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I've been wanting to make "REAL" Sauerkraut for awhile now but im really averse to food borne illnesses.

So obviously fermenting something is sorta scary to me! But tons of people make sauerkraut all the time. So I guess im asking what's the worst thing that could happen?

I mean is there anything that could kill me? or would something that would get that bad smell so foul that there is no way I could eat it?

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If you follow proper procedures, it's safe. The correct amount of salt (initially) and the acid developed by the desirable bacteria population prevent the process being taken over by non-desirable bacteria. It works. Right around 2% by weight salt to cabbage (or cabbage and...) is a good number, with Stephie's German sources suggesting that possibly even 0.75% would be sufficient. More than 2% is NOT better (I have experimental results, even.) There should be no need to add water.

I personally prefer to use some red cabbage when fermenting in a clear container, as it gives me a visual clue to acidification progress. If using an opaque crock, no point in that (other than if you happen to like pink sauerkraut), as you should not open the crock to check (letting air in is bad practice.) I keep my clear containers in the dark.

IMHO after a lot of research before I dove in last summer, you should absolutely use an airlocked or watersealed container and leave it alone for 6-8 weeks. The "open crock method" that for some reason seems to be "traditional USA methodology" (why, I can't imagine, we had plenty of immigrants who knew better) is best avoided, as it pretty much ensures a mold battle. Properly tightened (not overtightened, not loose) canning jar lids are one form of airlock (do not loosen them - but keep the jar in a bucket just in case you over-tightened them, as it will contain the mess.) The nutty folks who are checking on it every few days are making something vaguely fermented, but it's not (IMHO) sauerkraut, which takes time; and they raise the odds of mold hugely. "Traditional fermentation crocks" with a water-sealed lid are another approach which works well, albeit generally with a commitment to a larger batch.

I've made 4-5 batches by now, all done under airlock; one (with insufficient weight) did poke cabbage above the liquid line and develop "kahm" yeast - I saw it, I left it alone, I tossed the top layer into the compost when I opened the jar, the rest is fine. With sufficient weight, that should not be a problem.

So, for the first time ever, I'll plant cabbage next year (I dislike cabbage, but I like sauerkraut.)

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Getting oxygen into the mix during fermentation can allow the botulism bacteria to grow. This is a particularly virulent bacteria, often fatal. I don't know if it has a characteristic taste (suspect not), but apparently it does show as a discoloured layer on top.

Having said that, I have made sauerkraut that did have an air breach early on and I ate it without ill effect.

Some tips from a website

Weigh it down: Keep your cabbage or other food down under the brine. If it floats to the top, it’s exposed to air, where it can pick up nasty bugs.

Brine it up: If you have too low a water/brine level, it gives undesirable bacteria and yeasts the food they need to grow on the surface. You can scrape off this “scum,” but you’ll be less likely to see it if you have a sufficient level of brine. Rule of thumb: one inch of brine above the sauerkraut.

Lighten the load: If you pack your jar too full, you may not leave enough space for the fermenting reaction to take place without causing an overflow. A good rule of thumb—pack your jars only 75 percent full. Less than that can leave in too much oxygen. More can push out your brine.

Salt it: Keep your salt ratio to three tablespoons to each quart of water. Salt makes the mixture less friendly to bugs.

Seal it: If your jar doesn’t keep out the oxygen, your yeast in the ferment could be oxidized, forming vinegar. It will also increase risk of mold. This may be the most important step in making fermented foods—make sure the environment is oxygen-free. If you notice browned cabbage, a yeasty odor, slime, or mold, could be your jars aren’t airtight. Jars with airlocks are recommended, as they keep out oxygen, but allow for off-gassing.

Measure it: Temperature is important in the making of fermented foods.

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    Why would getting oxygen into the mix increase chances of botulism? Botulism thrives in low oxygen environments. – Jay Feb 15 '16 at 16:16
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    Sorry, starting your answer off with a factual error is going to earn you a -1 (edit out the error and I'll take it away.) Botulism is an anaerobic bacteria, meaning it thrives in LACK of oxygen. Good sauerkraut practice is an oxygen-free environment, but keeps the botulism down by other means. – Ecnerwal Feb 15 '16 at 17:29
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    Also, botulism may not be detectable by sight, smell or taste but still make you sick (or dead). – Debbie M. Feb 15 '16 at 17:55

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