Fermentation conjures images of a favorite alcohol, like beer or wine, but crack open the ferment door and you will find a deep, expansive world of foods and beverages with flavors never imagined.
Most likely you’ve been eating fermented foods without knowing it. The fermented food list includes staples such as yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles, soy sauce, vinegar and sourdough bread. These flavorful and nutritious darlings are taking the food world by storm as the top trend for 2015.
Anthropologist Bill Schindler described fermentation as “controlled rotting.” In scientific terms, fermentation is a process where bacteria and yeast feed on sugars in food thereby releasing lactic acid, which acts as a preservative. Health proponents tout the benefits of fermented foods in easing digestion and providing powerful probiotics for better overall health. Many of us agree. Nearly 50 percent of Americans have changed their diet to help improve digestion, with nearly 20 percent doing so in the past year, found a recent survey by ConAgra Foods.
Science aside, the proof of fermentation’s significance lies in its history. Record of fermentation use dates back as far as 6000 B.C. Since then nearly every civilization boasts at least one fermented food in its culinary heritage. From Korean kimchi and Indian chutneys to the ubiquitous sauerkraut, yogurt and cheese, global cultures have crafted unique flavors and traditions around fermentation.
Lincoln Land Community College recently finished an eight week fermentation class (which will be offered again next year) through the Value-Added Local Food certificate program, and found out first-hand why fermented foods are on all the top food trend lists, and why fermented foods are still not made in most American homes. Ferments are really cool, and in my opinion, the most complex culinary flavors on the planet. The aromas, the aliveness and the experimentation draw you in like no other food preparation method. Conversely, fermentation requires time and patience, mostly by regular monitoring and waiting (which can be days, weeks or years depending on the ferment) which is contrary to the fast food culture common today. However, just like the difference between a juicy, vine-ripened tomato straight from the garden versus a gassed, bland grocery store tomato, the taste difference between homemade ferments and what you can get commercially doesn’t compare.
One student in the LLCC class had read about fermentation in a health book after successfully conquering two bouts of cancer. She started buying fermented products in the grocery store and then realized she could make them for less money at home. Her advice to anyone wanting to get into fermentation: “read fermentation books and web sites, and experiment to see what you like.”
Sauerkrauts and kimchis are a great place to start fermenting as all the ingredients go in a jar or crock and then work their magic naturally. And it is magic. The fermentation process brings food to life and you might even find yourself talking to your ferments as if they were a new best friend. The bubbling and gurgling happens overnight and the pungent fragrances fill the air soon after. From then on, you’re hooked.
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*6 cups shredded cabbage
*3 cloves garlic, crushed
*4 tablespoons caraway seed
*1-2 teaspoons unrefined salt for every pound of vegetable
*3 cups shredded green cabbage
*3 cups shredded Napa cabbage
*1 cup Daikon radish, sliced into quarter-inch rounds
*4 cloves minced or crushed garlic
*4-inch piece fresh ginger, sliced (or more, to taste)
*2 tablespoons powdered red pepper (or more, to taste)
*2 tablespoons coriander seeds (or half a bunch of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped)
*4 green onions
*1-2 teaspoons unrefined salt for every pound of vegetable
General Steps for Vegetable Preparation in Fermentation
Use one (½- to 1-gallon) wide-mouthed glass or ceramic container fitted with a lid, or two to three 1-quart containers, or a crock.
Thinly chop or shred the vegetables, slice them to about the same thickness and add to bowl.
For odd-shaped vegetables use a box grater is easiest. The rougher the cut, the better as more surface area is exposed to the salt.
Add the salt to the cabbage/vegetable mixture, mixing it with your hands, squeezing the cabbage/vegetables, pounding and pressing to release liquid.
Within several minutes, the salt will begin drawing water from the vegetables.
Continue to squeeze, bruise, or pound the cabbage to speed up the process. You can also place a weight on the mixture to drive out liquid.
Wait until the vegetables are dripping wet, like a sopping sponge.
Taste should be salted but not salty.
If it’s too salty, add more shredded cabbage/vegetables. If it’s not salty enough, or not wet enough, add a little more salt.
Add the spices, if using, and toss. Pack the mixture tightly in a glass jar or crock fitted with a lid that can hold at least 8 cups, making sure all the air is squeezed out and the vegetables are completely submerged in their liquid. (If you don’t have a large container, use two or three smaller containers, about 1 quart each in volume.)
There should be at least 3 inches between the packed cabbage and the top of the jar.
Push the vegetables down tightly using your fist. They should be covered in their liquid. Covered in liquid is key.
Before sealing the jar, either weight the vegetables down with a small ceramic or glass jar or insert something nonreactive between the lid and the vegetables to keep them submerged in the liquid: a plastic bag filled with beans or lay a large cabbage over the shredded cabbage and weight that down with a nonreactive object.
There should be enough liquid to cover, but if not add a little water.
Any vegetables exposed to the air will rot. If surface molds form, scrape them away and remove discolored vegetables.
For the first few days, store at room temperature, ideally between 65°F and 75°F, then move to the refrigerator. (At LLCC we found that leaving out a few more days or weeks enhanced the flavors even more, but I recommend tasting daily to notice the changes.)
The mixture will ferment on its own. The necessary microbes are already present on the leaves.
If you’re fermenting in a sealed glass container, make sure to release the pressure every few days, especially the first couple of days, when bubbling will be most active.
If at any point water seeps out of the jar during fermentation and the mixture is not fully submerged in liquid, dissolve ½ teaspoon of fine sea salt in a cup of water. Add enough brine to keep the vegetables submerged in liquid.
When the level of sourness and crunchiness is to your liking, put the ferment in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation process.