Sichuan’s Naturally Fermented Pickles (Pao Cai)

Sichuan naturally fermented pickles

A Lacto-Fermented Pantry~~

Have you ever tried making pickles without vinegar? There’s a bit of a learning curve involved in letting natural lacto-fermentation sour your vegetables instead of vinegar. But there’s also huge payoff for the effort. Not only in health benefits—fermentation creates good bacteria, or probiotics, that aid in digestion and vitamin absorption—but in culinary benefits as well, since the vegetables taste like sour versions of themselves instead of like vinegar.

Now I love a good vinegar quick pickle, but naturally fermented vegetables are useful not just as condiments and appetizers but as cooking ingredients. Sichuan food makes frequent use of fermented vegetables—particularly red chilies, long (or green) beans and cabbage—from the home pickling jar to whip up quick stir-fries to top rice or noodles. So once you’ve mastered the art of brine pickling, you always have highly flavorful vegetables ready to go for both snacking and cooking.

I’ve been working on Sichuan-style naturally fermented pickles, or pao cai, on and off for a few years now. Seriously, years. Sometimes I get it right, and sometimes I get it wrong, but really I just made it harder than it has to be to naturally pickle a vegetable. I have consulted many sources over the years, and they all seem to take different approaches—which just proves that pickling is both a science and an art. There are many ways to do it, not just one right way, and you’ll have to experiment and find your own best method and taste. But here I hope to shorten your learning curve.

In this post, I’ll share my own trial-and-error lessons in Sichuan pickling, and a soon-to-follow post will provide an all-purpose pork-and-pickle stir-fry recipe that goes with rice, noodles or lettuce cups.

While fermentation in all forms has become trendy in the U.S., fermenting is not a fad in Sichuan. Many home cooks still feed their giant pickling crocks on an ongoing basis—taking vegetables out, putting new ones in—the brine growing ever more intense and intriguing over time.

Recently, America’s own fermentation guru, Sandor Katz (who, like us, lives in Tennessee) did a fermentation tour of southwest China and captured it all on video. “The People’s Republic of Fermentation,” made by filmmaker Mattia Sacco Botto and also featuring Mara King, a “probiotic pickleteer” from Colorado, is seriously awesome, so I hope you’ll both watch it and vote for it as the Best Food Video in the 2017 Saveur Blog Awards. The first three episodes all take place in Sichuan, and episodes one and two, in particular, focus on pao cai (among other appetizing things), episode three on douban jiang, and the remaining episodes on the fermentation of various things in Guizhou and Yunnan.

I had three major stumbling blocks on my own pickling journey: finding just the right container and method for submerging the vegetables under the brine; getting just the right salt concentration; and fermenting just the right amount of time for my personal taste and recipe use. So let’s break these down.

Container
Sichuan naturally fermented pickles

Sichuan pickling crocks come in all sizes in both glass and earthenware but always have a moat around the top to provide a water seal

Sichuan pao cai and pickle crock

You can pickle most any hard vegetable in the crock; my favorites are cabbage, green beans and chilies, large portions of which can fit in this 5 liter crock

In the two photos above, I’m using Sichuan pickling crocks, one in glass and one in earthenware. The Chinese crocks have a narrow opening with a moat around it. You fill the moat with water, and it serves to seal out oxygen while letting the carbon dioxide from the fermentation process escape. This makes for some unusual burbling sounds in your kitchen, which Carolyn Phillips calls farts. She even calls her pickle jar the fart jar, as she tells it in her majestic but plain-talking pan-China cookbook, “All Under Heaven.”  (While you’re at the Saveur site,  you should also vote for Phillips for the Food Obsessive Award in the 2017 Saveur Blog Awards.)

You can find the glass version of this crock at The Wok Shop or sometimes in Chinese supermarkets in the U.S. Harder to find are the earthenware ones, though I recently stumbled on this one at Great Wall Supermarket in Atlanta. You can also use a wide-mouth crock or glass canning jars, which I’ll discuss below.

