Although I once managed to figure out how to cure a ham in my New York City apartment, my attempts at fermenting vegetables resulted in failure. Strange things grew in my rigged fermenting jar, with unappetizing aromas that are a sure sign to stay away.
Rather than struggle to figure it out, as I might have in the past, I bought myself a fermentation crock called a Sauerkrock. It is an inexpensive modern version of ancient apparatus that have a well into which the lid fits snugly. When filled with water, it seals out bad yeasts over the days it takes for the fermentation to occur, providing escape for gasses through tiny air holes. It comes with a set of two weights to hold the vegetables under their briny liquid and prevent mold. You can buy additional weights or just add whatever you have around; I use rocks.
I bought the smallest crock — 2 liters — which would sit unobtrusively on my counter, yet still be able to process several pounds of vegetables at a time.
Fermenting is a simple, primal art of food transformation: you cut up or grate vegetables or fruits (or leave them whole if small or soft enough), toss them with the right amount of salt — I like about 2% — by weight. The salt will immediately pull juices out of the vegetable or fruit, making a brine. Pack the food into the crock and pour the brine over, adding more if necessary to completely cover the food. Weight it down with weights to keep the food submerged. Then you wait a few days. The salty brine will turn sour and lemony; the fermented food will collapse without losing texture, and gain a uniquely fresh flavor. It’s a miracle of transformation that will make you feel connected to some ancient lineage.
Having started with fermented carrots with ginger, I moved on to cabbage (sometimes adding cracked coriander, lemon zest, or other vegetables like dandelion stems to odd but interesting effect); and recently blueberries, intrigued by a New Yorker article about the Noma Guide to Fermenation. The blueberries were the most interesting. Fermenting them turned them into a sort of citrusy unsweet berry pickle with a strong perfume of blueberries.
For an immediate introduction and overview of fermentation basics, I recommend reading Vegetable Fermentation Further Simplifed at Sandor Katz’s website. Here’s what he has to say about salt, the aspect about fermenting that causes the most confusion:
But for health-conscious people interested primarily in flavor and nutrition, less salt can be better. Salt lightly, to taste. It is easier to add salt than to take it away, but if you oversalt, you can dilute by adding water and/or more vegetables. There is no magic proportion of salt the process requires—it’s just personal preference. As a starting point, try 3 tablespoons of salt per 5 pound of vegetables. More salt will slow the fermentation process; less (or none) will speed it up.
The two best books I know on fermenting provide all you need to know on why fermented foods are so good for you; the theory and science of fermentation; and ideas for creative fermentation from kombucha and misos, to vegetable pickles of all sorts.
Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World is just that and THE classic on the subject.
For really interesting applications and ideas, I highly recommend The Noma Guide to Fermentation: Including koji, kombuchas, shoyus, misos, vinegars, garums, lacto-ferments, and black fruits and vegetables (Foundations of Flavor).
Basic fermented cabbage and/or carrots have become part of my routine as I always like to have one or the other on hand. I throw together a batch in a few minutes, as a break from other projects. I grate them in a food processor, weigh the results and then mix it with about 2% of its weight with Kosher salt (though you can use others. Some sea salt gets very sharply flavored). It’s a formula from the Noma Guide that I’ve found to be very reliable.
Recipe: Lacto Fermented Ginger Carrots
Makes about 6 cups
2 pounds carrots, green tops trimmed off
1 to 2 tablespoons grated fresh ginger
Kosher salt: 2% of the weight of carrots (setting the scale to grams makes it easier to calculate)
You can peel the carrots or not. If you don’t feel like peeling the carrots, rinse them and pat dry with a tea towel. You can grate the carrots by hand on a box grater though it is a lot of work. Using the grating blade of a food processor makes quick work: Cut the carrots in pieces that will fit into the processor and feed them through until all are grated.
Transfer to a large bowl. Toss with ginger and the salt. Massage with your hands until the juices begin to fun. Let them sit 15 to 20 minutes.
Transfer to your fermenting crock and push down the vegetables tightly so you can see the liquid rise above the surface. If you need a little more liquid, make a brine with water into which you’ve dissolved 2% of its weight in salt. Pour a little over to cover the carrots. Place the weights on the carrots, cover the crock, add water to the rim, and set aside to ferment. I find carrots take 3 to 5 days to reach a nice degree of tartness.
Transfer to a jar, cover and refrigerate.
Since lacto-fermentation is something many people are wanting to embrace and explore, a fermentation crock and one of the books above makes a dandy gift.