Written and photographed by Valerie Paik
Lacto-fermentation. Not a sexy word. And not a very sexy process, especially how the book Get Cultured describes it: “the slow, steady and very purposeful rotting of vegetable matter and other foods…” Mmmm. I should include the rest of the sentence here, which is that it is “a worthy culinary adventure.” Indeed. Kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles—all fine byproducts of this ancient food preparation process—are near and dear to my heart.
Being half Korean, we always had a jar of kimchi in our fridge. Whether it was gold-and-red-stickered King’s Kimchi or a big, unlabeled jar straight from my grandpa’s cupboard, it would appear on our table for meals across the spectrum: Asian stir fry, roasted pork loin, carnitas, my sister’s hot dog fried rice, and even Thanksgiving leftovers. It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I started discovering more about how the stuff was actually made. Even though cooking and food are a huge part of my life, it never occurred to me how humble cabbage gets transformed into that slightly sour, refreshing condiment that fizzles and tingles once it hits the tongue. That’s where lacto-fermentation comes in.
Lacto-fermentation, or lactic acid fermentation, is a process where vegetables are submerged in water with salt over time, stimulating bacteria to produce lactic acid that preserves the vegetables and converts them into probiotics. There are many health benefits of fermented foods that my friend, author and certified holistic health and nutrition counselor Alex Jamieson, can tell you all about. Making fermented foods is incredibly easy. After the cleaning and chopping, the only thing you need to do is not forget to check in, give ’em a taste and put them in the fridge when they’re done.
So my first experiments with home lacto-fermentation began. I started with the cilantro salsa recipe in Sally Fallon and Dr. Mary Enig’s book Eat Fat, Lose Fat. Like many cultured/fermented recipes, the ingredient list calls for whey, which adds beneficial bacteria and kickstarts fermentation. Unless you are Casey Barber, you probably don’t have whey sitting around in your fridge. [Editor’s Note: What? It’s totally normal!] So my amendment to this recipe, per my sister’s advice, was to add more salt: “just enough so that it tastes really salty, but still tastes good.”
After whirling everything around in the food processor, then stirring in the chopped cilantro, a wide-mouthed mason jar was the final destination, with one inch of space below the top of the jar. Then, after three days of sitting in the dark and cozy area under my sink, voilà! Fermented salsa! It actually doesn’t taste that different from regular salsa, except for the depth of the flavor and tingly sensation in your mouth.
Because I knew I’d be writing this article, and because using canned tomatoes somehow seemed like cheating, I wanted to try fermented salsa with fresh tomatoes. So I turned to this cultured salsa recipe from The Nourishing Gourmet. Two days and a gallon of cultured salsa later (I figured adjusting the original recipe quantities would be cheating, too), I thought I might end up responding to the Accepting Food Failure post. The result was a white fuzz-spotted, slushy looking mess.
After I scooped off the top two inches or so, I bravely tasted the now-innocent-looking concoction. Not bad. Not great, but that almost soapy, acidic flavor that I could not detach from the just-discarded mold was disappointing. However, after tasting it again the next day (I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away), it was better. Then I had my courageous friends taste it and, to my surprise, they loved it! Describing its flavor as “seviche-like” and “deep, rich and refreshing,” I guess it wasn’t as bad as I thought. (Note: I later found out that the white fuzzy mold was actually ok, unless you have a mold allergy; it’s when the mold is a darker or black color that the food has just gone bad.)
Then I went off the books. Again taking my sister’s advice, I made my favorite salsa recipe and just added the extra salt. Starting with a more modest three tomatoes (instead of 4 pounds), I chopped up my other ingredients, adding a full jalapeño pepper this time, and fermented away. Three days later, the result was a fruity, fragrant and spot-on salsa. The first bite tastes like a good, fresh salsa. But then that bright ring of effervescence permeates the inside of your cheeks and reminds you that it’s something pretty special. As my boyfriend said, “I feel the buzz.”
I’m all for getting the most bang for my buck and for that, fermented salsa is awesome all around. It lasts longer (I’ve heard accounts of up to one year in the refrigerator!), is so easy to make, good for your immune system and digestive tract, and is like doing your own little science experiment. So give it a try, and don’t let a little mold scare you.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: none
Makes 4 servings
- 3 medium-sized ripe tomatoes, chopped
- 1/4 cup onion, finely chopped, or 2 scallions, finely chopped
- 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1small bunch of cilantro, finely chopped
- 1 jalapeño, finely chopped (remove stems & seeds if you want a milder salsa)
- juice from 1 lime
- 1 1/2 tablespoons salt (taste as you go!)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin or 1 teaspoon toasted cumin seeds (optional)
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl, then transfer to a clean jar, leaving at least 1 inch of space at top.
Leave in a cool, dark place for approximately three days (depending on weather/humidity). When it’s ready, you will see little bubbles floating up the sides of the jar.
Taste to make sure it’s good and fermented. Once it’s ready, transfer to fridge.