My biggest problem with lacto-fermentation was that, unlike a vinegar brine, as it progresses, the salt brine starts to go cloudy. Sometimes it even forms white scum on the top. Whenever this happened, I would ditch the whole crock full, owing to my strong aversion to mold or anything resembling mold, except where cheese is concerned. The cloudy brine and white film creeped me out, and I thought I was doing something wrong.

But this summer in Sichuan proved me wrong. The owners of Sichuan food brand Youjia took Fong Chong and me to eat at a high-end restaurant with Pao Cai in the name, where a hallway of glass pickle jars greeted us, several of them with a white film on the top. It was the same story at the Chengdu Shangri-La’s fabulous Cafe Z, where a wall of help-yourself pickle jars featured gorgeous pickles of all kinds floating in cloudy brine, some dotted with a white moldy substance.

Sichuan pao cai

Sichuan-style pickles at the Shangri-La hotel in Chengdu. Almost all vegetables are candidates for the pickle jar.

Turns out that not only is that white growth normal, it’s not even mold. It is instead Kahm yeast, which is a natural byproduct of lacto-fermentation. It’s perfectly harmless according to the experts, and although it’s not tasty and you don’t want to eat it, all you have to do is just skim it off the top and go on to the crunchy and sour goodness below the brine.

It’s still more appealing to avoid it altogether, however, and several things can help with that. The main goal is to keep oxygen away from the vegetables. They naturally want to float up to the top of the container and poke their heads out, so you have to make an effort to keep them submerged below the brine. The narrow opening of the Chinese crocks helps with this, but you still need to weigh the vegetables down somehow with something that floats. The Sichuan pickle makers in the Katz video use parts of plastic water bottles. I’ve been known to use the flexible lid of a thin plastic container (ironically, the lid from a Whole Foods pickle bar container).

Big cabbage leaves also work pretty well to cover and hold down the other vegetables. If the leaf gets funky during the process, just throw it out and insert a new one. Even better is a combination of cabbage leaves and plastic. Whatever weight you use, the brine must always cover all the vegetables, which means checking on it after the first day or two to top if off with more brine if need be.

Sichuan pickled green beans and chilies

Fill a quart jar with green beans, dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns and salty brine…

As my pickling jars have gotten progressively bigger, I’ve found it a bit harder to control the formation of Kahm yeast. So I suggest that people new to fermentation try a quart or liter canning jar, like a Mason or Weck jar. I particularly like the Weck jars because you can leave the rubber seal off and seal them only with the clips, which leaves a tiny space for the gases to escape. Fill it nearly to the top with the brine, leaving little room for oxygen, but leave the jar sitting on a plate in case it overflows as it ferments.

Sichuan pickled green beans and chilies

Keep the vegetables submerged below the brine with a large cabbage leaf…

Sichuan pickled peppers and green beans

In a few days you’ll have naturally pickled peppers and green beans!

Salt

Another thing that helps deter Kahm yeast, as well as true mold, is the salt brine. But what’s the magical salt concentration that allows only good bacteria to grow but doesn’t make the pickles too salty to eat? In Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Land of Plenty,” she notes that the typical Sichuan brine is “very salty” and gives proportions of 2 ounces salt to 18 ounces water. This, to me, is inedibly salty, even for vegetables you’re going to cook, which can be saltier. Carolyn Phillips uses 1.25 ounces for every 18 ounces, or 5 ounces sea salt for 9 cups water, and I find even that too salty, though for longterm fermentation it may be necessary.

For my purposes, I have settled on 32 grams of salt for 24 ounces, or 3 cups, water, which is the right amount of brine for pickling in a liter or quart jar. I give the measurement in grams because it is important to measure the salt based on weight, not volume. That has tripped me up several times! For example, 4 level tablespoons of Diamond Crystal kosher salt weighs 32 grams, because 1 tablespoon of it weighs about 8 grams. But 1 tablespoon Morton kosher or sea salt could weigh anywhere from 14 grams to 17 grams—meaning you’d need only about half the volume of salt for the same weight.

