Over the years I have been asked, "How do you make your sauerkraut in the crock?", and now that I have a digital camera, I thought I would finally be able to put the process on-line with visuals instead of just text for those of you who would like to try this for yourselves. It really is simple, and once you do it a couple of times, you won't believe you may once have been afraid to try it. This process is for Bohemian style sauerkraut, taught to me and my sister by our Dad (now 78 years young), who learned it from his mother, Anna Kadrlik Ledvina. And just a note here to let you know that after the kraut is fermented, I will do a Part II and show you how I can the finished kraut.
First you will need a clean, 5-gallon crock that has no cracks. If the crock has cracks, it is useless for fermenting.
Next, a dolly to set the crock on. Remember, a full 5-gallon crock is HEAVY. The dolly will assist you in moving the full crock to where you will want the kraut to ferment. I use a cheap, plant pot dolly I bought for $2 at the Dollar Store. The large size fits a 5-gallon crock perfectly. (You may want to go ahead and purchase better castors for the dolly from the hardware store.)
You will need a cutting board, a good knife, 6-8 large heads of cabbage for a 5-gallon crock, a good supply of onions (preferably yellow onions), pickling salt, and caraway seed. You will need a plate or lid for your crock, some sort of weight (I use a rock I picked up out of the field -- and washed VERY well), cheesecloth or muslin and rubber bands or string, and, you will need something to "stomp" the cabbage with. I use a "stomper" I bought from Lehman's, but you can use a rolling pin that has no handles, the hitting end of a baseball bat, or a piece of 2" x 4" that has its ends smoothed (you don't want wood slivers in your kraut!) Make sure your "stomper" is very clean.
Now get out your knife sharpener and sharpen your favorite knife. Cabbage is easier to cut through if your knife is sharp.
How thick or thin you slice your cabbage is subjective. You can slice your cabbage with a knife, a grater, the slicer attachment on your food processor, a hand made "krauter", or a mandoline. I have tried all of these methods over the years and prefer to use a mandoline. It may not be as quick as the food processor, but with the mandoline you can adjust the size of the cabbage slice. Newer mandolines are safer to use to use than old-style krauters, but if you feel confident enough of your manual dexterity to use a custom-made krauter, you will probably get the "perfect" kraut slice with it. I happen to like my fingers, however, and will continue to use my ergonomic mandoline. Pieces that don't work through the mandoline get hand sliced with my knife.
Take a head of cabbage and cut it into quarters (4 pieces). Now it should be easier to cut out the core from each quarter. Trim away any blemishes. Slice each quarter and put the slices in a big bowl.
After each head of cabbage is sliced, place the slices into the crock. Now slice 3-4 onions and place the onion slices on top of the cabbage in the crock. Sprinkle at least 1 Tablespoon of pickling salt and 1 Tablespoon of caraway seed over the onions. How many onions you use, and how much salt and caraway seed you use is a matter of taste. The antiseptic properties contained in the onions help prevent spoilage, and the salt acts as a preservative. (You can use a lot of salt if you want, but remember to rinse your kraut before you use it.)
Now get your stomper and stomp down your kraut. The idea is to break down the cabbage and onions to release their juices as this juice is the fermenting liquid. The level of kraut in the crock will reduce dramatically as you stomp. When you feel "suction" as you raise your stomper or can visually see good wet juice on top of the kraut, stop, and slice up the next head of cabbage and onions. Repeat the layering process of slicing and stomping until the crock is full to about 3 inches from the top.
When the crock is just about full, you should have enough juices on top to cover the kraut completely. There are times, however, when the cabbage used is too dry and you will need to supplement liquid. If this happens, make a brine of 1/2 cup of pickling salt and one quart of water, and pour just enough brine to cover the top of the kraut. Now take your crock lid or a plain dinner plate (not one with a metal trim), turn it upside down, and place it on top of the kraut in the crock. On top of this lid, put a weight. The kraut should now be completely submerged by at least an inch under the liquid juices. NOTE: It helps when you buy your cabbage to ask when it was picked. Generally, if you buy fresh cabbage, it should sit for three days before you make kraut, otherwise you will have too much juice which can raise the chance for spoilage.
Now take your cheesecloth or muslin dust cover and cover the top of the crock. (Use a double thickness of cheesecloth if you are using that instead of muslin.) Put a rubber band or tie string to hold the cloth in place. Carefully move the crock to where the kraut is to ferment. You want this place to be cool but not cold (between 65 and 75F), and you want the crock to be left undisturbed for about 6 weeks. (Mark your calendar or you will forget when to check the crock!) When the kraut is fermenting, there will be a very acrid smell and you may need to air the room out. Also, no matter how clean a housekeeper you are, your crock will attract vinegar flies. When this happens I use a light vaccuum attachment and carefull suck the flies away. Periodically, carefully remove the cheesecloth or muslin cover and check the liquid seal over the kraut. The kraut should be fully submerged. If it is not, make a brine as described above and VERY CAREFULLY add enough liquid to fully cover the kraut. You do not want to disturb the kraut! Replace the dust cover and don't worry about any gook or mold you may see. I will tell you about that in Part II.
And that is all! I keep my crock in my laundry room as it tends to be cooler than the rest of the house, and I don't have to worry about the crock being disturbed because I am the only person that uses the laundry room. I open the back door to air the room out if the fermenting smell gets too strong, and when the vinegar flies show up, they are away from the kitchen and easy to vaccuum up. A cool, enclosed porch area, one that is out of the sun, is a good spot to keep a crock, too.
Stay tuned for Part II in about 6 weeks.