Produce aisLe fermented flavor
Kolanko makes sauerruben with fermented kohlrabi, turnips or rutabagas. First, he
shreds the vegetables or cuts in discs or wedges for a crisp-style pickle. He massages
with salt mixed with nonchlorinated water, because chlorine can interfere with
fermentation. The mixture is put in jars at room temperature for three days. The cover
is removed daily to see if there are bubbles on top, a sign that fermentation is underway,
as well as to make sure that the vegetables are submerged and to skim off any white film
or mold spots on the brine.
By the end of three days, the vegetable should have a clean, lightly sour smell and
taste. The jars are then refrigerated for at least five days. Fermented vegetables will
keep in the refrigerator for at least six months, but are best eaten within three months.
Kolanko uses his fermented vegetables in a mixed vegetable salad, as a crunchy,
tangy bar snack or an add-on to a burger, or combined with spätzle in a smoked pork
Fermented vegetables complement menu items that are rich in flavor and high in fat.
Ashlee Aubin, executive chef at Wood, Chicago, incorporates fermented flavors into
composed dishes to cut through the fat, break up the textural monotony on the palate
and avoid palate fatigue. He doesn’t, for example, add a mound of sauerkraut to a dish,
but, rather, turns the kraut into a puree.
Smoked pastrami spice-rubbed sweetbreads are pan-roasted and served with
sauerkraut puree that’s been cooked with onions, white wine, chicken stock and cream.
The kraut starts out as shredded green cabbage massaged with a 3% salt solution. Then
it’s packed in a container, weighted down and fermented at 65°F for 24 days. “The
change in flavor from fermentation allows us to keep the natural flavor of the vegetable
while increasing the acidity and funk,” Aubin says. “Cooking the sauerkraut allows the
flavors to further concentrate and be served in a nontraditional way.”
Greg Biggers, executive chef/owner of Fort Louise, Nashville, Tennessee, and
executive chef at Café des Architectes, Chicago, says, “Fermented vegetables are one
of those staple ingredients that once you start making it, you will always want to do it.
You’ll discover a subtle depth of flavor to complement many recipes.”
He ferments trumpet royale and shiitake mushrooms that have been boiled in water.
Raw mushrooms, even edible ones, contain trace toxins that may not be removed through
fermentation alone. Heating the mushrooms first extracts beneficial phytonutrients that
will then combine with the probiotics created through fermentation to create a double
punch of nutrition.
The cooked, cooled mushrooms are put in a crockpot and mixed with salt and
cooking liquid with spices and aromatics such as garlic, dill, caraway seed and chili
flake, depending on the desired flavor profile. Within a week, the mushrooms start to
ferment and continue to do so for two weeks. They’re used on charcuterie and cheese
boards and in a variety of entrees. “Any mushroom can be fermented, but dense meatier
ones hold up better when kept in a liquid for an extended period of time,” Biggers says.
He has a cheese program at Café des Architectes, and makes five different kinds of
cheese that produce large amounts of whey. “Whey jumpstarts the fermentation process
and shortens the cure time,” he says. “It also adds a depth of flavor and a richness to the
vegetable that you don’t get by just using salt.”
The concept at Table, Donkey and Stick in Chicago is based on preservation
techniques, and fermented vegetables are a natural extension of executive chef Ryan
Brosseau’s menu. A composed dish, for example, is sliced corned beef heart served
with sauerkraut and fermented mustard seeds. Shredded cabbage is fermented with
salt and sugar for three to six weeks, depending on the strength of the desired taste.
Fermenting vegetables can be as easy as mixing them
with the primary ingredient, salt and/or sugar and/
or whey, and storing in a container for a few days,
weeks or months. Spices and aromatics can be added
to infuse flavor. The process is more involved with
the Japanese fermentation techniques using the
microbe koji (an inoculated bed of rice) or nukadoko (a
fermented bed of salted rice bran).
Vegetable fermentation is the result of the activity
of naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria. It’s a
biological process by which sugars—glucose, fructose
and sucrose—are converted into cellular energy and
a metabolic byproduct—lactic acid. When the acidity
rises because of lactic acid-fermenting organisms,
many harmful microorganisms are killed and the
vegetable is turned into something tasty.
Yeasts and other microorganisms also may be
involved in the process, depending on the salt
concentration and other factors. Salt may be added
in vegetable fermentations in dry form or as a brine
solution, and in variable concentrations depending on
the type of vegetable.
Vegetables to be fermented must be in season. Out-of-season or hothouse-grown items lack natural flavor,
and the end result will be flat and flavorless. “You
want to buy produce at the peak of the season when
it’s full of flavor and grown in a natural way, because
that flavor will be captured and intensified during the
fermentation process,” says Ashlee Aubin, executive
chef at Wood, Chicago.
Fermentation is largely trial and error. Aubin will make
a batch with a 2% salt/sugar-to-water ratio, one with
a 3% and one with a 4%. He’ll taste-test after two
weeks, taste again three days later and so on, until the
recipe achieves the right flavor profile.
Temperature plays a part, too. High heat could
introduce bad bacteria and ruin a batch, and
a temperature that is too low can impede the
fermentation process. The ferment needs to checked
daily to ensure that nothing goes wrong and to record
the temperature. “Fermenting items can go from
being in a state of really good to something that is
not useable within a day,” says Jonathan Dearden,
executive chef at Radiator, Washington, D.C.