If You Like Sauerkraut and Kimchi, Try This Clean Plates Original Recipe for Curtido, a Pickled Cabbage Slaw from El Salvador
Move over, sauerkraut and kimchi, and make room on the shelf for curtido: a pickled cabbage slaw that hails from El Salvador. It’s so delicious that I included recipes for both an Eight-Hour Curtido and a Cultured Curtido in my pickling cookbook, The Complete Guide to Pickling. They’ve become beloved autumnal staples in my kitchen.
What is Curtido?
Curtido’s history in El Salvador is tied to pupusas, which are the national dish. These masa cakes are stuffed and cooked on a griddle, then served with curtido and thin tomato salsa. Pupusas tend to be mild and filled with cheese, beans, pork, or squash, so the tangy curtido and light salsa add a little spice and tartness to balance out the snack.
Curtido always starts with cabbage and carrots. Many versions also include onion, chile peppers, and a big hit of oregano. By relying on vinegar to pickle the ingredients, a simple version of curtido can be ready to eat in hours, but will keep for weeks in the fridge.
However, the lacto-fermented recipe I share here takes a bit more time to develop than a quick-pickle — but I promise it’s worth it for both the complex, sour flavor and the probiotics. Fermentation can take anywhere from three to 10 days, but the slaw will stay firm much longer in the fridge and feature a sour bite. As with sauerkraut and kimchi, lacto-fermentation mellows the cabbage’s natural bitter compounds.
Why Curtido Is Good for You
Research has found that both acetic acid (the prime acid in vinegar) and lactic acid (created during fermentation) have numerous health benefits. Raw, fermented foods like curtido are sources of probiotics, especially the Lactobacillus bacteria that’s helpful in restoring and maintaining the digestive tract. In addition, brassicas like cabbage naturally contain several beneficial compounds, including polyphenols and carotenoids. By turning that cabbage into curtido through lacto-fermentation, the health benefits increase. Studies have found that fermented cabbage promotes brain, skin, and immune health and helps in the prevention or treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and high cholesterol, among other conditions.
Eating Curtido on Everything
Traditionally a condiment, curtido is as ubiquitous in El Salvador as ketchup is in the United States. It pairs well with beans, corn, and rice. An easy meal inspired by the flavors in pupusas can take just a couple of minutes to make: simply wrap large dollops of curtido in corn tortillas along with black beans and cheese. Curtido also makes a delicious baked potato filling. Add a layer on a black bean burger, grilled cheese sandwich, or fried-egg breakfast bagel. Serve it alongside empanadas or grilled halibut, atop tostadas, or mixed into potato salad for a little zing.
Once you finish a jar of curtido, hang on to the pickle brine: it makes a delicious base for a salad dressing, crispy tofu glaze, or shrimp marinade. When you use brightly-colored vegetables for curtido, swap the pink brine for the water in a recipe for pickled eggs — the egg whites will absorb both the color and flavor.
Making Cultured Curtido
The key to a healthy fermentation is to keep all the solids beneath their brine. Weighing down the produce and using an airlock lid help. These actions submerge the produce, keep oxygen out, and let carbon dioxide escape. You can make cultured curtido without these tools, but make sure to cover the fermentation vessel with at least a layer of cheesecloth to deter pests, and check often that the brine continues to cover the solids.
Brine strength also ensures proper fermentation. For cultured curtido, this starts with the dry salting in step 2. If this didn’t draw enough water out of the vegetables to keep them submerged, add water-and-salt brine the next day.
My preferred salt for fermentation is flaky Diamond Crystal kosher salt, which dissolves easily but weighs less per teaspoon than many denser salts. If you choose a different salt, follow the weight measurement when making the brine so that you end up with the same 2.5% brine concentration.
The red onions in this recipe leach some color into the brine as the fermentation progresses and during storage. If you want to proceed with a full-color curtido, use purple carrots; for a less colorful brine, stick with orange carrots and use yellow or white onions.
Julie Laing has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. She published her first cookbook, The Complete Guide to Pickling, in 2020.
Fermented Curtido Recipe
1 small green cabbage
2 medium red-onions, thinly sliced
5 medium carrots, shredded
1 Fresno chile, cut into 1/4-inch rings
5½ T [44 grams] Diamond Crystal kosher salt, divided
3 T minced fresh oregano or 1 T crumbled dried oregano
Zest of two limes
Set aside the cabbage’s loose outer leaves. Place the stem end on a cutting board. Use a sharp knife to cut the cabbage down to the stem in quarters, then cut out the pieces of solid core. Lay each wedge flat-side down on the cutting board and cut it into thin strips.
In a large, wide bowl, put about half of the cabbage, onion, carrot, and chile. Sprinkle and toss it with 3 tablespoons of salt. Add the remaining vegetables and 2½ tablespoons of salt and toss again. Let sit for about 1 hour, then mix in the oregano and lime zest, pressing and squeezing to release liquid.
In a clean ½-gallon jar or crock, firmly pack the vegetables and liquid. Cover the surface with a whole cabbage leaf, top with a weight, and cover the fermenting vessel, preferably with an air lock. Let sit in a dark, cool place to cure.
After 24 hours, check that the surface layer is still submerged. If it’s exposed, add enough brine with a 2.5% concentration [2¼ teaspoons, or 6 grams, of Diamond Crystal kosher salt dissolved in 1 cup of room-temperature, unchlorinated water] to submerge the vegetables. Continue to check the fermentation daily, releasing air bubbles over the first 2 days. Top off with brine and skim off any filmy surface layer as needed.
Taste after 3 to 5 days of curing; continue fermenting an additional 3 to 5 days as needed, until the curtido reaches your preferred flavor. Store the finished curtido in a glass container with a nonreactive lid in the refrigerator. As long as it stays submerged in its brine, it will keep for months.
Excerpt from The Complete Guide to Pickling by Julie Laing, published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2020 by Callisto Media, Inc. All rights reserved.
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