Sichuan Lacto-Fermented Pickles (Paocai, 泡菜): Starting Your First Batch

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Long bean, carrot and daikon pickle

Part 1: Making Pickles the Sichuan Way

This is part one of our guide to making pickles the Sichuan way, and it focuses on starting your first batch. Part two follows up with tips for maintaining a brine long term and troubleshooting common issues in lacto-fermentation. 

Have you ever tried making pickles without vinegar? There’s a bit of a learning curve involved in letting natural lacto-fermentation sour your vegetables instead of vinegar. But there’s also huge payoff for the effort. Not only in health benefits—fermentation creates good bacteria, or probiotics, that aid in digestion and vitamin absorption—but in culinary benefits as well, since the vegetables taste like sour versions of themselves instead of like vinegar.

Now I love a good vinegar quick pickle, but naturally fermented vegetables are useful not only as condiments but also as side dishes and cooking ingredients. Many meals in Sichuan (and in our house) are accompanied by a side dish of pickled vegetables—in our case, fished from the pickle jar, chopped into small bits and drizzled with chili oil, our daily dose of sour-and-spicy, low-cal vitamins. And Sichuan dishes often use fermented vegetables as an ingredient—particularly red chilies, long (or green) beans and cabbage—in stir-fries or to top rice or noodles. So once you’ve mastered the art of brine pickling, you always have highly flavorful vegetables ready to go for both snacking and cooking.

I’ve been working on Sichuan-style naturally fermented pickles, or paocai, on and off for a many years now. Seriously, years. For the first few years, I sometimes got it right, and sometimes got it wrong, but really I just made it harder than it has to be to naturally pickle a vegetable. I have consulted many sources over the years, and they all seem to take different approaches—which just proves that pickling is both a science and an art. There are many ways to do it, not just one right way, and you’ll have to experiment and find your own best method and taste. But here I hope to shorten your learning curve with the method that never misses for me.

While fermentation in all forms has become trendy in the U.S., fermenting is not a fad in Sichuan. Many home cooks still feed their giant pickling crocks on an ongoing basis—taking vegetables out, putting new ones in—the brine growing ever more intense and intriguing over time.

Sichuan pao cai
Sichuan-style paocai pickles at the Shangri-La hotel in Chengdu. Almost all vegetables are candidates for the pickle jar. Notice that the jars contain only one or two types of vegetables each, as it’s best to ferment like vegetables with like

A few years ago, America’s own fermentation guru, Sandor Katz (who, like us, lives in Tennessee) did a fermentation tour of southwest China and captured it all on video. The People’s Republic of Fermentation, made by filmmaker Mattia Sacco Botto and also featuring Mara King, a “probiotic pickleteer” from Colorado, is seriously awesome. The first three episodes all take place in Sichuan, and episodes one and two, in particular, focus on paocai (among other appetizing things), episode three on doubanjiang, and the remaining episodes on the fermentation of various things in Guizhou and Yunnan.

More recently, Sichuan’s Li Ziqi showed the whole process from garden to pickle jar to suancaiyu (fish with pickled veg) and Goldthread’s Clarissa Wei got a paocai lesson from a Sichuanese pickler in this wonderful video.

I had three major stumbling blocks on my own pickling journey: finding just the right container and method for submerging the vegetables under the brine; getting just the right salt concentration; and fermenting just the right amount of time for my personal taste and recipe use. So let’s break these down.

The Best Container for Making Sichuan Pickles

Sichuan pao cai naturally fermented pickles
Sichuan pickling crocks come in all sizes in both glass and ceramic but always have a moat around the top to provide a water seal. We carry this artisan-made, mouth-blown glass jar at The Mala Market
Ceramic Sichuan pickle jars
You can pickle most any vegetable in the crock; my favorites are cabbage, green beans, cauliflower and chilies, large portions of which can fit in this 4 liter ceramic paocai jar we had custom made in China for The Mala Market

In the two photos above, I’m using Sichuan pickling jars, in both glass and ceramic. Designed thousands of years ago to be the ideal form for naturally fermenting vegetables, this shape has two inherent advantages:

1) The narrow opening and wide shoulders of the jar help keep the contents below the brine—which is key for mold-free natural fermentation—without the use of weights.

