Illustration from Beyond Canning
The Basic Process for Dry Salting
- Place a large nonreactive bowl (glass and stainless work well) on top of your kitchen scale. Zero the scale. Add your shredded, grated, or thinly sliced vegetables to the bowl. Record the weight.
- Calculate 1.5 percent of the total weight of your produce. The recommended amount of salt to use in dry-salted ferments is 1.5 to 2 percent. I always start with the lower amount. If it’s summer and/or very hot where you’re fermenting and you notice your ferments developing too quickly or becoming mushy, try 2 percent. I developed all the recipes in this book using a ratio of 1.5 percent salt to vegetables.
- Zero the scale and add the salt to the vegetables in the bowl right on the scale. Remove the bowl from the scale and work the salt into the produce using your hands for about 2 minutes. Wash your hands first, but avoid antibacterial soap because it can work against the fermentation process. If you’ve ever “massaged” kale for a salad, that’s the motion you want to employ here. In slightly less technical terms, it’s basically smooshing. You’ll begin to feel the vegetables wilt slightly and see a layer of liquid on the bottom on the bowl. It will also become much more difficult to detect the grains of salt.
- Use your hands to pack the produce tightly into a quart mason jar. Put one handful in the jar, pack it down with your fist, put in another handful, and pack it down with your fist. Continue filling the jar in this manner until it is full just to the bottom of the jar shoulder. The back of a wooden spoon or a kraut pounder can help with this process as well.
- At this point, the produce should be covered or just about covered with its own brine. When using an airlock for dry-salted ferments, I find that it is not necessary to weight the contents. Secure the ferment with an airlock system and leave at room temperature, out of direct sunlight, for the time indicated.
- When the ferment is done, cover with a two-piece mason jar lid, date, label, and transfer to the refrigerator.
Kraut pounder photo from Adobe Stock
The Basic Process for Brining
- Place a quart mason jar on your kitchen scale, zero the scale, and add water. Weigh the amount of water you’ll use and record the weight. To brine a quart jar of vegetables, make a full quart of brine. You’ll likely have leftovers, but because salt is a relatively inexpensive resource, it’s better to make more brine than you need. If I end up with extra and have a few ferments going, I’ll store it in the fridge for up to a week in a quart jar to top off active ferments as needed or experiment with a small-batch ferment using whatever I have on hand.
- Calculate 5 percent of the weight of the water used and record this number. A 5 percent brine, in which the weight of the salt is 5 percent the weight of the water, is standard.
- Zero the scale again and add the indicated amount of salt to the jar of water right on the scale. The water does not need to be warm to dissolve the salt. Place a lid on the jar and shake it until the salt is dissolved. That’s it!
- Place a separate, clean, dry quart mason jar on your scale. Zero the scale and measure the vegetables into the jar right on the scale.
- Pour the brine over the vegetables so that the produce is fully submerged by at least 1 inch. Use your hands or a wooden chopstick to jostle the contents of the jar, releasing air bubbles.
- Unless your airlock system has a weight built in, weight the contents so that the vegetables remain below the brine. I find that small Weck jar lids work particularly well for this, as do quarter-pint jars when there’s enough space. Position the weight in the quart jar so that it holds the pieces of produce below the brine, leaving the weight in for the duration of the fermentation period. Secure the ferment with an airlock system.
- When the ferment is done, cover with a two-piece mason jar lid, date, label, and transfer to the refrigerator.
Photo by Grace Stufkosky
Finding Your Fermentation Spot
When I lived in a roughly three-hundred-square-foot apartment in Queens, I always placed my ferments on a stool, directly inside the front door. One time, when the ferment of the moment was a gallon jar of kombucha, a friend was particularly startled upon entering my apartment and made a comment about how I had unwittingly invented a very effective burglar deterrent.
There was, however, a method to my madness. Generally, the best place for your ferments to live is one of the cooler spots in your home that is also out of direct sun. It should ideally also be a spot that isn’t completely out of sight to facilitate your keeping an eye on your ferments, or at the very least noticing if something has gone awry when you pass by. In my Queens apartment, counter space was at a premium and my small kitchen heated up very quickly when the stove and oven were in use, hence the stool inside the front door instead. Now that I have a bit more counter space and my kitchen happens to be the coldest spot in my house, I keep my active ferments on my kitchen island.
Visiting Your Kimchi and Other Troubleshooting Tips
Part of what I really love about fermentation is watching the food slowly transform. I rarely have enough self-control to not peek at my ferments at least once a day, and truly the best way to avoid any surprises with your fermentation projects is to visit them often. Look at them each day, begin tasting them when the initial burst of fermentation slows, and skim any scum off the surface using a clean spoon. Visiting and tasting them frequently will help you know when they’re done.
