Preserving Recipe
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Edible Piedmont

sliced cabbage for brining

Fermentation: The Simple Craft of Brining Summer Vegetables

By Andrea Weigl | Photography by Chris Wilson and Fred Thompson

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'Fermentation, the Simple Craft of Brining Vegetables' made me want to try pickling and brining, something I've long been resistant to. The writer took a complex subject and made it intelligible, easy to understand, and doable. That's the criteria for any recipe.
  • Weighing down the top jar keeps the contents below the liquid.
  • Red and Green Sauerkraut.
  • Taqueria-Style Picked Carrots, a la Escabeche

Fermentation scares people.

It is a smelly business. It seems mysterious. It’s difficult to tell exactly what is going on in that crock or jar. There is that moment of hesitation before putting the food in our mouths: Do you trust the person who made this? Do you trust yourself?

So even though fermentation is responsible for many foods that we love — sourdough bread, pickles, vinegar, beer, and wine — people can be afraid to make those on their own.

The whole reason why? It is the bogeyman that is bacteria.

“In the popular imagination, bacteria became associated with danger, disease and death,” says Sandor Katz, one of the country’s leading experts whose books have launched a fermentation revival. “We developed this generalized fear of bacteria.”

Katz, author of the James Beard-award winning book, The Art of Fermentation, has spent years evangelizing about how safe fermentation actually is, especially fermenting vegetables. Submerging vegetables in a brine creates an environment where “molds and other oxygen-dependent organisms cannot grow,” and encourages the acidifying bacteria that make fermented vegetables safe to eat. In other words, there are good bacteria and bad bacteria; fermenting vegetables in a brine is only hospitable to the good bacteria.

In fact, in The Art of Fermentation, Katz quotes N.C. State University professor Fred Briedt, one of the country’s leading microbiologists on vegetable fermentation. Briedt says: “As far as I know, there has never been a documented case of food-borne illness from fermented vegetables. Risky is not a word I would use to describe vegetable fermentation. It is one of the oldest and safest technologies we have.”

How to ferment vegetables is simpler than you think. It is as easy as thinly slicing or chopping vegetables, adding salt or brining liquid and letting it sit out on the kitchen counter for a few days to kick start fermentation. Then place the jar in the refrigerator.

There are many reasons for exploring fermentation. Bread bakers become intrigued by the wild yeasts that make sourdough possible. Beer drinkers want to try their hand at brewing porters and stouts. April McGreger of Hillsborough-based Farmers’ Daughter brand pickles and preserves wanted to make her own kimchi. Audry Lin and Debbie Donnald of Two Chicks Farm, also in Hillsborough, saw a chance to turn crops into value-added products and sent Lin to attend one of Katz’s workshops. They now sell their dill pickles, pickled turnips, and sauerkraut at local farmer’s markets.

Daniel Johnson of High Point started experimenting with fermentation by making his own beer in college. Later, he made his own yogurt because he wanted full-fat yogurt to use for cooking Indian dishes. Johnson didn’t jump full-fledged into fermenting until he and his wife decided to follow the Weston Price Foundation’s dietary guidelines. The guidelines call for eating “enzyme-enhanced, lacto-fermented vegetables, fruits, beverages and condiments on a regular basis.” Then Johnson graduated to making his own sauerkraut, fermented salsas, enchilada sauces, dilly beans, and more. He has become another fermentation evangelist.

“Fermenting things is one of the most ridiculously easy things you can do,” says Johnson, who encourages folks to start with sauerkraut and shared his recipe.

Durham mom Chris Wilson saw her seven-year- old son struggling with allergies and eczema. After doing some research, she decided one way to help him might be by strengthening the bacteria in his gut so she made sure he ate yogurt, fermented pickles and sauerkraut.

For Wilson, fermenting foods is part of the care she brings to feeding her family.

“I really love being in my kitchen. I love to nurture my family like that,” Wilson says. “[Fermentation] is a process. You can’t whip it up and throw it in the microwave. You have to tend it.”

Choosing Vegetables to Ferment

Opt for organic when possible and look for what is fresh and in season, at the height of nutrition and flavor.

Cabbage: The obvious choice for classic sauerkraut and kimchi.

Cucumbers: Combine with other veggies if desired. Use unwaxed cucumbers. You can tell if it is waxed by running your fingernail along it. The wax comes off.

Green Beans: A great use for green beans if you don’t want to can them.

Peppers: Always a fun way to add heat when you are fermenting other vegetables.

Wash the vegetables and cut into shreds or small pieces. This is important for fermenting. The pieces need to be cut. Then bruise the vegetables using a meat tenderizer or kraut pounder and squeeze pieces to release the juices.

Adding Salt

Add unrefined salt or pickling salt.

The salt is important. It encourages the good bacteria and inhibits the bad bacteria. Salt helps keep the vegetables crisp. It slows fermentation.

A standard amount is 3 tablespoons of salt for 5 pounds of vegetables.

For people concerned about the salt, you can use a starter culture and reduce the salt.

Starter cultures include whey, kefir grains, and dried starter culture. You can find some supplies and starters at culturesforhealth.com.

Jars

Use ceramic crocks or glass jars with lids. Harsch crocks are elegant and create an oxygen-free environment, but are more expensive.

