In early March 2020, as the nation veered from nonchalance to impending doom overspread of coronavirus, I joined the rest of my neighbors in rushing to the grocery store for an emergency “two weeks” worth of rations.
In a lot of ways, we were in good shape at my house. The chickens were laying like crazy in anticipation of spring; I had enough flour stored in the basement for every tantalizing sourdough recipe that was to spill across my social media feeds in the weeks to come, and the chest freezer was full of various environmentally responsible proteins. But I dutifully braved the grocery store aisles to add more grains and pulses (noting that split peas and buckwheat were not crowd favorites) and about half my weight in root vegetables (ditto on the rutabaga).
Of course, as everyone on week (…what week is it? Are we even still using weeks?) now knows, home cooking from a limited pantry can get monotonous, especially when it’s the new reality, three meals a day, seven days a week. When we’ve exhausted our Venn diagram of bowl combos, finished the last of the of our perishable dips and spreads, and stopped twitching from our 15th Dalgona coffee, it’s easy to find ourselves daydreaming about another time on another planet when we’d sit elbow to elbow with strangers, ungloved hand caressing silverware and glasses, and order things from a menu that we’d possibly never even heard of—and certainly hadn’t had to peel, chop, or roast.
At the risk of severely disappointing you with this segue, allow me to share my favorite quarantine kitchen hack. It won’t be served to you on the rocks or with a side of crackling sweet potato fries, but I can promise you it will add endless new depths of flavor to your next 253 meals, offer a way to preserve the brightness and crunch of fresh vegetables, and provide a new, possibly much-needed, indoor distraction.
It’s…fermentation. Vegetable ferments, to be exact. Because when all else seems to be crumbling down around us, you can be sure the culinary habits of our thrifty ancestors’ will not. So dust off that heirloom crock that’s been languishing in a dark corner of your basement and let’s get started!
Choose Your Vegetables
Vegetable ferments are nearly endless in their possibilities, but I’m partial to starting with the traditional cabbage. They’re easy to work with and can nearly fool me into thinking I have the makings of a salad on hand when the reality is that any greens bought on my last trip to a store have long since shriveled into oblivion.
For the recipe I’m sharing (and I use the term “recipe” very loosely here; please note the fermentation is largely a choose-your-own-adventure) I could only locate a measly quarter wedge of green cabbage, so I supplemented it with two purple daikon radishes. If you’re feeling crazy too, note that roots like radishes, carrots, and turnips are all ferment-friendly additions. (Beware of overdoing shredded beets, however; when beets are shredded and allowed to ferment, the high sugar quantity can do some funky things, like turn into alcohol or morph into a disturbing purple slime.)
As you’re assembling your vegetables, size up the jar or crock you plan to ferment them in and eyeball an equivalent amount that you think will pack well into that space. I was using a wide-mouthed quart Ball jar for mine and ended up with a little more than I could fit, which I packed into a half-pint sidecar.
Deconstruct Your Vegetables
Next, chop, dice, slice, or grate your vegetables as desired. I like to use my ferments as a condiment or topping, so I opt for a finer shred. If you want to enjoy yours as a side dish, dicier chunks might be more your style. Note that the larger the vegetable pieces are, the longer they will take to ferment into tangy deliciousness.
With my chopped vegetables dumped into a large bowl, I moved on to blending a fermentation paste. While you can simply salt your vegetables and submerge them in a basic brine, I find that making a paste is a fun way to maximize flavors and incorporate different ingredients. For mine, I blended ¼ cup of Navitas Organics Goji Berries with one onion, an inch of peeled ginger, and just enough water to turn it into a paste. I also added two light tablespoons of salt. Please note that the salt is absolutely essential to fermentation and protects the vegetables from pathogenic microbes while they sit on the counter. The saltiness shifts to an acidic flavor with time so don’t be alarmed if your final mix tastes uncomfortably salty. It should. For reference, my non-scientific rule of thumb is 1-2 tablespoons per quart of vegetables (or water, for a brine).
Toss and Pack
After tossing the cabbage and daikon with the salty goji berry paste, I packed the mixture into a jar with the help of a wide-mouthed funnel and a wooden muddler repurposed from the cocktail bar. Whether you prefer a softer, well-pounded kraut or a crispier, crunchier type, you’ll want to make sure the jar is well-packed with minimal air bubbles around the sides. Use a muddler as I did, your hands, or a large wooden spoon to work everything tightly in.
The last step is to create an airlock. While you can buy a proper fermentation crock to make this fashionable and easy, I DIY it by first tucking a large piece of cabbage leaf, reserved for this purpose, into the top of the jar as a sort of cork for the rest of the vegetables. A small glass cup filled with water works as a weight to keep the vegetables below the surface of the briny paste. If you (carefully!) press down on the cup, you should see a swell of liquid rise above the cabbage leaf and submerge the entire mix. By day two, the liquid should easily cover the submerged vegetables without you pressing down. Keep an eye on this liquid throughout the fermentation period to make sure that the vegetables stay submerged. If the level dips too low, add a little more simple brine (roughly 1 tsp. of salt per cup of water).
At this point, your vegetables can ferment nearly indefinitely, turning softer and tangier by the day. As I prefer to casually enjoy my ferments without tearing up after each bite, I ferment mine for a relatively short window of time, taste-testing them around day five. Keep in mind that hotter temperatures will cause vegetables to ferment faster, while cooler temperatures will slow the process.
Store and Enjoy
At whatever point you taste your ferment and think to yourself “weird, but kinda good?”, simply remove the airlock (in this case, the cup), cap the jar, and put it in the fridge. High five! You did it!
Using Your Ferment
Intimidated by the flavors that came into a strange existence on your countertop? Here are some friendly ways to use your kraut:
- Toss a spoonful into a salad and boost the nutrition, texture and flavor even more with a sprinkle of hemp seeds or chia seeds
- Blend into mayonnaise or Greek yogurt for a delicious dipping sauce
- Top your eggs, avocado toast, or grilled cheese with a small pile
- Add some to a grain/bean bowl with a drizzle of olive oil and some fresh herbs
- Roll up a spoonful in a slice of cheese for a quick snack