And when are they done? Really, if you like how it tastes, then it’s ready to eat! Because they’re safe and edible throughout the fermentation process, readiness is pretty subjective when it comes to ferments. I know that might be a frustrating answer. For folks wanting more of a concrete benchmark, here’s how I judge: when they taste more sour than salty, they’re ready. I always pull a ferment and put it in the fridge as soon as I notice the texture declining, that is, getting mushy. Ideally, you won’t get to the point of having a mushy ferment, unless of course you decide that’s what you like.
Generally speaking, ferments will develop much slower in the winter because of cooler temperatures than they will in the summer. As you ferment more and more in your space throughout the year, you’ll get a sense of how long things tend to take to get to a point where they’ve soured to your liking, and you will feel comfortable tasting things less frequently to gauge their progress.
The following are common occurrences you may encounter with small-batch fermentation and how to address them.
That’s a good thing! If your brine is cloudy, it means fermentation is happening. Particularly near the end of fermentation, the cloudiness of the brine can take the form of what looks like white, flaky bits. These are also normal and good and will likely settle to the bottom of your jar.
White film/scum on the surface of the brine
Kahm yeast is often to blame for the white film or scum that can form on the surface of the brine. It is not harmful, but some folks find it lends an undesirable taste to the finished product. If you see it, skim it! Bubbling: That’s a good thing too! You may not get vigorous bubbling, but — especially at the beginning of fermentation — you are likely to notice bubbles and/or foam around your jar weight and on the surface of the ferment. Conversely, if you don’t notice bubbles, don’t despair.
If you’re checking your ferments regularly and skimming film when you notice it, mold should be a rare occurrence in these small-batch, relatively short-term ferments, especially if you’re using an airlock. If you notice mold on a piece of vegetable that poked above the brine level accidentally or on the surface of the brine, simply use a clean spoon or paper towel to remove and discard it. As long as it remains on the surface, it’s not cause for concern.
Buildup of pressure inside jars
Transferring a finished ferment to the fridge slows fermentation way, way down, but it doesn’t stop it completely. If you take a ferment from the fridge, remove the lid, and pressure is released, that alone should not be cause for alarm.
Mason jars photo from Adobe Stock
To Sterilize or Not?
Do the jars need to be sterilized when you ferment? There are differing opinions on this. Since quart jars are much easier to sterilize than, say, a crock, if you’re still getting comfortable with the idea of fermentation and it eases your nerves, by all means boil those jars for ten minutes and sterilize them. If it means you’re more likely to feel comfortable eating the finished product, definitely sterilize. However, it is not absolutely necessary. The jars should be clean: washed with hot soapy water and allowed to dry thoroughly. Over the years, I have made successful ferments with unsterilized and sterilized jars but did not sterilize the jars when I tested any of the recipes for this book.
Do it Yourself
I can’t stress enough that one of the coolest parts of fermentation, for me, is the degree to which it allows for experimentation. Using the simple ratios and techniques for dry salting and brining described here, there is plenty of room for play. When I’m trying something new, my favorite bases — the vegetables that make up the majority of the ferment — are daikon and green cabbage. Turnips also work as a fairly neutral base. To those, you can add supplemental ingredients and flavors, like hot peppers, brussels sprouts, beets, onions, parsnips — the list goes on — in smaller amounts.
When I’m playing around with an ingredient that I haven’t fermented before and I’m not entirely sure how it will behave, I usually add a little bit into a neutral base and experiment that way. Use fresh or dried herbs, citrus zest, and seaweeds to add flavor to your ferments.
Using a neutral base isn’t the only way to experiment. There were many times when I was developing the recipes for this book that I was left with a hodgepodge of leftover root vegetables — something like one parsnip, one black radish, and a few carrots. I grated them up, added some salt, and saw what happened. Think of it as your new crisper-clean-out strategy. In my experience, sugary roots like parsnips and beets work best as supporting players, though, as do dark, leafy greens.
Weck jars photo from Adobe Stock
Is This How It’s Supposed to Smell?
The short answer is yes. I’ve been fermenting long enough that the smell of active ferments barely registers with me anymore. So, I was a bit startled when a friend told me that she had just tried making kimchi but had been discouraged and composted it because of the smell. Her boyfriend, with whom she shares a living space, confirmed: it really smelled. I told them that was a good thing! That means it is working.
I found her reaction completely understandable, though. We have instincts that make us leery of food with strong smells and, particularly in the early stages, when ferments are very active, the smell will be significant. If you or someone you live with is particularly bothered by the smell —or if you don’t want to have to explain the odor to your guests — the mason jar airlocks described earlier are a fantastic way to very nearly eliminate the smell during the fermentation period. I loaned my kimchi-wary friends one of my mason jar airlock setups for their next ferment.
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Reprinted with permission from Beyond Canning: New Techniques, Ingredients, and Flavors to Preserve, Pickle, and Ferment Like Never Before by Autumn Giles, photos by Grace Stufkosky, and published by Voyageur Press, 2016. Buy this book from our store: Beyond Canning.