Vittles 5.3

Fermenting with Dame Thom Eagle: Brine

Oh good, I don’t need to do a intro for this one. For those who want one then please see part one of Thom Eagle’s ongoing fermenting guide and pandemic panacea on the kraut method here

Otherwise, here is Thom on how a brine is the next crucial step to ferment those larger chunks of vegetables.

Fermenting with Dame Thom Eagle: Brine

The dry-salting or sauerkraut method can, as I said previously, be applied to many vegetables beyond cabbages; roots in particular, grated or shredded to break down their fibres, ferment very well in this fashion. Often though you might not want your pickles to be chopped and shredded but rather to stay whole and crunchy. In this case, given that the vegetables will not initially be extruding their own liquid in which to stay sour and away from the air like with the saeurkraut method, you simply need to add some in the form of a brine.

Although marginally more complicated than just adding salt to a pile of cabbage this is still very easily done; at its simplest a brine is just salt dissolved in water. Some people add sugar to fermenting brines, but I find generally that the sweeter you make your pickle the more susceptible it is to moulds, yeasts, and other undesirable forms of microbial life, and stick to salt alone. You are looking for a salt solution of around 2 or 3%, so 20 or 30 grams to a litre of water; mix these together and heat gently until the salt (and possibly sugar) has completely dissolved, then leave to cool completely before using. Too much heat will kill the bacteria you are trying to nurture. 

When cool, the brine will perform the same purpose as the juice squeezed out of cabbage for sauerkraut – keeping its contents pleasantly salty and away from the air. The additional problem with a brine is that things tend to bob around in it and require a little more weight to keep them under. I always mean to save those plastic cages you get in jars of cornichons and cornershop pickled chillies, but I never do. A lemon makes a pretty decent weight. Whatever you use, check every day or so (at the same time you burp the jars) to make sure everything is submerged and there’s no mould or yeast creeping in – I’ll go more into the troubleshooting side of things next time.

While the brine is cooling you can prepare your vegetables. How you do so is when it comes down to it a matter of taste, but it depends also on their texture and density. Cucumbers (in the form of gherkins, of course) and tomatoes both ferment very well, but if chopped up would turn quickly to mush. If you want a very quick ferment you can halve them, but in general (especially since we now have the time, if not necessarily the patience) I would leave them whole. At the other end of the scale, a turnip or beetroot can be cut quite small or even shaved into ribbons and will still keep its texture well. Both, in fact, go into one of my favourite brine ferments: those pink turnips you get with a good shawarma wrap. 

1kg turnips, no bigger than a chocolate orange

1 beetroot

20g sea salt

4 cloves of garlic, crushed with the side of your hand

2 bay leaves

A bundle of celery leaves 

Put the salt in a pan with 700ml water and heat gently until it dissolves. Leave to cool completely. 

If the turnips are particularly thick-skinned, peel them; if not, I wouldn’t bother. Cut into rough cubes or batons as you like. Thinly slice the beetroot. Put both in a 1l preserving jar, crock or tub and add the garlic, bay and celery.

When the brine is completely cool pour it over the contents of the jar and seal. Leave to ferment, burping the jar every so often, until the colour has bled from the beetroot and coloured the whole jar. Taste at this point; they’ll probably want another few days. 

When you are happy with them, store in the fridge.

Thom Eagle is a chef and writer, 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 .