Salt beef was the staple food of British sailors for centuries. We still eat salted naval beef or salt pork with our Jigg’s Dinner, here in Newfoundland and Labrador, continuing that tradition. Salting in barrels was a principal way that fish and meat were preserved or shipped for sale, before frozen foods became available. Salt cod, dried on flakes then salted and put into barrels was the premier export product that connected Newfoundland and the Grand Banks with the production of salt, sugar and rum in the Caribbean and the marketing of bacalao in Portugal and salt cod to other parts of Europe.
Salt is an effective preservative, not only because it dries out the proteins in the meat, but salt makes the meat or fish inhospitable to bacteria, moulds and other decay organisms. Salting was one of the original ways that humans learned to preserve hunted meats and is still in use. It produces some of our favourite foods, from salt beef to salami and can be combined with smoking to preserve flavour and edibility.
Pickling in brine was also widely used for meats, fish and vegetables all over the world. There are many different pickled foods throughout the world, in many different food cultures and traditions. There are two main methods for pickling. True pickles are fermented by mixing vegetables, often chopped or shredded (but sometimes whole, as in pickled cucumbers) with salt. In the brine, natural fermentation occurs and a wonderful salty, sour flavour results, which also preserves the food for storage and later use. Traditional kosher pickles made in this way are much tastier than store bought commercial pickles, made by the other method: making up a prepared vinegar solution and then immersing vegetables in the acid vinegar and water mixture. Traditional spices used in pickling include garlic, peppercorns, coriander and bay leaf, among others. Sweet pickles are a variation in which sugar is added to the pickle solution to give the resulting pickles a sweeter taste.
Just about every culture has practiced some form of pickling to preserve food. In Korea a common and tasty naturally fermented cabbage pickle is kim chee. This wonderful spicy vegetable pickle is easy to make.
Ingredients: 4 cups water, 4 tbsp. sea salt, 1 large head of cabbage or Chinese cabbage, shredded or cut into small pieces, 1 grated daikon (white) radish or 1 cup asparagus cut into one-inch pieces, 2 scallions (green onions) chopped, a few green beans, 2 minced cloves of garlic, 2 tbsp. of fresh minced ginger root and ½ to 1 tsp. cayenne.
Mix salt in water to dissolve it then add the cabbage and daikon in a large crock or stainless pot. Cover with a lid or plate to keep vegetables submerged in brine. Soak for 12 hours, pour off and save the brine. Check vegetables for saltiness (if too salty, rinse, if not enough salt add more, a quarter teaspoon at a time, to the brine). Mix together asparagus, beans, scallions, garlic, ginger and cayenne. Put cabbage and other vegetables into a large crock or stainless steel pot and pour brine back over them, making sure they all stay submerged. Cover with clean cloth and set aside for three to seven days, at around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, to ferment. If it is colder it will take longer.
Check Kim Chee daily to make sure vegetables are always covered. Once ripe and sour, it will keep refrigerated for months to eat with oriental food, sandwiches, etc. It can be hot canned for longer storage. Bruising the vegetables before storing in jars will ensure better penetration of the juice.
Dawson’s Pickled Fireweed Shoots
Ingredients: Pick a large handful of fireweed shoots in early Spring for each jar you will make, white vinegar, water, sea salt, pickling spices, brown sugar.
Clean and rinse fireweed stalks, removing harder (lower) ends. Cut to desired length. In a large pot mix vinegar and water in equal amounts. Add 1 tsp. salt and 1 tsp. sugar for each jar. Clean and sterilize jars in oven (250 degrees) or hot water. Pack jars with fireweed stems, after placing a tbsp. of pickling spice in the bottom of each jar. Heat brine to boiling, then turn off. Pour in brine to cover stems, leaving at least ¾ inch space at top for sealing. Put on canning lid and tighten rim. Place jars in water bath canner, already boiling and cook for 10-15 minutes. Remove and place on towel to cool and seal. Will store well for several years, but best to eat within a year.