Healthy Cooking

How Curtido, a Fiber-Packed Fermented Slaw, Can Help Balance Your Gut Microbiome

Photo: Getty Images/ gorchittza2012
If you’re from the Big Apple, you know that getting a hot dog at Yankee Stadium means it’ll be covered with at least one of two things: loads of mustard and/or a heaping pile of sauerkraut. There's just something about the sweet and tangy fermented cabbage that makes it an instant home run when paired with the soft bun and juicy ballpark dog. *Chef’s kiss.*

But aside from classic ballpark grub—like pretzels and cheese—there are a few other combos that simply go better together, like these dynamic duos: spaghetti and meatballs, chocolate and coffee, bagels and smoked salmon, tamari and mirin, just to name a few. In El Salvador and other areas of Central America, curtido, a type of fermented slaw, is one of those condiments that tastes great on its own but even better when paired together with another delicious food... namely pupusas. So, what exactly is curtido, and how can this fermented slaw help balance your gut microbiome? Read on to find out.

What is curtido?

Curtido is a fermented slaw made with ingredients like cabbage, carrots, red onions, vinegar, oregano, and salt. It’s commonly consumed across Central America, particularly in El Salvador, as a topping for foods like pupusas, the Salvadoran national dish made from corn flour and stuffed with ingredients like beans, cheese, or beef. (FYI, they can easily be made using only plant-based ingredients, like this vegan pupusa recipe by The Conscious Plant Kitchen). Curtido can be made as a quick pickle that can be consumed within a few hours or further fermented to enhance its flavor and probiotic benefits.

Health benefits of curtido

Aside from adding crunch, tanginess, and loads of flavor to dishes like pupusas, curtido also boasts an impressive list of health benefits. The main ingredient in this simple condiment is cabbage, which is great for heart health, circulation, and digestion (it’s also filled with vitamins K and C and has over two grams of fiber per 100-gram serving). The dish is also made with vitamin A- and vitamin C-rich carrots, which help promote eye health and immunity.

However, one of the main benefits of this fermented food is that it’s filled with prebiotic fiber as well as insoluble fiber from the cabbage (which, unlike soluble fiber, isn't broken down by the body before reaching the small intestine). Why does this matter? Well, as it travels through the small intestines, it helps feed the healthy gut bacteria to promote a healthier gut microbiome. However, if you’re looking to also get prebiotic’s partner in crime—probiotics—from this fermented food, you’ll have to consider how it’s prepared. After all, not all fermented foods actually contain probiotics; many store-bought versions of common fermented foods (such as kimchi, sauerkraut, and curtido) have undergone heat treatment for food safety measures, which will greatly diminish their probiotic potential. When made from scratch, however, you're far more likely to reap these important microbiome-boosting benefits.

How to make curtido

Of course, every family, chef, or cook, has their own unique way of making this classic condiment. However, most types contain a mixture of thinly-sliced cabbage, carrots, and red onion. Plus, a mixture of oregano, bay leaves, salt, and vinegar (like ACV) for flavoring and pickling. If you like a little heat, add a few chiles to the mix, like jalapeños or crushed red pepper—like in this spicy curtido recipe by Pinch and Swirl—for an extra kick of anti-inflammatory benefits, too.

To make, start by quickly blanching the cabbage and onion in boiling hot water for a few minutes, then shock the veggies in an ice water bath to stop them from further cooking to maintain their crunchy texture. Next, toss the vegetables together and place them in a large glass container along with the flavoring ingredients. Once combined, the mixture gets covered with cool, filtered water to let the pickling and fermentation begin in the refrigerator. If pressed for time, you can eat the curtido within just a few hours, or you can allow the slaw to ferment further in the fridge for a few days for even more flavoring potential. This dish can be enjoyed for up to a week when kept in a covered container in the refrigerator.

what is curtido
Photo: Pinch and Swirl

Fermented curtido recipe

Yields 4 servings

Ingredients

1/2 cup water
1/4 cup white vinegar or apple cider vinegar
2 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp dry Mexican oregano
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper or 1 jalapeño chili, thinly sliced
1/4 head green cabbage finely chopped or shredded
1 medium carrot shredded and peeled (optional)
2 green onions thinly sliced, or white onion

1. Whisk together water, vinegar, salt, oregano, and crushed red pepper together in a large bowl. Add cabbage, carrot, and green onions; toss to combine and coat evenly. Let stand for 30 minutes.

2. Toss curtido again and serve as a fresh slaw or pile into a clean canning jar. Pack down in a jar with a muddler or other blunt tool so that the liquid is even or above the slaw. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Serve or refrigerate for up to one week.

Want to learn more about the link between gut health and fermentation? Watch this:

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