It was good old William Shakespeare who coined the phrase “in a pickle” and it is certainly true that pickling, preserving and fermenting are some of the oldest methods of food preservation. These processes fell out of favour with the advent of mass refrigeration but have now firmly wormed their way back into fashion. All things bacterial and vinegary have sloughed off their slightly fusty image and have become super cool.
“We’ve been fermenting for years- we just didn’t realise it”
I do distinctly recall the ginger beer plant, the household “pet” of the 70’s and my first unwitting encounter with fermentation. Initially fascinating and exciting the GBP as it became known, quickly morphed into a needy monster and it soon became apparent there weren’t enough friends, friends of friends or acquaintances in all of the world to palm it’s offspring onto. However times have moved on, the scars have healed and I feel ready to embrace the world of fermentation and pickling with an open mind and renewed enthusiasm.
“Pickling and fermenting tick a lot of the eco friendly and health boxes”
Pickling is a method of preservation that we may be more familiar with and there’s really nothing not to like about pickles. Pickling is an ancient process that is believed to improve digestion, strengthen the immune system and promote good gut health. The fermentation process boosts the vitamin content of vegetables, which when eaten alongside a meal instantly enhances the probiotic content of the rest of the dish. It’s a fabulous way to eat seasonally and use up gluts of fruit and vegetables. Of course this is also a super money saver, instead of binning produce that’s on the edge you can transform it into something delicious. Preserving foods has a huge role to play in reducing food waste and fully embraces the slow food versus industrial food production ethos.
What is fermenting?
To put it in layman’s terms, fermenting is simply the breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeast or other naturally occurring microorganisms. Natural bacterias break down the sugars in fruits and vegetables and converts them into acids, in a process known as lacto fermentation. Pickling on the other hand relies on an acid solution to prevent changes in the ingredient that’s being pickled. It may come as a surprise to discover that we consume fermented products all the time; bread (particularly sourdough), beer, wine, cheese, yoghurt, salami and even chocolate are all products of fermentation.
“Fermentation is starting to feel familiar”
There are a plethora of fermented products around today that we wouldn’t have been aware of up until a few years ago, words like kombucha and kefir are now bandied around with ease and are widely available. Recently I’ve been feeling in need of a bit of a pick me up so I’m treating myself to a daily dose of kefir. Milk kefir is a cultured, fermented drink that can be made with cow, sheep or goat’s milk- carbon dioxide is generated during this process which imparts a slight fizz to this tangy sour flavoured drink. The benefits of drinking kefir may not be felt immediately as it will take some time to build up immunity in the gut but be reassured it is quietly and efficiently doing its job in the background.
Kombucha is another fermented product which is created from sweetened black tea and a culture known as a “scoby” (an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts). Like kefir kombucha is slightly fizzy, it’s fizziness increases the longer the kombucha is allowed to ferment. There have been many beneficial health claims made for kombucha including antibiotic, antifungal and antiviral properties.
Other products which have nestled themselves comfortably into our national consciousness include kimchi, a fermented vegetable pickle which originates from Korea, sauerkraut from Germany, miso from Japan and tempeh which started life in Java.
So with fermenting and pickling being absolutely on trend at the moment maybe it’s time to get creative in the kitchen and have a go. To kick things off I’m sharing my recipe for homemade sriracha- a fermented hot chilli sauce with sweet and savoury notes that hails from Thailand. It’s simple to make and rather addictive, mix it into mayo, drizzle it into a stir fry or pep up a bacon butty with it. Enjoy!
300g long red chillies, stalks removed and roughly chopped
200g red peppers, seeded and roughly chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tsp sea salt flakes
75g soft light brown sugar
2 tbsp rice vinegar
2 tsp fish sauce
- Put the chillies, peppers, garlic, salt and brown sugar into a food processor and whizz to a rough puree (I’m too lazy to get the food processor out so I use a hand/stick blender)!
- Put the puree in a glass bowl, cover with cling film and leave at room temperature to ferment.
- After a couple of days it will start to bubble. Leave for 5 days in total, stirring each day.
- After 5 days whizz the mixture in a food processor or blender to as smooth as possible, then strain through a sieve to remove the seeds.
- Pour the strained sauce into a pan with the rice vinegar and fish sauce, bring to the boil and simmer until thickened.
- Leave to cool then adjust to taste with extra sugar, fish sauce and rice vinegar.
- Once cooled decant into sterilised bottles.
- Prepare to become addicted!
Cook’s note: I usually make 3 x this recipe which yields roughly 900mls in quantity