Fermented Relishes

by Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo

Thanksgiving and holiday feasts are times to fill plates, enjoy the company of friends and family and savor fall’s arrival with hearty root vegetables and long-roasted fare. But my favorite thing about this time of year is the cranberries. Within the last few years of teaching about the health benefits of fermentation, I’ve become more interested in incorporating fermented foods into holiday feasts, for both the benefit of tradition and digestion. Much to my delight, cranberries are an excellent candidate for fermenting projects—and relishes are a versatile route to incorporate them into any feast.

Cranberries have a uniquely American history to boot. Indigenous to North America, they’re native from Wisconsin to Maine—stretching as far south as North Carolina to the Appalachian Mountains. Native Americans used them for food, medicine and to treat food poisoning. They’re full of antioxidants and are thought to help liver function, prevent urinary tract infections, offer anticarcinogenic compounds and vitamin C, fiber and an array of phytonutrients. Add fermentation to the mix and we have a superfood!

Lacto-fermentation is the process of adding salt to vegetables and fruits to create a suitable environment for very specific types of bacteria to grow and thrive and, in turn, slowly acidify the food. Lactobacillus bacteria produces lactic acid—responsible for the tart and sour flavors—when it eats the sugars in the vegetables and fruits (the salt inhibits other microorganisms from causing spoilage). The other type of fermentation that everyone is no doubt familiar with, alcohol, involves adding sugar instead of salt and allowing yeast and other microbes to eat that sugar in a controlled environment to produce beer, wine, mead and other tasty libations.

Lacto-fermented foods help us digest other foods we consume when eaten in small, supplemental quantities at every meal. Fermentation unlocks certain vitamins and minerals that were not accessible to us in the raw materials; for example, B vitamins 1–3, riboflavin, niacin and thiamin levels all increase when a vegetable or fruit is fermented. Additionally, fermented foods offer detoxifying and anticarcinogenic compounds that are the byproducts of bacteria breaking down larger compounds within our food. And then there are the probiotics, the benefits of which are well-documented. Live cultures of good bacteria jumpstart our immune system every time we eat them, which is a really great reason to start fermenting relishes and condiments.

There are two ways to ferment relishes. The first method involves combining all of the raw materials and fermenting them together. The second involves culturing any existing relish or condiment with whey or water kefir. Whey is easy to obtain from store-bought plain yogurt or from the process of making yogurt at home. Whey is rich in minerals, enzymes and live cultures such as lactobacillus, which makes it a great starter culture.

To obtain whey from existing yogurt, set a wire mesh strainer over a glass bowl. Dampen and wring out a piece of fine-weave muslin and place it over the strainer. Pour the contents of a 1-quart container of plain, whole-milk yogurt into the strainer and let it sit for up to an hour. This will produce a thick, Greek-style yogurt that is delicious drizzled with honey (or saved and topped with fermented cranberry relish) and about 1 cup of whey dripped into the bowl below. Straining for longer will yield a yogurt cheese and even more whey. Whey keeps in the refrigerator for up to 1 month. (My book, “Hip Girl’s Guide to the Kitchen,” offers a list of “10 whey cool things to do with whey” if you want more ideas of how to use it.)

Use the ratio of 1 tablespoon of whey to culture up to 1 cup (8 ounces) of relish, sauce or any condiment. Allow the culturing to take place by leaving the mixture covered at room temperature for 24 hours. Depending on the base item, the culture may make it taste a bit more sour or tart. There might not be much of a flavor difference with some relishes or condiments that are already tart from vinegar, but rest assured, live cultures and a nutrient boost have been added—tasty reasons why an extra scoop of chutney or relish dolloped on that serving of turkey is a good idea.