A few years ago, my wife bought me a copy of The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. She knew that I loved to experiment with foods and unusual recipes and figured I’d enjoy digging into this book, especially since there was a long tradition in my family of making homemade sauerkraut.
She was absolutely right.
Making fermented foods and beverages has developed into a low-cost hobby of mine over the last few years. I’ve tried and failed and succeeded at making all kinds of strange fermented foods: some that were delicious, some that were not so delicious, and some that were decidedly strange.
After many, many experiments over the last several years, I’ve come to realize that there are really four things that come out on top in terms of things I’d recommend to others. These four items are often being made in our home. They perfectly balance flavorful and useful with being relatively easy to make. (I really enjoy a few other things, but they’re a lot of work – keeping a sourdough starter alive comes to mind here.)
Here are the four fermented food items that I think offer the most “bang for the buck” in terms of making them yourself. They’re easy to make, don’t require much equipment, and use pretty inexpensive ingredients. If you make these even twice, you’ve paid for any equipment compared to buying these foods in the store; if you make them several times, you’re saving a ton of money versus buying them in the store.
Sauerkraut is simply finely chopped fermented cabbage. You simply take a head of cabbage, chop it up into small bits, add some salt to it, mash it around until a lot of the liquid comes out of the cabbage, and then store that juicy salty cabbage in a jar for a few weeks. That’s literally all you do. Sauerkraut is something of a family tradition for me, as my father used to make large batches of it every year in a giant crock in the garage when I was growing up.
My preferred easy way of doing this is to use a large wide-mouth quart Mason jar and put a simple air lock fermentation lid on top. Those are the only two things you need that you might not already have in your kitchen (besides the cabbage and salt). You might also want some glass fermentation weights, but they’re not essential, merely very useful.
The process is about as simple as can be. Go to the store and buy a head of cabbage – weigh it while you’re there and note the weight in pounds. When you get home, take the cabbage head and remove a few of the big outer leaves from the head and set them aside for the moment. Take the rest of the cabbage and chop it up into fine pieces – I usually aim for pieces that are roughly the size of a small matchstick and I discard a small portion of the stem.
To that chopped cabbage, add one tablespoon of salt for every two pounds you weighed in the store. Mix the salt in and let it sit for about 15 minutes, then start squeezing it with your hands or with a blunt instrument. Your goal is to try to get as much water out of the cabbage as you can, and the salt will naturally help with this; you don’t want to discard the liquid, but make a salty “soup” out of the cabbage. Do this for about 10 minutes or so. You’ll be left with a lot of salty liquid and a bunch of squeezed cabbage. Fill a jar about 3/4 full with the wet cabbage, then pour on enough of the liquid so that the cabbage is fully submerged. Take one of the leaves, cut a circle out of it that’s a little wider than the size of the jar, then stuff that cabbage circle down on top, pushing it down below the liquid level. If you have a fermentation weight, put that on top of the cabbage leaf to keep it weighted down so that it’s less likely that the sauerkraut will push up above the liquid level.
Then, pop on the fermenting lid and let it sit for three weeks or so. You might see a bit of white mold on the very surface of it if any of the cabbage is exposed, and that’s okay – you can just toss that part – but if you see any other colors, your liquid wasn’t salty enough.
After three weeks, it’s ready to eat! You can serve it as a condiment or as a side dish with many different meals. You can also experiment with future batches by adding other ingredients to the mix, such as shredded radish, caraway seeds, shredded beets, jalapeño peppers, or minced garlic.
Here’s a great recipe for homemade sauerkraut with more details.
Kombucha is fermented sweet tea. The fermentation process gives the tea a bit of a distinct flavor – it’s still sweet, but it has a hint of pleasant sour to it as well. I personally like to mix it with a small bit of fruit juice.
Again, making kombucha is pretty easy. The only permanent equipment you need is a gallon glass jar, a clean cloth to cover the opening, and a rubber band to secure the cloth in place. If you want to individually bottle it and try to make it fizzy, you’ll need a few resealable bottles – I use these for all kinds of homemade beverages, including kombucha.
You’ll need to buy a bottle of kombucha at the store – this is the “starter” you can use to get your own batch going. I highly recommend the popular GT’s Kombucha brand for this because I’ve personally verified that you can get kombucha started from it. Don’t worry about which flavor to buy.
This part is going to sound crazy, but what you’ll want to do is simply open up the bottle of kombucha, cover the opening with the cloth, use a rubber band to secure it, and just leave it out in the open at room temperature. I’m not kidding in the least. You’ll want to leave it for about a week or two.
What will happen is that a small layer will form at the top of the liquid. It might look more like a small ball, or it might be a layer along the top – both are fine, and the one that forms depends entirely on the type of kombucha you have and the ambient air in your home. That layer or ball is called a scoby, and it’s a key ingredient in making kombucha. This can take a couple of weeks, so don’t sweat it if you don’t see any changes after several days.
Note that, as with any fermentation, if you see anything that looks hairy or black, there’s a problem and you should toss the mixture, but this is a rare occurrence and generally only happens when you’ve messed up a step.
Once that little ball or layer has formed, give it another few days, then you’re ready to make your first batch.
You’ll need 14 cups clean water, 6 bags of black tea, 1 cup of sugar, and your bottle of kombucha. First, simply boil the water in a large pot on the stove. When it reaches a boil, remove it from the heat and put the tea bags in. Let them steep for five minutes or so, then remove the tea bags and let the entire mixture cool to room temperature over a few hours. When it’s at room temperature, add the cup of sugar, stir it thoroughly, then pour it into the clean gallon jar. Then, pour the contents of the kombucha bottle right into the jar, scoby and all. Stir it for a minute or so, then put the cloth over the top of the jar and rubber band it in place.
