I remember the first time I tried a lacto-fermented pickle: A quart mason jar with cucumbers, peppercorns, a garlic clove or two, and some assorted spices was handed to me. I have always loved pickles, so I eagerly selected and bit into one. The flavor was unlike anything I had ever experienced – garlicky, tangy, complex. The texture was juicy, and crisp. I ate another, and another, and another, thus beginning my awareness and exploration of home fermentation.
Many of the foods we eat and enjoy on a regular basis have undergone the process of fermentation, which simply is the action of living bacteria and yeasts on organic matter. Some of the worlds’ most renowned artisan foods are fermented, including cheese, salami, wine, sourdough bread, and chocolate. Fermentation transforms the ordinary – meat, dairy, fruit, vegetable, grain – into extraordinarily flavorful and nutritious end products that, despite their gourmet appearances, are easy to make at home.
How does fermentation happen?
We all know that yeasts and bacteria can spoil food if left unchecked. The art of fermentation involves creating just the right conditions to encourage the growth of just the beneficial ones. The digestive process of beneficial bacteria creates carbon dioxide, lactic acid, and acetic acid, making pickles, yogurts, and vinegar taste sour. Yeasts, on the other hand, are cultivated for alcohol production or when you want gas bubbles, as in leavened bread or carbonated sodas. Their by-products are alcohol, carbon dioxide, and amino acids and organic compounds.
What are the benefits of fermentation?
Beyond simply making food taste great, the diverse fermentation processes of those bacteria and yeasts create many benefits, such as:
The process of fermentation actually creates new nutrients. Vitamins are preserved and sometimes produced via fermentation. As microbial cultures go through their life cycle, they create vitamins such as folic acid, niacin, and B12. Amino acids are formed, which makes more complete proteins.
Fermentation is a form of pre-digestion, which helps our bodies break down food into smaller digestible parts. Lactose, gluten, and soy particularly benefit from this pre-digestion.
The live cultures present in fermented foods can help replenish our intestinal flora and fauna, which is particularly important after taking a round of antibiotics. Interestingly, beneficial ferment organisms actually inhibit pathogenic bacteria during the fermentation process, and some toxins are broken down as well.
Vegetables, milk, meat, and fruits are highly perishable. Fermenting is a way to preserve foods, as both the acidity and the alcohol produced during fermentation can keep food for months or years. Wine and vinegar preserve fresh fruit or juices. Sauerkraut or kimchi preserves an abundant vegetable harvest.
Food Security and Local Economy
By their nature, fermented foods are best produced on a small scale. They are value-added products that can be the basis for a small business or home-based cottage industry. Plus, wild cultures are free for the capturing, so there is no need to rely on a corporation to prepare and eat fermented foods.
Having a supply of fermented foods on hand is a great way to add nutrient-dense, healthy food to your emergency preparedness plan. Plus, in a power outage, most fermented foods will remain completely edible, even without refrigeration. For instance, milk without refrigeration will turn sour quickly, but the same milk fermented into hard cheese will simply continue to age. Raw meat preserved as salami is both highly portable and delicious.
Food Taste and Texture
Imagine a world without cheese, or wine! Fermentation makes complex, sour, salty, creamy, tangy, aromatic, rich, pungent, and yummy additions to your diet.
Tools for Fermentation
Fermentation can be a complex process, or an incredibly simple one, and depending on the type of ferment, the tools and supplies will vary significantly. Wine making requires one set of equipment, while cheese making requires a vastly different supply! If you’re just beginning to experiment with fermented foods, I recommend starting with a simple vegetable ferment such as sauerkraut. Not only does sauerkraut-making require very little equipment, the fermentation period is short, so you can enjoy some delicious homemade sauerkraut within a week or two!
How To Ferment Your First Batch Of Sauerkraut
To make sauerkraut, you’ll need:
- A head of cabbage
- A large bowl
- A knife, grater, or mandoline
- A scale (even a bathroom scale will work!)
- Optional spices of your choice (caraway seeds or juniper berries add a nice flavor to kraut)
- A wide-mouth mason jar(s) or ceramic crock
- A lid to fit your container
Some home fermenters prefer to use specialized equipment such as wooden kraut pounders, airlocks, or weights. These tools do make the process easier, but they are certainly not necessary to start fermenting at home.
How to Make Homemade Sauerkraut
1) Grate, cut, or shred cabbage into small pieces using a knife, food processor, or mandoline. Place the cabbage in a large bowl and weigh it.
2) For every 5 lbs of sliced cabbage, sprinkle 3 tbsp. of salt over the top. Mix it very well with a spoon or your clean hands. Salt helps draw out the moisture of the cabbage to create the brine in which the cabbage will ferment.
3) Pack the cabbage-salt mixture tightly into a glass jar(s) or ceramic crock, and cover loosely with a mason jar lid or cloth cover. You want to make sure that all of the cabbage is submerged under the brine – some people like to weigh the cabbage down using a plate or clean rock. Place the container on your kitchen counter to ferment.
4) Check on your sauerkraut each day, making sure to keep the cabbage submerged. Taste the kraut each day, until it has fermented to your liking.
5) Store your kraut in a cool place such as a refrigerator, a root cellar, basement, or even the coolest corner of your house. Your kraut will continue to ferment very slowly, developing an even more sour and tangy flavor over time.
Once you’ve mastered sauerkraut, consider adding a few more vegetable ferments to your repertoire. Kimchi is a very popular recipe, as are naturally fermented pickles. Each fall, my family likes to mix cabbage with other garden produce and make what we call spicy kraut and salsa kraut. Last summer we made a lactofermented hot sauce that was out-of-this-world delicious! And don’t stop with just vegetable ferments – there are hundreds of fermented dairy, fruit, grain, and meat recipes with which to experiment.
Want to learn more?
There are many fabulous websites that share fermentation information and inspiration. I highly recommend the following:
Wild Fermentation – The website of author Sandor Elix Katz. Many credit Katz with a fermentation revival, and his two books, Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation are must reads for anyone interested in fermentation.
Cultures for Health sells a wide array of cultures, and has fantastic resource pages to help you troubleshoot almost any type of ferment.
Enjoy your journey into home fermentation!