salt or kosher salt in place of the pickling salt; just none of that iodized stuff, which interferes with the bacteria.

Ruby Kraut

Makes 4 quarts

Ingredients

For the Vegetables
4 pounds red cabbage
1 pound carrots
3 tablespoons pickling salt

For the Spices
2 teaspoons celery seeds, divided
2 teaspoons dill seeds, divided
2 teaspoons black peppercorns, divided
2 bay leaves

For the Brine (Optional)
4 cups water
2 tablespoons pickling salt

Method

Shred, slice or grate your cabbage using a food processor, knife, or grater… whatever works for you. I cut my cabbage in half lengthwise, remove the cores first, then slice the cores to add into the kraut. Then I thinly slice the rest of the cabbage by hand for a cole slaw-like consistency.

Slice cabbage cores

Slice cabbage

Sliced red cabbage leaves

If you harvested the outer leaves from your cabbage crop (the huge ones that look like elephant ears), you can shred some of those up too. Remove the tough stems, then slice thinly as the outer leaves tend to be thicker (but are just as delicious and even more nutritious than the head).

Sliced cabbage leaves

Do the same for the carrots. I take a julienne peeler to mine to get those skinny slivers.

Carrot slivers

Now, you should know that 5 pounds is a lot of veggies… at first. I put all of my slices and slivers into a huge soup pot because even my biggest mixing bowl wasn’t big enough to hold everything.

Finely shredded cabbage and carrots

Once you’ve broken down all the cabbage and carrots, add the pickling salt and toss to combine. At this time I let the veggies sit while I do some clean-up in the kitchen. The salt will start to draw out moisture and make your cabbage nice and limp.

Add pickling salt

About 20, 30 or however many minutes later, go back to your pot and knead those veggies into submission with your hands. Be sure to press down on them to expel as much water as possible. By the time you’re done, the volume of veggies should be reduced to at least half. You’ll see some water pooling at the bottom of the pot; this is good!

Press down on the vegetables to release more liquid

Knead the vegetables into submission

Volume of vegetables reduced to half

Liquid released from vegetables

This recipe makes two jars of celery and dill-spiced kraut, and two jars of peppercorn and bay-spiced kraut. Divide your spices equally among the jars.

I like to fill my jar in layers: half a teaspoon of spices, some cabbage and carrot mix, another half a teaspoon of spices, more cabbage and carrot mix, and so on. While you do this, tamp the layers down with the back of a spoon to squeeze more liquid out of the vegetables. Pour any remaining liquid from the mixing pot into your jars. Leave at least an inch or two of headspace after filling, since the kraut will continue to expand and release liquid while it’s fermenting.

Layer vegetables and spices in jars

Tamp the cabbage and carrots down to release more liquid

Red sauerkraut

Run a chopstick or the end of a long spoon around the perimeter of the jar to release any trapped air pockets. It’s important that all the veggies are completely covered in liquid.

Run a chopstick around the perimeter to release trapped air pockets

To keep the kraut fully submerged during fermentation, I like to fill a zip-top bag with a little water and place that right on top of the vegetables, filling all the empty space in the jar. The water acts as a weight to push them down into the brine. Or, you can place a rock inside the bag as a weight.

Line the jar with a zip-top bag

Water weight inside sauerkraut jar

Seal your jars with lids and store them at room temperature out of direct sunlight. The kraut may “bubble over” as it ferments, so it’s a good idea to place the jars in a shallow baking dish to catch any overflowing liquid.

If the veggies haven’t released enough liquid by the second day to stay submerged, you’ll want to top them off with brine. Bring water and salt to a boil, stir until the salt is completely dissolved, then let cool and add to the veggies. Don’t forget to leave an inch or two of headspace in the jars. Push down on the veggies, add the baggie liners with some weight, and reseal with lids.

Red cabbage sauerkraut fermenting

You will see bubbling over the next few days; those bubbles are the off-gassing of carbon dioxide from lactic acid bacteria at work. Once a day or every other day, loosen the lids to let the fermentation gases escape. Pay attention to any stray cabbage or carrot pieces that may have worked their way in between the rim and baggie; you’ll want to push them back into the brine so they don’t become moldy.

As the lactic acid bacteria proliferates, your cabbage will turn into sauerkraut — or “sour cabbage” in German. The sourness comes from all the lactic acid created during lacto-fermentation.

Theoretically, your kraut is “alive” with probiotics by day four and can be eaten, but for the best flavor, you’ll want to wait anywhere from one to three weeks, depending on how warm or cool it is in your house. Warmer temperatures speed up fermentation, while cooler temps slow the process.

