The weather is warming up quite nicely here in Coastal Carolina, and that means our farmers’ markets are starting to offer local Spring produce. Those Spring temperatures also mean okra is coming into season, along with asparagus and spring onions. Like any good transplant to the deep south I’ve had to put a bit of work into acquiring a taste for okra. Sure, I like it soaked in buttermilk, tossed with cornmeal and deep-fried, but I’d like pretty much anything prepared that way. Luckily, I've found a great way to not only enjoy okra in a non-fried manner, but also one that helps it last longer, and boosts its nutrition even more—I fermented it! I know, you’re shocked-- I swear I won’t turn into one of those crazy people who pickles and preserves every single thing…and NO I do not have my fingers crossed behind my back. Honest.
As you know from my podcast on fermenting, I’m a huge fan of Sandor Katz, and his book The Art Of Fermentation. So of course I cracked my copy open and started reading about fermenting/pickling vegetables. I was extremely happy to discover that I could ferment okra using the exact same method as fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut. Basically all I needed was sea salt, filtered water (chlorine is not a friend to fermentation) a few spices and herbs, okra, and a mason jar large enough to hold it all. Luckily, I had ALL those things on hand. Quicker than you can say Okra Pickles, I had everything out on the counter and ready to go!
I’ll describe how I put it all together. I hesitate to call it a recipe but I will list everything out for you so you can see what you need.
1 quart mason jar
2 cup pyrex measuring cup
1 tablespoon measure
small plate to set the jar on
small jar to weight the Okra down
Fresh Whole Okra, rinsed
Red Pepper Flakes
Whole Garlic Cloves
Dried Dill Weed
Now for the how to: I used approximately 20 Okra to fill my jar, but as Okra vary in size and length you may need more or less. You want the Okra to be fairly tightly packed into the jar, as they lose volume during the fermentation process. You can also alternate them stem up/stem down to fit more in, but I just did stem up. Once the Okra are packed into your jar, start putting your spices in. I didn’t measure mine (big surprise, right?), and I really think how much of each you use needs to be based on your taste. I like spicy, garlicky flavors so I used a fair amount of pepper flakes and garlic. I also put in around a 1/2 tablespoon of the Dill Weed, and the same amount of the Mustard Seeds. Give the jar a good shake while you’re doing this, to help distribute the spices and herbs around the Okra. Once all of that is in the jar, mix up your salt water solution. I used 1 tablespoon of Sea Salt per 1 cup of filtered water. I mixed up 2 cups of this. Now pour this solution into your jar until it covers your Okra. You may need to poke a few pieces of Okra back down into the jar if they start popping up while you are pouring. Depending on the amount of Okra and the size of your jar, you may not need the whole 2 cups of salt water, or you may need a bit more. Just make sure you have completely covered all of the Okra. Now, put your jar onto a plate to catch any overflow, and use a small jar (one that fits inside the neck of the fermenting jar) to weight down the Okra during the fermenting period. Set your jar of soon-to-be pickled Okra somewhere warmish and out of the way. I keep mine on the counter in my office, and my office is generally about 76 degrees fahrenheit (that’s why the kitties all hang out in there with me). You should start to see some small bubbling action on the second day, and by the third day the color of the liquid may have changed a bit and gotten cloudy. This is fine. Just make sure you aren’t growing any mold on the Okra themselves. I tasted mine on day three and they were quite good, but I wanted a bit more tang so I’m letting them go another two days.
I recently got a question from a friend regarding the difference between fermenting and pickling. In short, when we speak of Pickled foods we’d commonly see in stores, these are foods which have been preserved using a vinegar solution. Depending on the exact process and temperatures, and whether raw vinegar was used, these foods may or may not contain live cultures. Fermented Okra (or any vegetable), makes its own acetic acid during the fermentation process, which preserves the food and always contains live cultures. So we could say: all fermented vegetables are pickled, but not all pickles are fermented. I do want to mention that these fermented, live culture foods should be stored in the refrigerator once they reach your desired level of tanginess, otherwise they will just keep bubbling along and may become too sour for you to enjoy. The cold retards the fermentation process and keeps them in your taste range longer.
Now, what are you going to pickle/ferment first? Okra? Cabbage? Asparagus? Ginger? Let me know in the comments.