From kraut to kimchi, what’s the deal with fermented foods? Why are they good for our gut health? And how do you make them? Clare Lattin, co-owner at Dalston’s ferment-loving restaurant, Little Duck Picklery, answers your questions.
It’s funny to think that not so long ago the idea of fermented foods had us running away with our nose pinched firmly between our fingers. The thought that fermented foods might actually be delicious and good for us wasn’t something we’re familiar with here in the UK. The fact is, we’ve been fermenting foods for centuries. It’s one of the oldest types of food preservation, and is also an essential process in breaking down certain ingredients to make the nutrients more available to our body. In other words, they’re great for our gut health.
In our restaurants, we’ve been practicing fermentation for a number of years. We rely on nature’s harvest to dictate what we ferment and how we ferment it. So popular are these seasonal expressions, from kimchi to kraut, kombucha to drinking vinegars, that we’ve jarred and bottled them. They’re now available to buy in our restaurants and on Farmdrop, too.
So what is fermentation?
Put simply, fermentation is the chemical alteration that transforms fairly complex compounds into more digestible ones. This process has to happen within a controlled environment that allows good bacteria and micro-nutrients to develop. This preserves the ingredient and turns it into a somewhat different and mighty-tasty version of its former self.
A controlled environment doesn’t mean white coat lab kind of stuff – its completely the opposite – which is the beauty of these wild living foods. It can happen absolutely anywhere and in anything. The only thing you don’t want is oxygen. Oxygen is the spoiler and will allow harmful bacteria to grow. Creating an environment without oxygen means that only good bacteria can be present and will kill off the bad bacteria.
Good for your gut health
Fermentation happens when the lactic-acid bacteria become established. These are the bacteria that don’t need oxygen and the ones you want. They are teeming with probiotics and digestive enzymes which are excellent for gut health, helping your body absorb and process the nutrients from the foods you eat. In our restaurants we always encourage a small plate of fermented foods before breakfast, lunch or dinner. It helps kick-start your digestive system getting all the essential machinery working.
Start with the basics: vegetable, salt and water
If that all feels a bit technical it really isn’t and doesn’t need to be. Starting with the basics, all you need is your vegetable, salt, water and ideally a jar of sorts and a moderate temperature. All of this can be achieved in your kitchen at home. To make the most basic kraut, simply shred a cabbage, add a good tablespoon of salt and a small handful of caraway seeds (for flavour) and scrunch for 5 minutes to release the juices. Place in a clean jar, pressing down firmly to release more water and to make sure it’s fully submerged in its juices. Leave at room temperature to ferment over the following weeks. Note that in the hotter weather, it’ll ferment a lot quicker, and don’t worry if it starts to leak – it’s being active so that’s what you want. Stand on a plate to collect any spillage.
Experiment with flavour
You can choose to take your concoctions anywhere just by adding different flavours. Fermenting can be as simple or as complex as you like. There really are very few rules so it’s pretty much down to experimentation. In Japan, it can get lengthy and pretty whiffy too (often not for the newcomer). In Eastern and Northern Europe, flavours can be much brighter, tarter and more acidic. In India, more gentle and warming. Spice and chilli also help to act as a barrier to bad bacteria so the more you choose to flavour, then perhaps the more fruitful you will become.
As something ferments, the flavours tend to mellow, softening and slowly melding together with its companions, just as it would if you were cooking it slowly. So when you’re thinking of what to ferment, think about the flavours or ingredients you might bring together in a dish and if or not they’ll get along.
Ferment the seasons
We work with seasonality in the main. Thinking about what is plentiful at the time and more readily available is a good way to go. So if you’ve got a glut, then ferment it. Brussels sprouts and green cabbages in winter are a great base for kimchi; white and red cabbages are a cost-effective all-rounder and a quick and easy ferment to always have in the fridge. Try red cabbage, nigella seeds and chilli, which is clean but with the added surprise of a little back warmth (recipe below). Alternatively a white cabbage or carrot will work miracles with Indian spices such as turmeric, mustard seed, a little cardamom, coriander, fenugreek and ginger.