2) The moat around the opening holds water that makes a natural seal, allowing the carbon dioxide released during fermentation to escape while sealing out unwanted oxygen and contaminants.

The main goal in fermentation is to keep oxygen away from the vegetables. They naturally want to float up to the top of the container and poke their heads out, so you have to make an effort to keep them submerged below the brine. This is much easier to do if you fill the brine almost to the top of the jar, leaving little room for oxygen to linger. The narrow opening of the Chinese crocks further helps with this, and if you use relatively large pieces of vegetable the shoulders of the jar will hold them down under the brine. But if you have smaller pieces and they all float to the top, you may want to weigh the vegetables down somehow with something that floats. The Sichuan pickle makers in the Katz video use parts of plastic water bottles. I’ve been known to use the flexible lid of a thin plastic container (ironically, the lid from a Whole Foods pickle bar container). Big cabbage leaves also work pretty well to cover and hold down the other vegetables. If the leaf gets funky during the process, just throw it out and insert a new one.

Whatever weight you do or do not use, the brine should always cover the vegetables, which means checking on it after the first day or two to top it off with more brine if needed. Even if not filling the whole jar with vegetables, always fill the jar to the bottom of the neck with brine, replacing the oxygen but leaving a little headroom for liquid expansion during fermentation. 

Salt Type and Amount for Lacto-Fermented Sichuan Paocai

What is the magical salt concentration that kills off bad bacteria but allows good bacteria to create fermentation? In Fuchsia Dunlop’s Land of Plenty, she notes that the typical Sichuan brine is “very salty” and calls for about 35 grams of sea salt per cup of water. I personally have had no luck jumpstarting fermentation with that high concentration of salt, ending up with only super salted vegetables instead of sour ones.

So over the years, I tried to make do with a much lower salt concentration, and was mostly successful, but not always. By the time the new edition of Dunlop’s book was published in 2019, she had reduced her recipe to 20 grams salt per cup of water, and I had increased my own recipe to 14 grams salt per cup of water. Water weighs 236 grams per cup, so 14 grams is 6% of the water weight (or 5.9% to be exact) and 20 grams is 8.5%.

Then in 2023, we at The Mala Market were finally successful in importing the same pickling salt that is used religiously in Sichuan—Zigong Well Salt, in a pellet size specifically for pickling. The packaging from these longtime paocai pros recommends using an amount of salt that is 6% to 12% of the water weight. That’s a pretty wide range, but as I said before, the practice of paocai making is different for everyone. So I encourage you to experiment and find a brine within the range of 14-20 grams salt per cup of water that suits your climate, chosen vegetables and tastebuds.

I give the measurement in grams because it is important to measure the salt based on weight, not volume, since 1 tablespoon of salt can vary widely in weight depending on the type of salt and even the brand. That has tripped me up several times! Plus, once you find a brine solution you like, you want to be able to repeat it and volume measurements just aren’t that precise.

A further word on the fascinating history of Zigong well salt and why we went to great lengths to import it. This legendary salt comes from brine deep under the ground in Zigong, Sichuan, site of the world’s very first brine wells, drilled in 252 B.C.! For literally millennia, Sichuan cooks have sworn by this salt, for its purity, nutrients and, in the modern era, its lack of added iodine and anti-caking agents, which they feel ruins the taste of salt and the food it’s used in. Especially for pickling, where iodine can kill fermentation, serious cooks insist on this Sichuan salt. And old-timers will also tell you the coarser the salt the better. According to the salt company, the extra-large grains of our pickling salt allow a sustained release that penetrates vegetables more efficiently and results in a brighter color, crispier pickle and less spoilage.

