Long Term Storage Solutions: Fermentation
Fall is here, and with it comes those fall veggies you know and love--cabbage, carrots, beets, potatoes, onions, rutabagas, winter squash. As the veggies pile up, you might be wondering what to do with all of it. The nice thing about fall produce is that a lot of it is meant for storage, and therefore forgiving if you forget it in the back of your fridge for weeks at a time. Most of it will last deep into winter. But, if you’re looking for some fun fall projects with delicious results, maybe it’s time to dip your toes into the world of fermentation.
I was terrified of fermenting a few years ago because it seemed difficult, and kind of gross, and what if I accidentally grew a toxic bacteria colony inside my sauerkraut jar? Turns out, it’s not too difficult at all. Ever since, sauerkraut and kimchi, kombucha, and pickles have been part of my yearly routine, especially around this time of year. It’s an easy way to get rid of a lot of veggies that might be crowding your fridge or your counter tops, and once you get the hang of it you can experiment endlessly with different flavors, ingredients, and fermentation times. Here are a few of my favorite veggie-centric ferments to try out this fall.
Your good old fashioned kraut. Play around with flavorings and spices--I like to add apples, onions, caraway, and mustard seeds.
1 large mason jar (half gallon is best, but you can make it work with a quart), or a fermentation crock
Small glass jar weighted with clean rocks, or fermentation weight
1 large head of cabbage, or 2 small heads (about 5 pounds total)
3 tablespoons salt*
Caraway seeds, garlic, ginger, mustard seed, other flavorings (if using)
*A quick note on salt--the salt to veggie ratio is important. If you’re doing a smaller batch of kraut or other pickled veggies, a good rule of thumb is about 2 teaspoons (or 10g, if you’ve got a kitchen scale) of salt per pound of vegetables. There are differing opinions on the perfect salt ratio, but just know that the less salt you use, the faster the ferment (which means you have to keep an eye on it more) and the less sour your final product will be. Your krauts and kimchis will probably taste very overly salted for the first few days of the ferment, but will mellow out significantly the farther along they go.
Discard outer leaves and the core of the cabbage, then thinly slice. You can use a food processor to speed up this process.
In a large bowl, sprinkle salt over the cabbage and knead into the cabbage with your hands for about ten minutes. Eventually, the cabbage will start to release juice. Your end goal is to have enough juice--or brine--to completely cover the cabbage in the crock or jar you’re using. Now is the time to add caraway seeds and other spices. You can also add carrots, apples, onions, or other vegetables you might be experimenting with during this step--just be careful to adjust your salt ratio if you’re adding extra ingredients!
Stuff the cabbage tightly into your fermentation vessel and pour in all the brine. If the brine doesn’t quite cover the vegetables, you can add a little water. The cabbage needs to be covered entirely in liquid. Be sure you have at least an inch or so of space at the top of the jar.
Remember those outer leaves of the cabbage from earlier? Take one of the cleanest and tear it down to fit in the jar. Place the leaf on top of the shredded cabbage and push to submerge it under the brine. This will help prevent cabbage bits from floating to the top. Place your fermentation weight on top of the cabbage, or use a smaller jar weighed down with clean rocks. Seal the jar loosely with a lid. If you have a bubble airlock and a fermentation-specific lid, use that, but the normal jar lid is just fine.
Ferment for 1-4 weeks at room temperature, depending on your taste. If you are using a normal lid, it’s very important to burp the jar every day to release gasses that are building up and prevent any minor jar explosions. Just loosen the top once a day and let out some air. It’s normal to see bubbles and foam on the surface of the liquid, but if you see mold, open the jar up and scrape it off. All the cabbage submerged in the brine should still be fine.
I usually like my sauerkraut at about two to three weeks old, but some people like it a lot fresher and crunchier, and some people like it older and more acidic. A good rule of thumb is to open it up and taste it in a week to ten days, and then decide if you want to continue fermenting. Once you’ve decided your sauerkraut is to your taste, store it in the fridge for up to six months. It will continue fermenting, but very slowly.
Kimchi is the Korean name for fermented or pickled vegetables or fruit. You’ve probably had baechu, or cabbage kimchi, before. It’s made in a very similar manner to sauerkraut.
Half gallon mason jar or fermentation crock
Fermentation weight or smaller jar weighed down with rocks
1-2 heads (around 3 pounds) of Napa cabbage (you can do this with regular cabbage, but Napa or Chinese cabbage is traditional)
2-4 tablespoons chili paste, chili powder, or fresh chilis (Korean style, like gochugaru, is best)
1 bunch scallions, or a small onion, leek, or shallots
6 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons grated ginger
Carrots, radish, turnip, any other vegetable you might want to add
About 6 tablespoons salt (weigh your ingredients and stick to the ratio!)
