Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage. In many traditional households making sauerkraut to preserve a surplus cabbage crop was an autumn ritual involving the whole family. Here I will explore how to make sauerkraut and the health benefits of eating it.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 23, 2007.)
Health Benefits. Sauerkraut, or fermented cabbage, is a food with practically no calories. Cabbage contains lactobacillus bacteria. Fermentation of the cabbage produces lactic acid which promotes healthy intestinal flora. Fermentation does not alter the anticancer enzymes already present in all cruciferious vegetables including raw cabbage. In Asia fermented cabbage has been used to cure Asian flu in birds.  Sauerkraut promotes vigor, vitality, and virility. No wonder this historic 'superfood' is enjoying a renaissance revival.
First, here is a basic recipe from the book of traditional food preservation techniques, Stocking Up (1977):
Select about 15 pounds of firm, green cabbages. Let stand at room temperature for one day. Remove any bruised outer leaves, wash, quarter, and remove cores. Cabbage should be dry before grating for sauerkraut. Shred or cut to about the thickness of a dime. Thoroughly mix 3 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons salt (use pickling/canning salt) with each 10 quarts of shredded cabbage. As each batch is salted, get ready your crock or crocks. Pack the cabbage firmly, but not tightly into the crocks, pressing with a wooden spoon or paddle (see STOMPING*). Lay a clean cloth over the cabbage with a plate on top that fits snugly inside the crock. It is important that the cabbage is covered by the tight-fitting plate: it may spoil otherwise. Weight with a stone or a gallon jar filled with water. The weight should be heavy enough so that the liquid just reaches the bottom of the cover. To vary the weight, use heavier or lighter stones or fill or empty the jar as needed. Allow cabbage to ferment at room temperature (68 to 72 degrees F) for 9 to 14 days or more. (The lower the temperature, the slower the fermentation.) Change and wash the cloth, adjust the weight, and skim off the scum daily. Fermentation has ended when bubbles stop rising to the surface. Taste at the end of a week and can or place in a cool cellar or storeroom . . .. 
(1) Select, clean, and dry cabbages. (2) Assemble basic equipment, a cabbage shredder and stoneware crock. (3) The cabbage shredder cuts a half head of cabbage into the crock. Add canning salt layered with the cabbage, and STOMP*. (4) Add plate and weigh it down with a rock, or gallon jar filled with water. (5) Rinse. (6) Then can or package the final product in zip-lock freezer bags.
Variations. For maximum health benefits, eliminate the last two steps. Simply leave the crock of sauerkraut in a cool place and serve daily, as discussed by BronxBoy and Garden Mermaid in this thread. And, as discussed by Anastatia and Darius in this thread.
Fermentation preserves the cabbage, if the sauerkraut is properly made. A local variation here in Alabama, was to top the crock of shredded cabbage with huge cabbage leaves weighed down with bricks instead of a plate and rock.  You can add a sprinkling of caraway seed or a layer of sliced apples to the layers of cabbage. 
Natural medicine guru, Dr. Andrew Weil , promotes sauerkraut as a healthy superfood. On his web site, he provides his own recipe from his Arizona-grown cabbages and method for preserving the kraut. He uses a specially manufactured stoneware crock designed to eliminate the production of scum which has to be skimmed daily using the traditional method. The rim of the sauerkraut crock has a water trough and special ceramic weights to seal the space between the 'kraut and air-born bacteria. This eliminates the formation of scum. Stomping* and scum-skimming were traditionally tasks assigned to children.
History. The Greek, Pliny the Elder, in the first Century B.C. was one of the first in recorded history to mention sauerkraut. Records of the construction of the Great Wall of China built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) refer to fermented cabbage as a staple food for workers building the wall.
Genghis Khan (1162-1227) adopted sauerkraut as a staple food for his troops of mounted horsemen. After conquering most of Asia, Genghis Kahn's Mongol horsemen rode on to Germany, where the locals also took to making sauerkraut. German immigrants brought sauerkraut to America, where it is mentioned as early as 1776. In that same year, the English sailor, Captain James Cook received recognition for using sauerkraut on ocean expeditions to prevent scurvy among the members of the ship's crew on long voyages.
By 1906 sauerkraut and sausage were being sold from pushcarts in old New York City. These "hot dogs" as they were called, are still for sale from pushcarts in New York City--still served with sauerkraut. Sauerkraut became a foundation food of the New York 'deli', thus forming a lunch staple for New York's Wall Street financiers. Today, sauerkraut even has its own web site: http://www.sauerkraut.com/ebook.pdf  where you will find a recipe for sauerkraut chocolate cake.
The inescapable conclusion is that people who eat sauerkraut are people who shape destiny.
* STOMPING. The purpose of "stomping" is to start the action of the salt on the shredded cabbage to start producing juice. Pressing the salt into each cabbage layer with a wooden utensil is adequate, but traditionally children were asked to "stomp" on the cabbage as a way of inviting their participation, as described by GEORGE, in this thread. M.A. Church says this is how he does it:
I took a block of wood put it on the lathe and made it round about 3 inches and 8 inches long and use that . We do a couple heads then add some salt and caraway seed and pound it for a little. . . . But by using that block we can get the juices up above the cabbage with out adding salt water. Then yes we put a plate on it and a rock on that to hold it down . Personal Communication 10/3/07
PHOTOGRAPHY CREDIT: Cabbage heads. Brassica oleracea var. capitata. Big_Red. Plant Files. Oct 7, 2004, Nov. 12, 2004. Photographs 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Making Sauerkraut. Contributed by M.A. and Elaine Church of Buckley, Michigan. End photo: Anonymous. Three rabbits painted on ceramic tile. Personal collection of antique rabbit images.
DEDICATION: This piece was inspired by photographs sent to me by elementary and high school classmate, M.A. Church and his wife Elaine making sauerkraut at their home near Buckley, Michigan this fall.
Getting ready for a Michigan hay ride.
About Gloria Cole
I am a retired archeologist and curator of an historic house museum. I live in Greensboro, Alabama, a small rural historic Southern town, with my two dogs, a rabbit and (by recent count) two cats. I am upgrading a 100 year old neoclassic house and clearing and planting my two-and-one-half acre property. Of plants, I love roses best of all.