Vittles 5.1

Fermenting with Dame Thom Eagle

I’ve publicly compared Thom Eagle to two famous musicians, disparate in their temperaments. The first is obviously Kanye West. The question they used to ask about Kanye is “is he a producer who raps or a rapper who produces”, as if one skill had to be dominant and defining. In the same way you could ask about Thom “is he a chef who writes or a writer who happens to be a great chef?”. Like Kanye, Thom is the latest in a lineage of cook/writers - Olney, Hopkinson, Henderson - whose skills you can glean either from his wonderfully digressionary, Sterne-ian memoir First, Catch, or from a picture of me licking a plate of his ricotta dumplings clean at a pop-up in Dalston last year. Some might say this makes him doubly talented; I say this makes him doubly unemployed.

Dame Vera Lynn was the second figure, because like the wartime singer his work can also form a cheering, propaganda function for all of us sitting at home doing nothing, as Thom expounds upon us the importance of pickling and fermenting and how easy this might be to start ourselves. What I love about Thom’s writing is that it is very clear without being too precise, it is the voice of an expert but not lofty, you always feel when you read him that you too could do what he’s doing. As our Vera Lynn of pickles, I’m delighted that Thom will be doing some regular writing for Vittles over the next few weeks or whatever lifetime this has. The first piece below is an introduction to why you might want to start fermenting, as well as an easy recipe for cabbage.

Fermenting with Dame Thom Eagle: Kraut

As many people find themselves either workless or working from home - but in any case with more time on their hands - and as much of the conversation around cooking inevitably turns towards what can usefully be made with the contents of your cupboards, it seems a good time to think also about what can be put into them, what can be made with our somewhat precarious food supplies that will last. This covers a lot of things, of course, and if you have the equipment now would be a great time to get into home canning or grinding your own flour; it might still be, if you have the money to invest in such things. As I’d rather stick to recipes which require neither special equipment nor ingredients beyond what can easily be found at fresh markets and corner shops, though, I wanted to write instead a guide to fermentation and pickling, which also happen to be my own areas of expertise.

Fermented and pickled foods are nourishing of course, a way now as they have been throughout history of storing the health and abundance of one season long into the next, but they are also delicious, sharp and alive in a way a lot of store-cupboard cooking is perhaps not. Over the next few weeks of Vittles I’ll be providing a guide to fermenting fruit and vegetables with salt as well as pickling with vinegar, firstly from a practical standpoint with recipes and a hands-on guide and secondly looking more broadly at the process, the invisible forces which are at work in those innocuous if slightly stinky jars; lastly, talking of which, there’ll be troubleshooting advice, which I find is the first thing people often ask me about fermenting anyway. Is it supposed to look like that? Is it supposed to SMELL like that? While fermenting, once you get into it, is a fairly simple process, it’s good to have someone with you at the start to make sure you’re doing the right thing. 

We’ll cover the basic types of fermented pickles, both dry-salted like sauerkraut and brined like gherkins, along with vinegar pickles of various kinds – all with a few recipes and suggestions on how you can take things further, including how you can cook with your ferments and use them in other dishes along the way. Fermentation, I have always felt, is a fundamentally communal activity, from the microscopic communities of bacteria and yeast which do the hard work for you to the diaspora communities who still nurture the yoghurt or kefir their great-grandparents brought over, or the online communities who share starters, SCOBYs, jars and buckets and problems and triumphs; I hope now that it can serve that purpose in times of isolation. If not, at least you’ll get pickles out of it.

While it is usually correct to be suspicious of professional cooks telling you that recipes or methods are ‘easy’, fermentation really is easy, and this is largely because the cook doesn’t actually have very much to do with the matter. The thing to remember is that your ingredients want to ferment; fermentation is essentially a kind of controlled decay, and decay is inevitable. Your only job is to steer it in the right direction. In the case of simple fermented pickles like sauerkraut and gherkins, this direction is lacto-fermentation, a perhaps slightly confusing term. 

Lacto- implies milk, and the fermentation is enacted by the same kinds of bacteria as those which make yoghurt and cheese, but they don’t need milk to survive; they can feed on any kind of sugar, creating in turn lactic acid, which is of course sour in flavour and protects your pickles against other forms of decay. There is no need to add any kind of starter culture to your pickle; whatever you intend to ferment will already be covered in lactic acid bacteria, along with wild yeasts and ten thousand other things. What you need to do instead is to give them their best possible chance, and you do this with salt. Salt is harmful to bacteria and yeast as it is in sufficient quantity to all life – bury yourself in Maldon’s and you’ll see what I mean – but lactic acid bacteria are more tolerant of it than most. Added in the right quantity, not too much and not too little, salt will let them thrive.

Lactic acid bacteria are also useful for the preserver in that unlike many bacteria, yeasts and moulds they can happily live with or without oxygen; in addition to salt, protecting your pickle from the air is the easiest way to ensure a successful ferment. This is done both with the jar or whatever container you use and within, by ensuring that your ingredients are submerged in liquid.

There are basically two ways to do this, the simplest being what I am choosing to call the sauerkraut method. That’s the German word for it, obviously, but it is common wherever things are fermented (which is pretty much everywhere) presumably for the reason that it is so straightforward. Let’s assume you have a cabbage, just a plain white cabbage; they ferment very well, but when you get the hang of it you can ferment any reasonably tough vegetable in the same way, grated or shredded. Although you can chuck in whatever spices you like and have to hand nothing needs adding to your cabbage except salt. The liquid it is submerged in is that contained within it, expressed by means of salt and a little force.

1 white cabbage, shredded

Salt

Caraway, or black pepper, or fennel seed, or turmeric, or anything at all

How finely you shred the cabbage depends on personal preference and ability. A mandolin will do the job nicely, but failing that a sharp knife and patience will suffice. Just remember that the finer you shred it, the quicker it will ferment, and that it will break down somewhat during the process. A very fine shred will turn to mush.

Weigh the shredded cabbage and calculate 2% of its weight; if you have a kilogram of cabbage you will want 20g of salt. If you don’t have scales, don’t worry too much. This is (for me) a good amount of salt to use but it isn’t set in stone. Figure a good tablespoon of salt for an average cabbage, and go by taste. Once mixed the cabbage should taste *slightly* too salty. 

Mix the salt through the cabbage along with whatever spices you fancy and begin to massage it, rubbing the salt into the cabbage with your fingers. After a minute or two you should feel its juices coming out; keep on massaging until you can pick up a handful and literally wring it out like a dishcloth.

Pack the cabbage into your container. A crock or kilner-style jar is ideal, but regular glass jars or plastic tubs will do quite happily; I often use a 1 litre yoghurt tub. Steer clear of metal; even stainless steel doesn’t respond well to the acid.

You want to push the cabbage down quite forcefully, to make sure that the liquid comes up above it; if it shows a tendency to float, you can hold it in place with a scrunched up piece of baking parchment and perhaps a lemon. Seal the jar.

Now you just have to wait! Active fermentation should start within 2 or 3 days, and after that it is a matter of taste; I like quite a fresh kraut, say a week or 10 days old, but you might like yours sourer. When you are happy with it, keep it in the fridge to slow the fermentation down. It’ll last fairly indefinitely, or for as long as you don’t eat it.

Thom Eagle is a writer who cooks, whose first book First, Catch is available from all good bookstores and whose second book Summer’s Lease is out this June. Before the pandemic, he was also cooking semi-regularly at Bottega Caruso in Margate and he writes regularly on his Patreon. He was paid for this newsletter.

The illustration was done by Caitlin Isola Caprio whose work you can find here https://caitlinisola.com/ . Caitlin was also paid for her work.