Kraut Catastrophe: A Tale of Woe Part II

by Daisy

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When we last left this saga, I had finally unstuck the lid from Ivory’s Picklemeister.  It was a great feeling.

I was so psyched to get the kraut started.  I layered it in the crock with salt, added the inoculant from Ivory’s pickles and enough water to cover, put the lids on, the glass pusher lid that had given me so much trouble, and the special airlock lid.

Then I waited.  It began to bubble a bit after a few days.  It started to smell EXACTLY like sauerkraut, which, for some reason, surprised me!

Everything was going so well.  I did, however have a little bit of brown develop on a few bits at the top.  Once when Ivory was over she showed me how to clean those out and told me I needed a higher liquid level and added more water to seal everything off from air.

It kept on getting more and more kraut-y.  I tasted it and although it wasn’t as soft as I had expected, I deemed it ready to refrigerate.

What happened next I really don’t know.  You’d think refrigeration was the safe segment of any food preservation foray, but it wasn’t to be.

I had put it way in the back of the fridge, and sort of forgot about it.  You’d think I would be more concerned about my precious cabbage, but I guess I’m fickle that way about some things.

I started to smell something real bad whenever I’d open the fridge door.  Kept looking for it, didn’t find anything, and eventually gave up.  I decided offensive odors were an inevitable part of a big family and went on with My So-Smelly Life.

One fine day I decided to delve a little deeper.  Squeamish person warning.  Look away.

Sweet Alexander Fleming.

Suffering spores of stench.

I can’t believe I did this, but I thought I could salvage it.  I know, I know, but you hear everyone say that stuff like this happens, and it’s okay underneath!  Wild fermentation is wild, people!

I actually spooned this stuff off, and a brown yucky layer of cabbage, until I got to normal looking cabbage underneath.  I cleaned off the inside of the jar.  I smelled it and it wasn’t actually too bad.  Almost ok.  But for me, almost isn’t good enough.

We all know what had to happen next.  Cue slow dirge.

I shouldn’t admit this, but I’m going to run out of spots to bury my mistakes one day.  Archeologists will scratch their heads, then make up things.

“And here, ladies and gentlemen, are the petrified remains of a ceremonial kraut burial pit, a rare but fascinating aspect of turn of 21st century suburban society.”

And, because Halloween is just around the corner, and the squeamish people have already left the building:


So juvenile.

And so, the kraut is no more.

I’ve learned my lesson.

However, I have eleven pounds of jalapeno peppers I want to make into fermented hot sauce.

Nothing could go wrong with that.


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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

sondra September 28, 2011 at 8:04 am

you know my sister-in-law swears by making kraut “during the signs” I have scoffed at this notion, but let me tell ya…the years my kraut didn’t work, were the years is was not made during the right sign!

Dani September 28, 2011 at 8:07 am

Tomato Lady – I have had exactly the same happen to me. Unfortunately it put me off trying again.

Perhaps one day…

Andrea September 28, 2011 at 8:47 am

You might try using whey and salt for this fermentation instead. Look for the recipe in Nourishing Traditions. I’m sure one of the real food blogers also has a recipe posted. I’ve never had a failure with this method.

Kathy September 28, 2011 at 2:34 pm

Oh that is hilarious. Right now I have pear scraps fermenting to hopefully male vinegar. It’s all out in the garage in case it explodes, bubbles over or some other messy smelly reaction. Right now it smells a little boozy and is bubbling away.

Brice Timmons September 28, 2011 at 7:02 pm

I make a few gallons of kraut and fermented pickles every year. As a homebrewer and sourdough bread baker, I deal with fermentation a lot. Here’s the first thing to know about lactic acid fermentation: you don’t need an inoculation. Lactobacilli are everywhere. Fresh cabbage produces enough water. Just shred the cabbage, add the salt and let it produce water. After a day, add brine if necessary. As many airlocks and food-grade, airtight containers as I have for brewing, I still use old stoneware crocks with tulip poplar submersion lids for fermenting. I weight them with river rocks. I season with coriander, caraway and mustard seeds. Yeast bloom on the top, and I skim every other day (or at least once per week). When the brine sinks low, I top up so that skimming is easy. I have never had a failed batch of kraut, and I have done some weird variations on the theme.

I treat pickles similarly, but I lime them. You have to be more careful with your selection of cucumbers than cabbage. For a good guide, try Linda Ziedrich’s “Joy of Pickling.”

Tomato Lady September 29, 2011 at 8:14 am

Brice Timmons–I heard that with this method, I can’t consider my kraut done this way like I would “dead” kraut from the supermarket, that is, I would have to use it up rather quickly or it would spoil, in spite of being refrigerated. Is this true?

caitlinvb September 29, 2011 at 8:35 am

DEFINITELY try again! I made kraut this year in a mason jar with salt and water – I weighed everything down with brine. And GO FOR the hot sauce! I’ve got some chilis fermenting in my shed right now… can’t wait to see how they turn out! And ditto on the Ziedrich recommendation – her book is amazing, and I even emailed her a question once and she got right back to me 🙂

Jeff September 29, 2011 at 12:16 pm

The story is not over. Go back and dig that up in a few months. Kim Chi!

