Eastern European

Why Fermentation is Not Just a Passing Trend (& 3 Recipes to Get You Started)

February 16, 2016

When I mention “fermentatsiya” to my mother and aunties in Ukraine, they giggle: “What’s this hipster word you choose to call our ‘kvashennia’?” Their raised eyebrows say it all. 

I explain that fermentation (I insist on using the scientific/hipster word) is on-trend for various reasons. “Clean eating” enthusiasts and nutritionists are bringing it to the masses. It is good for your health, they say; it helps maintain a healthy gut.

Photo by Kris Kirkham

The mamushkas keep on laughing. I don’t blame them: It has been amusing to me as well. I don’t think we ever talked about fermentation being “healthy” when I was growing up. It was just our way of life, linked to seasonal eating, to growing our own vegetables and fruit, to having to preserve them for winter as rich soils and fierce sun made it possible for us to have serious gluts come September. The only fermented product that we called “healthy” was our homemade blackcurrant and raspberry wines. They were called “micro-nutrients” as a joke—as in, “Have another glass (or bottle). The fruit’s been fermented: It’s all micro-nutrients!”

Shop the Story

Once the giggling subsides, I tell them about Faviken and Noma and numerous London restaurants, such as Raw Duck and Poco, that are bringing traditions, tested and developed by humanity for eons, to the modern table. 

My family goes a little quieter again; they now seem less averse to my use of “fermentatsiya.” They know that, for the past few years, I've been obsessed with the techniques of traditional food preparation in modern settings. Fact is, whether it’s the “wellness” brigade or the genius Nordic locavorists or urban waste-fighting restaurateurs, fermentation has a place in this world still, and I hope it will not be a passing fad but that it will stick around, develop, and become more widely popular as part of a bigger movement.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“They are adored in Poland and you can buy them in Summer by weight for the 3-4 times higher price than "normal" sauered cucumbers. ”
— Anna S.

The reason why people have always fermented vegetables was simple: They lived seasonally and they needed to preserve. Winter months bore very little in terms of vegetation, so it was an easy and, as we now know, nutritious way to eat. And a fun side effect of some particularly sugary items like fruit, grains, and potatoes was that we were also able to get warm and jolly. Wine, beer, and spirits are so ancient and so ingrained into our culture, after all, that most of us cannot imagine life without it. 

It is a fascinating subject both in culinary and anthropological terms, and there are several books that go into detail. Fermented by Charlotte Pike is an incredible beginners’ offering, and Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation is a thick tome for those who would like to go deeper into its history and science.

To me, fermented foods were an indispensable part of my childhood. The South of Ukraine has a very mild, almost Mediterranean climate, so from late April to late October there has always been an abundance of vegetables and fruit. The summers are so hot that we even had separate “summer kitchens”: small rooms built outside the main house close to the allotment and containing only kitchens. 
 They were nothing fancy—just somewhere where women could escape from the stuffy houses during the scorchingly hot summer months. All meals in the summers were cooked and eaten there, and by September its window sills and shelves were filled with hundreds of jars. 

The beginning of fall signaled that it was time to preserve and ferment. Buckets of the sweetest tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, plums, and apricots were brought in through the lacy curtained doorway of the summer kitchen, and us children sat on stumpy wooden stools and picked out the bruised and blemished; only the best, undamaged specimens were to make it into the preserving jars.

Cucumbers, in particular, had to be fermented at the very end of the season. The weather was still warm, but they no longer had to be watered as much. This meant that their taste was rounder and sweeter, almost like an unripe melon. The texture was firm and almost starchy (in a good way), rather than watery. The method was almost always the same: a weak brine and a little sugar, warmed up and infused with allspice and black peppercorns. The brine was then allowed to cool. The small prickly cucumbers were packed into a jar, along with some dill tops, whole garlic heads, horseradish, blackcurrant leaves, and sour cherry leaves, the latter’s tannins essential in preventing the cucumbers from going soft. The cucumbers would then be weighed down and left to ferment in the summer kitchen. 

My father loves them just after three days, when they are mild and fresh, but I do not see any point in this flavor profile. The rest of the family prefers them when they go, as we call it, “nuclear.” A month-long fermentation makes them go dark and salty and a little fizzy. The earthiness of the blackcurrant, the garlic, and the intensity of dill blossom blow your head off. 

Gherkins (left) and gherkin, beef & barley soup (right) Photo by Kris Kirkham

We never wasted the fermented brine. It’s an excellent hangover cure as it is (yes: just down a shot of this and a shot of ice cold vodka when you feel tender, and you are immediately cured), and it also makes an excellent winter broth called rassolnyk (from ‘rassol’, brine).

A flavorsome but simple stock is made with some fine-quality pork ribs. Then you throw in a little pearl barley, caramelized grated carrots and shallots, grated fermented gherkins, and a good dash of the brine. The meaty bouillon and soft pieces of pulled pork, the sweet caramelized vegetables, the warmth of allspice, and the intensely sweet and sour gherkin brine come together to create one of the best, most complex combinations. Only five ingredients and minimum hassle and I have a dish that makes my British friends raise their eyebrows in disbelief. 