The best alternative to Sichuan well salt is probably kosher salt, which is also iodine-free. In either case, for a new brine you’ll start with the salt dissolved in water that has been purified by boiling it. To top off an established brine, however, you’ll add the salt directly to the jar in the same salt percentage you used for the original brine.

Fermentation Time for Sichuan Pickles

Like most people in Sichuan, I often take cabbage pieces out of the brine after only one or two days, producing the very lightly sour paocai that is eaten as a side dish with most meals, perhaps topped with some homemade chili oil. Read all about the pervasive presence of this quick paocai in Chengdu here. (Note that if you put cabbage in a new brine, it won’t be soured in a day, but if you put it in a pickling jar with an established brine, you’ll have a slightly sour cabbage pickle in a day or two.)

True fermentation of a new batch of pickles usually kicks in on about day three, in my experience. At this point the water turns cloudy and the vegetables go from salty to slightly sour. Every succeeding day they will continue to turn less salty and more sour. If your water remains clear and the vegetables remain salty after several days, you’ve probably used too much salt and killed the good bacteria.

Sandor Katz recommends checking in on your fermenting pickles every three days to determine which length of time suits your taste. But some fermenters let the pickle crock go for two to four weeks before eating any. The time of year also makes a difference, with vegetables fermenting noticeably faster in warmer months.

Be careful every single time you take the lid off the jar to not let water from the moat drip into the jar. I have a maneuver where I lift the lid slightly out of its water, shake it back and forth, then pull it quickly up and away from the jar before any water can drip.

Sichuan paocai in narrow neck glass jar with moat, and a plastic gatorade bottle, on a table in Sichuan
Here is a cabbage paocai in its natural habitat in Sichuan, along with a smaller ferment of bamboo. (Photo by Jordan Porter)
Cabbage and radish in the mouth-blown glass pickling jar
This type of cabbage and radish paocai can be eaten in 1-2 days when only slightly soured, or it can be left to sour completely; it is eaten as a side dish with many Sichuan meals
Sichuan pickles with chili oil
For the perfect, easy, healthy side dish, just retrieve some cabbage and carrots from the paocai jar, cut them into small pieces and douse with your best chili oil

Timing Guideline and Ideas for Using Your Homemade Pickles:

  • Take cabbage and thinly-sliced veg out after 1-2 days to eat as a “shower pickle” with your meal, or leave it in longer to fully sour—it will still retain its crunch. These pickles are great with a dribble of homemade chili oil and perhaps a smidgeon of sugar.
  • Remove harder vegetables like daikon, carrots, celery, celtuce or cauliflower in 5-7 days or more, depending on temperature and when it’s soured to your liking, and eat as a side dish or noodle topping.
  • Remove long beans when soured to use in a long bean and pork mince stir-fry or as a topping for Chengdu’s zajiang noodles.
  • Ferment dried erjingtiao chilies to make Sichuan pickled peppers (paolajiao).
  • Pack Chinese mustard greens into the jar with a dry brine and eat the soured suancai in a week or more in a stir-fry, noodle or soup.
  • Cucumbers are mostly water and are notoriously hard to pickle properly. Start with less watery vegetables as you are learning to ferment, and ferment cucumbers on their own, using a recipe specifically for them.

It’s easiest to ferment only one or two types of vegetables at a time. Ferment like with like, or with complementary, for best results. Ferment strong flavored vegetables such as mustard greens by themselves, or everything will taste like mustard (which I learned the hard way).

You can leave the pickles in the brine or remove them when they taste right and store with some of their brine in a jar in the refrigerator, which greatly slows fermentation. Many Sichuanese keep their brine for years, adding more salt water and flavorings over time (Cooking Bomb’s is 15 years old!). But some people also start from scratch each time. It really depends on how well the ferment went and how good the brine tastes to you.

