Passionate about preserving

Salt-fermented vegetables add flavor, texture and color to cuisines around the world.

Mixture for making cabbage kimchi. (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Mixture for making cabbage kimchi.
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
‘There would be no civilization without food preservation,” said master preserver Ernest Miller, at the class he taught at Melissa’s Produce in Los Angeles. In our earliest examples of writing, noted Miller, what people wrote about was preserved foods – in contracts, inventories and trade agreements.
The subject of Miller’s class was lacto-fermentation, or using salt to ferment food. The salt helps inhibit the growth of undesirable bacteria and creates a favorable environment for lactobacilli, the good bacteria. This process not only enables the vegetables to last for months in the refrigerator or in a root cellar, but also turns them into relishes for sandwiches, salads and other dishes.
Salt-fermented vegetables add flavor, texture and color to cuisines around the world. We think of sauerkraut as German but the process of making it probably originated in China, said Miller.
“Fermented cabbage is part of a traditional meze spread,” wrote Aglaia Kremezi in Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts. “In Lebanon, cabbage and other pickled vegetables are a customary part of breakfast; in the Balkan countries, they are served at the beginning of every meal.” Other traditional salt-cured foods loved in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean are olives, preserved lemons (see recipe) and turnips with beets, called torshi.
In our vegetable preserving class some of us made curtido, the Salvadoran lightly fermented shredded cabbage that is the standard accompaniment for the popular corn cakes called pupusas. Others made Korean pickled vegetables known as kimchi – which, Miller pointed out, is Korea’s national dish. Kimchi made from cabbage or other vegetables is served as part of banchan, the Korean equivalent of meze. The pungent preserved vegetables are often flavored with ginger, garlic, red pepper and fish sauce. (See recipe.)
Vegetables for fermenting should be as fresh as possible. A favorite is the cucumber, especially for making dill pickles, which in the US are known as kosher pickles because they were popularized by Jews. (See recipe.) Green tomatoes, cauliflower, celery, carrots, radishes and snow peas also make tasty fermented vegetables.
At the class we sampled Italian giardiniera, which is made of fermented carrots, celery, peppers and cauliflower and enhances the famous New Orleans sandwich, muffuletta. It’s made of a round Italian bread moistened with olive oil and filled with sliced cheeses, cold cuts and a salad of chopped olives mixed with the chopped giardiniera.
Curtido, torshi and giardiniera served at restaurants sometimes taste vinegary. Using vinegar, said Miller, is often a short-cut to save the time it takes for the vegetables to ferment the traditional way. But slowly preserving vegetables by lacto-fermentation not only develops flavors that many prefer, but also imparts health benefits. Fermented vegetables are a source of probiotics and are safer and actually more nutritious than raw vegetables; the fermentation process makes more of the vegetables’ nutrients digestible, explained Miller.
Fermented vegetables can be cooked. Choucroute alsacienne, for example, is made in France by cooking sauerkraut with white wine, sausages and other salted meats. Koreans use kimchi to make such flavor-packed dishes as kimchi soup and kimchi fried rice. In Mediterranean lands, wrote Kremezi, fermented cabbage is cooked with braised chicken and is used in pies and in rice and legume dishes; leaves of fermented whole cabbages are used to make stuffed cabbage.
To ferment vegetables, salt is either added directly to them or is dissolved in water to make a brine. The salt should be pure, with no iodine or other additives like anti-caking ingredients. To ensure accuracy, the salt should be weighed instead of being measured by volume. Whole vegetables or large chunks require a more concentrated brine than shredded or chopped vegetables. Bottled water is best for the brine because it doesn’t have such additives as chlorine, which inhibits the growth of the bacteria needed for fermentation.
The container for fermenting must be non-reactive; it can be ceramic, glass, food-grade plastic or stainless steel. Miller advises using glass so that you can watch the process, and because the vegetables are attractive. He recommends using an air-lock fermentation kit, which he developed. To keep the vegetables submerged in the brine, you need a weight. When using an ordinary jar, you can weight the vegetables with a plastic bag filled with brine. Avoid closing the jar tightly, so that the fermentation gases can escape. The jar of fermenting vegetables can be left in a room that has light, but not direct sunlight. If the jar gets too hot for a long time, the vegetables can develop off-flavors; don’t keep it next to the stove or on the refrigerator.
After you have finished a jar of fermented vegetables, you can use the remaining brine to season salad dressings or cold soups. Miller puts hard-boiled eggs in the brine to pickle them, and uses them to make delicious deviled eggs. Like cheese and sausages, fermented vegetables were developed by necessity but are loved because of their flavor. 
Cabbage Kimchi
Traditional kimchi recipes often call for fish sauce, but this recipe is vegan. To flavor this amount of kimchi Miller uses 1 teaspoon Korean red pepper powder, which is semihot. You can substitute red pepper flakes or 2 red chili peppers. A 1.5-liter (1½-quart) jar needs a total of about 1 kg (2¼ pounds) of vegetables.