Tomatoes on their way to fermentation (left) and Armenian pickles (right) Photo by Kris Kirkham

Cucumbers are not the only thing that we ferment. Kherson steppes, where I am from, is notorious for its watermelons. Come August, precarious-looking piles of the stripy twenty-five kilo beasts is a familiar site by the side of the road. And of course, we ferment those as well. The smaller specimens are pierced, stuffed (whole!) into huge oak barrels, and covered in watermelon pulp mixed with salt. They are then left to go funky. Traditionally we just eat pieces of it as they are, alongside other fermented vegetables in winter. The texture may not be for everyone, so when I cater for the uninitiated, I blitz some of it up and use in a dressing in a winter pork salad. It is a flavor that baffles and excites.

In western parts of Ukraine, they also ferment whole apples, which again are used as a savory accompaniment to meat in the winter. I love to add raw honey, Himalayan salt, fresh tarragon, and mint to my fermentation brine, and it results in one of the brightest-tasting ferments known to man. For those who find the texture "challenging," I blend them into a purée. I am currently fermenting wild British crab apples in this way, and their chalky texture really lends itself well to the process.

Fermented tomatoes Photo by Kris Kirkham

I have experimented a lot in Britain, where I have been living for the past fifteen years. I always use my aunt’s brine recipe and it never fails me. I now have five kilos of Spanish raf tomatoes (a winter variety that tastes of sweet sea water) on the go. If you have never tried fermented tomatoes, you have not lived. Bring the fruit to your lips, put a little bit of pressure around it, and experience a sensory shock. it will explode into your mouth with intensely sweet, fizzy juices, tasting of celery, garlic, blackcurrant, and, of course, tomato—but tomato flavor that has been magnified by a thousand. 

Once you start eating them, you may not be able to stop. I ferment the tomatoes when they are still a little green, so they remain firm, and to eat them, I mix with chicory leaves, candied walnuts, and a fermented brine and mustard vinaigrette. 

I am also experimenting with wild leeks and British sea purslane. They are now bubbling away in a rather weak 2% brine; any stronger and they may become too soft. As soon as damson plums come into season, I will ferment those whole, too. And after my trip to Azerbaijan, I cannot wait to have a go at brining sour cherries. It was one of the most incredible accompaniments to a meaty pilau I have ever tasted.

My shed in my tiny London garden is slowly getting filled with jars. Yellow lemons, green tomatoes, chiles, apples, sauerkraut. They elate me, they trigger memories, and they inspire me to cook creatively. If they help me have a healthy gut too, it's only a bonus.

Let the mamushkas giggle—their legacy lives on.

Recipes from Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & Beyond by Olia Hercules; photography by Kris Kirkham; published by Mitchell Beazley.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Meredith Ryan
    Meredith Ryan
  • NYNCtg
  • Anna Stanuch
    Anna Stanuch
  • GsR
  • Olia Hercules
    Olia Hercules
Author of Mamushka: Recipes from Ukraine & Beyond.


Meredith R. April 19, 2017
Can I ask where you got your beautiful chubby jars with the printed lids? I've never seen any like them here in the States. And how do they seal?
NYNCtg July 24, 2016
I've been waiting for my tomato plants to produce more than we can reasonably eat so that I can try your fermented tomatoes. going to put the up this week. I am very excited.
Anna S. February 18, 2016
Thank you for the article! I grew up in Poland and all you wrote is very close to my heart. I totally agree with your Dad that 3-day cucumbers are the best. They are adored in Poland and you can buy them in Summer by weight for the 3-4 times higher price than "normal" sauered cucumbers.
Olia H. February 18, 2016
That is so interesting! I only like the ones that 'punch' you in the face with flavour. My dad must have a more exquisite palate. Thank you for this bit of information, I love hearing how things are in the rest of Eastern Europe. Everybody thinks it's all the same in every Eastern European country but the nuances in regional cuisine (even within the same country) are so diverse and fascinating. Warmest wishes! Olia
Anna S. February 19, 2016
Absolutely! My husband is from Warsaw and I am from the South-West part of Poland and we always argue about "the proper way" of preparing a certain dish. He is a chef and tries to win by playing on the authority note, but I started blogging about fermented food a year ago and became quite knowledgeable on the topic. So, he usually gives up when it comes to ferments. After ten years of living together, we finally had the proper Christmas Eve borscht, i.e. made of fermented beetroots. He admitted he loved it. Uhu!!
GsR February 16, 2016
My grandmother, came from Kiev area, born in the 1880s. She would make fermented beets (russel), and used it to make borscht for Passover. Now more than 60 years later I can still taste it. Nothing was as delicious.
Olia H. February 18, 2016
Fermented beetroot is absolutely brilliant! I agree borsch with fermented beets is incredible. Do you make it as well? I sometimes throw in a little grated ginger with the beet - it gives a special kick to the borsch.
GsR February 18, 2016
Sounds delicious. But, I don't think my Bubbie ever saw a ginger root or would know what to do with it ?
Olia H. February 18, 2016
No of course not. :) My taro though added little bit of ginger and chilli to borsch this winter and it worked amazingly! Just added a subtle kick to it. Try it!
GsR February 18, 2016
We always had dairy cold borscht with sour cream. The ginger sounds and chili sounds like it would really up the refreshing factor. ;0)
Olia H. February 18, 2016
Ahhhh hehe yes 'dairy and cold' doesn't sound like the perfect match. We always have it hot and I personally never add sour cream as I feel like it dilutes the strong flavour of the beef stock too much.
GsR February 18, 2016
Ah ha, there's our difference. Being religious Jews we never mix meat and dairy. So borscht was made with the fermenting liquid and not meat stock of any kind. Also it was sweet and sour.