Last Sunday I was lucky enough to score a place on a fermentation workshop with Sandor Katz. The event’s title was probably a misnomer – to me a workshop is hands-on, but with the number of people in the room that would not have been possible. So it was what I’ll call a practical lecture, with Sandor demonstrating many of his favourite ferments as he talked. It was inspiring enough to send me home to experiment, and I’ll show you the outcomes as we go.
I’ve heard him speak before and gratefully took my front row place to learn some nitty gritty. He asked how many people had done some fermentation in their own kitchens and was answered by a host of raised hands. In fact some of those present were already producing kimchi and sauerkraut commercially, and had generously brought samples, which we enjoyed along with the many other ferments we sipped and nibbled on as the day progressed.
He reviewed some of the purposes of fermentation: to improve digestibility by allowing enzymes to predigest some elements of the food (e.g. making soybeans digestible to humans); to detoxify elements of the food (e.g. to neutralize phytic acid); to preserve the harvest; to improve nutritional value (e.g. natto which contains a valuable enzyme, nattokinase found to contain vitamin K2 and have a role in dissolving fibrin, which clogs arteries); and to provide a source of live bacteria, to help our struggling microbiome.
We began with vegetables. Sandor spoke about techniques and ingredients while hand-crushing and massaging a bucket full of nascent sauerkraut: in this case made from sliced and salted cabbage, carrot and perhaps some other veg I didn’t take note of. Any sturdy vegetable is a good candidate for this treatment which results in a sloppy, dripping mass that can be stuffed firmly into glass jars. (I’ve found that one small/medium head of cabbage will fill a one litre mason jar.) Then squeeze a cabbage leaf on top of the mixture to keep it submerged in its brine, and cover the jar – with an awareness that carbon dioxide will build up during fermentation and need to be released – and the jar placed on a plate to catch the overflow. It’s then left to ferment for a few days to a couple of weeks. The duration depends on the sourness preferred and the ambient temperature of your fermenting space. The most important things to remember, said Sandor, are to ensure the vegetables are submerged, and to cover the jar with cloth secured to keep flies out. Some surface molds are inevitable, but they can be lifted out along with any discolored vegetable matter. Once fermented to preference, cover and put in the fridge where it will sit fermenting at a very slow rate for several months.
Dill pickles came next. Here the trick is to ensure the blossom end of the cucumber is scraped off, as this is where softening can begin. Add any seasonings you like – garlic, dill and peppers are popular – and any combination of vegetables. Green beans are good; cauliflower, radishes and carrots too. Pack everything as tightly as possible to fill every nook and cranny and pour in the brine. Tannins help keep the vegetables crunchy: these are found in grape leaves (even preserved ones), oak leaves and – as in this example – a tea bag (take off the string if it has one). Watch until the colour of the cucumbers just turns from bright to dull green and then pop in the refrigerator. If this happens before the pickles are sour enough, then fermenting the next batch in a cooler spot will help the souring.
He discussed one of my favourite things – kimchi – at some length before we broke for lunch. It’s a tricky topic for Western fermenters, being very much a culturally-identified food. It was, he said, the topic that he’s received the most mail and complaints about since he began spreading the fermentation gospel. Korean kimchi-makers all have their techniques and rules, but those are as different and inherently contradictory as any recipe handed down through the generations. Doubtless I have violated those rules myself with my partial attention to this recipe from David Lebovitz, and this video from charmingly enthusiastic Korean kimchi maker Maangchi (whaaa – she mixes with her bare hands!) and this thorough discussion of traditional kimchi. Like Lebovitz I didn’t have the Korean chili powder gochugaru so had to use the chili paste I had on hand, and added some chopped dried chilies from my garden – which is why it lacks the vivid red of the real thing. But I made the traditional rice paste and like Maangchi I whizzed together some of the seasonings – garlic, ginger and onion. We’ll see in a couple of days whether I’ve been successful.
I’ll carry on with this post in another installment. A day long workshop gives one a lot to – sorry – digest.