Tsukemono literally translates to “pickled thing,” and it’s the Japanese umbrella term for pickles. Unlike many Western pickles, Tsukemono are pickled in some combination of salt, soy sauce, miso, sake lees, or rice bran and don’t include any vinegar. Any tartness in the pickle is a result of lacto-fermentation, which converts the sugars in the vegetables into lactic acid, giving them a sour taste. These are known collectively as Furuzuke (古漬け), or “old pickles.”
Japanese pickles are inherently salty as the process is not only intended to preserve the vegetables, Tsukemono are eaten as a condiment for plain rice.
Given the long tradition of pickling vegetables as a method of preservation, there are hundreds of varieties of pickles in Japan with styles and ingredients specific to unique regions of Japan. Needless to say, there are enough varieties of Tsukemono to fill up a series of books, but in this post, I want to show you how to make three of the most common types of homemade pickles.
Referring to the time, rather than the ingredients used to make this pickle, Asazuke literally means “lightly pickled.” Although the name is usually used for pickles made with salt, the label could be used for any pickle that hasn’t started to ferment.
Shiozuke just means “salt pickle,” and it’s used to refer to any pickle that’s made using either salt or a brine made with salt.
Shoyuzuke means “soy sauce pickle,” and it’s used to describe food that has been pickled in soy sauce. This usually includes root vegetables such as carrots, burdock, and garlic, but it can also include other foods like salmon roe or mushrooms.
Why these Japanese Pickle recipes work
- Pickling preserves vegetables in two stages. In the first stage, salt is introduced, which kills bacteria that can cause food to spoil. In the second stage, salt-tolerant microbes like some strains of lactic acid bacteria, start feeding off of the sugars in the vegetables and create lactic acid, which lowers the pH of the food being pickled. This creates an even more inhospitable for the microbes that are responsible for spoilage.
- Many commercially produced pickles in Japan include MSG and other umami additives, but konbu (kelp) is an ingredient that’s loaded with naturally occurring glutamates, and it’s a great way to increase the amount of umami in your pickles.
- The salinity of these recipes have been calibrated for the vegetables being pickled. If you substitute in other vegetables, be sure to consider the density and water content of the vegetable and adjust the salinity accordingly. The more dense and less water a vegetable contains, the more salt you will want to add. The less-dense and more water a vegetable contains, the less salt you will want to add. For example, root vegetables such as burdock and carrots are quite dense and don’t contain a lot of moisture, so you can use a brine with a concentration of salt as much as 10%. For a less dense and more moisture-rich vegetable like cucumbers or leafy greens, you’ll want to use a milder brine in the 3-4% range.
- Preparing the pickles in bags allows you to prepare a small quantity of vegetables without making a ton of brine as the bags can have the air pressed out of them to fully submerge the food.
Ingredients for Japanese Pickles
Depending on the region and season, pickles are made for a large variety of vegetables in Japan. The list below is far from exhaustive, but hopefully, it gives you some ideas on how to use vegetables you might have on hand.
- Cucumbers – an obvious choice for pickles, cucumbers are relatively low density and have a high moisture content, so you want to use a relatively low amount of salt to pickle these; otherwise they can end up being too salty. In Japan, other members of the cucumber and melon family are also pickled. For some styles of pickles, the cucumbers are partially sun-dried first, which turns the texture of the cucumbers from crisp to crunchy.
- Eggplant – Small eggplants are often pickled in brine in Japan. I’m not a huge fan of pickling eggplant due to its texture, but some people like it.
- Burdock – The taproot of a common weed found around the world, burdock, which is known as “gobo” in Japan, is delicious when pickled. The trick is to pick the burdock young before it gets a chance to become too woody or fibrous.
- Kabocha – Pickling pumpkins is not common, but it’s an example of how pickles can be made from almost anything.
- Daikon & Turnips – Both daikon radishes and turnips are widely used in Japan for pickling. They can be pickled fresh, but they are most often partially sun-dried first before being pickled. This gives them a hardy crunchy texture that’s like an explosion of crunch when you bite into them.
- Cabbage – Both standard cabbage and napa cabbage are commonly used to make fresh pickles like Asazuke.
- Mustard Greens – Leafy greens in the mustard family, such as takana, nozawana, and nanohana are often pickled with salt in Japan. More fibrous leaves like takana are usually lacto-fermented, which makes them lose their vibrant color, but makes them significantly more flavorful.
- Salt – Salt is the best choice for vegetables that have a mild flavor that you don’t want to cover up. If you are using salt for your pickles, it is best to use a natural salt that has not been iodized, as iodized salt can turn pickles dark.
- Soy Sauce – Soy sauce on its own has a salinity ranging from 15-20%, so it’s important to dilute the soy sauce with water before you use it for pickling; otherwise, your pickles will end up too salty.
- Miso – Miso can be used to pickle vegetables by directly applying the paste to the surface of the vegetables you want to pickle.
- Sake – Sake, which is made from rice, contains a high concentration of umami-producing amino acids. When added in a small quantity to pickling brine, it can make your pickles more flavorful without making them alcoholic. There is also a class of pickle called Kasuzuke, which is made using the rice lees that are filtered out of sake during production.
- Konbu – Konbu, or kelp, is a sea vegetable that’s loaded with naturally occurring glutamate. This imparts the taste of umami to foods it’s added to and is a great way to amp up the savory flavor of Japanese Pickles.
