If the thought of packing soured cabbage into Mason jars sounds like something only your grandmother would do, it's time to reconsider fermentation. The old-fashioned process is moving into top position on some of the hottest restaurant menus in the country, from the squab with fermented black garlic at Pidgin in Vancouver to the house-made kimchi at the Momofuku Noodle Bar in Toronto.
In fact, "when rotten goes right" is how Momofuku founder and chef David Chang described fermentation when he gave a lecture on the subject at Harvard University last month. Chang is so devoted to the wallop of flavour that partially decayed foods such as miso, kimchi and bushi impart that his Momofuku empire includes a culinary lab where moulds and microbes are tested for maximum tastiness. There is no need, however, to turn your kitchen into a laboratory to jump aboard the fermentation bandwagon. Doing it yourself at home requires little more than a bucket and a sense of adventure.
According to Alex Hozven, the owner of Cultured, a food shop in Berkeley, Calif., any vegetable can be fermented. You simply chop it, work salt into it and leave it to create its own brine, where lactobacillus will proliferate and turn roughage into a tangy, more interesting version of itself. A true pickle, Hozven believes, doesn't contain vinegar: "Vinegar is more of a marinade. When I talk about pickling, I'm talking about using microbes to create acid over time," she explains. (When making vinegar pickles, you prevent microbial activity by sterilizing the jars and ensuring that nothing grows or changes during the canning and storing process.) In other words, bacteriarich fermented foods are "alive and breathing," she says.
Before you let that frighten you away from trying your hand at the technique, consider that many of the foods in an average diet – bread, beer, wine, tea, soy sauce, yogurt – are fermented. As far as safety goes, fermentation expert Sandor Katz, bestselling author of The Art of Fermentation, simply recommends keeping vegetables fully submerged in brine (gut-friendly lactobacillus requires an oxygen-deprived environment) and skimming off any scum that appears on the surface.
As for the tools you'll need, you can buy special fermentation vessels, but a food-grade plastic bucket or a deep earthenware crock does the job just as well.
Beyond that, the biggest concerns are the fun ones: what you'll pickle (cabbage, radishes, cucumbers, carrots?), how you'll flavour it (with caraway and garlic for an Eastern European taste or chili, ginger and cardamom for an Asian effect?) and, perhaps most important, who will partake of them. After all, a jar from your best batch makes a fine hostess gift. Vibrantly hued, tasty and loaded with the good probiotic bacteria we're all supposed be eating, pickled foods, however sour, are easy to be sweet on.