Galley Notes: Fermenting on a Small Sailboat

Steve has been away for almost 7 weeks and, as per usual, while he’s been gone I have been experimenting in the galley. This time I have been making sauerkraut, and some variations, using the process of natural fermentation.

I am a big fan of sauerkraut, always have been. Growing up in Nova Scotia it was sold in every grocery store. The best brand came in a waxed paper, square container, the same as milk was sold in. It had a red and white label and the ingredients list read cabbage and salt. That brand always had just a hint of sweetness and powerful sour kick, just like the perfect dill pickle. It was sold fresh and refrigerated, no preservatives, and once opened needed to be eaten, which was never a problem in my house. Although I like sauerkraut with sausages on cold winter nights, and on hotdogs in the summer, I like it best eaten straight out of the box; a cold, crunchy and satisfying snack.

Just after Steve left in June I thought I needed a project

Sauerkraut seemed a perfect fit; it needs daily attention but takes a couple weeks to mature. To my surprise the process of making sauerkraut is simple; finely chop cabbage, add salt and knead until cabbage is limp and sufficient water is released, firmly pack into a jar/crock/container and check on it daily. The magic just happens. 

Really, it IS that simple.

Chopping Cabbage

My maiden batch of kraut few months back was ok, but the appearance of some white growth on the surface kinda worried me. It smelled fine and I was assured by a trusted friend that it was fine to scrap it off and just keep going. I was tasting the sauerkraut daily, both to observe the fermentation process and to be the guinea pig before feeding any to Steve. I thought I should do a little more research, lest I risk seriously poisoning myself.

So I read a couple books and bought another cabbage and tried again.

The results were delicious, in fact before it really reached a super-sour-krauty stage I had eaten most of it while “tasting”. I immediately bought another cabbage and started another batch.

The First Batch in Vanuatu
The first batch of kimchi and sauerkraut in Vanuatu

I also decided to try a batching using bok choy in lieu of traditional cabbage. A bundle of ten heads at the market costs a dollar, so it wasn’t a heavy investment to see if it would turn out tasty. Thinking it would kinda end up like kimchi I added some freshly grated ginger and garlic and put in a spoonful of smoky, hot paprika sent to me from Hungary to round out the flavours and give it a little kick. I also had a heap of fresh turmeric root sitting on the counter. I can’t pass it up when it is at the market, it is so pretty and the taste is completely different than when it is dried; more citrus and astringent and peppery. So I decided to grate a chunk of that in too, if only for colour.

Fresh Turmeric Root

Those two batches turned out really well.

I think the unseasonable cool weather here in Vanuatu has helped, both with the fermentation times and growing nice, sweet veggies. The flavour combination in the bok choy kimchi was a winner but I had chopped the leaves too finely and it didn’t have a very nice texture.

I was getting serious about the endeavour and I decided to invest in some containers. Sure the recycled glass jars I had been using were working but they were just a little too small. I opted for some larger plastic containers with tight sealing lids. They say that plastic is not the best option for fermenting but living on a sailboat has taught me that what “they” say doesn’t always apply. Plastic means I can continue to ferment when we are sailing, and I can put them in a cupboard and be assured that they won’t spill or break.

The crops have finally had a chance to recover from cyclone Pam and the market is brimming with produce again. Last week I bought a bright purple cabbage and a large bunch of napa cabbage. It would be the last round of experimenting before Steve returned. Unfortunately I got caught up in a couple other boat projects and the napa cabbage sat in the fridge for a couple days. When I went to wash it I found that it had already been shredded by a caterpillar that must have survived in the fridge; the hazards of buying produce that is locally grown with no pesticides used. Of course there was no napa cabbage the next day at the market, so bok choy it would be.

Colourful Kimchi Beginnings
Colourful Kimchi Beginnings

The purple cabbage is resulting in a sweeter, smoother kraut, but a lovely sour note has appeared that I hope will develop over the next week. The kimchi is initially quiet hot from the paprika and harsh from the raw garlic, but like last batch is starting to mellow out and the turmeric flavours are starting to peak through. It is exciting to see how the taste and texture change from day to day.

There is no right time to stop the fermentation and put the kraut it in the fridge.

There are too many variable; salinity, the vegetable itself, temperature, air quality. Instead it is intuitive; you stop when it tastes and feels right to you. And this is the aspect of fermentation I like best, it asks you to trust your own judgement.

Steve is back in a couple days and the latest batches sauerkraut and kimchi should be ready later this week. I am looking forward to him trying them.

With his returning I guess you could say my personal ferment is almost over. It is always a joint decision but every time he leaves I worry if I will be able to handle things alone. Often just before he departs the stress of worrying makes me hard to live with, a pattern I have only recently recognised. Like the kimchi my beginning is harsh and unbalanced. But as the weeks have progressed I have mellowed. Left on my own in this little container called Kate I have learned that good things will result if I give it a little time. All I have to do is trust myself.



7 Comments Add yours

  1. This is a warm and heartfelt post. The things a cabbage can teach us!

  2. ahandful4u says:

    I saw your link on Food in Jars. “Fermenting on a Sailboat” of course caught my eye. I have been munching on my kimchi often and just made a small batch of kraut since I am the only one that likes it. Yeah, it’s almost gone and has not made it to the fridge yet!

    Glad I am not the only fermented snacker! You’ll have to try some gingered carrots. They are my favorite!

    1. yachtkate says:

      Thanks for reading. I tried a mixed carrots and radish ferment but found it was prone to spoilage and rather tasteless. The addition of ginger might help, and there are lots of local carrots in the market, time to try again.

      1. ahandful4u says:

        Oh, and if you ever sail by landlocked Ohio USA look me up! haha

  3. Ruben says:

    If you make your sauerkraut in a Fido jar, you will never need to skim mold. There is nothing else to do between chopping and eating!

    Lea Harris has made a very generous website all about how easy, safe and effective Fido Fermentation is. I now use my crock to hold umbrellas.

    1. yachtkate says:

      Thanks for the link. Unfortunately we are in Vanuatu and I don’t have access to a Fido jar.

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