Monday, May 21, 2018

Homemade Taiwanese mustard pickles

Home fermentation is way easier than it sounds. All you really need is a pickling crock and a weight to press things down nicely inside the crock, and you’re halfway home. 

A digital scale is also very helpful, if you have access to one of those, since it makes measuring things that much easier. But really, other than that, you just require sea salt, fresh vegetables, clean water, and time.

Make sure everything is squeaky clean, as the number one reason for pickles going south is that somewhere along the line contamination sneaked in. 

Check out this recipe for traditional Sichuan pickles on how to set up a pickle crock, where to get one, what they look like, and all that good stuff. 

Split open the cleaned heads
My secret to success is that I scrub the utensils and douse them with boiling water. My hands are washed thoroughly before I mess around with the pickles, and I ensure that the veggies completely air dry before they are salted. Plus, I like to add a small splash of white liquor to add flavor and a sort of bacterial Band-Aid.

I’m rewarded with pickles that taste the way they used to. Nowadays everything is made in such huge batches and then packaged for goodness knows how long. You really don’t know what is in that pickle, or how much and what kind of preservatives got used. With homemade, it’s all very simple and very natural.

In order to get a pretty yellow tinge, I've added fresh turmeric, about a finger or two will do it per batch. The amount doesn't really matter, as you won't taste it. And it is optional, in case you don't have access to it. Once the pickles are done, you can either remove the turmeric or keep it in.
Dry under the sun for a couple of days

The good news is that these pickles taste truly wonderful. They are not too sour, but rather gently tart and nicely flavorful. Unlike commercially made ones, you don't need to rinse off the extra salt or overpowering sourness. Instead, just pluck them out of the brine and slice away. They are even tasty raw!

The traditional way to use them in Taiwan is to stir-fry the pickles with dried chiles. Any way you cut them, though, these are delicious, with the tangy heat of mustard and the exceptional crunch of very happy vegetables.

Wilted mustard heads
Taiwanese mustard pickles
Táiwān suāncài 台灣酸菜
Taiwan cuisine
Makes as much as you want

Fresh head mustard
Coarse sea salt
Filtered water, boiled and cooled
Fresh turmeric, thinly sliced, optional
Gaoliang or gin

1. Start this recipe at least 3 weeks before you plan to serve it. If you have a digital scale, your job will be much easier, as the math will be that much easier to work with. Choose a sunny day to start this, as the mustard has to be sun-dried for 24 to 48 hours. Have a couple of clean flat baskets ready, or else cover your baking sheets with very clean tea towels.

Rub with salt
2. Weigh your mustard and write this down. Don’t throw that piece of paper away, since the remaining ingredients will depend upon it for accuracy. Rinse the mustard and cut the heads in half, or quarters if they are particularly large. Shake the mustard dry and lay it out on the baskets or towel-lined baking sheets in single layers. Sun-dry the mustard for 1 to 2 days, just until the leaves start to shrivel and the stems no longer look perky. Cover the mustard if you keep it out overnight. 

3. Prepare your pickling crock and the weights by cleaning and rinsing them very well. Place the weights in the crock and pour boiling water halfway up the crock. Dump out the water when it has cooled and air-dry the crock (as well as the weights) upside-down on a clean tea towel.

Weights on the mustard
4. Measure out your coarse salt: you will need 2.5% of the weight of your mustard. In other words, for every 1 kg you will need 25 g coarse salt. (If you don’t remember how to do this, multiply the total weight of the mustard by 0.025.) Place a head or two of the mustard in a large work bowl and scrub the mustard really well with the salt, as this will help release the juices and speed up the pickling. Transfer the raggedy mustard to the crock and repeat with the rest of the mustard and salt until they have all be used up. Add the optional turmeric.

5. Place the weights on the mustard and press down. Tuck in any pieces that are sticking above the weights, as a flatter surface will help cut down on spoilage. Cover the mustard and weights with cool water. This should be the original weight of the mustard times by about 0.7. (Or, around 700 ml cool water per 1 kg of mustard.) Sprinkle the top of the water with the gaoliang or gin, at a rate of 1 tablespoon per 1 kg of mustard.

Worth the minimal effort
6. Place the crock in a cool, dark area. Cover it and then pour water in the moat around the lid. Check the pickles after a couple of days, as they should start to smell a bit sour. Keep the water level around the lid high to prevent contamination. (If you use another type of pickling crock, follow package directions.) If you have a pickle crock with a moat, you will be rewarded with lots of farts within a day or two. As the farts die down, this means the fermentation is slowing down and the pickles are nearing perfection. Check them after about 3 weeks; cut off a piece and taste it. The pickle should taste tart and gently salty. When you're satisfied, transfer the pickles to sterilized Mason jars or brand new resealable plastic bags or some other spanking clean containers. Refrigerate the pickles in their juices until needed.


If the arithmetic seems confusing, think of it this way:
1 kg mustard
25 g sea salt
750 ml cool water
1 finger fresh turmeric
1 tablespoon gaoliang or gin


  1. Dumb question: how do you keep critters out of the food? We have a lot of wildlife in our yard: lots of cats, birds, the occasional raccoon...which makes me very hesitant to dry anything out there. Can you oven dry?

    1. Hi, sorry, Diane - I wasn't notified that you'd commented. With vegetables like the mustard here, I haven't had any trouble with critters. It just doesn't smell good enough to them to bother. I do cover things with fine netting if insects become curious or birds are flying around though, though.

      Meat is a whole other matter. An oven with just the pilot light/electric bulb on will gradually dry things out. Just be sure to turn the food over now and then so that it dries evenly. A dehydrator is excellent, too. Look for them in Goodwills and garage sales where they're super cheap!

  2. So excited to try this recipe! I tried making it on my own years ago but it didnt taste the same. I didn't know you were supposed to dry it, use gin or tumeric.

    1. Hi, and sorry it took so long to respond. I've been having trouble with comment notification.

      This is a pretty traditional recipe, although usually white liquor (like gaoliang) is used instead of gin. Turmeric is optional, but it does add a nice color and subtle taste.