Does Sauerkraut Go Bad

You’ve bought sauerkraut to add some fermented food to your diet. You only add a forkful as a side to your lunch, so it takes quite some time until you finish the package. And at some point you start to wonder: does sauerkraut go bad?

Or maybe you scoured the Internet in search of how long sauerkraut lasts or if it requires refrigeration. And you inevitably found some conflicting information.

In a few places you read that the fermented cabbage lasts only a few months, and in others that it pretty much stays safe to eat and tastes good forever. Some people claimed you can keep it on the countertop, while the rest urged you to refrigerate it.

It’s easy to get confused about who is right and how you should go about storing sauerkraut.

This article is written to straighten things out. I added a bunch of links to both sauerkraut producers and people who make it at home. Those are I believe the most reliable sources of information on pickled cabbage out there, and this piece simply summarizes my findings.

How To Store Sauerkraut

There are two kinds of sauerkraut available on the market.

The first variety, let’s call it the “good stuff,” is sold refrigerated. It’s fermented cabbage submerged in brine, and it’s a living thing full of bacteria beneficial to your gut. It’s not heat-treated or anything, so every good thing that was created in the fermentation process is still there.

The other variety is sold unrefrigerated, and it usually is the same fermented cabbage, just pasteurized afterward. It’s shelf stable, as most if not all of the bacteria were killed during the pasteurization, so it’s no longer fermenting. If you buy sauerkraut for its health benefits, it’s not the one you’re looking for (or “not-so-good stuff”).

Now to how you should store each one.

Storing sauerkraut sold refrigerated

Let’s start with the “good stuff.” It’s sold in refrigerated containers, and once you get it home, you should put the container into the fridge.

Low temperature is needed to slow down the fermentation process. If you put it on the counter, the process will speed up. And while it will not necessarily make the cabbage go bad, it will affect the taste.

Tip

Once you open the package, it’s important to make sure the cabbage is always submerged in brine that comes with it. This way, it will last a long time.

Each time after you scoop a forkful or two, remember to push down the rest of the cabbage, so it’s covered. If you forget about that, not all is lost. If the top layer starts to dry out, or there are some white specs on it, you can scrape it off and enjoy the rest. As long as all the remaining cabbage was submerged, it’s safe to eat.

If you make your own sauerkraut, make sure it’s the good stuff, so don’t ever think about cooking it. And you should take care of your homemade fermented cabbage the same way you do for the refrigerated one.

Storing sauerkraut sold unrefrigerated

When it comes to sauerkraut sold unrefrigerated, you can keep it in the pantry or the kitchen. Just make sure the spot is cold and dry, away from sunlight.

Once you open the package, transfer the leftovers to the fridge after sealing them tightly. If that’s not possible using the original packaging, toss the cabbage in an airtight container or a freezer bag.

Meat with sauerkraut and mustard
(credit: Jae Park)

How Long Does Sauerkraut Last

Like pickles, and other fermented food, sauerkraut usually comes with a best-by date or sell-by date on the label.

And no matter if it’s the refrigerated or shelf stable variety, both of them can easily last months past that date as long as they stay unopened. But once you open the container, how you should proceed next is vastly different for both types.

When it comes to the shelf-stable fermented cabbage, it stays fine in the fridge for up to a week after opening. There’s nothing there that will keep it alive for longer.

Sauerkraut in a bowl
Image used under Creative Commons from Edsel Little

On the other hand, sauerkraut sold refrigerated stays fresh and tasty for months as long as it’s submerged in brine.

While most producers put a date on the label, and it’s usually a bit over half a year from production, the cabbage can easily last twice or three times as long in good quality. You can even find info out there that it basically lasts indefinitely in brine.

Please note that while the cabbage is in the fridge, the fermentation process only slows down. It doesn’t stop entirely. And that means that the taste of sauerkraut will alter over time. And in some cases, after storing it for over half a year, you might find it to sour.

When it comes to homemade sauerkraut, it retains its taste for about a year if you take good care of it.

 PantryFridge
Sauerkraut (sold refrigerated, unopened) Sell-by + 6+ months
Sauerkraut (sold refrigerated, opened) 6+ months
Sauerkraut (sold unrefrigerated, unopened)Best-by + 3 – 6 months 
Sauerkraut (sold unrefrigerated, opened) 5 – 7 days

Please note that the periods above are estimates and for best quality only.

How To Tell If Sauerkraut Is Bad

First off, let’s talk about one symptom that makes people might think it’s bad, but it’s not. That symptom is the presence of bubbles or fizz, and sometimes a slightly bulged lid.

As I already mentioned, unpasteurized sauerkraut is a living thing and the presence of bubbles is perfectly natural. The bubbles are a byproduct of fermentation and are harmless.

Now to actually going bad. Let’s start with the shelf-stable variety or the “not-so-good stuff.” If any of the usual signs of going bad is present, discard it.

Those signs include the presence of mold, altered or off aroma, and change of texture. If the cabbage dried out, it’s probably time for it to go too.

Also, if it sits in the fridge for longer than maybe 1.5 to 2 weeks, just discard it. It no good, even if it’s still safe to eat.

When it comes to the “good stuff,” if you messed up and left some cabbage not submerged in brine, it will dry out.

If the top layer has dried out, you can scoop it with a fork and discard, leaving the rest. But after a few more days there might be some black or white specs on the cabbage and floating on top of the brine.

That’s what you might see in the container:

White film on sauerkraut
White film on sauerkraut

If things get to that point, throw all of the cabbage out. While the cabbage that’s submerged is quite surely safe to eat, scooping out the specs is impossible. Plus the whole container looks pretty gross, so even if it was safe to eat the cabbage, I’d throw it out regardless.

Obviously, if there’s any mold, you should discard the cabbage too.

If everything is safely covered in brine, the cabbage should be safe to eat. Please note that as I already mentioned, the flavor changes gradually, so if you don’t find sauerkraut tasty anymore, get rid of it.