While it seems cultured foods have popped up as the latest health food trend these last few years (Kombucha anyone?) that are considered expensive “specialty” foods & drinks, fermented products used to be known as food for the poor. Yes, that’s right. Naturally fermented foods were borne out of necessity: lack of refrigeration. You see our ancestors who farmed, gardened, raised animals for survival needed a means to make food last before spoilage without even-temperatured cold food storage. Thus, cultured foods: The art of harnessing naturally occurring bacteria in our environment for food preservation. Who knows how these wise folk discovered the fine line between spoilage and deliciously cultured, I suppose trial and error. Nonetheless, ironically, the foods today that are treasured for their delicacy and sold as specialty items are full of bacteria and as some crudely say: partly rotting. Let’s look at a list of these once common food for common folk, now specialty foods in the twenty first century:
Yogurt – cheese – wine- salami- olives – pickles – sauerkraut – beer – mead – coffee – chocolate- black tea – some green teas – tofu – miso – tamari- vinegar – tempeh – and the list goes on.
What do all of these foods have in common? microorganisms. Microbial cultures are essential to life, especially for digestion and immunity. Cultured foods preserve food, retain nutrients, breaks nutrients down into more easily digestible forms. An example is soybeans. This protein-rich bean is largely indigestible without fermentation. Once fermented, it gives us the traditional Asian foods of miso, tempeh, tamari, and tofu. Another example is milk – also difficult for many to digest in its fresh form. Once fermented into yogurt or kefir for example, lactose is transformed into easier to digest lactic acid. Live, unpasteurized, fermented food also carry beneficial bacteria directly into our digestive systems where they exist symbiotically, breaking down food and aiding digestion.
One of the reasons I love cultured foods is it directly connects me to our environment. In 2008 I invited Sandor Katz up to Salt Spring Island to give a fermentation workshop in which he introduced me to the word “ecoimmunonutrition”: That is, the recognition that an organisms immune function occurs in the context of an ecology, an ecosystem of different microbial cultures, and that it is possible to build and develop that cultural ecology in oneself through diet. Our skin, all of our orifices, and our gut all contain naturally occurring bacteria ready to protect out immune systems from potentially harmful bacteria that we may come in contact with. By eating naturally fermented foods, we are feeding our guts with more beneficial bacteria. We are literally feeding our inner ecology of microorganisms.
For more information on this idea that exposure to a biodiversity of bacteria in our environment actually encourages healthy immunity read more about the hygiene-hypothesis here.
HOW TO MAKE CULTURED VEGETABLES: A TUTORIAL
My favourite recipes for homemade sauerkraut is Cortido (South American Sauerkraut) and Kim Chi (Korean Saurkraut).
1. Grate or finely chop 2 heads of cabbage, 1 daikon radish, 4 carrots, and lots of garlic, ginger, and onions to taste. Optional: add 2 chili peppers if you like it hot! At this point, I also usually shred a few hand fulls of fresh kale from the garden. Every time I make this, I make it a tad different based on the veggies I have available. Pictured above, I tripled the volume (so 6 heads of cabbage etc).
2. Put all of the above ingredients into one giant mixing bowl or crock and add salt. A general guideline: For a 1-litre canning jar, you will need 1 tablespoon of salt for every 1¾ pounds (800 grams) of vegetables. Truthfully, I never measure out my salt content, I just add it to taste. (I do not use kosher salt or table salt. Sea salt has a wide variety of health benefits due to its high mineral content and diverse mineral profile).
3. Then, with clean hands begin massaging salt enthusiastically into the vegetables OR if you have a mallet, begin pounding heck out of your vegetables. This is the most important step. You are encouraging the water content of the veggies to be released (which the salt is helping along).
Continually taste for saltyness. Keep adding salt to taste. You want it to be saltier than you would normally eat, yet not too much salt you can’t stand it. Salt itself is a preservative, if you add too much salt you will arrest the fermentation process.
4. Once the natural juices can be pressed above the vegetables, you are done.
5. Place a very clean and sterile bowl or plate inside the vessel with a weight atop to keep the veggies beneath their own juices. This is very important. The microorganisms (good bacteria) are in the natural juices and work hard to begin to culture the vegetables. Here I’ve filled a mason jar with water to act as a weight. Traditionally, a clean, boiled stone is used. I do that too, but today a mason jar is what I had handy and sterilized. Then I cover everything with a kitchen towel to keep debris from falling into the kraut.
6. Set the crock on my kitchen counter for 5-7 days to begin fermenting. The warmer the kitchen, the quicker it ferments. If I had a root cellar, I’d put it in there and let the coolness take weeks to get to the sourness I’d like. Basically, once the veggies begin softening, I transfer it into my fridge. Do not be alarmed when you see the veggies begin to bubble and froth, this is the gaseous exchange happening that’s central to the fermentation process!
As the veggies ferment, they “bubble”
You can leave it for days/weeks longer until you get it to the taste you like. Then, transfer it into the fridge or cold pantry to slow the fermentation process down.
REMEMBER: The warmer the environment, the quicker it ferments. If it’s too hot and stuffy, it may spoil in which case you’ll see blue mold or white hairy mold. Not a good sign.
7. Because I don’t have cold storage, and the crocks are too big for my fridge, I transfer the kraut into mason jars to store in the fridge and continue slowly fermenting. You can begin eating it any time you like. It changes in taste as it sours over the months. I usually have kraut in the fridge a full year later, which tastes wonderful.
I highly recommend Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz for a brilliant recipe book and history of fermentation, and also Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon for more history, recipes, and general traditional food wisdom.
Eating fermented foods is delicious and part of every traditional food culture around the world. By nourishing our digestive system with these living foods, we are literally farming our inner garden with a bouquet of diverse microbial cultures to help protect our immune system.
Enjoy! And please tell me how it goes by sharing in the comments below!