Brice Timmons September 29, 2011 at 6:34 pm

@Tomato Lady – That’s not my experience, nor does it make sense when you think of the history of this pickling method. First, you can process this kind of kraut and put it on a shelf just like you would any other kind of pickle. I suggest pasteurizing in mason jars by submerging them in water at 180 degrees for 30 minutes. Second, the salt and lactic acid are phenomenal preservatives, which is the real point of this method. Before canning and freezing were options, this type of fermentation was the primary method of preserving cabbage and cucumbers for the winter in northern and eastern Europe. Americans are very attached to refrigeration as a primary (if not only) method of storing homemade food. Before refrigeration, it would have been relatively common for a family to make and store huge quantities of this stuff in a root cellar in a crock. Ships’ captains used to take barrels full on sea voyages around the world. The trick is realizing that certain bacteria are our friends. Lactobacilli are good bacteria. Most food-borne illness from canned food is botulism. It can’t grow in high-acid environments like tomatoes, kraut, pickles, jams, etc. Pickles can carry salmonella, theoretically, but the pasteurization process, keeping your kitchen clean and avoiding cross-contamination from eggs, poultry and the like will deal with that. E coli can survive in lactic acid/saline environments, but they have a hard time there, and, again, pasteurization solves the problem. If you are using your own vegetables, sanitizing your kitchen and materials before use, and pasteurizing, you’re fine.

If you leave the stuff unpasteurized and alive in your fridge, it will keep for a long time. I made several gallons and kept one full gallon for myself at the end of the season last year. I left my gallon unpasteurized in the fridge. I had eaten it all by late February, and there was no evidence of off flavors or softening. It was still delicious and crunchy.

Mrs. Macs September 29, 2011 at 8:51 pm

I made kraut with a salt brine to ferment this year .. it came out great. Hubby was glad when I finally got it jarred and out of the basement.

Heidi Tijssen September 30, 2011 at 1:08 am

When I was a small child my mom made always kraut for winter use, and beans in salt as well. I remember those big brown stoneware crocks in our basement (or cellar, or pantry, what do you call that below ground level room, just for storing food?). But there was never any canning kraut or beans. It was used straight from the crock, and the lid and stone were simply put back. That stone was a treasure in the old days, because Holland is a flat and rock free country. Often when people emigrated to Canada or America, they carefully packed the stone in their bagage. Perhaps there wouldn’t be any stone over there!

Tomato Lady September 30, 2011 at 10:34 pm

Brice Timmons–Well, good. I was beginning to think I shouldn’t tag this post under “home preservation.” What you described is what I had been hoping for. I’m still confused about the rapid proliferation of mold on the top of my saurkraut despite early signs that it was working. I wonder what I did wrong. I’m letting my jalapenos get soft on the counter worried about trying this again.

Sarah @ Kitchen Procrasatination September 30, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Oh no! Lol. This happened to me recently with some fermented ketchup that I made from Nourishing Traditions. I have made it before with success, but the last time I decided to improvise a bit and use honey instead of maple syrup. That is apparently a big no no, because I ended up with a stinky, moldy mess. Fermentation seems to be a hit or miss sort of thing.

Nance Sparks October 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm

Love this cabbage series!!! I found myself looking forward to the conclusion once the first part has been posted!!!

Great piece!!

Judy S. October 2, 2011 at 7:29 pm

I saw a great recipe for Cowboy Candy, they are a sweet pickled jalapeno. Since I already ate my jalapenos this year I will have to wait for next year’s crop. I already told someone this means I won’t get a single pepper next year!

Brice Timmons October 5, 2011 at 9:42 pm

@Tomato Lady – First, it might not be mold. There are lots of colonizing or flocculating microorganisms that grow on top of your stuff. My first guess is usually yeast. Yeast is everywhere, and in my kitchen I keep the population booming with sourdough starters and brewers’ yeasts. Second, stuff just grows on top. Supposedly these fermentation lock containers prevent that, but I don’t believe it. My beer fermenters don’t get ick growing on top because the wort gets boiled before fermenting and I sanitize them with iodine before putting the fermentation lock on. That said, you’re not likely pasteurizing your cabbage or soaking it in iodine before fermentation. You’re counting on wild lactobacilli to colonize your veggies and pickle them. That’s why I prefer open crocks for my pickles and kraut. I replenish the brine every now and then during fermentation, and it’s easy to skim off the yeast and occasional mold. Heidi Tijssen has it right. You count on the wild bacteria to keep your food preserved. Humans have lived in symbiosis with these bacteria since the dawn of settled agriculture. We’ve only been fighting them since Louis Pasteur looked into a microscope and got freaked out. I’m not saying that all modern hygiene is a bad idea. I’m just saying that we now assume that microorganisms are bad rather than considering whether they are bad. If the ancient Mesopotamian king, when brought the first jug of questionable grape juice had said, “Let’s just throw that out,” we’d have no Chateau Cheval Blanc, no wine at all. Sometimes you just have to put things in your mouth. We all learned that as little children.