In the summer, courgettes and tomatoes abound. The latter (recipe below) makes a punchy quick two-day ferment with garlic and dill, transforming a mid-week salad. Courgettes turn into a delicious English-garden summery ferment when paired with a few fresh herbs such as sage and rosemary, and lemon zest and chilli for extra liveliness. A good trick here is to stuff cherry, oak or vine leaves into your jars to keep the courgettes crunchy – it’s the tannin in the leaves that holds this trick.
Fermenting helps to cut food waste
One of the other great advantages of this craft is its inexpensiveness and ability to minimise and use more resourcefully your everyday vegetable waste. We all throw too much away thinking it not good enough to eat. But truth is, cabbage and cauliflower leaves, cavolo nero stalks and things like the discarded pods of peas are all perfect fermenting material. Greens stand up well to powerful Asian spices and fish sauce; cauliflower to Indian aromatics; and pea pods match well with a few simple herbs such as dill and green chilli.
If the notion of fermenting scares you a little, then go forth with trepidation and do something familiar yet new. Fermented chilli sauce is perfect on your best takeaway pizza or added to a tomato pasta sauce. And lime pickle? It’s easy to make and we all know how to enjoy that.
Fermented foods: two simple recipes to try at home
Red cabbage kraut with chilli & onion seed
– 1 red cabbage
– 2-3 tsp dried red chilli flakes or 3 fresh chillies, thinly sliced
– 1 tbsp sea salt
– filtered water (to top up if needed)
1. Peel and discard a layer of outer leaves from your red cabbage. To shred your cabbage, either use a mandolin or a food processor with a shredding attachment. If you’re using a mandolin, cut your cabbage into quarters from the base to the top (cut the core out if you like), then hand-shred each piece into a large bowl. Add the salt, chilli and and onion seeds.
2. Using your hands, begin to massage the cabbage so that it starts to soften as it releases its own water content. Keep this up for 4-5 minutes or until the cabbage has broken down. You can leave it to sit for 20 minutes so that more water is released before jarring.
3. Stuff your cabbage into a kilner jar a handful at a time, pressing it down firmly, so that it submerges itself in its own juices as it goes. You want to ensure that all of the cabbage is well and truly submerged in its own water. If it’s not, leave it for 24 hours in the jar and check it again the following day. Ferments need a moderate heat in order to ferment, so leave it out at room temperature, sealed in your kilner jar.
4. If the next day it still hasn’t released enough of its own water to cover itself, top up with enough filtered water. Again, ensure all the cabbage is submerged, then close your lid and leave it to ferment. Depending on the time of year, your kraut can take anything from 2 to 6 weeks to ferment. In the summer’s heat, it’ll be quicker. Some prefer it more crunchy and fresh, and others softer.
5. Taste every week and see how you’re finding it. It’s also good to do this to check that your ferment is healthy. If it’s well-covered then it should be fine, but if any white soft mould begins to appear, just scrape this off the top with a metal spoon. This is not dangerous, and all the cabbage that is submerged in its own juice will be more fine.
6. A tip to help keep your cabbage submerged; if you’re using a kilner jar you can roll up a ball of greaseproof paper to act as your weight. This will help keep pressure on your contents once the lid is firmly closed. You want to ensure the paperweight offers some resistance as you close the lid, so that it becomes an effective weight. Ferment outside of the fridge, away from any direct sunlight. Once your kraut has reached your desired taste and texture, you can take away the weight and store it in the fridge. It will keep for a very long time, six months and more.
Two-day tomato & dill pickle
– 300g ripe cherry tomatoes
– 1 small bunch fresh dill
– 3 garlic cloves, slices
– 4 black peppercorns
– 1.5 tbsp sea salt
– 700ml lukewarm filtered water
1. Prick each tomato with a knife so that you pierce the skin. In a bowl, gently combine your tomatoes with the dill and garlic, then carefully guide the ingredients into your Kilner jar. You want to try and get the ingredients fairly evenly distributed. Lastly, add your peppercorns.
2. Mix the salt and water until dissolved, then pour it in, ensuring all the tomatoes are covered. Again use a weight or a ball of greaseproof paper to act as your weight.
3. Leave them to ferment for 3-5 days at room temperature. If it’s particularly hot, they might take less time. Once they’re ready, you can pop them in the fridge. Here they’ll keep for 4-6 weeks.