Fermented Whole Cabbage Heads

20190202_184320To make good food you need the right ingredients.  Sometimes the right ingredients will seem to be so so wrong.

20190330_100713(All links open a new page, so you won’t lose your spot when you look around!  Get information on gardening and cultural traditions, recipes, stories, and more!)

20190330_100801Despite what some may say, “right” does not equal “expensive”.  Truly some of the best foods that we turn to again and again are those homey creations that families happily gather around tables for, waiting in eager anticipation.  The ironic thing is that many of those creations started off with “happy accidents”.  You know, spoiled food.

20190330_100845Think about it!  What are yogurt and sour cream other than old dairy gone bad?  Blue cheese?  Even sourdough??  These are all foods that have been intentionally allowed to have random, microscopic critters invade the food material.  We continue to let them do this because humans have realized that many of those critters are our friends.  The more the merrier, I say!

20190330_100942These fermented cabbage heads will produce the tastiest leaves for making cabbage rolls of any kind.  They develop a tangy taste that has hints of lemon, but are no where near as strong as sauerkraut made with shredded leaves.  They will also have a hint of whatever herbs and spices you add to the fermenting liquid for a really rich flavor.  Do be mindful of the fact that they will also have a bit of salt in them so you will want to adjust any recipe accordingly.  I will be posting a recipe soon specifically made for using fermented cabbage heads, (and here it is!)


Pickled Whole Cabbage Heads Recipe

  • Difficulty: easy, just don't stab yourself coring the cabbage
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You will need a large, food-safe bucket or crock with a tight fitting lid that is large enough to hold the amount of cabbage heads you want to make.  You will also need a cool (not cold) place in your home where this tub can remain undisturbed for at least 6 weeks.  Just a heads-up, there will be some, er, um, aromas that emanate from your cabbages as they are fermenting, so you’ll want this somewhere that it won’t be a problem.  There is a reason that people would traditionally make this with the fall harvest of cabbages where the crocks could be put outside in the cooler weather!


  • whole cabbage heads
  • garlic, peeled and quartered
  • whole peppercorns
  • bay leaves
  • canning or sea salt, do not use iodized!
  • water


Peel off any damaged outer leaves from each cabbage head you wish to ferment, and then core them.  The easiest way to remove the core is to repeatedly insert a narrow, but stout, knife around the base of the stem at an angle pointing to the middle of the cabbage.  Repeated “stabbings” are better than trying to pull the knife around inside the cabbage.

Place your cabbages into your container where they will remain to ferment.  For each cabbage you will want to add 1-2 cloves of garlic, peeled and quartered lengthwise, 1-2 bay leaves, and 1/2-1 tsp. black whole peppercorns.  The more cabbages you do, use the lower number since you will actually need less brine per head because of the amount of space they will occupy.  You can also modify the amounts and which ingredients you use to suit your taste.  I’m not a huge pepper fan, and so I use less than other people might.  I know that many traditional recipes also call for using a fresh horseradish root cut into strips, but I couldn’t find that in the store.  Remember it’s pretty spicy!

The amount of brine you will need to make will be determined by the size and shape of your container as well as the cabbage heads.  To make the brine weigh out 35 grams of salt, then add enough water to make one liter, this makes it a 3.5% concentration.  If you don’t have a metric scale this is roughly equivalent to 1.2 ounces with enough water added to make 1 quart (using American units of measurement).  IMPORTANT: note the wording!!  You are not adding 1 liter/1 quart of water, you are adding enough water to MAKE 1 liter/quart.  Big difference!!  After measuring the salt, put it into your liquid measuring cup and then add the water to it.  You will need to make enough brine to cover your heads completely after they are held down in the liquid.  I needed about 4 liters for the heads I made.

The heads will want to float so you will need to weigh them down with something.  I used a lid from one of my oven bakeware pans and turned it upside down, since that was what was heavy enough and would fit.  Keep in mind it will need to be there the whole time so find something you don’t use often.

Allow the heads to remain undisturbed for at least 6 weeks.  You can keep them there much longer, and in fact families in places like Romania where this process is very common will ferment a few dozen heads all at once and pull them out as needed during the rest of the year.  You will get mold growing on the surface of the brine, so you can skim that out every so often if it bothers you.

When you are ready to use your cabbages, remove your weight, skim off any mold, and remove the heads.  Return the weight if you have cabbages left and cover your tub again.  Rinse the heads off, including where you removed the core, and set them into a strainer core side down to allow the water to drain off, then after that they are ready to use!  The pieces of garlic can be used as well, but all the remaining brine and spices should be discarded.  Don’t use the brine or spices in your garden as they will be too salty.


16 thoughts on “Fermented Whole Cabbage Heads

  1. Thank you for this. My mother in law is Romanian and passed. I always go out and buy the soured cabbage heads but decided to give it a try myself.
    I found this post after I had alreday started my first batch. I’m using a 5 gallon pickling crock with weight’s and lid. The recipe i used calley for some corn too (for colour??) Anyway I started my batch on August 16 and just tasted it now. It doesn’t seem to taste like what I had expected. How can I tell if this batch has gone bad. It doesn’t smell rancid but has a musty smell I guess. I’ve fermented things before (kombutcha) this is my first try at vegetable’s. Please help!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so sorry, I didn’t see this earlier! I’ve not seen corn used before, so I don’t know how that might have affected the flavor. As far as spoilage is concerned, black mold and very cloudy liquid are not good signs, but don’t necessarily mean it’s too far gone. If the cabbage itself has gotten slimy to the point that the leaves fall apart, that is for sure bad. My experience with the cabbage is limited to what my friends have made, and this recipe that I put together. This one has always worked for me, and I get a nice lemon kind of flavor when its done. Yours may still turn into good rolls, so it might not be a loss in the end!


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