By James Wood, Wild Water
What is fermentation in a nutshell? Basically, it is food going bad. Slowly.
Now why would anyone want to eat food that has gone bad? Let’s think about some foods that have in fact ‘gone bad’ that we enjoy as delicacies:
- Sourdough Bread
The list goes on and on.
Essentially, a fermentation involves slowing down the process of bacteria inoculating these foods that are ‘going bad’. An example of this is sauerkraut. Cabbage leaves are massaged with a salt solution, and left out to go bad. The presence of salt causes the going bad to happen very slowly, allowing for beneficial bacteria, like Lactobacilus acidophilos, to make a home and proliferate. These bacteria are present everywhere, and essentially make up our immune system. If you have a good ecosystem of bacteria inside of you, the bad bacteria will not be able to come in and take over to cause sickness and a ruined day.
Traditionally, foods were fermented in order to preserve their shelf life and to be served as a condiment with a larger meal. Preserving food used to be an important skill to possess, especially during the harvest time. Nowadays, our ‘culture’ (remember this word, we’ll get back to it) doesn’t necessarily preserve food because we have refrigeration technologies. Having an ample supply of nutritious food was like gold back in the the days when shipping was not so reliable or dominant as it is today. If your house was snowed in, good thing you kept a nice supply of food ready to eat.
Fermented foods also serve as a nice side dish to a main meal, and many cultures have their own fermented foods that accompany traditional dishes. This is basically why a ‘culture’ is called a ‘culture’ in the first place! A culture would develop in a region because they culture foods! Examples of these cultured condiments are sauerkraut with bratwurst in Germany, miso soup with sushi in Japan, and kimchee with a main meal in Korea. Fermented foods go along with a large meal for taste, but more importantly they allow for better digestion because of all the beneficial bacteria that are present in these foods. This is the key to incorporating fermented foods into our diets. When we eat a meal with a fermented food, the millions of bacteria present in that fermented food begin digesting the meal and breaking it down to allow for better absorption by our bodies.
Bacteria are our friends!
One of my favorite fermented foods is sauerkraut, due to it’s delicious taste and ease of preparation. Incorporating herbs into my fermentations allows me to play around with tastes as well as add integrity to the finished product.
Here is a super simple recipe for a great sauerkraut:
- 1-Gallon glass jar, ceramic crock, or other wide-mouthed glass container
- Some sort of heavy weight (I usually use a 1-liter mason jar filled with water)
- 1-2 Large heads of cabbage
- 2 heaping tablespoons of salt
- tablespoon of juniper berries
- tablespoon of cumin seeds (whole)
- tablespoon of black peppercorns
- Take off the large outer leaves of the cabbage and put aside.
- Chop us cabbage into the thinnest slices you can get it to be and place into a large bowl.
- Pour the salt in and massage into the cabbage until evenly distributed, let sit for 20 min.
- Massage the salt into the cabbage even more, and by this time you’ll begin to see the cabbage breaking down and releasing water. The salt is pulling the moisture from the cabbage leaves.
- Pour the rest of the spices into the cabbage and gently massage in.
- Once the cabbage has broken down and you see a mass of liquid at the bottom, you’re ready to jar!
- Take a gallon glass jar and pack everything in. The key here is to make sure everything is submerged under the brine, which ensures no fungus or bad bacteria can get to the goodies under the water.
- Place cabbage leaves that we set aside in the beginning over everything to cover, and place weight on top.
- If everything is not submerged, mix some salt into water to make a brine and pour into the crock until everything is submerged. I like to put a paper towel over the mouth of the jar and wrap a rubber band around it.
- Place into a cool, dark spot and wait for 1 1/2 – 2 weeks!
At about a week and a half, take off the weight and cabbage leaves to reveal your fermented goodness! Place into separate mason jars and store in the fridge or root cellar if you have one. Enjoy with whatever foods you would like!