Many everyday foods and drinks are in fact fermented, including chocolate, coffee, cheeses, breads, cured meats, soy sauce, and vinegars. The science of fermentation is understood as a chemical process by which food is exposed to bacteria and yeasts which preserve it. You don’t need to understand the science in order to make it work. Historically, fermentation was fundamental to extend the life of perishable foods, before the advent of refrigeration. Fermentation is a great way to preserve foods when we encounter gluts in the garden, or when your favourite vegetable is in season and the shops are full of it.
If you feel intrepid about fermentation, why not start with a simple refrigerator pickle? This is not a ferment as such, but will preserve almost any vegetable quickly and simply, introducing your palate to the tangy taste of fermented foods. Cucumber pickle is a sandwich favourite.
Here is a quick and easy recipe:
900g (2lb) unpeeled cucumber
3 small white or red onions
350g (12 oz) sugar
2 level tablespoons salt
230g (8 floz) cider vinegar
Choose firm fresh cucumbers without bruising. Slice as thinly as possible. A mandolin is very useful for this. Slice the onions thinly also. Combine the remaining ingredients and pour over the layers of the cucumber and onion slices. Store the pickle in the fridge in a tightly sealed container. After about 3 hours it will be ready to eat. Cucumber pickle tastes great in a sandwich with leftover meats.
Another great way to get longevity out of vegetables throughout the year is through the process of lactic acid fermentation. Sauerkraut is one delicious foodstuff that can be produced by this process. It has a unique sour taste that can be addictive! Sauerkraut can be eaten cold or hot. It goes particularly well with pork. Sauerkraut is a good bet for the simple reason that it can be a challenge to use up a whole head of cabbage in a single household. Thumbs up for bacon and cabbage, coleslaw, and a little shredded cabbage thrown in to a stir fry but sometimes those heads are so sizeable that they become tricky to use up. Additionally, sauerkraut is full of healthy bacteria that is good for your gut.
Here’s a how-to of sauerkraut. The recipe can easily be tweaked to incorporate other vegetables such as carrot, beetroots, and onions. See what’s in your fridge at home.
To make one batch of sauerkraut you will need:
1 cabbage (white or red are both suitable although white is more traditional)
1/100th the weight of the cabbage in salt (so if the cabbage weighs 1 kg, you will require 10g salt)
Flavourings such as cumin seeds/caraway seeds/dill/garlic/juniper berries to taste – or keep it simple
1 large bowl
1 large glass jar (try and find one that you can fit either your fist or a rolling pin in)
Something that will act as a weight and fit inside the glass jar (a clean filled wine bottle does the trick)
1 tea towel
- Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage if they are damaged in any way. Slice the cabbage into strips and remove the core.
- Weigh the cabbage strips in a bowl and sprinkle the salt on top (the amount of salt you use will be 1/100th of the weight of the cabbage).
- With clean hands, massage the cabbage and salt, breaking down the vegetable and drawing out the moisture from the cabbage. This may take a few minutes.
- You will notice that the cabbage will start to look like it has shrunk. Additional flavourings can be added at this point.
- Pack the cabbage into the clean glass jar. Press it down as much as you can. It is necessary to leave some space in the jar for the juices to expand. Keep adding the cabbage and applying pressure as you go, encouraging the liquid to submerge the cabbage. The liquid is essential as it prevents oxygen from getting at the cabbage, creating the perfect conditions for fermentation.
- Add all remaining juices from the bowl. Don’t be tempted to add any other liquid.
- Insert the wine bottle or weight and ensure that the cabbage is fully below the level of the liquid.
- Cover with a clean tea towel and keep at room temperature (nowhere too cool or too warm). A tea towel is preferable to a lid because it allows carbon dioxide to escape. You will need to keep an eye on your sauerkraut.
- Observe its changes initially on a daily basis. You will notice the formation of small bubbles in the jar. Push down the weight if necessary. Check to ensure that no cabbage is floating on the top or in contact with the air.
- The bubbling usually subsides after 1-2 weeks at which point the sauerkraut can be stored in the fridge in a smaller sealed container. Taste it and see if you think it requires further time to develop flavour. The sauerkraut should then keep for 6 months-1 year.