hat's old is new again: Fermentation, the ancient method of food preservation, which does not require cooking, is making a comeback.
People all over the world have been fermenting food forever. There's evidence that people of Babylon were making fermented beverages around 5,000 BC.
"Fermentation is one of, if not the oldest, method of food preservation and it spans pretty much all cultures," said Epicureal Delights' Elizabeth Roberts, a natural foods chef who teaches fermentation classes locally. "So many foods are fermented or able to be fermented: wine, beer, bread (sourdough), soy (miso, tempeh and soy sauce), vegetables (sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, chutney and salsa) and milk (yogurt, kefir and cheese)."
Here we are talking about natural lacto-fermented foods, which are unpasteurized and use salt, rather than vinegar, to produce its own enzyme-filled brine. Vegetables are preserved simply with salt, water and spices - no boiling water baths or other canning processes are necessary. The fermentation process creates lactic acid, nature's preservative.
Years ago most home cooks had crocks of sauerkraut, pickles and other treasures such as beets, onions or garlic waiting out the winter in the root cellar. Jump ahead in time to the early 1900sand vinegar had replaced salt, and water baths were required for the jarred foods prior to storage.
Some DIY fans are returning to the old way of doing things. They're preserving food from their backyard gardens the old-fashioned way.
"It's a good way to preserve vegetables over the winter," said Dariel Blackburn, who will teach a lacto-fermentation class Sept. 17 at the Venetucci Farm. "Fermented veggies are tasty and healthy for you."
Blackburn has been preserving food using this method since 2008, when she got her hands on Sally Fallon's book, "Nourishing Traditions."
"I love good sauerkraut but didn't realize how good it could be until I tried Sally's recipe," she said. "At first, I did it (fermented) because the end product is so good for you. The food is easier to digest, and, in fact, improves the general digestion when taken regularly in small amounts."
Blackburn reports that vitamins and minerals are more available to your digestive system; carbohydrates are broken down so you require less insulin for digestion, making lacto-fermented vegetables ideal for diabetics. Research has found that taking lacto-fermented vegetables or their juice, before or with meals, reduces blood glucose levels.
By eating lacto-fermented foods, you are replenishing good bacteria in your digestive system.
"In the normal scheme of things, we'd never have to think twice about replenishing the bacteria that allow us to digest food," writes Sandor Katz, author of "Wild Fermentation." "But since we're living with antibiotic drugs and chlorinated water and antibacterial soap, all these factors in our contemporary lives that I'd group together as a 'war on bacteria,' if we fail to replenish (good bacteria), we won't effectively get nutrients out of the food we're eating."
Aim? Wimbush-Bourque, author of the award-winning blog, Simple Bites, writes, "Because we have grown up in a culture that thinks you have to pasteurize everything, you may wonder if you are going to poison your family by using this method. Be sure to clean your jars and equipment very well. You want to avoid bad bacteria at all costs in order to allow the good bacteria to proliferate."
Roberts and Blackburn second this advice.
"You must be careful about cleanliness," Blackburn said. "Because you will have your hands in the ferment as you work it, it is possible to introduce contamination. What I was told about a bad ferment is that 'you will know if it is bad. It will smell awful.' Don't eat it if it smells bad."
Roberts pointed out, "I would stress reading up on the process, take a class if possible, even watch a video or two on the Internet to understand the process and what's right and what's maybe not so right."
Marisa Bunning, associate professor and extension specialist in the Food Science & Human Nutrition department at Colorado State University, is aware of the interest in fermenting food and the need to be careful.
"There have been several recent publications which have included a quote from Fred Breidt, a USDA research microbiologist. 'There has never been a documented case of foodborne illness from fermented vegetables'," she said, "which gives the impression food safety is never a problem, but that is not the case."
Use caution when venturing into the world of fermentation and follow trusted formulas to the letter.
On a final note, other reasons to ferment food is for the great flavor and it's cheap. There's nothing fancy required, not even electricity. It's bio-powered. You can use inexpensive cabbage to make sauerkraut and with just a few penny's worth of water, kosher or sea salt, and spices, you've got a delicious condiment to liven up winter meals.
Of course, one of the best ways to save money is to ferment seasonal produce at the end of the growing season, when it's most abundant and when farmers and grocers lower their prices to sell inventories before they go bad. Think seasonal, organic (pesticide residues can slow or halt the growth of good bacteria), and locally grown (smaller carbon footprint and fresher) when choosing foods. Then, tie on your apron and step back in time with a batch of homemade fermented kraut, vegetable mix or pickles.
Yield: 1 gallon
5 pounds cabbage 3 tablespoons sea salt
Chop or grate cabbage, finely or coarsely, with or without hearts. Place cabbage in a large bowl.
Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water from the cabbage (through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it.
Mix ingredients and pack into 1-gallon ceramic crock or food-grade bucket. Pack just a bit into the crock at a time and tamp it down hard using your fists or any sturdy kitchen implement. The tamping packs the kraut tight and helps force water out of the cabbage.
Cover kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock. Place a clean weight (for instance, a glass jug filled with water) on the cover. This weight is to force water from the cabbage and then keep the cabbage submerged under the brine. Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep dust and flies out.
Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force water out. Continue doing this periodically until the brine rises above the cover. This can take up to 24 hours as the salt draws water from the cabbage slowly. Some cabbage, particularly if it is old, simply contains less water. If the brine does not rise above the plate level by the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine level above the plate. Add about a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water and stir until it's completely dissolved.
Leave the crock to ferment. You could store it in a cool basement if you want a slower fermentation that will preserve for longer.
Check the kraut every day or two. The volume reduces as the fermentation proceeds. Sometimes mold appears on the surface. Many books refer to this mold as "scum," but I prefer to think of it as a bloom. Skim what you can off the surface. It will break up and you probably won't be able to remove all of it. Don't worry. It's just a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air. The kraut itself is under the anaerobic protection of the brine. Rinse off the plate and the weight. Taste the kraut. Generally it starts to be tangy after a few days, and the taste gets stronger as time passes. In the cool temperatures of a cellar in winter, kraut can keep improving for months and months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid. Eventually it becomes soft and the flavor turns less pleasant.
I generally scoop out a bit at a time and keep it in the fridge. I start when the kraut is young and enjoy its evolving flavor over the course of a few weeks. Try the sauerkraut juice that will be left in the bowl after the kraut is eaten. Sauerkraut juice is a rare delicacy and unparalleled digestive tonic. Each time you scoop some kraut from the crock, you have to repack it carefully. Make sure the kraut is packed tight in the crock, the surface is level, and the cover and weight are clean. Sometimes brine evaporates, so if the kraut is not submerged below brine, add salted water as necessary. Some people preserve kraut by canning and heat-processing it.
Source: Sandor Katz's newsletter, "Wild Fermentation"