Preserving vegetables by adding salt and setting them aside a few days to ferment, like with kraut and kimchi recipes, is part of our family tradition. Before fermentation food preservation became all the rage, it was called brine pickling.
When I was a kid my live-in grandmother made kraut in a five-gallon crock. My other grandmother kept a huge garden. When I struck out on my own, the natural thing to do was grow a big garden with lots of cabbages so I could make my own kraut.
From an acquaintance, I learned to make delicious deli-style dill pickles by salt fermenting cucumbers from my garden. Later I learned to ferment homegrown jalapeño peppers, successfully imitating the jalapeños served at my favorite restaurant before it closed down.
When the World’s Fair came to nearby Knoxville, Tennessee, the Korean display introduced me to hot and spicy kimchi recipes. In those days hardly anyone ever heard of kimchi, so from one of the attendants at the display I managed to wangle a recipe written in picturesque English, which required a great deal of interpretation and much tweaking to get the flavor right. Of course, I then had to add Napa cabbages to my garden. Although I’ve had many fermentation successes over the years, I’ve also had a few puzzling failures. I wondered: How could the same fermentation work so spectacularly year after year and then one time end up a dismal failure?
When Sandor Ellix Katz came out with his books Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation I thought I would finally find the answer. But I was sorely disappointed. Katz fully embraces experimentation and isn’t at all bothered if his ferments come out uniquely different every time. Despite the unpredictable results, he pronounces each effort as being equally delicious. Admittedly, all that experimenting offers a good learning experience, but it fails to provide any degree of consistency in reproducing the familiar fermented flavors our family enjoys.
So with some trepidation, I approached the more recent book Fermented Vegetables by wife and husband Kirsten K. Shockey and Christopher Shockey. According to the subtitle, this book offers “creative recipes for fermenting 64 vegetables and herbs in krauts, kimchis, brined pickles, chutneys, relishes & pastes.”
Unlike Katz, the Shockeys do not include instructions for pickling with vinegar or using starter cultures or whey. Their book includes no recipes for cheese, wine and beer, sourdough, or kombucha. What it does include is clear and specific directions on how to lacto-ferment a variety of vegetables by the oldest, most straightforward method: with salt (and sometimes water). That got my attention.
The first thing I did when I had the book in my hands was turn to the section on kimchi, hoping it would help me perfect my Korean recipe. The Shockey’s kimchi recipe calls for two large Napa cabbages, so right away I was sent scurrying online to find out how much a large Napa cabbage weighs—about three pounds. By comparison, last fall my late harvest Napas, after having the tough outer leaves trimmed off, came to a measly half pound each. That’s the nature of growing cabbages on your own; the results don’t always conform to what’s available at the corner market.
The author’s reasoning in listing ingredients by whole vegetables is: “What to do with the bit of cabbage left over? Worse is if there’s more waste in the outer leaves than anticipated and you don’t have enough to meet the weight requirement. Recipes based on quantities of whole vegetables minimize waste of both vegetables and energy. You’ll know how much to pick or buy, and you’ll use it all.”
But fermentation is inherently somewhat variable—thanks to such factors as natural diversity in the composition of the same vegetable from one season to the next—and weighing ingredients offers some degree of consistency in the final outcome. Plus weighing lets me more easily adjust a recipe’s proportions to the seasonal bounty my garden provides. When preparing a recipe, I generally start with the ingredient I have the least of, and adjust the remaining ingredients accordingly. Happily, many of the Shockey’s recipes list ingredients by both whole vegetables and weights. Several of their kraut recipes, for instance, call for “two heads, or about six pounds, of cabbage.” That’s more like it.
Back on the quest for perfect kimchi, my original kimchi recipe calls for Korean chile powder or gochugaru. Not having ready access, I at first tried red pepper flakes. The flavor wasn’t quite right, so next I tried cayenne. Hot, but still lacking the depth of flavor I remembered from the Korean display. Then I tried Mexican chile powder. The results were interesting, tasty on a taco, but nothing like the Korean kimchi recipe I craved. From Fermented Vegetables, I learned that gochugaru is “vibrant red and has a bit of sweetness, like Hungarian paprika. Unlike paprika, however, gochugaru is hot.”
