Before I started fermenting things in my kitchen, I had a very different mental picture when I thought of “fermentation”. I imagined something with a strong sour smell, maybe something putrid, a mad scientist-like character watching something bubbling and brewing and spilling over … not necessarily a positive image. And it wasn’t something that I gave much thought to try.
When you think of fermentation, though, it really isn’t as foreign a concept as you might imagine. Many of the foods that we enjoy daily involve some form of fermentation. Beer, bread, whiskey, vodka, pickles, sauerkraut, wine, vinegar, cider, brandy, cheese, yogurt, salami and pepperoni are all examples of food that are created through the process of fermentation. Different foods like kefir and kombucha are also recently becoming more popular again, and you can find them easily at most grocery stores.
Everyone knows that vegetables are good for you. Probably your earliest memories of eating are of your mother or father making you try at least one bite of your vegetables because, “They’re good for you!” “They’ll make you big and strong. Do you want to grow up to be small and weak?” or my personal favorite, my mom encouraging me to eat vegetables, because “they’ll put hair on your chest!” (Yep, that really motivated me to try them! 😀 )
However, when you ferment vegetables, something happens to them. They become even more nutritious. For example, when you ferment cabbage, the resulting sauerkraut has more vitamin C and B vitamins than cabbage. Cabbage contains goitrogens, substances that can block the production of thyroid hormone, but when you ferment cabbage into sauerkraut these goitrogens are reduced or removed.
The reason that I began to explore fermentation at home was because of the health benefits that I heard came from eating fermented foods. I had two little boys with stomach trouble; one was losing weight despite eating everything in sight and the other was gaining more food allergies and intolerances than my allergy-free cooking could keep up with. Fermented foods are full of probiotics that can help restore gut balance and health; I decided that even if my kitchen had to become something akin to a research lab full of brewing concoctions, I wanted to explore this avenue to helping my boys.
The first thing I made was sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is really a basic thing to make; it can also be as complicated as you want to make it. You can add a multitude of different ingredients to your kraut, different spices and herbs. Or you can just ferment cabbage.
The neat thing about wild fermentation at home is that you can make the exactly same thing exactly the same way, and it will turn out slightly different every time. Depending on the bacteria and yeast in your kitchen, the temperature, the flora on the cabbage itself, the length of time you ferment it for … there are many factors that can lead your kraut to taste differently. We’ve even tried mixing red and green cabbage (turning into a pink sauerkraut) for a different look and taste.
You can take any vegetable and ferment it. It’s simpler than canning or pickling, and it’s healthier for you. You can experiment by adding different ingredients and seeing what flavor combinations you can make. For example, I had some cucumbers earlier this year that I wanted to make into pickles (fermented cucumbers). So I sliced some up, stuck them in a Mason jar with some water, salt, dill and garlic, and we had some really delicious pickles.
There have been some excellent books written on the subject of lacto-fermentation and fermented foods. A couple of my favorites are:
Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz
And, of course, you can google how to ferment anything and come up with some great recipes in seconds. Try it!
A Simple Way to Ferment
To start, let’s discuss lacto-fermentation of vegetables.
Again, there are many, many ways to ferment foods. You can make as small a batch as something in a pint-sized jar, or make a enormous barrel or crock full of fermented vegetables. For simplicity, I’m going to describe how to make something in a quart-sized Mason jar.
First, you decide what you want to ferment. Good choices are cabbage, radishes, carrots, green beans, cucumbers, etc … anything that you have that’s fresh and a vegetable. Right now, your local farmer’s market or your garden should be producing large quantities of fresh vegetables.
Dice up the vegetable in any shape that you desire. I slice carrots long ways to make sticks. Radishes can be whole or sliced. Cucumbers can be diced, whole, sliced … you get the picture. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It will be delicious either way. Fermenting is not a precise science.
Place your prepared vegetables into your quart-sized Mason jar. Add whatever additional ingredients that you wish to add more flavor. You can ferment your vegetables just plain, or perhaps you want to add garlic or some herbs. Ginger is a good thing to add to make your finished product a little fizzier or to speed up the fermentation process. (You take a little ginger root, dice it, and put a few pieces in each jar)
Now that everything is in your jar, you add a tablespoon of sea salt over top. (A good ratio is 1 tablespoon per quart. Remember this if you are fermenting a larger or smaller batch of vegetables) Fill the jar with filtered water (NOT CHLORINATED TAP WATER – chlorine will kill beneficial bacteria), leaving about an inch of extra space between the top of the water and the top of the jar, but make sure that the water completely covers your vegetables. Any vegetables that are above the water line (in the air space above the salt water brine) may mold. Place a lid on tightly, and shake your jar to mix your ingredients and to dissolve the sea salt.
And that’s it! Put the jar on your kitchen counter (sauerkraut does better in a cupboard or pantry in the dark) and watch it start to bubble. I usually leave my jars out for about 3 to 4 days before sticking them in the fridge. You can taste test your veggies around day 3, and when they taste good to you (slightly sour taste, less salty), then you know they’re ready for storage in the fridge. Veggies can keep for months in the fridge. (Note: sauerkraut does better with longer fermentation. You can eat your kraut in as little as one week, or you can leave it at room temperature for months to prolong fermentation. Sauerkraut goes through several stages of fermentation, causing a different bacteria to be dominate at that particular stage. Sandor Katz discusses this in his book “Wild Fermentation”)
An extra tip: sometimes during the fermentation process, extra gas builds up which can cause pressure inside your jars. You may hear some soft “whistling” noises coming from your jars as this extra gas is being released. It’s a good idea to occasionally “burp” your jars to release this extra pressure. The same thing applies when the jars are stored in the fridge for long periods. Periodically “burp” the jars to release the pressure.
Also, once you have fermented some of your own vegetables, you can use the brine from a previous batch to start a new batch of vegetables. This adds even more probiotics to your fermented vegetables and speeds the process up slightly. It doesn’t even have to be the same vegetables as you previously fermented. For example, try making some radishes by adding a little brine from your fermented garlic carrots (Fill the jar mostly full with water, then add a little probiotic juice to the top, about 1/4 cup or less. Make sure that you still leave an inch of space from the top of the jar) There is no wrong way to do this! Use your imagination.
So, once again, here’s the process:
1. Fill quart jar with vegetables.
2. Add 1 Tbs. sea salt.
3. Fill with water (leave about an inch of space from the top) and shake to mix.
4. Keep on the counter 3-4 days, then refrigerate.
Happy bubbling and brewing!
“Fermentation is right up there with cooking as one of the most powerful methods to transform food.”
― John Durant, The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health