If there’s one thing our grandparents’ generation taught us, it was the importance of reducing waste in the kitchen. For those who lived through a World War and the rations that ensued, making the most of the food in the pantry was of utmost importance: especially without the luxury of having access to a fridge.
Preserving foods may have lost its appeal sometime between then and now, but it’s coming back with a vengeance as those who love cooking try to become more savvy and efficient with their produce. Pickling and fermenting foods is such an incredible method of naturally preserving foods and making things last far longer, that it’s only a matter of time before more people jump on board.
Minimal ingredients, a simple process, and tasty results mean you don’t need to be an expert cook to become a master of preserves.
Pickling is defined as: the process of preserving or expanding the lifespan of food by either anaerobic fermentation in brine or immersion in vinegar.
Fermentation is defined as: the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids using yeast or bacteria under anaerobic conditions.
Some pickled foods are fermented and some fermented foods are pickled – but they don’t always overlap, as much as they are not always mutually exclusive!For example, beer and sourdough bread are both products of fermentation, however neither are pickles.
But first of all, what is the difference?
The results may seem confusingly similar, but the processes of pickling and fermenting aren’t the same. Pickling involves the immersion of leftover foods in an acidic solution, most often vinegar, which can change the taste and texture of whatever ingredient is being pickled. The acidic ph successfully kills off bad bacteria, thus preserving them unlike if they weren’t submerged in the substance. The heat which is added seeks to destroy and prevent growth of microorganisms. However, despite the use of a fermented product (vinegar) to pickle whatever vegetable you are looking to preserve, pickled foods are not actually fermented themselves. Confused? Hang in there.
The process of fermentation tends to take longer than that of pickling, due to it changing the colour, flavour and texture of the food. In this method, liquid isn’t as necessary, as it is the vegetables themselves which provide the moisture, with the process seeking to extract the moisture from within.
It’s a process whereby the sugars and carbohydrates are consumed by ‘good’ bacteria. The bacteria then convert those substances into other states, such as alcohol, carbon dioxide or acids. It is the presence of lactobacillus which
gives fermented products that renowned tangy flavour and creates probiotics which can help with digestion.
What are probiotics?
According to the NHS website: “Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts promoted as having various health benefits. [They] are thought to help restore the natural balance of bacteria in your gut (including your stomach and intestines) when it has been disrupted by an illness or treatment.” After consistently being taught that bacteria is bad, it can seem strange to suggest that eating live bacteria is a good thing, but most studies show that for most people, probiotics are safe and can even prove to have some health benefits. Often consumed as diet supplement pills, home fermenting can be a great alternative source to probiotics.
What should I try fermenting?
As we spoke about, it is the lactobacillus on the surface of vegetables which does the fermenting. So pretty much any vegetable you would eat, you can ferment. One of the most well-known, of course, is sauerkraut. The European
classic which divides people almost as much as marmite, requires just three ingredients: cabbage, salt and caraway
seeds. Pop them in a jar, leave for up to ten days, and have a tangy supply of sauerkraut for months to come.
Veg Prep? Chop, grate, slice or leave whole depending on how you want your fermented veg to be. But ensure consistency throughout each batch so that fermentation happens evenly.
Top Tip: Make sure your jar is closed tightly to ensure best results!
How long does it take?
Again, there are no hard or fast rules about this. Fermentation is a gradual and continual process which will continue to transform your vegetables over time. But, looking out for some of the telling signs that the product is ready to be moved into cold storage, can help to put your mind at ease when still a novice to the method. The most obvious is the smell. Fermentation will release a sour aroma, but it shouldn’t be unpleasant, if it is, then discard it. Watching for bubbles after a few days at room temperature is a good sign that the process is working. Once these two things have happened, keep tasting the product on a daily basis to determine when they are to your taste. The general rule of thumb is that the denser the vegetable is, the longer it’ll take to get the tangy flavour you want. Once you think they are ready, move them to cold storage to ensure they’ll last for as long as possible.
There isn’t really much of a rule book when it comes to fermentation, so get experimenting with different ingredients and find your favourites. Trial and error is the best route to becoming an expert, so don’t be afraid to give it a go. Plus, don’t forget to enjoy the process. Taking a raw vegetable and preserving it is a fascinating transition so remember to enjoy it and don’t stop experimenting!