August 16, 2021

Chinese Salt Pickled Vegetables 自製中式泡菜

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These little veggie goodies that you can make at home are fantastic little bombs of fermented probiotic goodness!  With a simple brine of salt and water vegetables can be transformed into delicious health boosting pickles that can keep for a long time.  

This process to do this is known as lacto fermentation whereby good bacteria known as Lactobacillus are used to break down starch and sugars into lactic acid, a natural preservative.  The transformative result is veggie pickles with a tanginess introduced, flavors intensified and layered with new taste notes, texture still packing a bit of crunch.

As this was the traditional way to preserve vegetables in the days of old, one can find lacto fermented food in most every culture.  Sauerkraut, kimchi, jalapeños, dill pickles, yogurt, kefir, natto (our new obbession!), kombucha, tempeh and miso are just a few examples of the endless variety of fermented foods found around the world.  

Today we introduce the traditional Chinese way of making Pickled Vegetables 泡菜, a brine soak resulting in yummiliciously delicious veggie pickles infused with aromatic Chinese spices.  It's super simple to make, just need a bit of time and patience.
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All kinds of vegetables can be pickled.  So far we have pickled chinese radish (daikon), chili peppers*, small cucumbers, carrots, green beans, cabbage and ginger.  Almost any kind of veg could be pickled, as long as it is firm enough or compact enough (like cucumbers) to hold its shape thru the pickling process.

Slice to your desired pickle size, wash the veg and then let them completely air dry.

*Check out our separate post on the specific joys of pickling Chinese chili peppers!

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Here are the ingredients for the brine.  At its most basic you can just use a salt and water brine.  Here we've added cassia cinnamon sticks 桂皮, a bay leaf, szechuan pepper 花椒 and star anise 八角 to spice up the simple salt water brine.

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The salt, water and spices are heated through and left to infuse into an aromatic brine.  Umm...smells sooo good already.

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Traditional fermentation jar with water airlock

Some important things to know as you pickle:

1) Release of Fermentation Gas:

As the vegetables become pickled through the process of lacto fermentation a gas is released.   This gas needs to to be released but at the same time you want to outside contaminants from the brine.  We've used these traditional ceramic Chinese fermenting jars that have a water airlock to prevent air from entering while still allowing the fermenting gas from inside to bubble up through the water lock.  Pretty neat trick, eh?

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Water added to moat where jar lid will sit, creating water airlock.

On a more modern note, there are fermentation airlock lids that will fit regular mason jars that will perform the same function as the water airlock.  If you don't have these special accessories, however, no worries, just use a sterilized glass jar covered with a cheese cloth secured with a rubber band.  The cloth will keep out contaminants but allow gases to escape.

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2) How to prevent mold:

To prevent mold during fermentation it is imperative that everything used is sterilized and that all vegetables are completely immersed in the brining liquid.  A small bowl (again sterilized) can be used to weigh the vegetables down.  If you're using leafy veg like cabbage you can use one leaf to blanket the tops of the veg and then weight down.  A useful trick.

If you do unfortunately get mold you'll have to throw away the batch.  I've not yet had a moldy batch.  However I have had kahm yeast form on my pickles many a time.  Kahm yeast appears as a white chalky looking film over the surface.  Kahm yeast is not harmful and pickles can still be consumed.  

It is recommended to use a paper towel to touch and remove the film of kahm yeast.  Which I find doesn't work that well and that the kahm yeast grows back again after removal.  Better not to get a case of the white stuff at all!  I have found that being super careful about submerging veggies completely in the brine will prevent most of kahm yeast problems.

3) How long to pickle?

For firm veggies like carrot and green beans, let it ferment for at least a week.  At that point taste, using a clean dry utensil to remove pickle, and see if it's tangy enough for you.  If it's deliciously the pickle that you want, move the jar to the fridge to stop fermentation.  For softer or more leafy veggies like cabbage and lettuce let ferment for 3-4 days and then start taste testing.  

4) How long do lacto-fermented pickles last?

If kept in the fridge your pickles can last up to a year.  Before eating be sure to check that the pickles look and smell good and that there is no mold.

Between the deliciously tangy sour taste and delightful pickle-y crunch and the amazing health benefits of consuming fermented foods, this is a win win the everyone.  It did take a couple of tries for me to get the hang of fermenting but it's just gotten easier and easier to fit into our food lives.  

Nowadays we have our fermentation jar going in a corner, taking out a few pickles for dinner with a dry clean chopsticks, popping more fresh veg in to start the pickling process.  Yummilicious for sure!

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Chinese Salt Pickled Vegetables Recipe

(adapted from The Key to Chinese Cooking by Irene Kuo)  
(makes 4 cups brine)  Prep time: 5 mins  Dry/Cool time: 30 mins  
Cook time: 1 min  Ferment time: 3-7 days



Wash, peel and slice diakon radish to pickle sized pieces.  Wash cucumbers, leave whole.  Wash chili peppers and cut off the stem only, leaving the green cap intact.  Dry with paper towel and then let air dry completely.

Make the brine by adding salt, sugar, water, szechuan peppers, bay leaf, cinnamon sticks, star anise and ginger to a pot.  Heat until simmering and the salt and sugar are completely melted.  Cover and turn off heat.  Let sit covered until completely cool.

Sterilize fermentation jar with a rinse of boiling water.  Let cool.  Pack air dried vegetables into jar tightly.  Pour brine in jar until the vegetables are completely submerged.  Add rice wine.  If vegetables float use a weight (a small saucer maybe) to press down. 

If using a traditional Chinese fermentation jar add cooled down boiled water to the water moat at jar's mouth and then cap.  Be sure to check daily and refresh water as needed as the water will evaporate.

If using the modern fermentation lids follow the lid instructions.  

If using just a regular jar cover with a clean cheesecloth and secure with rubber band.  Place fermentation jar into a cool spot and let ferment 7 days for firm or root vegetables, 3-4 days for more tender veg.  Test by using a clean dry utensil to pick out a pickle to try.  When the tanginess is to your liking move jar to the fridge.  

When you want to eat a pickle or two, use clean dry utensils to pick out the pickles.  Eat as a side dish or appetizer for a traditional Chinese dinner or modern it up and chop the pickles and sprinkle it on as relish for hot dogs, hamburgers, wraps, etc.   Enjoy!

*Note:  If you include chili peppers with a fermentation batch, the other veggies will be affected by the chili heat and become a bit spicy.



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