When starting out on the path of fermenting foods, an easy place to begin is with cultured vegetables, particularly sauerkraut. There is so much variety and you can start with something very simple and diversify from there, using: colours, textures, herbs, spices as well as incorporating new vegetables as they come into season.
Most people have heard of cultured vegetables even if they haven’t tried them or made them. There are sauerkrauts, kimchi’s and brined vegetables, let alone the Latino variation called Curtido. There are countless variations in recipes and you can have fun in the kitchen creating your own variations once you feel comfortable with the basics.
Let’s start with sauerkraut. It can be as simple as chop, mix, pack and plug - using mostly cabbage as the traditional base. It is that simple! But there are things that are worth knowing so it consistently works well from the first time. Firstly, sauerkraut is an example of a self-brining cultured vegetable. We add salt to draw the liquid from the cabbage to create a brine to ferment it in. However, it’s the beneficial bacteria that will do the work more so than the salt.
There is no one way to chop the cabbage. Its best to remove the coarser, outside leaves as well as the core but there is no right or wrong way to cut it from there. There are consequences though……. if you cut coarsely there is less surface area exposed so it may take longer to extract the brine and conversely if you chop finely, the juices may flow sooner. There is also the consideration of what size or shape you would like to eventually be eating your sauerkraut.
When I refer to mixing, this is adding in and mixing the salt, other vegetables, and fresh or dried herbs and spices. As for the amount of salt to add, the best advice I can offer is to salt to taste rather than follow a recipe - you know you will like it then! Salt can be either coarse or fine but the surface area difference means that weighing is a better gauge than a spoon measure. For students, I use a backup ratio of 1.5% brine, that is 15 grams of salt for each 1kg of vegetables but recommend they taste as they go to find out how salty they like their sauerkraut to be.
Other vegetables you can add and mix include onions, carrots, turnips, celery, radishes or even apples which can be grated, diced or sliced to your personal preference. Herbs then add another level or flavour, either fresh or dried and spices can round out the flavour another degree. It’s an adventure playground in a bowl ready to mix!
Mixing also refers to the combining of the vegetables to extract the brining juices. This can be done by adding the salt and letting it sit for a while or massaging the mix to bruise the cell walls so they’ll give up their juices, to even pounding the mixture to achieve the same result. The key is to be able to lift a handful, squeeze and see the drops fall from the mix. Then you know you’re ready to pack your sauerkraut into a vessel.
When you transfer your sauerkraut to your fermenting vessel it’s important to pack it in firmly so you push out all the air pockets around the vegetables. They can then ferment in an anaerobic environment (without air). As you push out the air, the brine should start to fill in the gaps and rise as you pack. Keep packing and pushing each handful or layer down. Make sure there is between 3-5cm space from the top of the vegetables to the rim of your vessel to ensure it does not overflow as it ferments.
Finally it’s time to ensure the surface of the sauerkraut is maintained under the brine during fermentation or to plug the surface. The surface is susceptible to mould as it is open to the air, so I use a weight to keep the vegetables under the brine. There are many different ways to do this but a simple one is to use a cabbage leaf and carrot, however in warmer weather this can mould quickly. Using a zip-lock bag filled with a similar brine solution, a sterilised (using boiling water) rock or a small glass disk or glass are other alternatives.
Depending on where you want to start you can use the recipes here. There is a sweeter one using both green and purple cabbage with apple that we shared at the MCA in January and a more complex one using a variety of vegetables, herbs and spices that we presented at the Vitality Show recently in Sydney. For Vitality we tried to get the intensity of the yellow spectrum of colours to engage the eye even before people tried it!
The key is to enjoy the challenge and creativity that using seasonal produce provides. Grow or buy in season. Ferment and enjoy all year. The next question is then what do you do when the cabbage season ends and sauerkraut is no longer viable? Next week I will explore brining other vegetables. But for now, and while cabbage is still available – have a go!