Although many others discuss the matter of salt in ferments, and do a pretty good job, Saueressen has yet to find a more complete practical discussion of salt. We attempt a more complete introduction to salt use, below, in two parts: How much salt? (the more popular question first) and Which salt? Please comment if you have questions or more information / experience to share.
Table of Contents
- Why Salt?
- How much salt should I use?
- Which Salt?
- Final Note: The Value of Salt
Salt performs several functions in a vegetable fermentation process. Among other things, it
- inhibits the growth of undesirable organisms,
- inhibits the activity of pectic enzymes that threaten to turn your ferment to mush
- slows down and regulates the fermentation process,
- draws water from the vegetables to create an anaerobic brine,
- helps select for anaerobic lactic-acid bacteria (LAB) that create the desired end product and
- enhances and balances the flavor of the ferment (making it taste less acidic)
Salt has a place of importance in such ferments. That said, people can and do ferment without them. For example, some people ferment vegetables in wine. In Nepal people mash kale leaves and ferment them unsalted in their own juices to create gundruk, a food of great national importance (emphasis mine):
The shredded leaves are tightly packed in an earthenware pot, and warm water (at about 30°C) is added to cover all the leaves. The pot is then kept in a warm place. After seven days, a mild acidic taste indicates the end of fermentation and the gundruk is removed and sun-dried.This process is similar to sauerkraut production except that no salt is added to the shredded leaves before the start of gundruk fermentation.
Gundruk has very different characteristics than sauerkraut (including the fact that it results in a sun-dried product). Those differences stem from different processing techniques and expectations, and have little or nothing to do with the safety, quality and performance of the ferment itself. In fact, what makes for good sauerkraut might make for bad gundruk, and vice-versa. So much of what makes a “good ferment” boils down to expectations formed out of preference and acquired taste.
How much salt should I use?
Short answer: salt to taste.
Not satisfied with that answer? Same here. Some further guidelines and points to consider, below.
General Guidelines (longer answer)
use more salt if:
- your ferment involves physically-delicate ingredients
- your fermentation enviornment tends to run hot (70-75 or higher *F)
- you do not have a reliable airlock and way to keep your ferment submerged in the brine (e.g,. a weight or various mechanical systems — ask about those and I’ll write an overview)
- you are doing a “plain jane” ferment without other protective ingredients (garlic, onion, herbs, spices)
use less salt if:
- your ferment involves tougher vegetables you wouldn’t mind softening a little bit during fermentation
- your fermentation environment tends to run cold (65-60 or lower)
- you have a reliable airlock system (airlocked crocks, airlocked mason jars, or baile-top [fido-style] mason jars) and submersion method
- you tend to ferment with other protective ingredients (garlic, onion, herbs, spices)
Different vegetables — and even the same vegetables across different farms or harvests — contain different salt/water/sugar balances. Celery, for example, typically has a high salt content. I’ve worked with both relatively dry, dense and savory and relatively heavy and sweet cabbages. Technically the same cabbage, but grown and harvested at different times and places. The carrots I get from one of my farm suppliers taste so juicy, crunchy and sweet, it almost feels like I’m eating a fruit or a piece of candy. That difference in going into the ferment creates a noticeable difference in the outcome as well.
Other ingredients have preservative qualities in the ferment, such as garlic, onion, antioxidant/anti-microbial herbs and spices (ginger, rosemary, tannic acids from grape or oak leaves, etc). These “minor ingredients” help balance the finished flavor while providing additional protection for the ferment throughout its lifecycle (including in storage), potentially allowing more flexibility on salt use. I’ve found adding such ingredients gives me much more flexibility and control over the finished flavor, quality and longevity of the ferment — so much so that it’s become a core part of the Saueressen Process and our concept of sauerchi.
Use enough salt to extract juice from shredded vegetables. NOTE: The more finely shredded the vegetable, the less salt needed to create the self-brine. If the shredding is too coarse, you run the risk of oversalting to create the brine! If you drain off some of the excess brine, it will leave the remaining vegetables much less salty. Adding ingredients, such as an unsalted pesto, will also further reduce the salt content (which can rescue base ingredients that you accidentally oversalted). You may also rinse over-salted vegetables, in a pinch.
The perfect amount of salt will initially taste like too much salt, until it diffuses equally throughout the liquids and solids of the ferment over the course of about a week. The same principle applies when adding salt to soup or sourdough bread, so if you’re used to seasoning soup, you should have an idea of what to expect when salting vegetables for a ferment.
Salt The Top for Security
A ferment will always most likely (and often does) become contaminated along its edges — especially the top. Sprinkle additional salt over the top of the packed ferment to give the top of the brine or other surface more protection during the vulnerable, early stages of the ferment. The salt will diffuse throughout the rest of the ferment over time. Only take this opportunity if the ferment still needs additional salt!
Ok, sheesh. So, which salt?
Short answer: Use either unrefined mineral (mined) salt or unrefined sea (evaporated) salt in fine grain texture (e.g, not rock salt or flake or powder).
Both unrefined sea and mineral salts have all the good stuff the ferments need (trace minerals and nutrients, fantastic flavor) and none of the bad stuff (such as aluminum and other chemical additives). Supposedly the iodide supplement in table salt can further inhibit or kill the micro-organisms responsible for fermentation, but I haven’t noticed a difference. Even then, it could be useful to slow down overly-vigorous fermentations (e.g,. in a warm environment).
Consider the granularity of the salt — how coarse or fine the salt is. Fine-grain sea salt tends to be cheap, ubiquitous and practical. It stores compact, doesn’t require additional processing to use, is easy to measure and handle, and dissolves quickly into solution. If you keep recipes and use different sizes of salt grains, remember to measure by weight and not volume!
Some people also consider salt a spice and pay a premium for different types of specialty or “finishing” salts to affect taste, texture and even color, such as black salt and smoked salt. Whatever floats your boat, although such salts probably get lost in a ferment (if you’ve found specialty salts useful in ferments, please write in and let us know!).
Final note: the value of salt
Our bodies are self-contained sacks of salty brine. We need salt to live. If the concentration of salt in our bodies falls too low, our bodies stop functioning. Yet, we need freshwater, not salt water to help balance things on the other end. Human (and probably most) life depends on a very delicate balance — a balance that requires our bodies to continually readjust. Readjustment requires, at its core, salt and freshwater.
In light of this delicate balance, throwing something like a vegetable brine away feels to me like throwing away liquid gold. Such a rich, nutritious and useful liquid, full of electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, sugars and other nutrients.
Instead of throwing out excess brine:
- Reduce it down to a thick, syrupy brine. It will store for a long time in a refrigerator.
- Use it in recipes that call for both salt and liquid.
- Use it as a soy sauce substitute — it provides much of the same rich, umami flavor.
- Use it to deglaze/braze pan-cooked meals (such as veggies, meat, rice, quinoa, etc; just don’t add dry salt!)
- Create marinades and dressings with it
- Make a stock, broth, soup or stew out of it
- Use it as brine in non-self-brining ferments