Tomato Lady October 6, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Brice Timmons–I agree with you we have a dysfunctional relationship with (nearly) invisible creatures. Because of our incomplete understanding of them, the default reaction is to try to kill or throw out anything suspicious. All the ‘dealing with it’ is left to the professionals who can present us with the final product, be it beer or cheese or kraut, and most of us had just as soon not know what went in to it before we are presented with the final product–which isn’t a very self-sufficient position to be in. In the back of my mind, at least, looms the spectre of the dreaded botulism. What I’m saying, I guess, is I’m very ignorant of these processes and need to learn more to understand what I need to fear and what I don’t.

Brandy Keippala November 27, 2011 at 11:45 pm

just found your website from a pinterest link and I must say, you are my hero! And… that picture of the kraut in your hand looked yummy, if nothing else!

Tomato Lady November 28, 2011 at 9:14 am

Brandy Keippala–Ha! Thanks! I was feeling rather anti-heroic at the time! It probably wasn’t so bad, just hard to get over the stuff that formed on top . . . So glad you found us, we’re sure to have another epic fail to post before long so stick around.

gmorgan April 29, 2012 at 10:09 am

Shread your cabbage. Pack, really PACK, into CLEAN 1 quart canning jars to halfway point. Add 1 teaspoon full Kosher salt. Pack more cabbage to top of jar. Add 1 more teaspoonful K salt. Fill jars with cold water to the very top of the lip, getting out as many air bubbles as possible. Go slow and its easier to get the bubbles to come to the top. When jars are full to the very rim, place sterilized lids and rings on, but do not tighten!
Carefully place the jars into a large tray or pan in a cool undisturbed place (I used the laundry sink in my basement). Every day, check the water level, refilling as necessary with cold water, picking out any “odd” bits and re-place the lids and rings, cleaning them as necessary, too.
In as little as 3 days, or as long as a week, the kraut will be to your liking AND it will have stopped overflowing (which is why you do not tighten down those lids and rings – it’s messy). Clean up the outsides of the jars, clean up the lids and rings, put more cold water in if necessary, tighten up the lids and rings and refrigerate.
This is RAW kraut. It is tangy and good, but not sour until it gets heated.
I like it raw.
Experiment with additions of juniper berries, caraway, bay leaf, allspice berries, peppercorns – yum!
One nice head of cabbage makes “about” four quarts of kraut.

SuziQ August 22, 2012 at 6:27 am

Hello! First let me say I love your blog! Well written and very informative! Second, I have some info on making kraut if you have not been able to make a successful batch. First, go to your local flea market and look for the crusty old guy with the ancient crockery. Find yourself an antique 2-3 gallon fermenter. They sort of look like a moonshine jug with a wide open mouth, 2 lil handles, and a closely fitting lid. Make sure the inside of the crock ain’t cracked though! Should cost anywhere between $20-40. Once you’ve gotten your new baby home, clean thoroughly (no bleach! I made that mistake) and let it air dry for a few days. When you are ready to go a-krauting, use the following ratio: 3 tbsp salt per 5 lb of cabbage. As you pack your crock, layer the salt in and stir it around til the cabbage is all coated. Salt draws out the liquid and the lactobacillus is already naturally occurring on the cabbage, so no need to inoculate unless you have leftover kraut juice from your last batch (I admit this really helps get it going). So once that’s all done, pack it down good and tight, then fill a gallon size plastic freezer bag with water and pack that over the cabbage. Put the lid on and cover with a kitchen towel to keep flies away. Within 24 hours, your kraut should be underwater. Since all cabbages are not created with equal water content, if you don’t have full coverage by day 2, make a mix of 1 tbsp salt to 2 cups of water and add until cabbage is covered. Then you can remove the plastic bag. Make sure you “toss” your kraut often as you remember to in the first week, then let it sit til you are ready to munch! Hope this helps! There really is nothing like “real” homemade krauty goodness!

Daisy August 22, 2012 at 7:58 am

SuziQ–Thank you! I appreciate your instructions. I hope one day to finally make a good batch.

Belinda January 24, 2014 at 9:29 pm

I’m new to your site…just checking out “flops”…..mama says signs should be “above the waist”, in the “heart” is best, and the moon should be “growing”… That said, try again!! My aunt likes to chop up hot peppers in her kraut (she used cayenne this past year).

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