Fermenting for the family

Fermented vegetables from 'Ferment for Good' by Sharon Flynn.
Fermented vegetables from 'Ferment for Good' by Sharon Flynn. Photo: Tara Pearce

Brine and dry salt ferments

Those pickles you buy on the shelf from the shops aren't fermented. They are preserved – which is great, and they are tasty. But they are pretty much devoid of life because they are preserved in vinegar, and heated to kill any life that might make them dangerous. Buy those, and make those, but don't pretend they are the same as a wild brine ferment. They aren't. And the flavour is very different.

Wild brine ferments are the real 'dill' (sorry). The sour comes from lactic acid, and the flavours are complex and earthy, and they feel amazing as they hit your belly. You know they are good for your gut, so it's pretty normal (and particularly satisfying) to see a whole jar of carrots or beans eaten in one sitting.

This is fermentation at its easiest. Once you experience how easy brine fermenting is, you won't hesitate to grab some vegies and whip them into a life-giving preservation.

Just as with the krauts, no oxygen is allowed in this environment; direct sunlight is not the best; and when you reach your desired, perfect flavour point, all you need to do is slow it down in the fridge. I prefer to use an air-lock system, but a flip-top jar – one with rubber rings and a clip – would work too because it releases gases. A normal jar is fine, just let the gas out by opening it quickly every day or so.

Water

The water you use for your ferments should be filtered or unchlorinated. If your tap water is full of chemicals, then boil it or leave it out in an open container overnight.

Headroom

Just as with krauts and kimchi, you'll need to leave headroom and room for your weights. For cut vegetables, be sure to cut them evenly and to the right length to fit the jar.

Follower and weight 

A follower is important because sometimes the vegetables float to the top when you want them to stay under the brine. Find a good system to hold them down, or shove the vegetables in so tightly that a simple grape leaf or folded cabbage leaf becomes a kind of barrier to hold them down. Something that fits nice and snug is good.

For a weight, you can use another smaller jar that fits snugly enough to push the vegetables down and let the brine rise up to cover. With this method, be sure to use a cloth to keep dust and bugs away. If you don't mind plastic then a zip-lock bag filled with pie weights, marbles or even brine works pretty well too. Using another vegetable chunk cut to the size you need is pretty lovely – carrots are perfect for this.

Flavours

Adding spice is easy and completely up to you, but try to stick to three flavours that generally go together. Don't crush your spices – keep them whole to limit mould. If you are planning on only doing a three-day ferment, then this isn't such a problem – crush them to get to the flavour faster.

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If you want to use herbs such as coriander (cilantro) and parsley, use the root or stem part that holds all the flavour – the leaves can get soggy or slimy. Reserve the leaves for dishes that aren't fermented.

The below combinations are some of my favourites, but just recommendations:

  • garlic, chilli and black pepper
  • dill, mustard seeds and garlic
  • lemon zest, garlic and chilli
  • lemongrass, coriander seeds and chilli
  • mustard seeds, chopped shallot and a sprig of thyme or tarragon
  • dill and parsley root, fennel seeds and orange zest
  • turmeric, pepper and chilli
  • ginger, coriander seed or root and garlic
  • celery seeds, caraway seeds, juniper berries and garlic
  • star anise, bay leaf and pepper.

To ferment

Keep your jar out of any direct sunlight and at a constant room temperature of 14C-21C. I like to keep mine on the bench to watch and listen to the bubbles. Fermenting time will depend on the vegetable and how warm it is in your kitchen. The harder the vegetable, the longer it will take. After about three days, the liquid might turn cloudy, which is normal, and there could be a funky discolouration at the top. That's OK. Taste some and if it's suitably sour, then put it into the fridge to slow any further fermenting right down. Keep the vegetables under the brine. Enjoy! Hopefully they'll taste sour and good and you won't be able to stop at one. These ferments will keep in the fridge for at least six months.

The REAL dill (pickle) recipe

We want these cucumbers to retain their crunch, so it's best to look for the gherkin-style cucumbers, which are small but thick-skinned. Regular cucumbers with thin skins are OK, but up the salt content a bit with these to make sure they stay crunchy.

