Fuschia Dunlop’s memoir, Sharks Fin And Sichuan Pepper has been an off-and-on part of my reading rotation for quite a while now so a mild obsession with the Sichuanese combination of flavours has seeped into my subconscious, I think. I’m always thinking about fermentation experiments and at this time of year that really means sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is traditionally full of acidic twang and cabbage crunch but unless you add one of the traditional spices like caraway or juniper berries it ends there. I wondered if I could make a batch of sauerkraut and then add stuff to it to turn it into Spicy Sichuan Sauerkraut.
I chose to add the spices–white pepper, sichuan peppercorns, star anise seed pods, and smoke-dried chilies, after the fermentation was complete for two reasons. First, I had no idea how much of each I’d need to complete the flavour I wanted and worried that it would be difficult to add and taste when the cabbage was still fresh. I also wondered if some of the spices might interfere with the spontaneous fermentation process. Pepper especially has been used historically as an antimicrobial and even though I add spices into the crock with the cucumbers at the start of the dill pickle process I didn’t want to chance it here.
The cabbage I used was standard grocery-store issue and had been hanging out in our crisper for a week or so. Not ideal but it did give me the chance to confirm that conventionally-grown cabbages work just fine for wild fermentation.
From this experiment I learned a bit about the sauerkraut process. The steps roughly are: shred; salt; pound and squeeze; transfer to a jar; and cover with the liquid that was exuded during that third step. I’ve always had to add water in order to get the vegetables covered by brine and have been skeptical of recipes that think salt + force will draw out enough water. In fact, in my post Small-batch Spicy Sauerkraut I wrote:
The original recipe thinks the cabbage will produce enough water so you’ll have an inch of it above the vegetables. That’s crazy talk. Maybe the recipe writer has some sort of super kraut hammer or are picking the cabbages directly from the field in a particularly wet part of California. I have never been able to get cabbage to give up that much water and I don’t think you will either–especially if you’re anywhere near me (in time and space) and using cabbages either picked a long while ago or shipped a great distance.
In fairness, that was January (so the cabbage was three months further removed from the field) but on reflection I might have stumbled a bit too close to “hyperbolic” there. After this batch I think have a better grasp on the process. The key, as per usual, is patience.
The cabbage is sliced into eight longitudinal (cut perpendicular to the head’s equator) sections, each section is cored, and then sliced thinly, latitudinally (parallel to the head’s equator). After each section (an eighth of the cabbage) was in the large mixing bowl I sprinkled on a big, food-tv-chef pinch of kosher salt. And then I added another tablespoon or so for good measure when the bowl was filled. But this time, before pounding the salted cabbage, I let it sit in the bowl for about five minutes.
My patience was rewarded because the salt started to draw moisture out of the cabbage and that created a micro-brine that really helped spread the salt evenly and accelerate the process.
After eleven days in our fairly warm apartment the sauerkraut had fermented to the fully acidic point where it is just barely starting to show the faintest hint of fizz. I dumped the contents of the 2L Mason jar I used as a fermenter into a large mixing bowl. Added the finely-ground spices, stirred to distribute, tasted, and adjusted the spices. I think I managed to create a version of sauerkraut that balances sour, salty, spicy and adds the mouth-tingle of sichuan pepper and the austere, dustiness of white pepper.
Usually with an experiment like this you’re left to either try to replicate it yourself or just imagine what it must have tasted like but this case is different. Tonight at 86′d Monday at the Drake Hotel I’ll be defending the Pickle Battle title that my Wild Dill Pickles won last year in the People’s Choice, Amateur category and I’ll be entering this Spicy Sichuan Sauerkraut.
I’m also happy to share the news that I’ll be putting on another fermentation workshop this month and I’ll take a more detailed look at this recipe then. I’ve worked with my friend, Joel Solish of Death Row Meals, to organise an event in support of Movember through a site called uniiverse. Have a look at the event page here for more details. I hope some of you can join me tonight for 86′d Monday or later in month for the workshop.
Spicy Sichuan Sauerkraut
The sour twang of fermented cabbage goes well with the heat of chilies and mouth-numbing buzz of sichuan peppercorns.
Yield: one kg or roughly 1 L of sauerkraut
- 1 kg standard green cabbage (about half a head)
- 35 g unrefined, coarse sea salt
- 3 small, dried chilies, stems removed
- 1 tsp sichuan peppercorns
- 1 tsp white peppercorns
- 6 star anise, finely ground
- Note on the salt: unrefined sea salt is best because the trace minerals will help make the cabbage crunchier by reinforcing its cell walls. Coarse sea salt is fine and uniodized kosher will work too. The idea is to measure out the salt, whatever type you’re using, into a small bowl and then draw from it as you go with the cabbage. Season to taste, mix often, and you’ll probably only use three-quarters of the bowl.
- Cut your cabbage, through the poles, into quarter-sphere sections and remove the core. Then use a knife or mandolin to cut the cabbage into thin slices. Variation is fine since it will add interest to the texture of the final product. Periodically transfer the slices to your largest mixing bowl and give each double-handful a very generous pinch of salt. Once you’ve sliced all of the cabbage add another hit of salt for good measure and stir thoroughly
- While the cabbage is sitting for five minutes grind the three spices, clean up, and just leave it alone to let the salt start its osmotic work. Then for about ten minutes do your best to squeeze and pound as much moisture as possible out of the cabbage. It helps to do something like watch tv or listen to a podcast as distraction from the monotony of squeezing a shredded vegetable. Periodically scoop down to the bottom of the bowl to make sure all of the salt is evenly spread throughout.
- Dump in the ground spices, mix to distribute and then pack the cabbage tightly into a large Mason jar. Pour in the exuded liquid and top off with filtered tap water and a pinch of salt to cover.
- Put the jar in a cool, room temperature spot (so, your unheated garage is probably too cold and the cupboard your stove too warm but just about anything in between will do) for ten days. Start tasting it then and move to the fridge when you feel it’s sour enough for tastes. Skim the top of the liquid and top up with more water every couple days or so.