Let it sit for a couple of weeks. What you’ll notice is that the scoby will grow a lot larger over this time. That’s a good thing.
When you decide it’s time to try it, you’ll want to remove the scoby and two cups of the liquid from the mixture. What you may find is that the scoby separates into multiple pieces or layers; that’s fine. Keep at least one scoby and the liquid. The rest of the remaining liquid is kombucha that’s ready to drink – be aware that it’s not carbonated at all and at room temperature. If you want to carbonate it and add a fruit flavor, add two cups of your preferred fruit juice to the jar, mix it thoroughly, then fill some of the resealable glass bottles mentioned earlier. These will carbonate over the next several days; leave them out on the table and check one of them each morning and evening by simply opening one of the bottles quickly and closing it. When you open one and hear a small popping sound, then carbonation is happening and I would recommend moving them to the fridge and drinking them in the next few days.
The scoby and two cups of liquid that you saved can serve as the starter for your next batch. Just repeat the above process, using your scoby and starter. If the scoby is getting really thick and hard to handle, you can easily divide it into smaller pieces; this allows you to start making multiple batches at once.
Here’s a great kombucha primer from Joy of Cooking.
Fermented Pickled Vegetables
There are a number of ways to “pickle” vegetables. Some of them involve vinegar as a way to introduce acetic acid to encourage the pickling process. Others simply use salt and allow the pickling process to occur naturally. In both cases, you can wind up with a delicious treat.
I personally like many different fermented pickled vegetables. Cucumbers are an obvious choice, but pickled carrots and pickled cauliflower and pickled peppers and pickled radishes are all delicious. I also like mixing vegetables in this process.
My process is simple. I just use a wide-mouth quart jar and a fermenting lid, as described in the earlier section about sauerkraut. I also use a glass fermentation weight or two, as noted earlier. I cut up four cups of vegetables that I want to pickle and put them in the jar – I’ll cut pickles into spears or carrots into smaller long strips or trim down cauliflower florets or cut peppers into strips. If I want to add some spices, I add them now – for example, I like to add peppercorns to many vegetables and dill to pickles. You’ll want to leave at least an inch and a half of space at the top of the jar, if not more. Then, I add three tablespoons of salt to the water and stir it thoroughly, then add that salty water to the vegetables, covering them completely in the salty liquid. I’ll put a fermentation weight or two on top to keep the vegetables down in the brine, then put on the fermentation lid and the ring.
Then, I just let them sit on the countertop or in the cupboard for a few weeks. I usually taste the vegetables at about the two-week mark and then weekly after that until I’m happy with them.
As I noted earlier, this is a delicious way to prepare cucumbers, cauliflower, peppers, carrots, radishes, and beets, among other things. For most of them, you don’t need to add any spices at all, though I like adding peppercorns and dill to pickles at least.
If you’d like to know more about making fermented pickled vegetables, this is a great guide.
Kimchi is a Korean condiment that is made up of a variety of shredded vegetables. I view it as being a “long lost cousin” of sauerkraut, because the two often remind me of each other. Kimchi has a particularly strong flavor, however, and that’s due to some of the more unusual ingredients.
The process for making kimchi is pretty similar to making sauerkraut, actually. You’ll need the things mentioned earlier (wide mouth quart jars, fermentation lids) as well as a blender, as the sauce in kimchi is made up of more than just water and salt. I like to make several jars of this at once, so what follows is a recipe for enough kimchi to fill quite a few jars.
Start with a head of cabbage, three large carrots, and a handful of green onions. Chop the cabbage head until it’s reduced to thin strips, then chop the carrots into long matchsticks. Add half a cup of salt to these vegetables in a big bowl and mix it thoroughly with your hands, then add enough cold water to cover all of the vegetables. Let this sit for an hour or two, then strain off the salty water and save it.
Meanwhile, chop off the green portion of the green onions (and save that green part), then dice them. Put the onions, half a cup of chili powder, 20 garlic cloves, four inches of peeled ginger root, a tablespoon of fish sauce, and four tablespoons of white miso paste in a blender and puree it. It’ll be a very thick paste – add water and re-blend it until it’s like a thin pancake batter or a milkshake.
Take the green parts of the onions, chop them into small pieces, then toss the cabbage-carrot mix, the green onion pieces, and the paste together in a very large bowl. Mix everything as thoroughly as you can; you can/should use your hands, but wear gloves!
Then, just start cramming this stuff into the jars, pressing it down as much as you can. Ideally, some of the thick liquid should move up to the top, covering the vegetables. If this doesn’t quite happen, add just a small bit of the saved salty water until the vegetables are thoroughly covered. I advise you to keep the top of the liquid about an inch and a half from the top of the jar. Put a fermenting lid and a ring on each jar and leave them out at room temperature for three days; they’ll probably start to bubble. When you start to notice bubbling, open each jar and press the vegetables down with a knife, releasing the bubbles. Do it again each day after that. After three days (at least two of which involve noticeable bubbling), put them in the fridge on top of a plate or a pan of some kind, because sometimes this stuff can bubble up and overflow the jar.
This stuff is delicious, but it has a very very distinct flavor that can be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. I’m in the love-it camp.
In all four of these cases, these recipes are far less expensive than buying the equivalent amount of that item in the store, and the homemade version is usually tastier because it’s fresher and you’ve selected the ingredients to match what you like.
However, these food items aren’t for everyone. I encourage you to try these things before making batches of them at home to make sure you’ll even like the end product. I really like all four of these things, but I know that even within my own family, some of these things are… not well liked.
If you find these kinds of foods and procedures interesting, I highly recommend the book The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz as a great reference. There are a number of good books on fermentation out there, but that was the one that really “set the hook” in terms of my own interest and discovery.
Good luck! Now, if I could just figure out how to keep a sourdough starter alive…
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