Check your jars each day to ensure the veggies are still submerged in liquid, and resist the temptation to fiddle with your ferment too frequently; oxygen is the enemy and will produce mold on the surface. You can begin to taste your kraut after a few days until it has soured enough to your liking.

For me, the right amount of time to perfect sauerkraut was exactly 12 days. (The temperature in my house hovers between 68°F and 70°F.) Once the kraut has achieved a nice flavor, remove the baggies, reseal with lids, and keep the kraut in your fridge to prevent over-fermentation. Your kraut should smell pleasantly sour and salty — like pickles. If it smells rotten or yeasty, chuck it and start over.

Fermented foods don’t necessarily go “bad” if properly sealed and submerged in liquid, but they will eventually reach a point of becoming too sour to be edible. Refrigeration slows down fermentation so you can enjoy your kraut at its peak flavor!

Red cabbage sauerkraut

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

118 Comments

  • Olga
    June 4, 2014 at 11:45 am

    Just made this with peppercorns and bay leaf on June 2, waiting now, it smells fresh and sour already, lots of fuchsia water pooling, and will put it back in today! Thanks for the easy instructions!

    Reply
  • Steve
    April 2, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    You should probably stop putting that plastic bag in your jars. I mean, unless you enjoy eating toxic plastic compounds.
    Get some fido jars and it won’t matter if everything is submerged. The seal acts as an airlock, and the jars fill with CO2, pushing all of the oxygen out.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      April 7, 2014 at 1:44 pm

      Well, we are not actually eating the plastic bag in this case, so I highly doubt the week or two of using the bag as a surface weight will kill us off. Good for you for not buying anything packaged in plastic, though.

      Reply
      • Jack Kempsley
        May 5, 2014 at 8:32 pm

        Are you retarded or something? He doesn’t mean you’re literally eating the bag. He means the plastic chemicals leech into your kraut. Somehow I doubt acidic environment + plastic = plastic-free kraut..

        Reply
        • Linda Ly
          May 8, 2014 at 10:31 pm

          It’s called sarcasm. But thank you for the explanation. I still stand by my original reply to this commenter.

          Reply
          • randommomster
            November 19, 2014 at 1:28 pm

            Kempsley’s name-calling was rude, and detracted from the important point. I agree with you that a week or two isn’t gonna kill you. On the other hand, if the risk is easily avoidable, I’m inclined to avoid it. The acids in the ferment will cause the baggies to leach more compounds into the goodies than would happen in a more Ph-neutral environment.

            Have you tried using one of those outer leaves as a dome? Cut a couple of slits in the top to allow bubbles to escape, and weigh it down with an old jelly jar filled with rocks. I have a friend who swears by it. I’m going to give it a shot myself.

          • Linda Ly
            November 19, 2014 at 2:45 pm

            Yes, sometimes I’ll place a cabbage leaf on top of the vegetables and tuck the ends under. No need for slits; air can still permeate the leaf. If you can find a smaller jar that fits perfectly inside the ferment jar, that also works well as a weight. But since I like to see what’s going on each day, I still prefer the baggie method, which gives me a clear view all around. Use what works best for you.

  • barometricreader
    March 26, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Okay, good. I didn’t read any post with this information so thank you for your reply.

    Reply
  • barometricreader
    March 26, 2014 at 7:11 am

    What about the tightness of the lids? I heard that you shouldn’t tighten them so as to allow for gassing however you didn’t mention anything about the lids. I worry that if they’re not tightened, oxygen is getting in….. no?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      March 26, 2014 at 2:38 pm

      I do mention in the post above to loosen the lids to let the fermentation gases escape. Or you can keep the jars loosely sealed the whole time (just a few turns to keep them on, but not airtight).

      Reply
  • Deb
    January 24, 2014 at 12:51 pm

    I want to try this but is there any thing else I can use to cover it? I hate plastic, a lot! And could tell me about pickling salt? Is it like table salt? Can you use Himalayan sea salt? I just stumbled on to your site when looking for info on carrot tops. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      January 24, 2014 at 1:17 pm

      You can use cheesecloth or muslin. Pickling salt is also called canning salt or preserving salt at the store (mine is made by Morton). It’s a pure salt with no anti-caking agents or additives, and has a small, uniform crystal that dissolves easily. You can also use kosher salt or sea salt in its place.

