• Fermentation: One of my Favourite Topics

    Last weekend I had the pleasure of doing a presentation on fermenting vegetables at Seedy Sunday at our local Farmers' Market. I've given several talks and written articles on the topic before (in Winter 2014 of The Gardener and more recently in a newsletter for Shakti Rising), and it's one of my favourites, so I'm sharing it here as well!

    For anyone who believes in traditional wisdom, consider this: every single culture on Earth has a traditional fermented food:

    • China’s pickled vegetables are thought to be the ancestors of sauerkraut and Kosher-style pickles of Europe.
    • In Korea, kimchi is served with every meal.
    • In Bulgaria and other European countries, yogurt is a staple.
    • In Japan, kombucha tea is considered a cure-all, while umeboshi plums and miso are favourite condiments.
    • Beer and wine also fall into the category of lacto-fermentation.

    All of these foods are produced by the same methods: allowing food to begin to decompose, but controlling the ‘rotting’ bacteria and instead encouraging the good bacteria, which also live in healthy guts, to transform the food into a more stable product, full of naturally occurring pro-biotics.

    Fermentation is at its heart a form of alchemy, using easily accessible resources to transform food and drink into a completely new, truly alive, and lifegiving version of its original self. All those little bacteria that thrive in fermented products exist already in nature. In the fermentation process, we are just providing them the perfect environment for them to do what they do naturally, and we benefit from their work.

    My own health, and my family’s level of health and resilience have been transformed by fermentation. My children don’t get sick very often, and when they do, they’re not sick for long. I healed my immune system after being pregnant and/or breast-feeding for five years--I was horribly worn down, and ended up with a nasty lymphatic infection that had me on super strong antibiotics for three weeks. That’s when I started fermenting. That was four years ago, and I haven’t been on antibiotics since.

    As a method of preservation, the more familiar pickling in vinegar and pressure canning has the benefit of a long, unrefrigerated shelf life. Lacto-fermented foods rely on the production of lactic acid, rather than acetic acid, which means they have a shorter shelf life and require cool temperatures, if not outright refrigeration, but they have more nutritional benefits. Proponents argue that consuming living foods is the way human beings evolved; we have a symbiotic relationship with them.

    The modern Western approach to bacteria has not been a friendly one, so many people approach the idea of eating foods containing bacteria with caution. While it is always important to use good hygiene when working with food, it is impossible to escape contact with bacteria. A more balanced approach is to understand and encourage the good bacteria, which actually play an important role in keeping the bad ones at bay. Instead of buying expensive probiotic pills, eating small amounts of lacto-fermented food every day can have the same health benefits—and, they taste great!

    Getting started

    The only rule about fermenting foods is that there are really no hard and fast rules. Temperature, light levels, water quality and other more nebulous factors in your home can all have an effect on the health and makeup of your living foods. Following, are general guidelines for getting started as well as excellent resources to support you on your way.

    The simplest form of fermentation is simply adding salt to a vegetable, such as cabbage, and allowing the process to happen naturally. All you need is a clean vessel, such as a crock or sterilized glass jar (metal and plastic are not recommended because of potential chemical leaching), the vegetable of your choice, pickling salt or sea salt and a weight to hold the vegetables under the brine.

    Another method, almost as simple, is the creation of a saltwater brine (the method used to make Kosher pickles). You can also add a small amount of whey to the brine to introduce some of the bacteria and give the fermentation process a boost. Whey can be most easily obtained by straining a container of natural, unflavoured yogurt through cheesecloth and collecting the resulting liquid, which is whey.

    You then need to find something to do with the yogurt cheese (like cream cheese) left from straining out the liquid. Note: anyone with dairy sensitivities should avoid using whey in ferments.

    Considerations

    There are many kinds of containers for fermented produce. Typical mason jars work, but the salt can corrode metal lids. I use them, but the lids do need to be replaced. Plastic mason jar lids are available in major grocery chains and hardware stores.

    Can anything go wrong? Not much. There is no documentation of risks relating to fermented vegetables. I have read that even foul-smelling layers of mold can be removed from the top of a crock of sauerkraut and the kraut underneath is delicious. The general rule is if it tastes good, it is good. I have experienced mold on pickled beans, and didn’t like the taste, so I threw them away.

    The only limit to what you can ferment is your imagination! I have made beet leaf kimchi, Swiss chard kimchi, tarragon beet slices, sliced cucumber dills, zucchini pickles, dill pickle relish, sweet pickle relish and sauerkraut. I have not yet ventured into fruits, but I believe they are next.

    Be warned, once you get the fermentation bug (literally and figuratively), you’ll find your home full of small jars of bubbly, fizzy drinks, snacks and condiments. There is so much to learn!

    Resources

    Sandor Ellix Katz is a well-known fermentation guru. He has published Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. I own the latter and find it both well-written and fascinating.

    Feel free to contact me if you would like some simple recipes to get you started.

    Online resources are endless. Some of my favourites are Nourished Kitchen, Fermentation Recipes, and Cultures for Health.

     

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