It always starts innocently enough: You thought you’d grow red peppers, a half a dozen green chiles, maybe a Fresno chile or two, and of course you wanted to try to grow chocolate habaneros — oh, and you love poblanos, so put a few of those in, too. They’ve grown and grown — and you’re staring at more than a peck or two of peppers. Now what? The standard preservation choices are freezing, dehydrating, or canning, but you could also freeze-dry them with the right equipment.
Let’s talk about canning. Some vegetables confound even the most seasoned canner, and peppers are one of them. Before discovering fermentation, I was that girl who canned everything. I really did try to roast and can green chiles to make our own homegrown Hatch-style chiles. Because peppers are a low-acid vegetable, they require 45 minutes in a pressure canner. They looked beautiful through the jar, but they disintegrated into mush when I went to make my first chiles rellenos. If you want to can your peppers, you must pickle them first. You have to submerge the peppers in vinegar (as the key to safe preservation is to acidify, the definition of pickling) and then water bath can them. And while they’re certainly delicious, one can only eat so many jars of canned peppers.
Enter another preservation option: Create the right environment for an entire team of microbes to do the work for you (without handling hot pots full of boiling water). With lacto-fermentation, you can acidify any combination of peppers, spices, herbs, and other vegetables to make a variety of chutneys, condiments, pickles, or hot sauces. The microbes acidify everything equally, which gives you flexibility to explore and create the flavor you desire. After the fermenting vegetables reach a pH level of 4.6 or below, they’re safe and stable for a long time. Shelf life depends on the vegetable, but pepper ferments can last unrefrigerated for a year or more in anaerobic conditions, as long as the ferment is sealed and not in active use. It’s best, however, to store ferments in a refrigerator. This slows down the bacteria, stabilizes the ferment, and keeps the flavors intact and delicious.
Lacto-fermentation has become a lot of things to a lot of people in the past few years, but at its core it’s a simple, inexpensive process that has been used reliably for thousands of years to preserve food. Here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, circling back to our roots. Now fermented foods are considered artisanal, using a combination of traditional methods and scientific knowledge to preserve food for its flavor, color, and nutritional value.
Lactic acid fermentation of vegetables is simply the best way to preserve the fresh bounty from your garden — it not only retains nutrients but also increases nutrients (and their bioavailability) and produces amazing flavor. When you place chopped, diced, or shredded vegetables and a little salt in an anaerobic environment inside a vessel and give it a little time, the lactic acid bacteria already on the vegetables will go to work. They’ll consume the vegetable’s carbohydrates — starches and sugars — and convert them into acids, digestive enzymes, and carbon dioxide while producing nutrients, such as B vitamins, including folate and riboflavin. And I can’t neglect to mention the probiotics themselves, which do tend to get most of the attention with all the new research about the microbiome. How incredible, really, the process is — easy, safe, and effective at preserving vegetables in a healthy, tasty way.
Equipment and weighting. For the recipes here, you’ll need very little equipment to get started. If you’ve never fermented before and aren’t sure you want to invest in any special equipment, rest assured, you can do this with just a jar and zip-close bag. You can use a plastic bag as a water-filled weight to keep vegetables submerged in the vinegary brine for both small and very large ferments. I know a few folks who use this same method for 55-gallon drums of kraut; they just use a much bigger, tougher bag. The important thing with this method is to leave space for the bag in the jar — fill the jar about 3⁄4 full of vegetables and brine and leave the top quarter of the jar empty for the bag.
After filling the jar with your ferment and pressing it down, top the ferment with a quart-sized zip-close bag — the heavier freezer-style bag is best. To do this, open the bag and place it in the jar on top of the vegetable mixture, pressing it onto the surface and around the edges. Fill the bag with water; you’ll see it seal the ferment as it adds weight. When the water level inside the bag is at the same level as the top of your jar, seal the bag.
As your vegetables are fermenting, watch the ferment for air pockets. Whether they develop will depend on the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the vegetables while fermenting; some ferments may never shift, while others may develop air pockets. You can often adjust the bag, pushing a little to release the air. Periodically, you might need to remove the bag and press the ferment back down — rinse the outside of the bag with water and put it back on the ferment.
When is it done? Unlike cookies that you put in a 350-degree-Fahrenheit oven and know they’re done after 15 minutes, a ferment’s doneness can vary by days. This is normal and nothing to worry about — just watch it and pay attention to the changes, and you’ll know when it’s done. You’ll see certain signs. You might note that it changes color, such as vibrant greens becoming a dull olive; it may smell pickle-y; or it might taste acidic and sour, no longer like salted, wilted veggies.
The temperatures for successful fermentation fortunately match most households — somewhere between 60 and 75 degrees is perfect. Of course, in summer your kitchen may get warmer, but don’t worry — that means your ferment will be very active and will finish quickly.
I created these pepper ferments for preserving peppers at their peak. I thought up the Pico de Gallo Salsa Starter so we could make fresh fermented salsa year-round using our canned tomatoes. The Fermented Green Chile Base came about because we had so many poblanos, jalapeños, and green chiles all ripening at the same time. I love cooking with that trio of peppers — so why not ferment them together?
These fermented salsas range in spiciness — mild to hot. They’re a convenient flavor base for a pot of chili or a spicy table-ready accompaniment to nearly any dish.
Find recipes for spicy fermented salsa here:
Kirsten K. Shockey and co-author Christopher Shockey live on a 40-acre homestead in Oregon, where they’ve created over 40 varieties of cultured vegetables and krauts and have focused their efforts on teaching the art of fermentation. The recipes in this article are excerpted from Fiery Ferments, available in our online store, and are used with permission of Storey Publishing.
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