You will not use all 3 cups of brine to fill the jar originally, but you will probably need the remaining 1/2 cup to top off the jar over the next few days.

Time

I can get away with using this more palatable amount of salt because I prefer my lacto-fermented pickles on the young side. Like most people in Sichuan, I leave cabbage pieces in this brine for only about one day, producing the lightly sour pao cai that is eaten as a side dish with most meals, perhaps topped with some homemade chili oil. (Read all about the pervasive presence of this quick pao cai in Chengdu here.)

Sichuan pao cai

This type of cabbage and radish pao cai ferments for only one day and is eaten as a side dish with many Sichuan meals. (Photo by Jordan Porter.)

Sandor Katz recommends checking in on your fermenting pickles every three days to determine which length of time suits your taste. For long beans or green beans, which are not very large or dense, anywhere from 3 to 5 days is sour enough for my liking, at which point I’ll either cook with them or move them to the refrigerator, which greatly slows the fermentation process. The time of year also makes a difference, with vegetables fermenting noticeably faster in the summer than winter.

As a contrast, Carolyn Phillips lets her pickle crock go for two to four weeks before eating any. Like many Sichuanese, she keeps her brine and adds more brine and flavorings over time, but some people also start from scratch each time. It really depends on how well the ferment well and how good the brine tastes to you.

As I said, pickling, like all cooking, is both a science and an art. Let this pao cai recipe be the beginning of your own experimentation and creation. By the time your pickles are ready I’ll have posted a stir-fry recipe using pickled green beans, pickled chilies and pickled Sichuan peppercorns that you can use as a topper for rice or noodles or in a lettuce cup for a zippy, zesty meal.

Sichuan's Naturally Fermented Pickles (Pao Cai)
Author: 
 
Ingredients
Makes 1 quart or liter
  • 3 cups water
  • 32 grams kosher or sea salt (4 level tablespoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt, or about 2 tablespoons Morton kosher salt or sea salt)
  • 1 tablespoon brown or white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Chinese white liquor or Shaoxing wine (or gin or vodka)
  • 12 ounces hard vegetables such as green beans (or long beans), white cabbage, white or red radish, carrot, celery, cauliflower, fresh chili peppers
  • 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
  • whole dried Sichuan chilies, rinsed and dried
  • fresh, peeled ginger slices
  • 1 large, outer cabbage leaf
Instructions
  1. Bring water to a boil and remove from heat. Add salt and sugar and stir to dissolve. Let cool to room temperature, and add liquor.
  2. Sterilize container and lid by rinsing with boiling water.
  3. Wash vegetables and cut them into large bite-size pieces. Leave green beans whole. Dry them well and add to pickle jar, along with the Sichuan peppercorns, dried chilies and ginger.
  4. Add brine almost to the top, then cover vegetables with the cabbage leaf, tucking it into the jar and making sure all other ingredients are under it. Top off brine and seal jar loosely. (If using a Weck jar, use only the clips and not the rubber seal; if using a Mason jar, just screw lid on loosely, allowing an escape route for the gases.) Refrigerate any extra brine. If using a larger jar or crock, you may need to weigh down the cabbage leaf with a piece of flexible plastic, small plate or other improvised, sanitized device, to keep all vegetables under the brine.
  5. Sit the jar on a plate in case of overflow, and leave in a cool, dark place such as a pantry or cupboard to ferment. Sample the vegetables every day or two to check their sourness. If the cabbage leaf has been exposed to oxygen and appears funky, replace it with a new, fresh one. Top off brine if it is not above the vegetables. When they are pickled to your liking, store jar in the refrigerator. Cabbage can take as little as 1 day, while green beans and other vegetables take 3 to 5 days or longer, depending on the size of the vegetables, the room temperature and the desired sourness.
  6. If using a larger jar or pickle crock, monitor it for the white yeast film that can occur naturally on the surface in lacto-fermentation and remove any that occurs. As you use the pickles, replenish the crock with more brine, seasonings and vegetables.