Well, that sounds precisely like hot paprika, which I use in abundance to make Hungarian sauerkraut goulash that’s supposed to be so hot it brings tears to your eyes. I tried the hot paprika in my most recent batch of kimchi and—voila! Now we’re getting somewhere. Additionally, I have learned that real gochugaru is now readily available online, which wasn’t the case back when I started making kimchi.
In their book, the Shockeys recommend saving the fermented brine drained from kimchi and other vegetables. Previously the only brine I’d ever saved was from fermented jalapeños, which I sprinkle liberally over salads, chili beans, and loaded potatoes. I wasn’t sure what to do with the less spicy kinds of brine, but I went ahead and saved my kimchi recipe brine, which turned out to be a wise move, as I will explain shortly.
Having thoroughly explored the pages of kimchi recipes, I started reading Fermented Vegetables from the beginning. The first three chapters in Part One explain fermenting fundamentals, the ins and outs of different kinds of salt, and suitable utensils. Vegetable fermentation has gotten so popular that all sorts of specialized vessels are now available beyond Grandma’s stoneware crock.
The next five chapters of Part Two describe the basic steps for making krauts, condiments, pickles, and kimchi recipes, plus a chapter on troubleshooting. Although the descriptions document some of their own worst failures. Kale, for instance, is one vegetable I won’t be fermenting. “We like strong flavors, but this was not a flavor we could work with,” say the authors. “It was never palatable.” Spaghetti squash is another vegetable to cross off the fermentation list.
As I worked my way through the 140 fermentation recipes, noting those I am eager to try, I came to one for onion relish. Now I’m not a big fan of raw onions, but I happen to have a load of pungent red zepellin onions in the pantry that were threatening to sprout. Since I had way too many onions to use up before they would start rotting, I fermented a bunch. Let me warn you right here—for days the whole house reeked of onion!
Finally the ferment settled down and I got brave enough to take a taste. The onions are still a little pungent, but they have mellowed considerably and developed a surprising, and pleasant, crunchiness. Next summer I plan to ferment some of my sweet Spanish onions and I expect them to make an awesomely delicious relish. Meanwhile, I’m saving the red zepellin ferment to cook in recipes this winter after my fresh onions play out. Or maybe I’ll dehydrate them, as suggested by the Shockeys, to grind into a powder to use like onion soup seasoning.
Oh, and that kimchi recipe brine I had saved in the fridge? As it turns out, onions are among the few vegetables lacking intrinsic lactic-acid bacteria. To ferment onions, you either have to combine them with some other vegetable or, as I did, inoculate them by adding a little brine left over from some other ferment such as kimchi recipes. It worked like a charm! If you don’t need leftover brine for pickling onions, you can always use it to make brine crackers and crisps or pickled almonds. Recipes are included in the book.
Continuing to navigate through the highly readable recipe section, I came to one for sliced radish ferment. I just so happened to have a bumper crop of Misato rose radishes in my garden, facing the season’s first hard freeze, so I harvested enough to ferment a jarful. It came out a beautiful pale pink and tastes more like Grandma’s sauerkraut than like radishes. It makes an attractive relish on the buffet table, not to mention a compact way to store all those sizable radishes for the winter.
The final six chapters of this book, Part Four, suggest 84 ways to use ferments for breakfast, snacks, lunch, happy hour, dinner, and… are you ready for this?… desserts. An appendix demystifies scum—which may or may not appear on a ferment—explaining what causes it and how to identify the uncommon character that occasionally ruins a ferment.
I can see how my whole kitchen counter could easily become covered with crocks and jars full of bubbling vegetables in season. I have marked a couple dozen recipes I can’t wait to try, confident that every one of them has been tested, retested, tasted and approved not only by the authors and their family, but by their farmer’s market customers and students at their fermentation workshops.
