This story started when I read Cooked by American food writer Michael Pollan. This is a really great book for anyone interested in food as it explores the basics of cooking with fire – creating the perfect barbecue; water – cooking stews and other delicious dishes that require cooking in liquid; air – raising bread doughs with yeast; and earth – fermenting with fungi and bacteria. He worked with leading exponents of each type of food preparation and takes the reader along with him as he learns techniques that are as old as the hills, but new to many of us in this age of processed food and ready made meals.
The technique that most interested me was fermentation, as this is something I have never tried before. I’ve certainly made chutney and pickles of various sorts, but I’ve always used vinegar and usually sugar as well as salt and other flavourings to get the end result. Many chutneys are really savoury jams with almost as much sugar as jam, so they can’t be described as healthy foods. Fermented veg contain no sugar, and because they are not boiled they contain many live “good bacteria” – the probiotics people buy in products like Yakult. These apparently have many health benefits and I’d already seen plenty of TV chefs from Jamie Oliver to the Hairy Bikers extol the virtues of eating the Korean pickle, Kimchi, which is made by fermentation. I was ready to try for myself.
My first thought was that I’d need to buy a purpose made fermentation kit, and there are plenty of those on the market at quite startling prices. So I took a quick look at YouTube for information from Sandor Katz, who I had learned from Michael Pollan is the guru of fermentation. His short video told me all I needed to know to get started. All you need is a large, clean container – not metal or plastic as the acids can attack those, spoiling the taste and the fermentation process as well as being potentially unhealthy. I had a large glass jar I could use – perfect!
I decided to use mostly white cabbage, with some red cabbage for colour, plenty of ginger and chilli so I would approximate a version of kimchi, some shallots and some carrot.
I quartered and thinly sliced the cabbages and put them in a large bowl adding a little salt as I went. I used three quarters of the white cabbage and half the red cabbage, but could actually have used a little more to fill the jar. Once the veg is prepared it squashes down into a surprisingly small volume.
Then I added grated carrot and grated root ginger with a little more salt and started squeezing and crushing the veg by hand (my husband’s hand, to be honest, so I could take the photo – thanks Al!). This starts to get the vegetable juice flowing. After a few minutes, you find there is all the liquid you need to cover the veg. I added the finely sliced chilli at the end, as I didn’t want to get potentially irritating hot chilli juice on our hands for too long. Then I started pressing the veg into the glass jar. The idea is to squeeze out any air as air pockets could allow moulds and the wrong sort of bacteria to grow.
When all the veg were firmly pressed into the jar I topped it up with all the juices from the bowl. Because you need to keep the veg submerged in the briny juice, you need to weigh down the veg. I found a drinking glass that was a good fit, so I filled it with water to make it heavy enough and used that.
As the veg ferments it releases Carbon Dioxide, so you don’t seal the jar: just cover with a clean tea towel so nothing gets in. I did need to top up the liquid after a day or so – just mixing a light brine by adding half a spoon of salt to a glass of water worked for me.
As Sandor says in his video, no-one can tell you how long to leave the pickle as it depends on your preference. All I can tell you is that fermentation starts straight away so within a few minutes small bubbles of gas start to appear in the mix. I tasted the liquid after a day, and it was already tasting of pickle – the lactic acid was already building up. You probably realise without me saying that the lactic acid tastes vinegary, but I think it’s less harsh version of vinegar.
After three days the colour was a much more even red. I think you’ll agree from the photo that is looks tastier.
We had some for lunch today in a toasted cheese sandwich with some extra lettuce for some green.
How delicious! It tasted better than shop-bought pickle: lighter, fresher and more naturally vegetable. I had put a lot of ginger and chilli in but there wasn’t as much heat as you might expect: just a nice background spiciness which worked very well with the cheese.
I decanted the rest of the pickle into smaller, lidded jars which are now in the fridge to slow down the fermentation because I like the taste just as it is.
So now it’s just a question of what combinations of veg to try. I am going to get Sandor Katz’s book The Art of Fermentation because there is so much more to this that I want to understand and to try. I’ll let you know as I get more results!