Do you love the taste of a dill pickle…the tang of sauerkraut…or the spicy burn of kimchi? If so, you might be intrigued to know that creating those incredible flavors at home is much easier than you would imagine. All of these tasty treats—and so many more—are fermented, or pickled, foods. Plenty of folks think fermentation is a complicated, mysterious science experiment that requires an advanced degree, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Making your own pickled vegetables is easy once you know the basics, and the incredible tastes that you’ll unlock will keep you pickling for years to come. Plus, it’s a great way to use up veggies that you might otherwise be tempted to throw away, which helps reduce waste and can be a good excuse to go a little crazy at the supermarket when your favorite veggies are on sale or in season.
Fermented foods can live up to a year in the refrigerator—you’ll never need to worry about being out of veggies at mealtime. They’re an instant salad, egg or burger topper…side dish…and great in tacos and almost anything else you’re having.
The Basics of Fermentation
Fermentation preserves produce without using heat, so all their lovely vitamins and minerals are retained. In fact, some nutrients become more readily available after fermentation. Example: Fermentation increases cabbage’s levels of vitamin C and adds vitamins B-12 and K-2. Fun fact: It’s believed that Captain Cook minimized scurvy aboard his ships via mandatory servings of sauerkraut.
Making pickles or any pickled vegetables (please note that we’re not talking about the common vinegar pickles, but naturally fermented pickles) relies on the lactic bacteria found on the skins of your vegetables. This bacteria will proliferate in the salty environment of the brine and reward you with a good amount of healthful probiotics.
Submerge in Brine, and All Will Be Fine
Dry brining is one of the easiest techniques for fermenting vegetables. It works best for vegetables that are thinly sliced or shredded. In this type of fermentation, you use salt to draw water out of the vegetable’s cells, which then creates the brine in which it will soak. Once in the salty brine, the “good” bacteria will start to multiply, and soon you’ll have delicious, tangy pickles.
Step 1: Salt the veggies. You can ferment pretty much any vegetable, but the specifics will change a bit whether you’re making a sauerkraut with cabbage or pickling whole carrots or daikon (a type of radish). The process starts by adding salt to cut vegetables in a bowl and massaging it in for a few minutes. As you do this, the vegetables begin releasing their juices. This liquid—the brine—provides the optimal anaerobic environment that encourages the good bacteria and discourages any “bad” ones from growing. That’s why I say, “Submerge in brine, and all will be fine.” Sometimes the vegetables will produce enough liquid to create enough brine, and sometimes you’ll have to create your own brine with water and salt, and add that to the vegetables.
Best salt: I recommend a mineral-rich salt free from additives such as Redmond Real Salt ($10.19 for 1.6 pounds, RealSalt.com) or Himalayan Crystal Salt ($29.50 for 2.2 pounds, HimalayanCrystalSalt.com). Do not use table salt with added iodine or, ironically, pickling salt—both contain additives and often produce ferments that have an overwhelming, rather than pleasant, salty taste.
Move the vegetables and brine to a clean, wide-mouthed glass jar. Next, you need to add a weight that keeps the veggies below the level of the brine. An easy way to do this is to use a small, clean, sealable bag filled with water. You also can use a plate that fits the mouth of your jar or even a thoroughly scrubbed, smooth stone.
Keep about an inch or so of space between the top of the vegetables/liquid and the lid of the jar. As the bacteria start to work, they’ll create carbon dioxide and the gas will use that space. Make sure to “burp” your glass every day or so. You just need to unscrew the lid until you hear the pssssft of the gas escaping, then retighten. (Don’t take off the lid, just loosen it.) You’ll know your ferment needs a burp when you see the lid bulging.
Step 2: Step back and trust your veggies. Your work is done. Next, simply move the jar to an area of your kitchen out of direct sunlight, which can cause temperature fluctuations. You’ll often hear recommendations to keep ferments in a cool, dark place, but standard room temperature helps the good bacteria to multiply at the right rate, so anything between 60°F and 75°F should be fine. The pickled veggies should be done in about five to seven days, but this will vary based on the temperature in your house. Aside from burping, let the jar be. Once the pickle is sour enough for you, you can remove the weight, put on a lid and store it all in the refrigerator, which will stop the fermentation process.
Step 3: Enjoy. When done, you’ll be richly rewarded with deep, complex flavors…punchy tang…healthy probiotics…and the satisfaction of carrying on a magical, ancient tradition.
A Word of Caution
Every now and then, things go wrong, so trust your nose if you’re not quite sure about a batch. Pungent and pickle-y, even a little funky scents and tastes are good. Anything that smells like rotting potatoes or compost is not. Also on the throwaway list—veggies that taste slimy or are overly soft.
Two Easy Recipes
These two recipes are ideal for beginners—they’re easy but yield delicious results.
Lemon Dill Kraut
3 pounds (1 head) green cabbage
3 cloves garlic, finely grated
1 lemon, juice and zest
1½ teaspoons dried dill weed
1 Tablespoon salt
Remove any coarse outer leaves of the cabbage. Rinse a few unblemished leaves, and set them aside. Rinse the rest of the cabbage in cold water. Quarter and core the cabbage. Thinly slice, then transfer the cabbage to a large bowl. Add the garlic, lemon juice and zest, and dill. Add the salt, then use your hands to massage the salt into the shreds, then taste. You should taste the salt without it being overwhelming. Add more salt if necessary. The cabbage should quickly start to look wet and limp, and liquid will begin to pool. If not, make sure that there’s enough salt, and let it stand, covered, for 45 minutes and then massage.
Transfer the mixture, bit by bit, to a two-quart glass container with a lid or a wide-mouthed jar. Press down on each portion. Make sure that the brine is covering all the cabbage. Even a small amount of brine is fine as long as it is at the top of the cabbage. If you think you need more liquid, check back in an hour. Often the salt will have pulled more liquid from the cabbage. If not, you can add more lemon juice. Allow two to three inches of headspace. Top the cabbage with one or two of the reserved outer leaves (they should be submerged as well), then top that with a water-filled, sealable plastic bag to keep everything below the level of the brine. Next, tighten the lid. Set aside for five to 10 days. Check daily to ensure that the vegetables are submerged. Using a utensil, you can taste-test the kraut on day five.
You’ll know it’s ready when it’s pleasingly sour, pickle-y tasting without the strong acidity of vinegar…the veggies have softened a bit but retain some crunch…the cabbage is more yellow than green and slightly translucent. When it’s finished, toss the top leaves.
Spicy Carrot and Lime Salad
1¾ pounds carrots (sliced very thin on a grater or mandolin)
3 to 4 Fresno or other hot red peppers, seeded (if you want less heat) and sliced thin, or 1 Tablespoon dried chile flakes
Zest and juice of 2 limes
1 (1-to-2-inch) piece fresh ginger, sliced thin
2 teaspoons salt
Combine all the ingredients except the salt in a bowl. Massage the salt into mixture. Pack the mixture into a jar using the method above. Set aside for seven to 10 days. You can taste-test on day seven. When ready, it will have a pleasing acidic smell and taste pickle-y. It also may have a bit of an effervescent zing. A slight cloudiness in the brine is normal.