- Ginger – Young ginger is used to make many different kinds of pickles in Japan, including gari and benishoga, but it can also be added to other types of pickles to add flavor while helping to preserve the vegetables (ginger contains antimicrobial enzymes.)
- Citrus – Citrus zest, such as yuzu and Meyer lemon can be added to add a nice fragrance to your pickles. My mother often adds whole slices of Meyer lemon to her Asazuke, which not only adds a nice fragrance, it also adds mild acidity.
- Chili Pepper – the Japanese chili pepper or togarashi is a small red chili pepper that’s very spicy. It is similar in taste and spiciness to Chile de Árbol, which makes for a good substitute. Japanese pickles aren’t typically spicy, so the chilies are added whole, to add a mild accent that’s akin to sprinkling black pepper on food.
How to make Tsukemono
Most tsukemono are made by either creating a brine or directly applying a source of salt to the vegetables that are being pickled. Here are three recipes with the salinity calibrated for the vegetables being pickled.
While it’s possible to make Asazuke with a variety of vegetables, I like to make mine with either cabbage or napa cabbage along with a variety of other cut vegetables to add texture, color, and flavor. To ensure the vegetables pickle quickly, I julienne harder ingredients like carrots and mince the ginger. The cabbage itself gets cut into bite-sized pieces.
Once you have all of the vegetables prepared, weight them to calculate how much salt you need to add. In my case, I had 685 grams of vegetables, and I wanted to add 3% of the weight of the veggies in salt, so I added about 20 grams of salt.
Now you can add any flavorings you want, such as konbu and chili peppers, and then mix everything together.
Then I like to press the mixture with weights to speed the process up. The easiest way to do this is to pack the Asazuke into a zipper bag, and then sandwich the bag between two trays that are weighted down with cans.
The pickles are ready to eat when the vegetables have wilted and the cabbage has gone from opaque to translucent.
For my Shiozuke, I like to use a brine made from salt, sugar, water, and just a bit of sake. These ingredients get added to a zipper bag, along with a piece of konbu, and swished around to dissolve the salt.
I used baby cucumbers, so I didn’t cut them, but if you are using large cucumbers with big seeds, you may want to splice them in half lengthwise to remove the seeds and cut the halves into lengths that will fit in your bag.
Once you’ve added your cucumbers to the brine, it’s important to press out as much air from the bag as you can to ensure the cucumbers are fully submerged in the liquid.
Then you can let them pickle in the refrigerator. During the first week, they will retain their color and taste like salty fresh cucumbers. As they ferment, lactic acid bacteria will make the pickles increasingly sour, which will make them lose their color. As long as they are not slimy and don’t smell bad, they are safe to eat.
For the Shoyuzuke, you need to dilute the soy sauce with water in order to create a brine that’s not too salty. For dryer denser vegetables like carrots, I usually dilute the soy sauce down to about 10% salt, but for less dense vegetables like celery or cucumbers, you will want to bring the salinity down to 4-5%. I also add some sugar and konbu to the brine to balance out the saltiness while adding umami.
Soy sauce tends to stain the skin of carrots a dark color, which is why I like to peel the carrots before adding them to the brine. If you’re using smaller carrots, you can pickle them whole, but if they are thicker, you may want to halve or quarter them, so they pickle faster.
Add the brine and carrots to a zipper bag, and press out as much air as you can, and then seal the bag and let the carrots pickle for at least a few days.
Japanese Breakfast Recipes
- 3-styles of Miso Soup
- Tamagoyaki (Japanese Rolled Omelette)
- Salmon Misozuke (Miso Salmon)
- Hiyashijiru (Cold Cucumber Soup)
- 560 grams napa cabbage (about 1/4 head, cut into 2-inch pieces)
- 90 grams carrots (julienned)
- 30 grams scallions (chopped)
- 5 grams ginger (minced)
- 20 grams salt (~1 tablespoon + 1/2 teaspoon)
- 2-3 chili peppers
- 5 grams konbu (cut into thin strips)
- If you are using a different quantity of vegetables, weigh them, and then multiply that number by .03. This will give you the amount of salt to add. For example, in this recipe, we’re using a total of 685 grams of vegetables, and 3% of 685 is about 20 grams of salt.
- Toss all of the ingredients together and pack them into a large zipper bag.
- Press out any excess air from the bag and seal it. Put the bag in a tray and cover with another smaller tray that’s weighted down with cans.
- The asazuke is ready to eat when the cabbage has released a lot of liquid and has become translucent.
- 450 grams cucumbers (or other vegetable)
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons sake
- 15 grams salt (scant tablespoon of table salt)
- 8 grams sugar (~2 teaspoons)
- 3 grams konbu (1.5×4 inches piece)
- Add the water, sake, salt, sugar, and konbu to a zipper bag and swish the mixture around to dissolve the salt and sugar.
- Add the cucumbers and seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible so that the cucumbers are fully submerged in the liquid.
- Let the cucumbers pickle in the refrigerator for at least 2-3 days.
- 260 grams carrots (peeled and trimmed)
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 1/4 cup water
- 15 grams sugar (~1 mounded tablespoon)
- 2 dried chili peppers
- 2 grams konbu (1.5×2-inch piece)
- If your carrots are very thick, halve or quarter them lengthwise so that they are about 3/4 of an inch in diameter.
- Add the soy sauce, water, sugar, chili peppers, and konbu to a plastic zipper bag and swish the mixture around to dissolve the sugar.
- Add the carrots to the bag, and press out as much air as possible before sealing the bag.
- Let the carrots pickle in the fridge for 2-3 days before eating.