Fish sauce (if desired)
½ cup water
1 ½ tablespoon sugar
1 ½ tablespoon rice flour
PREP: Unlike sauerkraut, it’s okay to leave the cabbage more coarsely chopped in kimchi. Many people quarter the cabbage and leave it at that, other coarsely chop into chunks. Chop or shred any other vegetables you want to add at this stage, but leave out the spices (chilis, onions, garlic, and ginger).
Sprinkle vegetables with salt and massage until they start producing liquid. If you’re using Napa cabbage, this will take less time than it does with green cabbage. Let sit for up to two hours, massaging every thirty minutes.
While your vegetables are sitting, make a paste of the spices. This is easiest with a food processor, but you can do it without, it just might be a little chunkier. Boil the ½ cup water and mix in chili powder or chili paste, sugar, and rice flour. Mix until it comes together as a slurry, thicker than water but still thin enough to pour. Grate ginger and garlic, chop the onions or scallions, and chop or crush any fresh chilis and mix together in the food processor until a paste is formed. If you want, you can add some fish sauce here for some extra funk.
Mix the vegetables with the paste. Mix well--squish everything around together until the vegetables are coated with the paste.
Pack the vegetables into a crock or jar. As with sauerkraut, pack tightly and add in all the juices until the vegetables are fully covered. Weigh down with cabbage leaf, fermentation weight, or smaller jar. Screw the lid onto the jar.
If you’re using a normal jar lid, remember to burp it every day! Check the flavor in a few days. Kimchi is stronger in flavor than sauerkraut and also tends to ferment faster, thanks to the ingredients in the chili paste, so don’t wait as long to check as you would a kraut! Once it’s fermented to your taste, store in the fridge.
Kvass is a lightly fermented drink of salted vegetables infused in water. It’s a new ferment for me, discovered while flipping through the book Wild Fermentation (a great guide to fermentation for the beginner!). After my coworker Michelle made it a few times this summer I gave it a try myself. This recipe is adapted from the beet kvass recipe in Wild Fermentation.
1 quart mason jar
1 large beet or a few smaller beets
Spices--horseradish, ginger, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, whatever you want!
1 tablespoon sauerkraut juice (not necessary, but it kick-starts the ferment)
Chop the beet into small pieces, enough to fill about a third of the jar. Add any spices as desired, and cover with water to mostly fill the jar. Add two teaspoons of salt (or more, if you want it saltier). Add sauerkraut juice if using. Cover with lid.
Ferment for a few days and taste daily. While the fermentation is not as active as kimchi or kraut, I still like to burp the jar just to be safe, and I taste the mixture daily to test if it’s ready. When it starts developing a deep, dark color and a stronger taste, strain out the beets and spices. Traditionally, the liquid is enjoyed as-is, but I prefer it as a base for soups like borscht, or for sauces or beet hummus. You can also carbonate it by doing a second ferment in a smaller bottle and leaving it on the counter for a few days.
Don’t throw away those beets, either! Any vegetables you used to make a kvass are now lightly pickled and delicious. Throw them in salads or eat them raw as snacks!
Most of us pickle with vinegar these days, but the traditional method of pickling is a ferment. These aren’t meant to be canning pickles, but rather fridge pickles that you eat within a month or two of making. This recipe is also adapted from Wild Fermentation.
1 quart mason jar or fermentation crock
1 pound cucumbers--small pickling cukes left whole, or larger cukes sliced lengthwise
1-2 heads of flowering dill or 2 tablespoons dried dill (seed and leaf mixed is best)
2 heads garlic
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
2-4 tablespoons pickling spice (if desired--works just fine without!)
1 ½ tablespoons salt
2 cups water
Rinse cucumbers and chop if needed. Smash the cloves of garlic slightly with the flat of a knife. Add the salt to 2 cups water and mix until salt is dissolved to form a brine.
Put spices, garlic, and dill in the bottom of the jar and pack the cucumbers in tightly to avoid pieces floating to the top. Add the brine. If you don’t have enough, make a little more at a ratio of ¾ tablespoon salt to 1 cup water. If you like saltier pickles, you can adjust the ratio--there are helpful charts all over the internet. If cucumbers are floating to the top, cut a chunk of a larger cucumber to hold them down (like using the cabbage leaf to hold down sauerkraut) or use a light fermentation weight. Loosely seal the jar.
You can ferment on the counter or in the fridge. A room temperature ferment will be faster, and the cucumbers will lose more of their color while a fridge ferment will be slower. Check regularly either way--I usually start tasting around day ten continue eating as the flavors develop. If you’re doing a room temperature ferment, keep an eye on the texture of the pickles. If they start getting mushy, move them to the fridge.
Fermentation has endless possibilities and endless variations, even off these basic recipes. Play around! It’s a good winter project. Great fermentation resources include Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation; David Zilber and Rene Redzepi’s The Noma Guide to Fermentation, and Bon Appetit’s video series It’s Alive!, available on YouTube.