Fermentation Magic: A Model for Health and Transformation
I originally started fermenting foods when I was in college. I had always enjoyed cooking, but I was in the process of falling in love with cooking when I made my first batch of sauerkraut. I certainly didn’t understand what I do now when I started fermenting; I just followed a short recipe and waited to see what would happen.
Now, after years of experimenting with making sauerkraut and many other types of fermented vegetables, meats and beverages, I feel like I really understand the process, and yet, it doesn’t seem a bit less magical. While I can explain in detail and almost imagine the biochemical processes that are taking place inside my crockpot — transforming bits of cabbage, salt and seeds into mouth watering, sour, crunchy, healthful kraut — I am still awestruck by the process of fermentation and the power that fermented foods have to help nourish, support and heal the body.
Fermented foods are a part of every traditional diet in the world. The process of fermentation involves creating an environment that allows beneficial bacteria to grow, while preventing the growth of harmful or putrefying bacteria. Fermentation produces lactic acid, acetic acid and alcohol, which are all bio-preservatives.
Before canning and before refrigeration, fermentation was used to preserve food from one season to the next. Even foods that we consider highly perishable such as meat and dairy were fermented —yogurt and cheese, chorizo and salami or fish sauce.
Beyond simply having a shelf life, fermented foods are also very healthful. They contain amazing amounts of vitamins, antioxidants and enzymes. These healthful substances are not simply present because they are found in the vegetables and other raw materials used in the ferment. The process of fermentation actually creates new nutrients, most notably vitamins C and B, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin and biotin.
Fermented foods help to restore and maintain good digestive health and the overall balance in our body; it is one of the most important things we can do for whole body wellness. In addition to improving digestion, absorption and immunity, healthy gut flora can also help to improve chronic skin conditions, yeast infections and seasonal allergies.
1 large green cabbage
Unrefined salt (this can be a mineral salt, sea salt or kosher salt, but no iodized salt)
1 tsp. caraway seeds
Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and compost. Rinse remaining head, if necessary. Cut the cabbage into quarters (you can remove the core or not) and slice finely (1/8–1/4 inch thick).
As you cut the cabbage, place it into a large mixing bowl. Each time you add cabbage to the bowl sprinkle it generously with salt. I don’t usually measure the amount of salt I use, but if you need a place to start use 1–2 tablespoons salt per large cabbage or 3 tablespoons for every 5 pounds of cabbage.
Begin to mix the cabbage and the salt together in the bowl, squeezing and macerating the cabbage by the fistful. Continue to toss and knead the cabbage; it will begin to break down and lose its water and eventually become somewhat translucent. Eventually, liquid will drip out of the cabbage when you squeeze it between your hands. This is good; the salt as well as your kneading will pull water out of the vegetable and create the juice/brine that the cabbage will ferment in. Continue the macerating process for 5-10 minutes. The amount of liquid that comes out of the cabbage depends on how long you knead or pound it for, how much salt you used and how much water was in the cabbage.
When you have finished squeezing and kneading, pack the cabbage into a crock or into a glass jar. Push the cabbage down and clean any loose pieces from the edges. All vegetable material must be submerged in liquid brine to avoid molding or rotting. Cabbage or other material left sticking to the sides of the jar or poking up above the brine will most likely grow mold.
If the cabbage did not produce enough liquid to completely submerge the cabbage you will need to add salt brine. To make salt brine, mix 1 tablespoon of salt with 2 cups of filtered water and mix or stir until all the salt is dissolved. Then pour this brine into the crock or jar until the cabbage is just covered.
Place a plate on top of the cabbage and push it down so that the liquid brine rises above the plate. The plate should keep the cabbage below the liquid (see illustration). Place a rock or a jar full of water on top of the plate to act as a weight. A crock is ideal because it has a wider opening and it is easier to fit a plate inside it. Crocks are also preferred because they hold temperature and will keep the kraut at a more stable temperature despite fluctuations in the environment. It is harder to use a plate as a weight when you are fermenting your sauerkraut in a jar because of the jar’s narrow mouth. Some folks use a plastic bag full of water as a weight, which is good because the shape of the bag and water are both flexible. Once the cabbage is submerged below the brine, cover the crock or the jar opening with a towel or cloth. This allows air and gas to be released during fermentation but prevents bugs and other contaminants from getting in.
Place your sauerkraut in a cool place, ideally where the temperature does not fluctuate much. You can check on it as often as every day or wait a few days at a time. If there is any mold or bloom (white powdery looking stuff) floating on top or growing on the edges of the jar/crock, scrape it off and remove it. It is harmless — just a result of contact with air. The cabbage itself is fermenting in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment beneath the brine, and the salt is preventing harmful organisms from growing.
You can taste your kraut as often as every day to watch how the flavors evolve. It will start to sour after a few days and the flavor will intensify over time. The fermentation process will happen more quickly in warm weather and more slowly in a cold environment. You can ferment sauerkraut in a cool basement for months, while a batch made and left on the kitchen counter in July may be ready in just a week or two. It is up to you how sour you want it to be. Once it gets to a flavor that you like, scoop it out of the crock and put it into a jar and store it in the refrigerator. The cold temperature of the refrigerator will slow down the fermentation drastically, so even though it is still a living food the flavor will not change very much.
Brittany Wood Nickerson will be presenting healthy cooking demonstrations for Seasonal Fermentation at the Natural Living Expo on Saturday, November 16 at the Royal Plaza Trade Center in Marlborough, MA. Demonstrations include recipes for Cultured Apple Cranberry Chutney, Beet Kvass, Sauerkraut, Lacto-Fermented Pickled Carrots and Fire Cider. Weekend expo admission is just $12 and includes access to these healthy cooking demonstrations plus 90 classes and workshops and 225 exhibits. Expo hours are Saturday, November 16 from 9am-7pm and Sunday, November 17 from 10am-5pm. Weekend admission is $12. Children under 12 are free. Learn more at www.NaturalExpo.org.