Making Multiple Batches of Paocai in One Brine

Adding Chinese cauliflower to the aged pickling brine
Cabbage and celtuce out! Chinese cauliflower in! This paocai brine will go on as long as it looks, smells and tastes appealing

This is the brine from the cabbage and red radish ferment in the photos above. After a few days, I added some chunks of celtuce. We ate these pickles throughout the week as they got progressively more sour, and within seven days we had eaten most of them, so I removed the rest to the fridge. My brine still looked, smelled and tasted enticing—a sweetly sour smell without so much as a  whiff of rotty funk! So I added some Chinese cauliflower and some Sichuan peppercorns directly to the brine and eagerly awaited our next pickle harvest.

Chinese cauliflower pao cai pickle
The super probiotic health benefits of these natural pickles only adds to the joy of eating them. The cloudy brine means that fermentation has occurred.

As I said, pickling, like all cooking, is both a science and an art. Let this paocai recipe be the beginning of your own experimentation and creation.

See part two of our guide to pickling the Sichuan way for further instruction on long-term brines and for troubleshooting common lacto-fermentation problems.

Sichuan Lacto-Fermented Pickles (Paocai, 泡菜): Starting Your First Batch

By: Taylor Holliday | The Mala Market | Inspiration & Ingredients for Sichuan Cooking
There are many ways to make brine and many factors that influence the outcome. We recommend starting with 14 grams salt per cup of water for short-term ferments in our glass paocai jar and 16 grams per cup for long-term ferments in the larger ceramic jar, adjusting for future batches if needed. Measurements below are per cup of water and can be used for any container.

Ingredients 

Prepare 8 cups of brine for a 2.5-liter glass paocai jar

    Prepare 12-13 cups of brine for a 4-liter ceramic paocai jar

      Per each cup water:

      • 14 to 16 grams Zigong well salt, kosher salt or other iodide-free salt
      • 4 grams (1 teaspoon) Chinese rock sugar or white sugar
      • 4 grams (½ tablespoon) Chinese baijiu, gin or vodka
      • non-watery vegetables such as cabbage, radish, daikon, carrot, celery, celtuce, cauliflower, lotus root, long beans, ginger, fresh or dried chilies, etc. Enough to fill jar mostly full of vegetables for your first batch
      • 1 to 2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns (optional)

      Instructions 

      • Bring tap water to a boil and remove from heat. Add salt and sugar and stir to dissolve. Let brine cool to room temperature and add liquor. You can refrigerate to speed up the process
      • Wash and dry vegetables and cut them into large pieces—large enough to be caught under the jar's "shoulders" and held beneath the brine, but small enough to be retrieved through the narrow neck of the jar. Add vegetables to clean, dry pickle jar, along with Sichuan peppercorns.
      • Add brine to the jar, filling up to the bottom of the neck and being careful to place larger vegetables on top and tuck them under the jar's shoulders. You want to displace as much oxygen as possible, but also leave room for liquid expansion during fermentation. Replace lid and add tap water to the moat. Keep any leftover brine for topping up.
      • When the brine begins to bubble, turn cloudy and take on the color of the vegetables in it—usually within 3-4 days—then you know that fermentation has started. With the ceramic jar, you’ll start to hear little “burps” as the gases escape. Test pickles periodically to assess sourness, using clean chopsticks or spoon, and make sure they are always covered with brine. Vegetables will lose their bright colors as they ferment, but not their crunch.
        Cabbage and softer vegetables may be ready to eat in 3-4 days, while harder vegetables may take 5-7 days or longer, depending on size of the vegetables, room temperature and desired sourness.
      • Add water to the moat every few days as it evaporates to keep moat mostly full. If you keep the brine for weeks, periodically clean the jar’s lid with soap and water and sop up the water in the moat with a paper towel before replacing it with fresh water.
      • As you use the pickles and the brine recedes, replenish the crock with more salt water, liquor, seasonings and vegetables. Add water and salt in the same ratio as your original brine, using either filtered water or boiled-and-cooled water. Even if no additional liquid is needed, add more salt whenever you add a new batch of vegetables. No need to dissolve salt first.
        Continue making new batches of pickles in the brine for as long as it tastes fresh and pleasing and not rotty. Sichuan picklers can keep a brine going for years!
      • To serve as a side dish, cut an assortment of pickled vegetables in bite-size pieces and serve as is or drizzle with chili oil/crisp.