      Reply
  • vuthy
    January 7, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    I love pickled veggies, especially Asian ones, but need to start making my own because most of the store-bought kind from the Asian markets all have sulfites added as a preservative and I’m allergic. I’ll be visiting your site a lot to get started! Thank you for sharing your detailed recipes and instructions but I am confused about one thing: when you knead the veggies and get that water pooling at the bottom of the pot/bowl, do you add that water to the jars also or discard it? Thanks!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      January 7, 2014 at 8:20 pm

      Yes, add that pooled water to the jars!

      Reply
    • daniella
      September 11, 2015 at 12:47 pm

      Yes, this confused me as well as it’s missing from the directions. The pictures show the cabbage being added to the jars without liquid, and then in the next picture there’s a chopstick stirring the jars with a purple liquid that looks much different from the grey pooled water.

      Great recipe though as others don’t include spicing directions. Thank you, I will be making this!

      Reply
      • Linda Ly
        September 15, 2015 at 3:32 pm

        The pooled water at the bottom of the mixing bowl only looks that color because of the bowl itself. It’s actually a purplish-blue liquid, which is more apparent in a glass jar.

        Reply
  • so this is fifty
    November 9, 2013 at 4:42 am

    I just found your blog … It’s awesome !! Thanks !!

    Reply
  • lauren
    October 2, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    I do a lot of fermentation and love love love they way you explained it, I’m going to send my friends to your site!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      October 2, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • the man in grey
    September 2, 2013 at 11:09 pm

    Hi Garden Betty. Great post. I’m tempted to give this homemade sauerkraut novelty a go. Although I’m sure to make a mess of it all. What size jars did you use in this article?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 3, 2013 at 1:58 am

      I used quart jars (32 oz).

      Reply
  • Tanya @ Lovely Greens
    June 14, 2013 at 2:15 am

    It really looks Amazing. I’ve never been one to grow purple cabbage but they do sound super nutritious and look lovely in your kraut.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      June 15, 2013 at 2:05 am

      Oddly, I’ve never grown green cabbage… I guess I’m always attracted to anything purple (carrots, beans, etc.) so this cabbage was a natural choice for my garden! It really is lovely to look at, not to mention delicious.

      Reply
  • Tracy
    June 13, 2013 at 5:14 pm

    Great post Garden Betty. I’ve made kraut before but never used the water bag as a weight– can’t wait to try your method and your recipes. Don’t forget sauerkraut is also delicious on toast with avocado– my personal favorite.

    Reply
  • Jessica
    June 13, 2013 at 4:46 pm

    Thank you for this! I tried to make kraut last year but couldn’t get it weighted down in the mason jars and it went moldy. I even googled around for a solution a few days ago that didn’t involve finding another jar small enough to fit in the mouth of the mason jar. And here it is! A baggie filled with water. And in response to Beth’s question, I eat kraut with nearly everything. It is REALLY, really good in soup. Fills the whole bowl with tanginess.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      June 15, 2013 at 2:03 am

      Good luck with your next batch! (And I love kraut in soup too!)

      Reply
  • Beth
    June 12, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Hey Garden Betty,
    What do you like to eat sauerkraut with?

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      June 13, 2013 at 4:00 pm

      Mashed potatoes, sausage, and sauerkraut is my favorite combo (layered in that order), but I also like sauerkraut on a sandwich (all types of sandwiches, not just a Reuben), hot dog or burger, as a side to pulled pork or chicken or any kind of roast, and even as a small salad (with Russian dressing… kind of like a deconstructed Reuben).

      Reply
  • Cary Bradley
    June 12, 2013 at 6:13 am

    Excellent article and gorgeous slaw! We discovered kimchi on our Hawaiian honeymoon at a great Korean restaurant and LOVED it. I’ve bought it in supermarkets over the 30 years :), but it can be pricey. A couple years ago I fell hard for Sandor Katz’ Wild Fermentation book and did much Internet research and this past year, made my own kimchi, and it is FABULOUS and easy. I use red cabbage too and get the gorgeous pink juice. Our local Asian market gets fresh veg on Thursdays and I pick up very cool teeny bok choy-looking guys in big bags, myriad greens and have the best time adding new types to my brew each time. Thanks too for your great discussion of the health benefits of lactofermentation. I am LOVING your posts. Thanks so much!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      June 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm

      Thank YOU! I’m happy you’re enjoying all the posts!

      I also make red cabbage kimchi (in fact, a recipe will be posted in a few weeks) and will usually add some other Asian greens to it as well. You can’t go wrong with all those amazing spices!

      Reply
      • Wisefriend
        September 30, 2013 at 9:54 am

        I can’t wait to try this recipe!

        Reply
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