Fermenting vegetables is a fascinating subject, with most cultures around the world fermenting in some form or other.
I became obsessed with fermenting foods after reading a brilliant book by Sandor Katz called The Art of Fermentation. This is the holy grail of fermenting, and covers everything from making your own soya sauce to fermenting cider and making yoghurt.
This blog post is going to cover just the very basics of vegetable fermentation.
Big sharp knife and cutting board
A big, clean bucket
A waterproof, reasonably sturdy plastic bag (shopping bags will not work) – an industrial bin liner or heavy duty clear plastic bag will do the trick.
The fermenting process is driven by 2 bacteria and their natural variations, lactobacillus plantarum and Leuconostoc mesenteroides. I’m probably spelling that incorrectly. Leuconostoc is responsible for initial fermentation, and produces CO2. After a few days, lactobacillus takes over and produces lactic acid (which makes the pickles sour).
There are 2 basic types of salting: Dry salting and brining. Dry salting involves putting salt straight onto the chopped veggies and pickling in the water that gets extracted, bringing involves adding the vegetables to a salty brine, and pickling in that. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
In general, dry salting is better for vegetables with a high water content (cabbage, chinese cabbage, peppers etc), and brining is better for harder vegetables (carrots, beetroot, cauliflower etc)
When dry salting, use 2-3% salt per weight of the vegetables – around 1 tablespoon of salt per kilogram of vegetables. Stir around nicely with your (clean) hands, and put a weight on top to compress the vegetables.
When brining, make a salt-water solution so that the total weight of both water and vegetables is around 2-3% salinity. In other words, if you are using 1l of water and 1kg of vegetables, then add 40g of salt to your brine (about 2 big tablespoons).
There are many different ways of weighting, the basic principle is that you want all of your vegetables submerged in water. some people use a plate that fits the bucket that they are using, with a brick or something on top of the plate, but my favourite method is to take a strong clear plastic bag, half fill with water and place this on top of your pickles. This “water weight” does 3 things – not only does it keep your vegetables submerged, but it also minimises air contact (and thus mould growth) since the plastic bag spreads to cover the whole surface of your pickles evenly. The plastic bag also allows your pickles to bubble away nicely and lets all the gas escape around the edges of the bag.
You must fill the bag with water before putting on top of your pickles to make 100% sure that there are no leaks.
Water is a topic of some debate – the issue being whether the chlorine in tap water inhibits bacterial growth. My personal experience is that using tap water for pickling results in inferior pickles that just don’t ferment as well.
If you are lucky enough to live by a spring in the mountains, then just use that with no problems. If you live in the city and your tap water is chlorinated, you need to dechlorinate.
You can dechlorinate water either by filtering (if you have a water filter), buying bottled spring water, or by bringing your water to a boil on the stovetop and then letting it cool down, uncovered, until it’s back at room temperature – the chlorine is luckily volatile and blows off when the water is boiled.
Ok so here’s a basic recipe for an asian style pickle: feel free to change any of the spices or vegetables, or scale the recipe as you need.
Basic kimchi/fermented vegetables
- 1 kg chinese or normal cabbage, with the odd onion and carrot thrown in.
- 20g salt (about 1 big tablespoon) per kg of veggies
- 1 head garlic, cloves chopped/crushed
- 1 lemon rind (might as well throw in the juice as well)
- 5 cm ginger, crushed/chopped
- 3 red chillies, chopped
- Any other spices/flavours you want
- Chop the veggies into bite sized pieces. Throw all the ingredients together into a bucket. Salt in layers, mix well and put a weight on (see above), checking them and pushing down again the next day to make sure the water level has covered the veggies. If not, add brine at 2% until the veggies are just covered. Ferment for 5 days and then chow. Will keep outside the fridge, as long as your bag of water is on them and the veggies are submerged.White surface mould is normal and not harmful, just scoop it off with a spoon when you see it.