      Tried this recipe?

      About Taylor Holliday

      The Mala Market all began when Taylor, a former journalist, created this blog as a place to document her adventures learning to cook Sichuan food for Fongchong, her recently adopted 11-year-old daughter. They discovered through the years that the secret to making food that tastes like it would in China is using the same ingredients that are used in China. The mother-daughter team eventually began visiting Sichuan’s factories and farms together and, in 2016, opened The Mala Market, America’s source for Sichuan heritage brands and Chinese pantry essentials.

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      92 Comments

      1. I’m familiar with lacto fermentation for cabbage and root vegetables (turnips are especially good), but have never used brine repeatedly. Any advice on how much salt to add when placing new vegetables? This might be a “listen to the whispers of my grandmother” thing, haha.

        1. Hi Aslynn. Thanks for the question. In general you can use the same salt concentration that you used to make the original brine. I usually just mix up a cup with the same percentage salt and top off the jar. I also add a bit more liquor. But I think super experienced pickle makers just eyeball it and dump the new stuff in. If you’ve got a good brine going, it will be pretty forgiving.

      2. Hi Taylor! This looks delicious. I make sauerkraut and kimchi, and have been reading more about lactofermentation. I have read that for a brine-type fermentation for watery vegatables like cucumber pickles (vs. kimchi/sauerkraut that has little brine) you should use 2% salt by weight – and the weight is of both the water and the cucumbers. Seems to make sense because there could be (a lot) more or less brine depending on the size and shape of the cucumbers. Do you have any experience?

        1. Good question, Dave. I have to admit that I have not experimented much with cucumbers. They are not generally part of the Sichuan pickle jar, so I’m not sure my method and salt concentration would work. It seems cucumbers also need added ingredients, like grape leaves or oak leaves, to keep them crisp. I just haven’t tackled it, but do let us know if you have success with them in a Sichuan pickle jar.

      3. Hi Taylor!

        I’ve read this article and some of the others on this site about Sichuan pickled vegetables. I’ve been craving them since I left China years ago so I figure it’s time to try making them.

        I have a question regarding the alcohol. Every recipe I see (here and elsewhere) mentions adding baijiu/vodka/etc. However, I cannot buy alcohol. None at all- not baijiu, not mirin, not even red wine vinegar lol. Is the liquor absolutely necessary or will this work without it?

        I’ve though about using dilute rice vinegar as a replacement (since baijiu has a higher pH than vinegar) but I worry it will somehow ruin the process. I’m also not looking to make vinegar pickles; I’d like to make fermented ones. Do you have any insight about skipping the alcohol?

        1. Hi Evan, glad you’re here. I think Taylor’s latest comment just above yours may help answer your questions. Let us know how it works for you.

      4. I’ve just finished my first patch of pickles and am going to put in a new batch of vegetables, but noticed that a lot of the spices have fallen to the bottom of the jar and are very difficult to fish out. Is there an easy way to clear our old spices in the jar before adding new ones, or should you usually just leave them in there at the bottom and keep adding new spices each time?

        1. Hi Amy. That’s a good question. You can add new spices to the jar, but if you’re using a lot of spice that can really add up over several batches. When it gets to where it bothers you, you can just clean up that brine by straining it, removing the old spices as well as any spent yeast residing at the bottom of the jar. Then you can top up the brine with a bit of new brine.

          Alternatively, you can steep the brine with the spices and remove them before you add the brine to the jar.

      5. Thanks so much for this recipe, my friends in Xi’an taught me how to make Sichuan-style pickles but they always just eyeball things so it’s super helpful to have the measurements and ratios for salt and water! My question/problem for using a Chinese pickle jar with a water seal is how to keep the water in the moat from getting gross and scummy after a while. Does anyone have any ideas or tips they can share? Thanks!