Fermenting food is an important craft to master for homesteaders and preppers since it is an easy yet effective way to preserve food for future use. There are many different types of food that you can ferment, but the one people are most familiar with is fermented cabbage, known as sauerkraut. But is it possible to ferment your sauerkraut for too long, and what happens to it if you let the ferment continue?
You can ferment sauerkraut too long, at which point it will become mushy, and the taste will be too acidic, even though the sauerkraut will still be edible. Longer ferments will intensify the flavors and tangy taste of the sauerkraut. The length of your ferment is usually according to your personal taste. The traditional ferment for sauerkraut is about four weeks, but some people prefer a 3-day ferment.
Fermenting is not an exact science where everybody will have the same experience. This is mostly because fermenting is influenced by environmental factors such as ambient temperature, which can vary greatly depending on your location in the world.
How Long Should You Ferment Sauerkraut?
There are no hard and fast rules for the length of time that you should ferment your sauerkraut, but rather guidelines that you can use as a starting point for your ferment experiments.
The driving factor for the length of your ferment should be your personal taste and how you like your sauerkraut. If you are a beginner fermenter, you may not know how you like your sauerkraut yet. In this event, use the guidelines to establish a baseline from which you can determine your personal preference as you go.
The guidelines for times for fermentation are generally geared around the ambient temperature, and if the temperature changes, the length of the ferment will need to be adjusted. For this reason, to get predictable results, you should try to store your fermenting products in as stable a temperature environment as possible.
Most people who eat sauerkraut prefer the flavors after a longer ferment as the flavors are richer and stronger, and other people will eat it at any stage of the fermentation. But even these people will have a favorite fermentation level at which they find the flavor to be the best for their palate.
Temperature is the key to getting a ferment to behave in a way that you can predict, and the preferred temperature at which to ferment cabbage is at 70F or 21C. When we mention durations of fermentation, we will base it on fermentation at this preferred temperature.
If your temperatures are different where you live, you can use the following table as a guideline for your fermentation times.
|Less than 45.5F or 7.5C||Up to 6 months fermentation|
|50-60F or 10-15C||28 days|
|65F or 18C||20 days|
|90-96F or 32-36C||10 days|
Some people measure the acidity of their ferment by using pH strips to monitor the acidity level of the ferment. As a general rule-of-thumb, most people consider the sauerkraut fermentation to be complete once it has reached between a 3.8 and 3.9 pH level.
As a new fermenter, you should taste your sauerkraut after the first 3 days to see what the flavor and acidity levels are and if you like them at this stage.
If you would prefer the flavors and acidity to be stronger, close up your sauerkraut and leave it till it has been fermenting for a week, and then try it again. Thereafter, try it every two or three days till you find the flavor that you prefer the most.
If you want to see how intense the flavors get, leave one jar to continue fermenting up to 4 weeks, tasting it as you go. Once it gets to the point that you no longer enjoy the flavor, texture, or acidity, you now have a range of fermentation days that you can work with to get a flavor you prefer.
Once your ferment has reached a flavor you are happy with, you can put it in the refrigerator to slow the ferment. This will not stop the ferment completely, but it will slow it down significantly so that the flavor will not change too dramatically while you use the jars in the fridge.
How To Know If Your Sauerkraut Has Gone Bad
When creating fermenting any food, you are dealing with live bacteria and other microorganisms, so once in a while, you may get a ferment that goes bad.
Your senses of vision and smell are your best friends in determining if your fermentation has gone off or not.
If your sauerkraut turns a pink-red color, or grey or black, then there are other undesirable microorganisms that have managed to get a foothold in the ferment and have out-competed the good bacteria and are proliferating in the ferment.
If you see any of these color changes or growths on your ferment, discard it and do not use it. Sometimes, if a little mold starts to grow on the top, usually on pieces that were not properly submerged in the brine, you can scoop these pieces out, and your ferment will still be fine.
The other sense you can employ to determine if your sauerkraut ferment is still good is your sense of smell. If you open the fermentation jar and it smells like nothing you would consider putting in your mouth, then discard the jar. Any offensive smell or smell of rotting vegetation is a sign that the ferment failed, and it is not good to eat!
A good sauerkraut ferment should smell fresh and clean, and any other aroma should cause you to treat the ferment with suspicion and monitor things closely over the next few days for other signs that the food has gone off.
Remember that fermenting is an activity that hails from a time when people did not have fancy monitoring equipment to determine if a ferment is going well or not.
How To Eat Sauerkraut
There are many ways to eat sauerkraut and everyone who makes it has their favorite way of eating it! If you are a beginner fermenter, try some of the following ideas on how to use your sauerkraut and get your healthy probiotics at the same time.
- Have it plain as a side dish to your main meal, especially one that has meat such as steak or pork.
- Add chili peppers to your ferment and use it as a salsa.
- Blend your sauerkraut and mix it with cream cheese or hummus to make a delicious, healthy dip.
- Sauerkraut is a great, tangy addition to wraps or sandwiches.
- Use sauerkraut in your favorite stir-fry recipe.
- Use your sauerkraut as a topping for a burger.
- Sauerkraut is a great addition to rice. Either mix it into the rice to make a rice salad or place a dollop of it on top of your steaming rice to add a rich tangy flavor.
- Use sauerkraut as a topping on a baked potato or on mashed potato.
As you can see, you can use sauerkraut in many different ways, and with a little imagination, it can become a staple ingredient in your kitchen.
You can vary your sauerkraut recipe to include many different ingredients to adjust its flavor for different applications in the kitchen. Adding ingredients such as sweet peppers or chili peppers, spring onions, peppercorns, ginger, and garlic are some popular additions to a sauerkraut ferment.
Adding additional ingredients to your sauerkraut ferment can change the time it takes to get to the correct ferment that you like.
As a beginner, it is best to try a straight sauerkraut ferment until you become accustomed to the fermentation times and levels that you prefer, and then you can experiment with different ingredients.
While it is possible to take your ferment too far and the sauerkraut becomes inedible due to its strong flavor and mushy texture, you will find that it takes some time to get to this point of no return.
Most homesteaders and preppers that try making their own sauerkraut wonder why they did not try it sooner. It quickly becomes a family favorite and has the bonus of being a healthy addition to your family meals!