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34 Responses

  1. Thomas Hoffert says:

    I’ve been exposed to this process since I was a wee lad. My mom’s lineage is eastern Russian and this is how all our vegetables were pickled: cabbage, cucumbers, cauliflower, onions etc. I find that this process really allows the flavor of the vegetable to shine through, on the down side the shelf life is considerably less than those put up using vinegar. A trick my grandma would do is after you take your water and salt mixture off the stove let it cool then put it in the fridge until ice cold. Then fill your jars with the liquid.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Interesting. I’ve heard that the Eastern European pickle crocks are similar to the Chinese crocks and also use a water moat as a seal. Are the Russian ones like that too? What does the cold water bring to the process? Crisper pickles?

      • Tom says:

        Lol. I really couldn’t tell you. Making sure that the brine was ice cold was always “just the way we did it.” However it may indeed make the vegetables crisper. Sort of like shocking them perhaps. As to the containers grandma always just used the “Ball” fruit jars. Cucumbers made this way are incredible; garlic, dill, whole cukes and ice cold brine. Let sit for three to four days and fantastic!

        On a decidedly unrelated note I see that your sold out of dried mushrooms. Any ETA on this item? Also do you carry the Chinese wine? Oh, and I made that carmalized chicken dish the other night. What a bizarre flavor! One of those “I hate it/I love it/I hate it/I love it” type dishes, which of course are my favorites 🙂

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          I’m having trouble sourcing small packages of mushrooms, and the large ones are quite expensive. Will keep looking! I so wish I could carry Shaoxing wine, but the cooking Shaoxing with added salt is not really worth carrying, and the real stuff requires a liquor license. Maybe someday I can carry it or find a partner who does… Thanks for asking!

          I’m surprised by your reaction to the caramelized chicken dish. To me it tastes very similar to every other country’s chicken soup, just kind of homey and definitely not bizarre. I know you’re a fan of mushrooms, so perhaps you don’t like celery? I tend to get carried away with it because I love it…

          • Tom says:

            I kind of figured that i.e. liquor laws.

            I used brown sugar in the recipe as opposed to white which I’m thinking gives it a more intensive sugar flavor. Regardless, I just love that recipe! And as to celery…when this planet gets too crowded this should be the first species to go 🙂

          • Taylor Holliday says:

            😆

          • Tom says:

            Maybe I just lucked out in regards to this sugar/chicken dish but now I know what “umami” is.

          • Taylor Holliday says:

            Tom, do you use golden sherry? It’s a very good sub for Shaoxing wine.

          • Thomas says:

            Hi Taylor! Small town living means having to use a generic cooking sherry but it’s not all that bad. Keep me posted on the mushroom situation 🙂

  2. I made my first two batches of half-sour pickles this summer. Both batches came out good. I knew ahead of time that the cloudiness wasn’t an issue. The first batch I did in two smaller jars. One got yeast. It was caught dill, so I tossed the dill that it was one also. The second batch I made in one large jar. On the second or third day when I checked, the brine had fizzed up and spilled out, leaving one cucumber exposed. There was some mold. I tossed that cucumber and all the surface water/mold and topped it off with more brine. No more mold after that and the pickles were good.

    I was getting ready to quick-pickle some serrano peppers but I think I will try this instead. Thanks for the recipe!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Robert,
      Sounds like your experiences have been similar to mine. Though I haven’t tackled cucumbers yet. I understand their high water content makes them harder to do and maintain crunchiness, and that they require more salt. Must try though! How long did the half-sour cucumbers take?

      • Xianhang Zhang says:

        If you pickle cucumbers, make sure to cut off the flower bud as it contains enzymes that soften the cuke.

      • The recipe I used said to taste after four days. First batch, I tasted and decided to leave them for a fifth day, then moved them to the refrigerator (from the basement). The second batch, I left for six days, partly because of the mold. I wanted to see if it would reappear. I was very glad it didn’t, because it was a four-pound batch and I really didn’t want to throw it away. After it was too late, I read this web page about using grape leaves to make the cucumber pickles crunchier: http://www.wildfermentation.com/making-sour-pickles-2/ My pickles weren’t un-crunchy, but could be crunchier. But it’s hard to know if it was the lack of grape leaves, or that the cucumbers were too large, or the brine could have been saltier… Lots of variables. Which is part of the fun. Ancient methods of preservation have quirks.

