Wild yeast, mold, and bacteria have led Mara King on a wild ride over the past 15 years—from roving the streets of her native Hong Kong in search of fermented delicacies for a YouTube series to crafting koji (an East Asian mold essential for miso and sake) out of buckwheat grown and milled by Boulder’s Dry Storage. This summer, the fermentation director for Id Est Hospitality Group—chef-owner Kelly Whitaker’s restaurant conglomerate comprising the Wolf’s Tailor, Brutø, and six-month-old farm-to-table spot Hey Kiddo—is reducing food waste by crafting fermented sauces, soups, and side dishes from eatery extras. Favorites at Hey Kiddo include gochujang chile paste created with leftover sourdough bread and chiles, tian mian jiang (sweet bean sauce) made from stale Hokkaido milk rolls, and banchan (Korean side dishes such as pickled vegetables). Here, the curing connoisseur breaks down how to preserve your next garden or farmers’ market haul.

Mara King, director of fermentation for the Wolf’s Tailor, Brutø, and Hey Kiddo. Photo by Aaron Colussi

Get Into the Pickling Game

Step 1: Buy

Lacto-fermentation, a bacteria-based method of creating basic pickles, kimchi, and krauts, is a good starting point for amateurs. Fresh produce already contains the lactobacillus bacteria necessary to break down sugars into lactic acid and carbon dioxide, so a salt brine is all that’s needed to complete the process. Ferment okra, shred a head of cabbage for sauerkraut, or make giardiniera with peppers, carrots, celery, and cauliflower.

Step 2: Brine

Immersing veggies in salt water creates a prime environment for fermentation-friendly microorganisms to thrive. First, submerge wide-mouthed, hinged glass jars and their rubber seals—which hold liquids in and keep air out—in boiling water to sanitize them. Then stuff with veggies, herbs, and spices (King likes cumin, mustard, or coriander seeds with fresh dill) and top with a five percent ratio of 50 grams kosher or sea salt (about 2 ¾ tablespoons) to every liter of water. Note: Some veggies, such as cabbage, release enough of their own moisture that you can simply sprinkle the veggies with 1.5 to two percent of their weight in salt. Either way, ensure the produce stays submerged in liquid to prevent molding.

Step 3: Bubble

Once you’ve shut the lids and set the jars on a countertop away from direct sunlight, it’s time to let Mother Nature do her thing. But be vigilant: Ferments left unattended can build up CO2 and burst. To guard against bangs in the night, King recommends burping the mixtures twice daily by tugging at the rubber seals, which releases gas while keeping air (and the flavor-altering yeast it contains) out. Wait one to four weeks, sampling along the way until you’re satisfied with the tartness, then refrigerate to stop the fermenting process.

Step 4: Bite

“The bacteria break things down, so you’re releasing flavor that wasn’t even available there before,” King says. The preserved goodies are also high in vitamins A and K and contain myriad gut-health-enhancing microbes that aid digestion. Add the ferments into your diet as accompaniments for brats or burgers; braised with meats; or puréed with tahini to make salad dressings.

This article was originally published in 5280 July 2023.
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane Menardi Morrison
Riane is 5280’s former digital strategy editor and assistant food editor. She writes food and culture content. Follow her at @riane__eats.