Waxing evangelical about fermenting

I’ve been waxing evangelical about fermenting vegetables lately. To be honest I’m feeling a bit slow for taking this long to discover it. I first read about it in Alys Fowler’s great book Abundance a good couple of years ago. I think it’s just the word ‘fermenting’, one step removed from ‘rotting’, that was offputting to my supermarket-reared self. It’s a word that needs to be reclaimed in its fully positive sense.

Fermenting is indeed harnessing the forces of decay in order to instead preserve food – grape juice into wine, to quote a thoroughly socially acceptable fermentation. Or milk into cheese or yoghurt. A soft cheese, particularly the stinky kind, and yoghurt are teeming with bacteria and or moulds, and we’re fine with that. Less so vegetables fermented in their own juices. Interestingly, while every human society on the planet uses fermentation, it is highly culture-specific, and we find other cultures’ fermentations disgusting (rotted shark anyone?), and our own delicious (mm, blue vinney!).

In the UK we don’t have a tradition of fermenting our veg, like sauerkraut. We pickle in vinegar instead. Fermentation is similar, except that it is the action of Lactobacillus bacteria on the juice from the veggies (or a brine) that makes the acid environment that protects the food against bad bacteria. Fermented veg taste quite like vinegar-pickled veg too – crunchy and acidic, with the original taste of the veg intact – but lighter and saltier. I’m not a big fan of vinegar pickles, but I very much like lacto pickles. You can cook with them or eat them raw. So far I’ve taken a forkfull out to go on the side of my meals. They’re good on salads, but also great with curries.

DSC_0381[1]New radish ferment and month-old and mostly scoffed carrot, celery and onion ferment.

It’s as easy as can be to make them. As an example, take 100g each of onion, carrot and celery. Shred them finely or grate them (I use the grater attachment on the food processor). Turn them into a big bowl. Sprinkle over 2% by weight salt, that is 6g, or a teaspoon. Massage it in, and keep massaging for a few minutes until the salt draws the juice out – when you pick up a handful and squeeze it and juice runs out, that’s enough. Pack it into the fermenting jar and ram it down until the veg is submerged under the liquid. If you can’t submerge it, add some salty water, using cooled boiled water from the kettle (chlorine in tapwater can inhibit the bacteria). The two things that are critical to success and not mould are the salt and keeping the veg submerged so that they don’t contact oxygen. Then leave it to stand at room temperature for a month or so.

If you put a regular lid on the jar you need to release the pressure every day, as the carbon dioxide that bubbles out can build up quite a pressure. You can just cover it with a cloth, but then it’s extra important to keep the veg submerged at all times because oxygen and mould spores can get in. I bought special fermenting tops for the jars for a few pounds online, which release the pressure, and after a couple of days the air space at the top will be all carbon dioxide, just like when you make wine.

You can start tasting it after a week, and the pickle will gradually get more acidic. As it does so, the balance of bacteria changes to more acid-loving species, particularly Lactibacillus plantarum which, if you buy probiotic supplements from the health food shop, is what you are buying, only they are way cheaper this way! After a month, or when the pickle has reached an acidity you like, transfer it to the fridge, which stops the fermentation, and it will keep for ages.

Classical veg to use are cabbage, radish, onion and carrot. All root veg work well and the possibilities for experimentation with different veg and spices are endless. Korean kimchi is much the same process, but with lots of spices. It’s a way of transforming some of our most humble veg into something really tasty, and if you have a bumper crop of something, it’s a great, quick and easy way to preserve it, that doesn’t use energy to cook or freeze. Also, the health benefits of live-culture food are too many to list.

DSC_0380[1]Mooli make great ferments.

That’s pretty much all there is to fermenting veg – it’s pretty much idiot proof. There has been no recorded case of anyone, anywhere, poisoning themselves through this process. I’m probably the last person in England to discover this, but if you’ve not yet tried fermenting your own, give it a bash.


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I grow veg on my one-acre garden in Blackmore Vale, Dorset, and I cook, preserve and write about it. I am developing a perennial veg 'edimental' garden, and a forest garden, as well as a conventional veg patch. Earlier blogs can be found at wendypillar.co.uk

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