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          Oh, right. That’s another reason I haven’t tried cucumbers. I seldom have access to fresh grape leaves. That’s Sandor Katz’s site you link to. When I saw him speak about fermentation, he was encouraging everyone to start with a sour kraut type pickle, since cucumber pickles are harder to get right. Seems most people start with cucumbers, however.

          Quirks, indeed!

  3. David Buckwalter says:

    Regarding the saltwater concentrate, I pickle olives, which are tradionly pickled for much longer, at least 3 weeks. To pickle the vegetable to stop it going off the concentration needs to be at a certain level other wise it does not pickle and goes off. The rule I use which I read somewhere was to place a raw egg still in the shell in the water and keep adding salt until the egg flouts.. In plane water only the egg will sink to the bottom. Until the concentration reaches a certain level you are flavouring the vegetables not pickling them.
    I think that leaving veg in brine at below the right concentration is flavouring rather than pickling. Also the same outcome for soaking for only a few days rather than extended time.. If the veg is truly pickled no need to refrigerate it won’t go off.
    I also had the same problem with white scum appearing on the surface. If it got too bad I drained and replaced. A low concentration also effects the growth of that scum. More salt less or no scum. With olives I found to get rid of the over salty tast I rinsed and soaked in plan water for a day or two, sometimes changing the water. You have the salty flavour your looking for.
    If the job is done in summer the risk of contamination with low salt level is greater.
    I think from reading your notes it’s a mater of pickling to preserve for a long time or just for a few days to enjoy the flavour as is out of the jar or cooking.
    Great idea intend to experiment and will advise.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi David,
      Thanks for your thoughts on this. I haven’t heard that about the egg trick. That’s interesting, but I would still argue that you don’t need that much salt to ferment. (Sandor Katz says you don’t actually need ANY salt to ferment. Though that’s a scary thought to me.) I agree that 1-day pickles are more flavored than pickled. However, my 3-day green beans are definitely pickled, because they don’t taste salty, they taste sour. Like a pickle! I haven’t tried to pickle olives myself, but love the idea.

      • David Buckwalter says:

        I think the origins of pickling is about long term preservation before refrigeration. Similar to smoking kills the bacteria which preserves the food. I doubt the amount of salt used is elielevent for a few days as the water alone keeps the oxygen away from the food. Then it goes in the fridge no risk.

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          That’s true. For a long winter storage, you’d probably need a lot of salt. And if you’re constantly eating and replenishing the crock, not as much.

      • Xianhang Zhang says:

        The salt is not there to help the lactobacillus grow, it’s there to stop everything else from growing. In theory, there’s nothing preventing other things from growing in a lack of salt but it would be difficult to verify.

        One thing though is that lactic acid also inhibits other bacteria from growing so presumably you could use less salt in a reused brine and that could be a way to both stay safe and also get your desired salt level.

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          Good theory, Hang…Have to admit that I have never reused the brine.

          I think my pickles are likely to stay in the short to mid-length fermentation timeframe, since I don’t need to put up vegetables for the winter.

  4. Pamela says:

    Here in Japan, we make day pickles too — called Asazuke. Salt, red pepper, other Japanese spices are added to cucumbers, radish etc. They are allowed to “work” only for half a day or just a few minutes, 60 minutes and eaten that night with dinner. I didn’t know China had something similar.

    Most Japanese pickles, in fact all I think except for western style pickles, are made without vinagar. Instead they are fermented with a lacto-fermentation method. The most popular is Nukazuke, where you make a rice bran mash or paste with salt, red pepper, kelp, a little water etc and put veggies in this. They are pickled in a day — 24 hours. Most housewives still doing this themselves will make fresh pickles to be served that day, every day. Of course, there are long term lacto-fermentated pickles too where the pickled vegetables are supposed to last the winter months. Takuan would be an example of that.