Although I’ve been fermenting one thing or another for most of my life, this book encourages me to be much more adventuresome. As the authors say, “Fermenting vegetables is simple, once you know the tricks.” With the tricks I learned in Fermented Vegetables I expect to enjoy more future successes and fewer failures, while exploring the unique flavors offered by delicious, not to mention highly nutritious, vegetable ferments.
Sliced Radish Ferment
Yield: about 2 quarts
(Fermentation vessel: 2 quarts or larger)
Growing radishes? This recipe will work with any radish you choose. The result is especially dramatic with red or Watermelon radishes. Daikon radishes also render a lovely ferment, in both taste and texture.
3 pounds radishes, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon unrefined sea salt
1. Combine the radishes and half the salt in a large bowl and massage the mixture well with your hands, then taste. You should be able to taste the salt without it being overwhelming. Add more salt if necessary. The radishes will soon look wet and limp, and liquid will begin to pool.
2. Transfer the radishes, a few handfuls at a time, to a 2-quart jar or a crock, pressing down with your fist or a tamper as you work. You should see some brine on top as you press. When you pack the vessel, leave 4 inches of headspace for a crock, or 2 to 3 inches for a jar. Top with a primary follower. Then, for a crock, top the follower with a plate that fits the opening of the container and covers as much of the vegetables as possible; then weight down with a sealed water-filled jar. For a jar, use a sealed water-filled jar or ziplock bag as a follower-weight combination.
3. Set aside on a baking sheet to ferment, somewhere nearby, out of direct sunlight, and cool, for 5 to 14 days. Check daily to make sure the radishes are submerged, pressing down as needed to bring the brine back to the surface. You may see scum on top; it’s generally harmless, but consult the appendix if you’re at all concerned.
4. You can start to test for flavor on day 5. You’ll know it’s ready when the radishes have a nice crispy crunch with pleasingly sour notes.
5. Store in jars, with lids tightened, in the fridge, leaving as little headroom as possible, and tamp down under the brine. This ferment will keep, refrigerated, for 6 months.
Excerpted from Fermented Vegetables © Kirsten K. and Christopher Shockey. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.
Simple Onion Relish
(Fermentation vessel: 2 quarts or larger) Yield: about 2 quarts
5 large onions
1–1½ tablespoons unrefined sea salt
1 tablespoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon sauerkraut brine (from your stash in the fridge)
1. With a stainless steel knife, trim the onions by making shallow, one-shaped cuts on both ends. Peel away the papery outer layers of skin and any damaged or discolored layers. With the same knife or a mandoline, thinly slice the onions crosswise to make rings. Transfer to a large bowl and sprinkle in 1 tablespoon of the salt, working it in with your hands. Taste and sprinkle in more salt as needed to achieve a salty flavor that is not overwhelming. Add the mustard seed, cumin, and sauerkraut brine.
2. At this point there is brine building at the bottom. Press your onions into a jar or crock. More brine will release at this stage, and you should see brine above the onions. Top the ferment with a quart sized ziplock bag. Press the plastic down onto the top of the ferment and then fill it with water and seal; this will act as both follower and weight.
3. Set aside on a baking sheet to ferment, somewhere nearby, out of direct sunlight, and cool, for 7 to 14 days. Check daily to make sure the onions are submerged, pressing down as needed to bring the brine to the surface. You may see scum on top; it’s generally harmless, but if you see mold, scoop it out.
4. You can start to test the ferment on day 7. It’s ready when the onions are translucent, have lost their sharp bite, and are pickle-y tasting without the strong acidity of vinegar.
5. Store in jars, leaving as little headroom as possible, and tamping the onions down under the brine. Tighten the lids, then store in the fridge. This ferment will keep, refrigerated, for 18 months.
Excerpted from Fermented Vegetables © Kirsten K. and Christopher Shockey. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.
Gail Damerow grows vegetables on a farm in Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland. She is the author of several books including The Chicken Encyclopedia and The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals, available from our bookstore, where you will also find Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten K. Shockey and Christopher Shockey. Call 1-800-551-5691 or Countryside Daily to order.
Originally published in Countryside March/April 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.