Fermented beets, dank and earthy and sour, number among my favorite ferments of vegetable. While I will always love the fetid odor of a true sauerkraut, the clean and salty sharpness of Moroccan preserved lemons or the brackish must of a home-cured olive, it is fermented beets – lovingly spiced and brine-pickled – that makes me fall in love again with the lost art of true pickling.
It wasn’t long ago, you see, that a pickle inherited its characteristic sour saltiness from a long and slow process of microbial action. This process – the purposeful introduction of bacteria into food – might be enough to make any public health worker cringe, but it is precisely that process of microbial action that shaped well-loved traditional foods across the globe, satisfying a dual need for enhanced nutrition and food preservation. Indeed, traditional societies across the globe practiced the sacred culinary art of fermentation, handing it down parent-to-child, for thousands of years prior to the advent of refrigeration and the rather quick industrialization of our food supply. West Africans fermented sorghum and millet into ogi. Pacific Islanders transformed the taro corm into poi while Asians and Europeans fermented beans, milk grains and vegetables into some of the favorite foods of today: miso, sourdough bread, yogurt – and, of course, pickles.
Traditionally prepared, pickled beets were not seasoned with vinegar and sugar, but, rather, they acquired their sour flavor through a process of fermentation. Fermented beets feature widely in the culinary traditions of eastern Europe where tonics like beet kvass and dishes like rossel not only celebrate the humble beet, but transform it, too. Fermentation extends the life of foods like beets; as beneficial bacteria consume the sugars naturally present in beets and other foods, they produce lactic and acetic acid which, like vinegar in modern pickles, preserves the beets for long-term storage. As an adjunct benefit, those same bacteria also produce vitamins, particularly folate and vitamin K2, and help to populate the gut with microbes that can boost the immune system.
I tackle fermented beets in my traditional foods kitchen, from the tiny marble-sized Chioggias to the hefty blood-red beets the size, shape and heft of a man’s heart. We season them with caraway and salt or dill and mustard seed, but it is ginger and orange that can elevate the earthiness of beets from their dank origin to something sweeter, something lighter and more vibrant. And while many ferments of vegetables are produced through wild means, by crushing vegetable with salt and allowing the omnipresent beneficial bacteria naturally occurring on our skin, on our vegetables and in the air that surrounds us to do their transformational work, for these fermented beets I opt for a salt-free method which strengthens both their rugged sourness and crude sweetness without the briny flavor that is so characteristic of fermented foods.
The use of a starter culture such as probiotic-rich whey drawn off of raw milk yogurt, milk kefir or clabber, reduces the need for salt in fermented foods. While fresh whey functions beautifully in many fermented foods, I find that vegetable starter culture which you can purchase online produces particularly successful and reliable results, especially among salt-free ferments like the recipe for fermented beets below.
- vegetable starter culture
- 1 tbsp raw honey
- 6 medium beets, (trimmed, peeled and sliced in ⅛-inch rounds)
- 1 1-inch knob ginger, (peeled and cut into matchsticks)
- zest of 1 medium orange
- 2 tbsp pickling spice, (cinnamon, mustard seed, allspice berries, cloves, black peppercorns etc.)
- Dissolve vegetable starter culture into one-half cup filtered water and whisk in honey until the honey is thoroughly incorporated into the water. Allow the starter to sit at room temperature for about five minutes while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
- Toss together beets, ginger, orange zest and pickling spice together in a mixing bowl. Layer this mixture into a mason jar.
- Cover beets with the starter culture, adding filtered water, if needed, to completely submerge them beneath the liquid. Weigh the beets down, if necessary, so they rest below the level of liquid and allow them to ferment at room temperature for three to seven days before transferring to the refrigerator.