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PRESERVING SUMMER: How to turn beach bull kelp into tasty sweet pickles

Life's a beach and bull kelp is the beach's bounty — perfect for pickling!

Use bull kelp in place of cucumbers in your next batch of sweet pickles.

Words and Photos


Seaweed has been consumed by humans for centuries, in Asian countries like Japan and Korea, in Ireland and Wales, and by indigenous people in North America.

Today aquatic plants are harvested for food, fertilizer and for the alginates used to thicken products, from ice cream and yogurt to toothpaste. It’s also the basis of one of the popular techniques of molecular gastronomy – the spherification used by chefs to create beads or “caviar” from liquids.

But seaweed is traditional food in BC, too. The reddish porphyra (nori or red laver) has long been collected by coastal First Nations. Historically, laver was gathered by women in canoes, piled on the beaches, and then air dried on cedar frames or lightly smoked. Added to soups or stews as a seasoning, or enjoyed as a crispy snack dipped in eulachon grease, seaweed provides protein, iron, Vitamins A and C, fibre and micronutrients.

All of it is edible, but some types of seaweed are considered tastier than others. You can eat the blades and stipe of bull kelp, the long ruffled blades of ribbon or winged kelp (alaria), sugar kelp, feather boa (egregia), sea lettuce (ulva) and red laver (pyropia).

A garden of edible seaweed clings to the rocks at low tide on the northwest Pacific coast.

Today, seaweed is also one of the wild foods that is attracting the interest of contemporary chefs and foragers. At Tofino Brewing a Kelp Stout is made by brewing with wild seaweed. The artisan hams at local Picnic Charcuterie are brined with that Kelp Stout before smoking. That ham is then piled on their Ham and Kelp Salad sandwiches, the tasty seaweed slaw, made by simple washing giant kelp fronds well in cold water, slicing it into slivers, then tossing with ginger, sesame oil and cider vinegar.

Halibut wrapped in kelp and garnished with sea asparagus at Pluvio in Ucluelet.

In her excellent book on the topic, The Science and Spirit of Seaweed, the marine biologist and professional forager Amanda Swinimer, details the wonders of the Pacific Northwest kelp forest, with detailed information about identifying, harvesting and cooking with kelp. She looks at seaweed with a scientists eye but also sees the spiritual and medicinal side of these prolific plants, that have been harvested and consumed for thousands of years.

And through her business, Dakini Tidal Wilds, she shares this healthy wild food with the world. Swinimer also focuses on education and conservation with her seaweed workshops, and reminds readers how to sustainable harvest seaweed, by cutting plants in the right place (so they can regenerate) and never taking more than you need.

Salvaging kelp that's washed up on the shore right after a storm is an even better way to collect kelp for the kitchen.

I joined a series of seaweed-focused walks and workshops at a special Seaweeds of the West Coast event in Tofino. A morning of beach combing net several varieties of sea vegetables, followed by a lesson in cooking and preserving our fragile harvest in Tofino’s community kitchen.

Helene Descoteaux of the Tofino Community Food Initiative shows us how to lightly peel the tough outer “bark” from the bull kelp bulbs and hollow stems – after soaking it and washing it well in cold water — then thinly slice it for pickling.

We’re using a classic bread and butter pickle recipe, cooking the seaweed with onions, sugar, vinegar and spices, to create a glistening, golden kelp pickle.


A recipe from Monterey Bay Seaweeds.

  • 3 quarts bull kelp stipes, sliced into 1/4" to 1/2" thick "O's"

  • 2 large onions chopped or sliced

  • 1/4 cup canning salt

  • 1 pint vinegar 5% acidity

  • 1 cup sugar

  • 1 teaspoon celery seeds

  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds

  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger

  • 1 teaspoon peppercorns

  • 1 teaspoon turmeric

  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Combine kelp and onion in a large bowl. Sprinkle with canning salt, stir the salt through the kelp and onion. Let stand for one hour. Rinse well with fresh water. Get your big pot of water for processing going so that it will be at a boil when your jars are packed. Put new, clean jar lids in the little pot, and start bringing them up to a simmer when you start boiling the kelp. Measure the sugar and spices, stirring the spices into the sugar to prevent any clumping. Combine sugar and spices with vinegar in a large pot and bring to a boil to make the syrup. Add the rinsed, drained kelp and onions to the hot syrup and bring to a boil again. When you first add the kelp to the syrup it will turn bright green! Pack the kelp and onions into a clean, hot jar. Use the back of a spoon to press the kelp in. Ladle in syrup to within 1/2 inch of the top. If the kelp is packed loosely then you will run out of syrup before all of the jars are filled, so pack 'em in. Wipe the rim, put the lid and ring on, and proceed to the next jar. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Remove the jars from the bath, set upright about one inch apart on a folded towel away from drafts to cool. Check that all of the jars sealed. If any didn't seal then put them in the refrigerator and eat the pickles within a few weeks. Label the jars with contents and date. The kelp pickles can be eaten right away, but the flavor is better after a week or so.

Read more about serving seaweed in my story published in Edible Vancouver Island magazine.

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