I'm not friends with detailed fiddly things and most of my salt measurements for brines are measured by a cupped palmful. (Enough salt for a 1.5 litre jar is a cupped palmful – or about 2½ tablespoons.) But work out your own method, or measure properly if you prefer.

A very important ingredient for keeping the cucumbers crispy is a bit of tannin. We use fresh grape leaves because we have them, but raspberry, blackberry or oak leaves are good, as are tea leaves (just a few loose leaves from tea you buy will do). If you have enough leaves, put one on the bottom, and then use another leaf as a follower to hold the pickles under the brine before adding a weight, and sealing your vessel.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Fermentation time: 5+ days

Equipment: 1L jar, ceramic crock or Japanese pickle press (I like to use an air-lock system but any jar will do really), weight

500 g small thick-skinned cucumbers

1-2 grape leaves or other tannin-rich leaves (optional but recommended)

2-3 garlic cloves (depending on size), peeled

1 tsp mustard seeds

1 tbsp whole peppercorns (mixed is nice)

1 fresh bird's eye chilli, or 1 tsp dried chilli flakes

2-3 fresh dill stalks and fronds, or 2 tsp whole dill seeds

2-4 tbsp good, fine salt (for every 500ml water, add 1 tbsp salt)

1-2L water (best to use rainwater, filtered, or tap water boiled and cooled)

1. Take the blossom end off the cucumbers as it has enzymes in it that can make the cucumber go soft.

2. Put a grape leaf in the bottom of your jar, then strategically place the cucumbers on top, squeezing as many in as possible by packing them tightly. Don't allow in any that are spoiled or a bit soft because they won't ferment well. Add the garlic, mustard seeds, peppercorns, chilli, dill and any other spices you'd like. (You can even omit all of these and stick to simply salt and water.)

3. Make your brine with the salt and water and pour into the jar over the vegetables, using as much as you need to cover them completely.

4. Top with another leaf if you have one; it will make a great follower to keep the cucumbers under the brine. Top with your chosen weighting system and seal.

Wait five to 10 days, taste and refrigerate.

Carrot recipe

Giving a child, or yourself, a fermented carrot stick to snack on is so many levels up on a regular carrot in flavour, and of course in nutritional value. Just peel and cut the carrots into rounds or sticks, depending on how you'd like to snack on them. I like rounds because they are bite-sized and perfect for munching on while I'm at the computer or watching TV. The brine ratio should be roughly 3 per cent.

Preparation time: five to 10 minutes

Fermentation time: one week

Equipment: 1L jar, follower, weight your favourite flavour combination (optional)

300g carrots (or enough to fill your jar), peeled and chopped about 2-3 tsp fine salt

1L water (or enough to cover your carrots)

1. Add your favourite flavour combination to the jar if you wish. Fill the jar with the carrots.

2. Make a brine with the salt and water and pour over the carrots, using as much as you need to cover them completely. Follow and weigh them down and seal the jar.

3. They are ready to eat when you think they are delicious (about a week). When you've decided they are sour enough, pop them into the fridge for safekeeping. They'll last for months like that.

Green bean recipe

This is another great brine ferment. My kids get these in their lunchboxes. And I also eat them at my desk.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Fermentation time: 3+ days

Equipment: 1L jar

300g green beans (or enough to fill your jar nice and tightly), topped and tailed, strings removed your favourite flavour combination

1L water

2 tbsp fine salt

1. Pack the beans tightly into the jar. Add your favourite flavour combination, if using.

2. Make a brine with the water and salt and pour it into the jar, leaving headroom. Seal the jar.

3. This is a fast ferment – it will only need to ferment for 3-5 days at room temperature. It can go longer – just test and refrigerate before it goes soft. Keep in the fridge for up to eight weeks.

Note: My favourite flavour combination with beans or carrots is 1-2 garlic cloves; one dill stalk or some fennel; and five black and red peppercorns.

This is an edited extract from 'Ferment for Good' by Sharon Flynn published by Hardie Grant Books RRP $39.99 and is available in stores nationally.