Does Sauerkraut Go Bad?

If you’re wondering how long does sauerkraut last or if it ever goes bad, you’re not the only one.

If you do a bit of googling, you’ll surely find some conflicting information.

Some say that fermented cabbage lasts only a few months, while others that it stays safe to eat and tastes good forever. A few places claim you can keep it on the countertop, while the rest urges you to refrigerate it.

What gives?

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

I wrote this article to straighten things out.

I included 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.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

Sauerkraut container in hand

Two Types of Sauerkraut

There are two kinds of sauerkraut available on the market: refrigerated and unrefrigerated.

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 (probiotics). It’s not heat-treated or anything, so every good thing that was created in the fermentation process is still there.

The other variety, let’s call it the “not-so-good stuff,” is sold unrefrigerated.

It’s usually the same fermented cabbage, just pasteurized afterward. It’s shelf-stable because the bacteria were killed during the pasteurization, and it’s no longer fermenting.

Tip

If you buy sauerkraut for its health benefits, choose the one that’s sold refrigerated.

Now let’s talk about how you should store each one.

Sauekraut container
Sauekraut container

How To Store Sauerkraut

Storing sauerkraut sold refrigerated

Refrigerated sauerkraut is sold in containers or bags, and once you get it home, you should put it into the fridge.

Low temperature is needed to slow down the fermentation process. If you leave it on the counter, the process will speed up. And while it will not necessarily make the cabbage go bad, its taste will get much sharper in a matter of days.

Once you open the package, make sure the cabbage is always submerged in its brine. Each time you scoop some, remember to push down the rest of the cabbage so that it’s covered.

Otherwise, it will develop white specs and eventually white film on the surface in a matter of days. More on that in the spoilage section.

All of these tips apply if you make your own sauerkraut too.

Sauerkraut covered in brine
Sauerkraut covered in brine

Making extra brine

Let’s say there’s not enough brine in the container to cover all the cabbage. You already know what will happen if you won’t do anything about it.

Fortunately, it’s easy to make your own brine. All you need is water and salt.

We’re going to make a 2% (approximately) brine, which is pretty standard for making sauerkraut. If you like yours on the saltier side, you can add more salt.

To make the brine, dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of water. If you need more, simply double or triple the ingredients.

Once you have the solution ready, pour into the sauerkraut container as much as you need to cover the cabbage. That’s it.

Here’s how that looks like:

Storing sauerkraut sold unrefrigerated

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

Once you open the package, transfer the leftovers into 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.

As you can tell, refrigerated sauerkraut is quite similar to pickles and other fermented foods (like kimchi) when it comes to storage.

Sauekraut salad closeup
Sauekraut salad closeup

How Long Does Sauerkraut Last

Unopened sauerkraut should keep for at least a few months after the date on the label.

Once you open the container of refrigerated sauerkraut, the kraut should stay safe and taste good for at least 3 months, assuming that you keep it submerged in brine. Shelf-stable sauerkraut, on the other hand, stays fine in the fridge for only up to a week.

That’s the gist of it. Let’s discuss the details.

Sauerkraut date on label
Sauerkraut date on label

As you already know, sauerkraut sold refrigerated stays fresh and tasty for months after opening as long as it’s submerged in brine.

The shelf life of sauerkraut, indicated by the date on the label (which isn’t an expiration date), is usually a bit over half a year from production. However, the cabbage can easily last much longer in good quality. You can even find sources saying that it basically lasts indefinitely in brine.

While the cabbage is in the fridge, the fermentation process slows down, but it doesn’t stop entirely. And that means that the taste of sauerkraut becomes sourer over time. After storing it for months past the date on the label, you might find it too sour.

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

For the shelf-stable sauerkraut, there’s nothing there that will keep it alive for longer than a couple of days. Hence the short storage time after opening.

 PantryFridge
Sauerkraut (sold refrigerated, unopened) Sell-by + 3+ months
Sauerkraut (sold refrigerated, opened) 3+ months
Sauerkraut (sold unrefrigerated, unopened)Best-by + 3 months 
Sauerkraut (sold unrefrigerated, opened) 5 – 7 days
Please note that the periods above are estimates and for best quality only.
Sauerkraut closeup
Sauerkraut closeup

How To Tell If Sauerkraut Is Bad

Since refrigerated and shelf-stable sauerkraut are quite different when it comes to signs of spoilage, I’ll discuss them separately.

Refrigerated Sauerkraut

First, let’s talk about 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. In other words, you actually want to see them there.

Next, if you messed up and left some cabbage above the surface of brine, it will dry out.

If the top layer has dried out, you can scoop it with a fork and discard it, leaving the rest. But if you leave it for a few more days, you will end up with black or white specs on the surface, or a sort of white film.

That’s what you might see in the container:

White film on sauerkraut
White film on sauerkraut

If things get to that point, throw 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.

If everything is safely covered in brine and smell normal (sour, but not funky), the cabbage should be safe to eat.

The last thing to do is to sample the kraut.

Sauerkraut usually starts off crisp, but it softens over time. Don’t be surprised that your old sauerkraut has lost its crunch.

The flavor also changes gradually, so if yours sits in the fridge for months and you find it way too sour, it’s okay to throw it out.

Tip

If your sauerkraut is too sour, rinse it under running water and drain. That removes some of the harsh taste (that’s in the brine), and you might find it good enough to use after such treatment.

Shelf-stable Sauekraut

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.

Sauerkraut, carrot, and apple salad
Sauerkraut, carrot, and apple salad