From regional pickles to apples fermented in pumpkin puree, an exploration of Ukranian traditional recipes
Olia Hercules answers questions about Ukrainian fermentation.
Editors note: This publication contains a lightly edited transcript of the question and answer portion of the corresponding lecture.
Image attribution: Stefaniafleur (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Olia: Right. So you just have to watch it. Ukraine in the summer gets super, super hot. If my mom was doing it in a summer kitchen, it would be there for two days max. Sometimes in even a day and a half. Look for bubbles and stuff happening, and of course, taste it. When it tastes good to you, and it's come to that sour level that you are happy with — for gherkins, maybe I'll leave it for a few days — and as soon as you're happy with how it tastes, put it in the cellar or fridge. OK, not everybody, obviously, has a cellar these days, but fridge is absolutely fine. Then you can keep it there for a few months. Of course, it will still keep fermenting.
I do want to mention something that I found quite hard when I started fermenting here in the UK, when I started cooking away from my mom, basically. In Ukraine, they just put everything into big tubs to stop the fermentation. My mom would put a gauze over it, like a muslin cloth or something. So that's what I did as well. But every time it would get mold and it just wouldn't work. I was just like, “What is happening?” Later I had this talk on the radio and Sandor Katz was one of the panelists. I actually asked him, “What is going on? Can you tell me?” He said that where my mom is, there is probably a specific microbiome. If they're fermenting all the time and got all of this stuff going on and probably in the countryside as well, she’s got all of these wild yeasts and everything all around her.
At that point, I didn't understand that you shouldn't over sanitize stuff. I'd be like, “Oh, it's pickling, so I must really sterilize this jar.” Now I know: Don't use chemicals, don't use really hard detergents. Of course, wash your jar and put some hot water over it or whatever. But you can actually overdo it, and then you get all of the bad bacteria coming in. Now I've got a bit of a microbiome happening in my house, luckily. My husband is also doing brewing from scratch. He's like a crazy fermenter with the brewing stuff. However, I still put them into a jar and put a lid over them, and then do the whole opening it from time to time. Not with my apples, I just left them there, and they were fine. They didn't explode.
Olia: Yeah, yeah, of course it kills it. Completely. It's gone. Kiss it goodbye, unfortunately.
If you add it at the very end and it's not boiling — maybe something will survive. But as I said before, we weren't really aware of the health benefits. The main love and the main thing that we value about them is flavor. So if you add the gherkin juice into the soup, it's “Bye bye, good bacteria.” But it's still delicious. So it's fine — just have a little fresh uncooked gherkin as a side to help your microbiome, and then you're going to be fine.
Olia: Oh my God! That is a hard one. Oh, no. Like a pickle that I would take to a deserted island type thing? Oh my God. Oh, no. I've just made it even harder! I don't know! I think definitely the whole fermented tomato situation— you can do so much with that. You can turn them into a drink. You can use them as a salad. You can make a tomato sauce. They're versatile, and also, just the flavor and the freshness of them is so good. But the one that I actually use the most in my practical life is kraut. Absolutely, 100%, kraut.
And I'm working on this new recipe. With lockdown, I'm home-schooling one kid and have a baby as well, which has been mad. All of my mom's massaging —I'm not doing it anymore. I’m going to tell you this, though I'm not allowed to release this recipe yet (it's in my fourth book). But: Don't do any pummeling. Don't do any massaging. Just cut it quite thinly and then make a brine with a bit of salt and honey. I've used honey instead of sugar. Then I just pour the brine over the chopped cabbage. It obviously is going to be quite tightly packed into the jar. Put the brine in, put the holes in, just make sure that there are no air pockets. It's been our lockdown go-to recently. I got myself a really little fridge, which is now the Fermentation Fridge, and it's all full of this honey kraut. I highly recommend it.
Olia: Yes. Yep, that's it. Summer Kitchens. It's available in the US. So for those of you who want these recipes, they're in there.
Olia: This is the only puree that I have encountered, especially with this apple situation. I'll tell you very quickly though that apart from the puree, another thing that is used (or used to be used) traditionally in Ukraine is straw. You'd get oat and rye straw — the nice stuff, not the dusty stuff on the road. Make sure that it's nice and clean. And then you would get your plums — and this is very specific variety, we call it szilva, which is a Hungarian plant (I'm not sure what the American equivalent is). But you'd get these plums, and you would layer them in your barrel with the straw in between. And of course, the straw eventually will give you some flavor as well. I think it would have been done so they don't get bruised. And then you'd pour the brine over and the same with apples, sometimes also add mint sprigs into the apple and straw situation. And it comes out really well. It’s a really interesting old recipe.
Olia: My last Instagram post has that salad, the fermented salad. So just put your question on social media, and I will make sure to answer. I always do.