Sauerkraut with Whey

For years people have been asking me to try fermenting sauerkraut with whey. I procrastinated for a long time, partially because I don’t keep dairy animals and so seldom have whey on hand, and partially because I saw no good reason to introduce an animal product to my vegetable crock (although I do like fishy kimchi).

But lately my daughter has been making a lot of cheese, and we’ve had a lot of whey to find uses for. So I consulted Klaus Kaufmann and Annelies Schöneck’s little book Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home. The authors explain that “because it contains lactose and several vitamins and minerals, whey is an excellent aid to start the fermentation process.”

I was still in the dark. Whey comes from fermented milk; the lactose that was in the fresh milk has already been converted to lactic acid. The microbes that naturally ferment cabbage also produce lactic acid. In what way could adding lactic acid before fermentation help?

In spite of my doubts, I went ahead and made a small batch of sauerkraut with whey, using approximately one-fifth the quantities in Kaufmann and Schöneck’s recipe for–

Low-Salt Sauerkraut

2½ pounds slivered cabbage
1 teaspoon pickling salt
1/3 cup chopped onion
½ teaspoon caraway seeds
2 juniper berries
1 cup whey
Brine: 1 teaspoon pickling salt dissolved in 2 cups water

Toss together all the ingredients except the whey. The vegetables will take longer to wilt than they would with more salt, so wait about 15 minutes. Then pack the vegetables firmly into a 2-quart jar. Pour the whey over (the amount here is proportionally a bit more than Kaufmann and Schöneck call for; I needed this much to cover the vegetables).

Push a freezer-weigh quart plastic bag into the top of the jar, pour in the brine, and seal the bag.

If liquid doesn’t cover the sauerkraut by the next day, add a little of the brine from the bag.

Let the cabbage ferment for two weeks, say Kaufmann and Schöneck, or eat the cabbage as soon as it’s as tart as you like. It will keep for a long time in the refrigerator.

The fermentation proceeded normally, with no slime or mold or other nasty developments. I decided to serve the kraut early, after just a week, because I sometimes prefer it when it’s still crisp. I liked the seasonings; the caraway came through strong. I also liked that the kraut was less salty than usual. And if I hadn’t added the whey myself I wouldn’t have noticed it.

So, what was the purpose of adding whey? The same, I suspect, as adding salt and sometimes a little vinegar at the beginning of lactic-acid fermentation: These ingredients help keep bad microbes, like mold, from growing while fermentation gets under way, and they also slow the fermentation, thus allowing full flavors to develop. The whey took the place of additional salt.

19 thoughts on “Sauerkraut with Whey”

  1. When you’re entering your recipes, instead of hitting return at the end of each ingredient, use a br tag; e.g. less-than br / greater-than (but without the spaces). Let’s see if this will work if I use the real tag: .

  2. Thanks Linda.
    My experiments in cheesemaking have also produced a lot of whey, which until now has mainly been used to feed the plants. I am now looking forward to trying this recipe.

    Kind regards, Anna

  3. Hi Linda,
    I know this is almost a year later for comment, but I remembered reading this post last fall and I have 5 Arrowhead cabbages that need harvesting. Could I use whey drained from yogurt (Nancy’s of course)?

      1. Thanks for your reply, Linda. I went ahead with the yogurt whey yesterday. I’m excited to see what happens. The cabbages are sized right for two people and are sweet and tender; I have tended towards smaller heading varieties the last few years.

  4. I’ve made saurkraut using whey, and eaten it fresh because I couldn’t wait! I’m curious as to why you would make brine and then add it to a sealed bag. How does this help? I’m making kraut again and this time I will let it sit for much longer – both on the counter and in the fridge. I’ve also read that people traditionally pound the cabbage to release the juices. Have you done this?

    1. Jonathan, I use brine rather than plain water in the bag just in case the bag should leak. Plain water in the kraut might cause spoilage; brine would not.
      Salt is very effective in drawing juice out of the cabbage, so although it’s important to compress the cabbage well it really doesn’t need a lot of pounding. Long pounding may be called for, though, if you’re using only a little salt or using red cabbage rather than green.

  5. I did a search for making sauerkraut with whey and your wonderful blog came up !

    After you add the bag with the brine to the jar, should you leave it at room temperature ?

    Also, should you cover the jar with something like cheese cloth or should you put a lid on it ?
    I assume if you put on a lid, you would need to “burp” it occasionally.

    1. Bob, the jar should be kept at room temperature unless the room is very warm–say, over 80 degrees F. Fermenting cabbage (or other vegetables) should be weighted and covered. The easiest way to both weight and cover the cabbage is to use a freezer-weight zippered plastic bag filled with water–or, better, brine, just in case the bag leaks. Alternatives are stone, glass, and stoneware weights–you can place a plastic lid, screwed on loosely, or cloth on top of the jar–and a variety of commercially made airlocks.

      1. Linda, Thank you for the information ! Sorry to be so slow to reply. I’m just getting ready to start a batch. I’m excited to see how this turns out ! I’m using a combination of whey from yogurt and kefir….should that be OK ?

  6. Hello Linda,
    I made this recipe for the first time last week and my kraut seems to have a kind of slime on it. It still tastes all right but it has a strange slimy texture. Is this normal because of the whey?

    1. Sara, I don’t think that the whey should have made the kraut slimy. If you started it only last week, perhaps the slime will go away if you let the fermentation go longer. I think I’d wait another week. Then, if the kraut smelled and looked good but was still slimy, I think I would rinse it, taste it to make sure it was sour, and use it cooked rather than raw.

  7. Thanks for the recipe and tips. If I ferment cabbage in a Ball jar, should I keep the lid tightly closed and open it briefly once a day? Thanks.

  8. I just drained homemade yogurt to make it Greek, so I have plenty of whey. And I have cabbage that needs to get used up. Thanks for the recipe — here goes!

  9. Hello- I have found your blog about using kefir whey with delight. I have fermented veg previously but never with whey. But have recently started milk kefir (and cheese) so have tried the fermentation with the whey. I followed your recipe- but 5 days in there is no bubbling? Which makes me worry there is no fermenting? I think I probably need to abandon it- but just wanted to double check if the bubbles are expected in the same way when using whey? Thank you

    1. Molly, please don’t throw out your cabbage. Bubbling from fermentation can be very subtle. I suggest tasting the kraut to find out how sour it is. It’s ready when it tastes good.

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