Fun with fermentation: sauerkraut and kimchi

6 Mar
Raw fermented vegetables -- my new favorite thing!

Raw fermented vegetables — my new favorite thing!

I loooooove lacto fermented vegetables. There’s something about the salty, tangy, and complex flavor (with definite umami notes, I’d add) of raw homemade fermented food that is unmatched. I’ve been making a lot of sauerkraut and kimchi lately, so I thought I’d do a quick writeup on my process.

But first I need to quickly mention the fact that fermented foods are apparently controversial in the paleo community. The originator of the paleo diet specifically cautions against added salt, so fermentation relying on salinophilic bacteria is right out. I’ve found that a number of prominent paleo writers even specifically advise against paleo foods (see for example this Q&A). The reality is, there is no single agreed-upon “true” paleo diet, although obviously the adherents of each particular school of thought will proudly proclaim that their variant is indeed the “true” paleo diet and all others are horrifically unhealthy imposters. I’m not big on this kind of thinking, frankly. I’m definitely not very strict — I had millet flour and yak meat dumplings for lunch today, so I can’t call myself a paleo poster child. But am I eating healthier than I was when I was eating the S.A.D. [standard American diet]? Hell yes. I call that a win.

Personally, if I’m an adherent of anything it’s to Mark Sisson’s philosophy and approach, i.e. the Primal Blueprint. To the point for today’s post, Mark has a wonderful breakdown of the health benefits of fermentation, which I highly recommend. The bottom line is fermented foods have recognizable health benefits, taste delicious, and are a good way to make your diet more plant-centric; don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

But back to the point — many fermented foods are also pretty easy to make at home. Here are my recipes for two of my favorites.

Kraut Closeup

Kraut Closeup

Sauerkraut:

This is probably the best beginner fermentation project. It’s hard to screw up and doesn’t require specialized ingredients, just cabbage and salt. If you aren’t already using sea salt with no additives, now is the time to switch, because fermentation won’t work with standard processed iodized salt. (Kosher salt works great, though.)

I like to make my kraut in a wide mouth quart mason jar. I’ve found that one average sized head of cabbage will just about fill one. Before starting this process, make sure your work surfaces, tools, and hands are clean and fresh to minimize any risk of spoilage bacteria wrecking your kraut.

Ingredients: 1 head of cabbage, 1-2 tablespoons of salt (a typical rule of thumb is for every 5 lbs of cabbage you use 3 T of salt; weigh your cabbage and adjust accordingly)

Mmmmm... kraut in a jar!

Mmmmm… kraut in a jar!

Supplies: Knife and cutting board, mason jar, a pestle or something else you can use to pound (a tightly capped bottle filled with water works well), a large bowl, a mandolin slicer, a sandwich sized plastic zipper-closing baggie.

Cut cabbage in half or in quarters and rinse thoroughly. Optional: remove the core of the cabbage. Using the slicer, shred cabbage into the bowl. After about each quarter of the cabbage, stop slicing and sprinkle salt on the shredded cabbage, then pound it to start breaking down the cells and releasing juice. I use a huge hardwood pestle for this — the pounding is really a critical step, so don’t be shy about it.

A plastic baggie inside the jar presses down the cabbage and keeps out air

A plastic baggie inside the jar presses down the cabbage and keeps out air

When all your cabbage is shredded, salted, and pounded, I suggest tasting a little and adjusting the salt if necessary. You want it quite salty but not so salty that you can’t eat it. Next, tightly pack it into your mason jar. I mean really cram it in there — I put in a small layer at a time, really pressing down before putting on the next layer. When the cabbage is all in the jar, you want to make sure that there’s no way for air to touch it and that it’s compressed somewhat. Traditionally you’d do this with a plate and a rock and sometimes more elaborate rigs, I like the simple solution pictured at left — fill a baggie with just enough water so that when you put it in the jar and screw the lid on, the baggie presses down on the cabbage making a nice seal.

Let stand at room temperature for several days to a week or longer, depending on your personal taste preference and how warm your kitchen is. I keep the house very cold and I find my kraut starts to taste tangy after about 4 days.

Serve with: sausages, roast pork, and more.

Kimchi made from baby napa cabbages

Kimchi made from baby napa cabbages

Kimchi is a little more complex than sauerkraut but the effort is totally worth it. Honestly, I might be addicted to kimchi. I went running this morning and when I got home I sat down and ate some right out of the jar, before I even showered. Kimchi is pretty much the greatest food ever. My version is not a perfectly authentic kimchi — I’m a little gunshy about using salted squid, oysters, shrimp, or other tiny sea creatures, so I substitute fish sauce. Also, I’m pretty sure that even though my kimchi tastes really hot to me that there is no way I’m even close to the nuclear heat of traditional kimchi. But this is a good recipe to introduce yourself to kimchi.

Ingredients: 1 bunch of “baby” napa cabbage (pictured here) or 1 small to medium head napa cabbage, 2 small peeled Korean radishes, 3 or 4 scallions, 2 cloves of garlic, one small piece of ginger, 1-2 T fish sauce, red pepper flakes proportional to your personal preferences, 2-3 T salt (the conversion here is 1 cup per 10 lbs, so again weigh your cabbage and adjust), optional additional 1/2 tsp salt

Supplies: Knife and cutting board, large bowl, grater, mason jar and plastic baggie (as for the kraut)

I'm getting hungry again just looking at it! Too bad I ate the last of this batch this morning :(

I’m getting hungry again just looking at it! Too bad I ate the last of this batch this morning 😦

If you are using a head of cabbage, cut it into quarters and then slice it thickly. Rinse the cabbage thoroughly and, leaving it wet, place it into a large bowl. Sprinkle the salt over the cabbage, turning it so that all of the cabbage is salted. Let it stand, turning occasionally, for at least an hour. (You can also make a brine using somewhat more salt and enough water to cover the cabbage completely.) Once the cabbage has had a chance to wilt somewhat from the salt, rinse and drain it,  and return it to the (also rinsed) bowl. Create a paste by grating the radish, garlic, and ginger and mixing these with thinly sliced scallions, fish sauce, and red pepper. If using less fish sauce, or if you omit the fish sauce entirely, make sure to add some additional salt. Pack this paste into each of your baby cabbages, making sure that there is some paste in between each leaf. Bundle the cabbages into tight balls, and pack them into the mason jar. Try to get them packed tightly enough that there isn’t any space in between them. If you used a sliced cabbage head, you’ll just mix the paste and the slices together and pack into the jar.

As before, use a plastic baggie to fill up the remaining space in the jar. Let stand at room temperature for several days. The cabbage will visibly wilt and give off a great deal of liquid.

Fun fact: the traditional way to prepare kimchi requires a special ceramic crock that you bury outside. I’m working on this, but my Better Half has made it very clear that mystery jars in our yard will not win me any points with her 😦

Happy fermenting! May your lactobacilli be fruitful 🙂

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2 Responses to “Fun with fermentation: sauerkraut and kimchi”

  1. Sharon Rose March 6, 2013 at 4:18 PM #

    Gotta make some sauerkraut!

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