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Interesting! So are these in a brine, or more like a paste? Do they do any in brine? I like that Japan has different names for different types/lengths of fermentation. China calls them all, one day or longer, pao cai.

      • Pamela says:

        The “nuka zuke” are in a fermented paste, but long term pickles, longer like for the winter, would be salted to a certain amount — not too too much. Juices from the vegetables make the slight amount of liquid. Enough salt is used to keep the vegetables from rotting but hopefully not too much salt. The asazuke, very short term pickles, are mostly salted, spiced, with only the liquid that drains from the veg because of the salt. They are eaten that day so not too much salt is used.

        The nukauzke are really interesting. Any kind of summer vegetable except for really wet ones like tomatoes are candidates for pickling. There are 2 fermentation bacillus in the mash. One likes oxygen a lot and the other dislikes oxygen. So the person doing the pickling has to turn the mash and mix the mash up every day or it goes bad. That’s why a lot of younger women don’t want to make this pickle as they feel their hands begin to smell like nuka. Store bought nukazuke never tastes as good as homemade.

    • Marla says:

      I LOVE real nukazuke takuan (daikon) pickles – unlike the ones sold in Japanese groceries in the US (made with corn syrup, color and MSG) they are salty, slightly metallic, umami filled and dry/crunchy. Delicious once you develop a taste for them. However my attempt to nuka bed pickle in Michigan was a failure – I think that I neglected to turn the bed once during the summer and things soured. The bran, salt, water paste got funky in a bad way and the requirement to attend to it daily was just enough hassle that I didn’t try again (maybe I should).

  5. Marla says:

    I just made up a batch (in a quart mason jar with a bung and airlock fitted into its lid, so I don’t have to worry about dust or fruit flies getting into the brine) and set it in the basement to cure for 3 days or so. Fresh farmers market white cabbage, green beans, red radishes, fresh chilis and the aromatics in your recipe. Thank you for the nudge to do this, as I used to make sauerkraut (we don’t eat much of it but do like it in Julia Child’s choucroute garnie recipe in cooler weather) and since I made a quart only of the Sichuan pickles (husband won’t be very interested) the extra farmers market cabbage went into the kraut pot (using Katz’s 5 lbs/3Tbs ratio). That will be done in 3+ weeks.

    FYI, 3 cups of brine and about 12 oz of hard vegetables works for quart sized mason jars well too. I have a little brine left over, but had enough room in the jar for the veggies, one big cabbage leaf on top, and brine to cover near the top of the jar but not up to the jar. I’ve not brine fermented before and I love kitchen science experiments!!

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Hi Marla,
      I’m happy to have inspired you to try this one! Did three days make a good, sour pickle for you? Did you like the taste?

      • Marla says:

        After 3 days I did get the sour funky taste of lacto-fermentation, and I’ve transferred the whole jar to the fridge. I’m interested to see how the flavor and texture plays with cooked food, so I’ll be making the green bean and meat “larb-ish” recipe you posted too. Thank you for nudging me to get back into fermenting!

        • Taylor Holliday says:

          And thank you for letting me know! This weekend at the restaurant Mala Project (no relation!) in NYC, I had a fried rice with Chinese bacon and tiny bits of pickled green bean. Yet another use for them!

  6. Thom says:

    Taylor – lacto pickles are definitely more complex than vinegar ones. I struggled for a while myself with lots of failed “experiments”. I highly recommend taking a look at Kirsten Shockey’s books Fermented Vegetables and Fiery Ferments. She and her husband Christopher do a great job explaining – and the recipes are pretty spot on. So far everything I’ve had has been spot on – and some of the pepper ferments are amazing. She even has some Tibetan inspired recipes, although no Ma La recipes. http://ferment.works/

    • Taylor Holliday says:

      Thanks for this recommendation, Thom. I actually do have their Fermented Vegetables book, but didn’t know about the Fiery Ferments. I definitely need that one!

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