Place the vegetables in the jar leaving space at the top. Press to be sure the juices cover the vegetables. If they don’t, add water.

Wide-mouth crocks and jars are best. Use glass, not plastic or metal. It’s a good idea to sterilize the equipment you are using.

You will need a weight and cover. You can buy pretty crocks with weights at places such as Williams-Sonoma. Or, you can use a larger jar and a smaller jar that fits inside it that you fill with water to use as a weight. Cover the top with cheesecloth to keep out insects.

Ferment

Place your filled jar in a clean, cool area. Room temperature is fine, but in the summer make sure it is a cool spot. The best temperature is 65 to 80 degrees.

Taste the fermented vegetables every day. Move it to the refrigerator when it is to your liking. It will keep for about two months.

Don't be afraid

If you see a white film: That is kahm yeast. It won’t hurt you, but doesn’t taste good so skim it off if you see it.

Mold: The colorful, fuzzy stuff can be avoided by keeping the temperature cool, keeping the vegetables covered with liquid. (The reason the weight is important.) And make sure you have enough salt.

Some books for further reading

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Wild Culture Food, by Sandor Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003)

The Art of Fermentation, by Sandor Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012)

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and The Diet Dictocrats, by Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig (New Trends Publishing, 2003)

Some websites to check out

Weston Price Foundation, www.westonaprice.org/food-features/lacto-fermentation

Wild Fermentation, www.wildfermentation.com

Where to buy containers for fermentation

You can use glass canning jars or really any clean, glass container. Or you can upgrade by buying Fido brand jars, which have a clamp lid and a rubber gasket. Check out the products on these websites: www.pickl-it.com, www.culturesforhealth.com


Basic Dry-Salt and Brine Recipes

For dry salting, sprinkle salt over chopped or shredded vegetables. The salt pulls water out of the vegetables, creating its own brine. This process can be helped along by pounding or bruising the vegetables. Katz recommends 1½ to 2 teaspoons of sea salt per pound of vegetables.

To create a brine, use 1 teaspoon sea salt per 1 cup filtered water. More detailed guidelines based on what you are fermenting can be found at: www.pickl-it.com/blog/636/brine-recommendations


RED AND GREEN SAUERKRAUT

Ingredients

  • 1 head green cabbage
  • 1 head red cabbage
  • 3–4 tablespoons coarse sea salt

Instructions

  1. Remove whole outer leaves of the cabbage. Set aside.
  2. Finely chop or shred remaining cabbage. Place 1-inch layers of chopped cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle with a little coarse sea salt. Continue adding layers of shredded cabbage and salt until all the chopped cabbage is in the bowl and salted. Pound or knead the cabbage for 20 to 30 minutes, working the coarse salt into the cabbage, until cabbage-juice brine begins to form in the bottom of the bowl and the cabbage is no longer crisp. (Johnson likes to sit on the floor and use a kraut pounder [http://krautpounder.com/] while watching a bit of television.)
  3. Pack into crock or large glass jar. If you are using a crock, place a plate with something heavy (like a gallon jug of water) on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged. If you are fermenting in a glass jar, place folded outer cabbage leaves on top of the chopped cabbage and weigh them down with glass weights, so that all the cabbage is submerged in the brine, making sure that at least 1½ inches of headspace are left. Add a loosely-fitting lid (or a tighter lid with a homebrewer’s airlock), and place the jar or crock in a moderately cool place for 7 to 10 days. If you are using a transparent jar, you will want to wrap it in a towel to keep out some of the light. Transfer to clean glass jars and let age another 4 weeks to 3 months under refrigeration or in a cool place such as a cellar.

Adapted from Pink Sauerkraut Recipe from Daniel Johnson of High Point, N.C.


TAQUERIA-STYLE PICKLED CARROTS, A LA ESCABECHE

Chris Wilson of Durham, N.C. suggests using a mandolin to create very thin slices, almost shaved, of carrot. Aim for between ¼-inch and 1/8-inch thick slices.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup red onion, thinly sliced
  • 3 green onions, green and white parts, thinly sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • ½ jalapeno, seeds removed, thinly sliced
  • Sprinkle of whole cumin
  • ¼ cup fresh cilantro, leaves pulled apart
  • Juice from 1 lime
  • Brine: 3 teaspoons sea salt, 2 cups filtered water

Instructions

  1. Combine carrots, onions, green onions and jalapeno in a large bowl. Sprinkle with cumin, cilantro and lime juice. Toss to combine and fully coat. Pack into a quart jar.
  2. Make enough brine to cover the vegetables with this ratio: 1 teaspoon sea salt to 1 cup filtered water. Stir to dissolve salt. Pour brine over the vegetables to cover. Seal. (Wilson nestles a pint jar inside the quart jar. It pushes the vegetables under the brine and effectively seals the jar.) Let sit out on the counter for about a week in the summer or two weeks in the winter. Once the carrots taste to your liking, transfer to refrigerator.

Andrea Weigl is the food writer at The News & Observer in Raleigh. Her first cookbook, Pickles & Preserves, came out this spring. Although her book focuses mainly on boiling water-bath canning, she is inspired to move beyond by making her own sauerkraut.


This story was originally published in the High Summer 2014 issue of Edible Piedmont.

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