Some of you are going to think this post is a little weird, but I hope I can convince you otherwise – I want to talk about how bacteria is useful in preserving foods.
You may already know all about this stuff, but I think most folks would believe that the relationship of food and bacteria is not a positive one – after all, isn’t bacteria responsible for the spoiling of food? Well sure, but then the world of bacteria is a complex one, and our own body’s immune system depends on friendly bacteria. In fact, if it weren’t for friendly bacteria, mankind would have never developed this far; we literally owe our existence to our own good bacteria.
The more I learn about microbes and bacteria, and the relationship we share with them, the more my fascination grows – and I’m becoming convinced that a good deal of the disease and illness that modern man experiences is the direct result of our own inability to heed nature’s rules and balances of our relationship with bacteria. If we cannot establish a healthy environment for our body’s good bacteria, only bad things can result – I think it’s that simple!
Let’s talk about the preservation of food for a minute. What are the most common ways that man has used to keep his food from spoiling until needed? Well, cooking it will increase it’s eatable life, but only for a few more days than fresh. Refrigeration will extend its life even a little further, but probably not more than a week or so, and all the while, the flavor and nutritional value is decreasing (some vegetables can be kept in a root cellar at cool temperature for as much as 4-6 months successfully). Freezing is a more recent innovation, and is especially useful for medium term preservation – maybe up to 3 or 4 months, and works better for some foods more than for others – but freezing is an expensive option, compared to others. Canning is a popular method of preserving without the expense of freezing or refrigeration, but is dependent on the use of vinegar or pasteurization to create an environment where no bacteria -good or bad- can exist, and a poor canning job can kill with no warning. And then there is salt.
Salt is perhaps man’s oldest form of preserving foods – there is evidence that neolithic tribes gathered at sites of caves nearby salt springs, but the earliest written accounts of salt being used as preserver of food date to somewhere around 3000 BC in China – and so it is interesting today to see that the oldest of man’s food preservation techniques is now being recognized as the most beneficial health-wise as well. When you hear or read about the current interest in probiotics in our foods, you are entering the fascinating world of bacteria and fermentation, and the ways they aid in the preservation of our foods.
OK, I hear some of you asking, “If salt and fermentation is such a good old fashioned way to preserve our foods, why did we switch to canning so much of it?” And the easy answer is that vinegar and heat based canning create much more shelf stable foods, and is much cheaper – additionally, since fermentation is accomplished using live cultures, the only way to stop it is through refrigeration, and that increases the cost and labor of the product (if you are lucky enough to find pickles and sauerkraut in your grocery refrigerator section, there’s a good chance they were made by salt/fermentation and contain no vinegar!). But salt fermentation is the perfect home preservation method, because it is so damned easy – and if it’s easy, and provides a health benefit as well, why use any other process?
Notice I haven’t even discussed taste yet. Bet you’re thinking that fermented vegetables must really taste bad! Given that taste is a subjective thing, perhaps there are some who feel that the taste of fermented pickles, say, are not as tasty as are the sugar and vinegar canned variety – but to my taste, anything fermented has an improved taste oven its non-fermented twin. Let me name just a few of my favorites: Jewish Deli Dills (sour or half sour); yogurt; cheese; real sauerkraut; sourdough bread; and lest you forget, beer, wine, and vinegar itself are all fermented vegetable products.
I grew a slew of cucumbers this summer, for the distinct purpose of making lacto fermented pickles (which is what old fashioned Jewish dills are, technically) – and I’ve even posted on that already. But I always had it in my head to do some lacto fermented sauerkraut when fall rolled around – and that’s what I want to share with you today. And because the process is so easy, I want to spend most of my time discussing some of the “whys” here, and I’ll point you to a few links that give specific recipes. Here’s Sandor Katz’s (Mr. Wild Fermentation) recipe for real fermented sauerkraut. And here’s a gold mine of information about eating more naturally.
Last Friday, while San was off on a shopping trip with her buddy, and I had the kitchen to myself, I gathered together all I needed to get my sauerkraut going. I had found two HUGE cabbages earlier in the week (probably 4-5 lbs each) for .25c a lb, and I had bought a 3 gallon glass jar and cover at Wal Mart for $10 in mid-summer specifically for this purpose (Yes, I’d like a real crock better, but not for $50).
I cut each cabbage into quarters, and then into eighths to make easier work of it – I choose to use my biggest chef’s knife on the top half of each piece (the top is where the layers are thinnest and neatly stacked on each other) and to cut the cabbage into the finest slivers I could. As I neared the middle of each piece, the layers become thicker and not so neatly arranged. I’ve convinced myself that using the food processor for the bottom of each piece produces just about the same kind of end product as if I hand cut it – so why not use
the processor? With each chopped quarter of cabbage placed into the big jar, I sprinkled 2 Tbs of kosher salt over all (this may actually be too much salt, but I think too much is better than not enough!).
A note about the salt – the salt has no direct role to play in the fermentation process except that it creates an environment where none of the bad bacteria can live, but the good bacteria can – especially the lactobacillus bacteria. We only use the salt here to allow the good bacteria to start the fermentation process which would be more difficult in the presence of the bad bacteria. Another note of clarification – in this case, the lactobacillus bacteria has nothing to do with lactose, or anything dairy for that matter. It is simply called lacto fermentation because it changes the sugars and the carbohydrates in the vegetable or fruit into lactic acid, which is why it is ultimately sour tasting.
Now, those of you who know me well know that I wouldn’t let you try this process without telling you where you might get in trouble – and I’ll be happy to do that. But surprisingly, there are not a whole lot of cautionary instructions to give you here. Without a doubt, there is one place where most newbies trip, and that is on the first rule of lacto fermenting: the product being fermented MUST stay below the surface of your brine, or you’ll allow the introduction of bad bacteria into your batch keep that in mind and you’re practically home free.
In the case of this sauerkraut, my chopped and salted cabbage has produced so much of its own liquid that I didn’t have to use any additional water (if yours does not, simply make a little brine and add it – 1 tsp salt/1 cup water). This took the better part of 24 hours to happen, with me occasionally pushing down on the cabbage with a potato masher – when I could see that there would easily be enough liquid, I put a plastic lid the same size as the top opening of my jar over the top of my cabbage and used my stone mortar (a big washed rock works well too) on top of the lid. This effectively pushes almost every strand of cut cabbage under the brine and continues to press it even more as the cabbage becomes more compact.
Don’t worry if you don’t get every little piece of cabbage under the brine – the longer the cabbage ferments, the more the cabbage will sink into the brine. And if you get some white mold growing on the top of the brine (and you will – it’s natural), simply scoop it off with a big spoon as best you can – and every week or so, take your plate and weight out and wash them off, then put them back in place.
While all this is happening, you can expect that your brine will get cloudy and darker, and develop some CO2 bubbles – this is all a natural part of fermentation – you’ll need some kind of cover over your container, but don’t use an airtight one, because the gases need a way to escape – but the fermentation process works best if the outside air is excluded. Yeah, a fine balance – that’s why I like the glass lid; the gases will be able to escape without breaking the jar (I think!).
Please recognize that this is my first try at lacto fermented sauerkraut, although I have tasted it done by others and know it’s a lot better than the imitation stuff. But of all the lacto fermented veggies that I know, sauerkraut takes the longest to reach its best flavor – which is to say, while you certainly can start eating it within 2 or 3 weeks of putting it up, you will be rewarded by your patience – some say at 6 months, it has reached perfection. And for those of us who choose to store it in the garage rather than using precious refrigerator space, this schedule is just about perfect, since by the advent of summer our perfect sauerkraut will surely be just about all gone!