Makes 1.5 liters (1½ quarts)
■ 21 gr. (0.75 ounce) pickling, canning, kosher salt or sea salt
■ 680 to 800 gr. (1.5 to 1.75 lb.) Napa cabbage (Chinese cabbage), cored and coarsely chopped
■ 110 gr. (4 ounces) daikon radish or Korean radish, cut in sticks
■ 110 gr. (4 ounces) carrots, cut in sticks
■ 2 green onions, sliced on the bias (white and green parts)
■ 2 cloves garlic, chopped, minced or whole
■ 1 tsp. semi-hot red pepper powder or pepper flakes
■ 1½ Tbsp. grated or julienned fresh ginger
For the brine:
■ 28 gr. (1 ounce) of salt per liter (per quart) of water
Mix all ingredients, except for the brine, thoroughly in a bowl and pack firmly into a clean, 1.5-liter (1½-quart) jar.
Place a clean weight (such as a glass or a Ziploc bag filled with brine) on top of vegetables to force water out of them. Let stand about 15 minutes. Add enough brine to completely submerge the vegetables. You may not need all the brine or you may need more, depending on how you packed the vegetables. Cover jar with cloth, or with a lid without sealing it completely.
Store at 21º to 27ºC (70º to 80ºF) while fermenting. At this temperature range, kimchi will be fully fermented in about 1 to 2 weeks; at 15.5º to 18ºC (60º to 65ºF), fermentation may take 3 to 4 weeks. At temperatures lower than 15.5ºC (60ºF), kimchi may not ferment. Above 27ºC (80ºF), kimchi may become soft.
Fully fermented kimchi may be kept tightly covered in the refrigerator for several months.
Kosher Dill Pickles
For the best pickles, Miller recommends using firm small cucumbers. If you want crisp pickles, the cucumbers should be as fresh as possible, ideally within 48 hours of being harvested. The cucumbers must not be waxed. You can ferment them whole or halve them lengthwise. Vinegar is optional but can help make the pickles crisper.
Makes 1.5 liters(1 ½ quarts)
■ 680 to 800 gr. (1.5 to 1.75 lb.) cucumbers, 10 cm. (4 inches) long and no more than 2.5 cm. (1 inch) in diameter
■ 2¼ tsp. dill seeds or 2 heads fresh dill weed
■ 45 gr. (1.6 ounces) canning, pickling, kosher or sea salt
■ 1 liter (1 quart) water
■ 22 ml. (¾ ounce) distilled white vinegar (5% acidity) (optional)
■ 1 clove garlic (or more, if you like garlicky pickles)
■ 1 tsp. dried red pepper flakes (optional)
Cut 3 mm. ( inch) slice off blossom end of cucumbers and discard; you can leave the stem end on if you like.
Place garlic, half of dill and spices (if any) on the bottom of a clean 1.5-liter (1½-quart) jar. Add cucumbers (preferably standing on end), remaining dill and spices, if any. If whole cucumbers will not fit in jar, feel free to slice remaining cucumbers to get as many in the jar as possible.
Dissolve salt in water, creating brine; add vinegar if desired and pour over cucumber mix. Place weight on cucumbers to keep them submerged. Cover your jar with cloth, or with a lid without sealing it completely.
Store at 21º to 27ºC (70º to 80ºF) for about 2 to 3 weeks while fermenting. At 13º to 18ºC (55º to 65ºF), fermentation will take 5 to 6 weeks. Avoid temperatures above 27ºC (80ºF), or pickles will become too soft.
Caution: If the pickles become soft, slimy, grow mold or develop a disagreeable odor, discard them.
Fully fermented pickles may be stored tightly covered in the refrigerator for about 4 to 6 months.
Preserved Lemons
There are many ways to preserve lemons. Moroccan friends of ours use only lemons and salt. In this recipe, Aglaia Kremezi also adds lemon juice and spices, and tops the lemons with a little olive oil.
“To use preserved lemons, cut strips of the rind and rinse them under cold running water. Most of the flesh will wash off.” Kremezi uses preserved lemons to season salads, steamed potatoes and other vegetables, and to flavor chicken baked with garlic. Small amounts of the brine can be used instead of salt in dressings, sauces, stews and marinades.
Makes 1.5 liters (1½ quarts)
■ 5 to 6 organic lemons, washed and dried
■ ½ to 2/3 cup (80 to 100 gr. or 2.8 to 3.5 ounces) coarse salt, as needed
■ 1 Tbsp. whole red peppercorns
■ 2 cinnamon sticks
■ 2 bay leaves or leaves from a lemon tree
■ 2/3 cup (160 ml.) lemon juice, or as needed
■ Olive oil (for topping)
Roll and press each lemon on a work surface to soften and break the inner membranes. Working over a bowl, quarter each lemon, not fully detaching the pieces. Salt inside of lemon generously and place in a 1.5 liter (1½-quart) Mason jar. Continue with rest of lemons; as you work, add peppercorns, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves between lemons and sprinkle with salt after each layer of lemons. Press hard on lemons as you stuff and squeeze them into jar; depending on their size, they may not all fit.
Add the lemon juice and any juices that have accumulated in the bowl. Press lemons again. They will be almost covered by liquid; even if they are not, don’t add more juice yet. Press lemons down, close jar and set aside at room temperature. In a day or two, liquid should cover lemons completely; if it does not, add a little more lemon juice, after pressing hard on the lemons once more.
Top with olive oil and let lemons ferment for about 4 weeks, until their skins soften and become almost translucent. As you take lemons out to chop and use, you can add new ones to the brine, cutting them as you did with the first ones but salting lightly.
Faye Levy is the author of
Feast from the Mideast and of the award-winning book, Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.