Curtido: Salvadoran Fermented Cabbage
Cultures around the world have had fermented foods as part of their cuisines for thousands of years, and many of them are variations of fermented cabbage. These similarities in fermentation among different diets unite us and help bridge the cuisine gaps between cultures, but also keep us healthy with plenty of probiotic-rich foods. Just as Germany has its sauerkraut and Korea its kim chi, El Salvador has curtido. It is a lacto-fermented condiment with cabbage as its main ingredient, but is enhanced with other flavors and foods found in Central America, such as cilantro and hot peppers, that really make it stand out. You can use green or red cabbage here, whichever you prefer, and feel free to adjust the heat to your liking as well.
Curtido would traditionally be served on pupusas, which are stuffed masa cakes, resembling thick tortillas, usually filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables. We also often serve it with tacos or other Central American-inspired dishes, on scrambled eggs, mixed in with salsa to add a probiotic boost, or tossed into a fresh green salad. Once fermented, curtido will keep well in the fridge for up to a year, lending itself well to big batches or even gifting to friends. Bring this to your next potluck and people will be thanking you!
Fermentation TIme: 1-2 Weeks
- 1 head green or red cabbage, shredded (large, about 3 lbs)
- 1 large or 2 small red onions, small diced
- 1 lb carrots, grated
- 8 cloves garlic, minced
- 1-3 jalapeno peppers, sliced (seeds removed to reduce heat if preferred)
- 1 bunch fresh cilantro, stems included, minced
- Zest and juice of 1 whole lime
- 1 1/2 Tbs dried oregano or 3 Tbs fresh oregano
- 3-6 tsp fine sea salt, varied depending on weight of vegetables
- 3 glass jars, quart-sized, with plastic/non-reactive lids or a 1 gallon ceramic crock
- Fermentation weights
- Knife and cutting board
Wooden spoon or other tool for packing into jars
- Measuring spoons
- Take a large mixing bowl to zero on a kitchen scale.
- Combine the shredded cabbage, onion, carrots, garlic, peppers, cilantro, lime, and oregano in the bowl and stir well.
- Add the salt to the vegetables; the amount of salt used depends on the weight of the vegetable mixture. Use 1 tsp sea salt per pound of vegetables (all of the mixture in the bowl, not just the cabbage). The amount of vegetables listed should use about 2 Tbs of salt, but adjust to the exact amount you have.
- Mix the salt into the vegetables, massaging and squeezing the mixture to break the cell walls and release their stored water. This also softens the vegetables and reduces their volume, allowing them to be packed more tightly into jars for fermentation. The massaging step may take up to 10 minutes; if your arms get tired or you have limited ability in some way, you can instead let the salted cabbage mixture sit out on the counter for a few hours to soften and release its water. The vegetables are ready for the next step when you can easily squeeze liquid from them and the volume has reduced by about half.
- Next, pack the salted, massaged vegetables into glass jars or a fermentation crock. I use quart-sized glass jars for this recipe, but a ceramic crock will also work. Either way, fill your vessel with vegetables to the top, then use a wooden spoon or “kraut pounder” to pack the mixture into the jar. Packing the jars tightly removes air bubbles and raises the brine above the vegetables, which keep the fermentation anaerobic. Keep filling and packing until your vessels are filled; for a glass jar, this is to its “shoulders,” where it starts to curve toward the mouth of the jar. Do not fill the jar all the way to the top, or it will overflow as it expands during fermentation and create a mess.
- Once filled, press the vegetables down a bit more, until a distinct layer of brine rises to the top. Place a whole cabbage leaf over the top to keep any smaller pieces of vegetables from floating and possibly molding. Then, put a fermentation weight, if using, on top of the carrier leaf. This helps ensure the vegetables stay submerged in the brine throughout the fermentation process, which prevents mold or other unwanted microbes, and promotes anaerobic lacto-fermentation. Cover the vessel with a non-reactive lid (I use plastic lids on my jars). For glass jars, be sure not to screw the lids on tightly, as this can cause jars to break. Label your jars or crock with the name of the ferment and date you made it.
- Let your jars sit at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for 5-14 days to ferment. Your curtido is ready when it has fermented to your liking, depending on your taste and texture preferences. It will become more sour and “fermented” tasting the longer you let it sit, so adjust the time as needed for your taste. I typically let mine ferment for 14 days, as I have found this to be the sweet spot for taste and probiotic content. This time frame is with an ambient temperature of about 68 degrees, but it will ferment more quickly the warmer your kitchen, so keep this in mind when fermenting. There is no right number of days to let this ferment; it is simply ready when you are. Give it a taste after a week or so and see if you like it as is or if you would like it to ferment a bit longer. Some let it sit up to 21 days, or as few as five for either more or less fermented flavor.
- Once finished, remove the fermentation weight and transfer the jars to the fridge. Under refrigeration, this will keep for about one year.
- Before shredding the cabbage, set the outer leaf aside, keeping it wholeto act as a carrier under the fermentation weight.
- Feel free to adjust any of the amounts, such as more garlic, fewer hot peppers, etc., as you like. As long as you keep the ratio of vegetables to salt the same, you can get creative and have fermentation success.
- I recommend wearing food-safe kitchen gloves for the mixing step, due to the presence of hot peppers. If you don’t have any gloves, massage the vegetables and salt together but omit the hot pepper, then add it after massaging to protect your hands.
Laura is a Registered Dietician and a Traditional Foods Instructor.
Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Laura moved all over the U.S. before she finally figured out that she is a country girl at heart, and settled down on her homestead in the Driftless region of Southwest Wisconsin with her husband.
Laura is a private practice dietitian, focusing on individualized healing and adding in traditional, whole foods, with emphases on digestion and mental health. She is a blogger, writer, and speaker on health and traditional cooking techniques, such as fermentation and cooking with organ meats. If you can ferment it, Laura will try to do it. She also coaches functional movement classes and loves to spend time with her family and be out in nature as much as possible, especially canoeing and hiking.
When not cooking, eating, or talking about food, Laura also enjoys stand-up comedy, learning German and drinking wine. Not all together.
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