An apple a day keeps the doctor away, according to the Welsh proverb, advice that many of us grew up following. But if the words kraut or kimchi were swapped in, how many of you would still be interested?
What I’m referring to is fermented vegetables — not pickled in vinegar, but naturally fermented in a saltwater brine. Even though kraut is part of the Lancaster County vernacular, how many of us are actually eating it on the regular, beyond that annual New Year’s good-luck ritual?
Fermenting food is an ancient practice that spans the globe and includes many of the things we love, from beer and coffee to chocolate and cheese. The past decade has seen a resurgence of fermented vegetables in particular, from product lines of kimchi and kraut appearing in grocery stores to a new generation of DIY books.
Unlike vegetables pickled in a vinegar brine and processed in jars, “ ’erments,” as they popularly known, are the result of lacto-fermentation. Simply put, it’s a process in which raw vegetables are massaged with salt, creating a saltwater brine. That brine acts like an incubator, encouraging naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria to convert the vegetable’s natural starches and sugars into lactic acid and turn it into kraut or kimchi. Not be confused with lactose, the sugar found in milk, lactic acid is an immune-boosting probiotic that fights infections and helps with digestion.
Under the tutelage of author and food entrepreneur Julie O’Brien, I learned the basics of lacto-fermentation several years ago. But if I’m being honest, I made kraut a few times a year, at most. A recent study has me rethinking that approach. Published in May in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Allergy, the study looks at countries where fermented vegetables are a dietary staple (such as South Korea and Germany) and if they have a role to play in lower fatality rates of COVID-19. (Read more at bit.ly/COVIDFermentedLNP.)
At the heart of this discussion is exploring the potential of fermented cabbage to disrupt the activity of an enzyme called ACE2 from making its way into the lungs and inviting the coronavirus. Whether this theory will be proven is up for grabs in this year of great uncertainty. Long before the coronavirus darkened our doors, the fermentation community has known that eating ferments can boost our immunity and vitality. At a time when we all need as much immune boosting as we can get, making the time for ferments feels like a worthwhile investment, now and maybe forever.
Think of kimchi as sauerkraut’s spicier cousin. The distinctive ingredient is gochugaru, also known as Korean red pepper. It is a medium heat pepper with both smoky and sweet notes. Newbies should start with 1 tablespoon per recipe, which gives fairly mild results. For a spicier kimchi, use up to a total of three tablespoons. When buying, make sure it is free of salt.
Excerpted from “Fresh & Fermented” by Julie O’Brien & Richard J. Climenhage
Makes 1 quart
- 1 head green cabbage (about 2 pounds)
- 1 tablespoon fine sea salt
- 3 tablespoons thinly sliced green onions, including the green tops (from about 3)
- 1 to 3 tablespoons coarsely Korean red pepper (gochugaru), depending on heat preference
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
Peel off any older, discolored outer leaves from the cabbage and set aside. Thoroughly rinse the head. Slice in half and core both halves with the tip of a sharp knife. (Do not discard.) Thinly slice or shred the cabbage into pieces about 1/4-inch wide, with size consistency in mind. (Plan B: Use the shredding disc of a food processor.) You should end up with about 12 cups.
Place in a large bowl and sprinkle the salt all over. With your hands, massage or “work” the cabbage to encourage water release and to create the brine that activates the fermentation process. Massage until the cabbage has reduced in volume by half, 8 to 10 minutes. You will also notice a pool of brine at the bottom of the bowl. Taste the brine; it should taste unmistakably like saltwater.
Add the green onions, Korean red pepper, garlic and ginger, stirring until evenly distributed. Fill a clean quart jar (a canning jar works great) with the seasoned cabbage along with the brine, tightly packing by pressing down with your fingers, knuckles or a wooden spoon. Leave 2 inches headspace between the vegetables and the rim of the jar. To keep the cabbage from floating and rising above the brine, jam one of the reserved cabbage cores into the center to act as a weight. You may also cover it with one of the reserved cabbage leaves.
Make sure the brine completely covers the cabbage by about 1 inch, leaving about 1 inch of headspace. The most important thing is to make sure that the cabbage is below the brine by about and not exposed to air. If you find yourself a little short on brine, make a small stash and gradually add until the cabbage is completely submerged. (See box below on how to make more brine.)
Place the lid on top and gently screw on the band. Set the jar on a plate or in a bowl to collect any seeping brine (which is fine) and away from sunlight or other heat source, and let the fermentation begin. Check periodically for brine level, adding more as needed. Feel free to begin tasting on Day 3, but flavors will not really develop until Day 7. As long as the brine stays above the cabbage, you can let the kimchi ferment at room temperature for up to 1 month. Once it’s to your liking, store in the refrigerator, where it keeps for up to 3 months.