When I started fermenting I approached it very scientifically. I measured everything, kept notes and wanted to make sure I was ‘doing it right.’
Although I still measure things, (and I will share a common measurement for salt below), I’ve learned why so many people advise just eyeballing and tasting your ferments (they should taste over-salted but no inedible) as you go. A recent conversation on another post about the ratio of salt to use in sauerkraut highlighted that I haven’t explained why I rely less on measurements and, when I do measure, how to do so. I love comments like these because they really do help me see opportunities to try and improve things here.
Ferments often start tasting too salty and, as the ferment progresses, they will level out. Sandor Katz is largely recognized as one of the leading experts when it comes to fermenting; here is his instructions for salting sauerkraut (you can find his recipe here):
Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage (through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy, by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it. 3 tablespoons of salt is a rough guideline for 5 pounds of cabbage. I never measure the salt; I just shake some on after I chop up each cabbage. I use more salt in summer, less in winter.
I really struggled with the vagueness this offered and, like many people, I put a whackload of salt figuring it would somehow make it safer. It doesn’t. Salt slows down the fermenting process and too much of it can stop it altogether. I suspect this is the basis of why Sandor uses more salt in the summer – more on that in a few minutes.
When fermenting sauerkraut, consider the following:
- Temperature plays a giant role; perhaps a larger role than the salt. Warmer temperatures produce faster ferments; faster ferments are often less crunchy and, arguable, less tasty. I’m guessing this is why Sandor adds more salt in the summer (to slow it down).
- Wild yeast (in the air of your kitchen and on the vegetables themselves) and other bacteria will also effect the fermenting process. These ‘visitors’ will likely have a greater effect on your ferment than salt.
- Water content of the vegetables or fruit. Freshly picked cabbage has considerably more water than cabbage that has been stored through the winter. Salt pulls water from the vegetables, which is a good thing, but it makes measuring rather futile. Vegetables with higher water content will dilute the salt a different amount than those with lower water content. In other words, even though you can control the salt, you can’t control the amount of liquid in the brine.
- Additional water and the quality of it. Many ferments need more water to top the vegetables (food with a high water content is the exception). When I pickle I generally add the salt to the vegetables for 8-24 hours before topping the container with water. That means I’m adding salt before I know how much water I’m going to use and makes measuring difficult (water will dilute the salt content).
These 4 variables will effect the flavors in your ferment and the last two will make measuring very difficult as an indeterminate amount of water will dilute a precise measurement an indeterminate amount.
But we still need guidelines, right? Sandor uses 3 tablespoons (non-iodized coarse salt) per 5 pounds of vegetables. Roughly 5%. This is a great starting point but it still leaves my inner geek a little empty because the brine will be diluted an unknown amount. If you don’t share my inner-geekdom, it’s probably best to stop reading now ‘cus I’m going to get extremely unpractical and unscientific with the following idea…
When I measure salt I base it on the amount of liquid that’s in the brine. It’s an estimate and far-from-perfect but here’s what I do:
- Prepare my vegetables, place them in the fermenting vessel (with no salt).
- Cover them in water, measuring as I go (I measure with mason jars). Calculate 3.5% of the weight of the water (this is easy with metric though you may prefer imperial).
- Drain the water completely (no need to dry it).
- Add salt to the vegetables (in the case of kraut I’d also crunch it aggressively between my hands). Let it sit for 8-24 hours. A good deal of liquid will be released from the veg and most of the natural brine is created in the first day.
- Now the estimating part: add water to the current brine to cover the vegetables. You’ll need considerably less water than you measured but the total liquid should be approximately the same as you had measured the day before. Although there is a small bit of guessing here it’s minimal, in part, because I use fermenting weights. The weights provide a useful visual clue (providing you don’t move them) to remind me of the water level from the previous day (I cover them by an inch).
Do you measure salt when fermenting? What method do you use?