Now that spring is under way, gardens everywhere are bursting with their beautiful bounties! Isn’t it lovely to walk outside and pluck a few cucumbers or carrots for your evening’s salad? But what happens when all of a sudden you have fifty carrots? They are prime for eating, but you simply can’t fathom eating ALL of them before they go bad.
Preserving food is our way of setting aside a season’s bounty before it spoils. Some people love to can, some people are all about freezing, but what about fermenting?
Do you ever wonder how people who lived thousands of years ago preserved food, before the advent of refrigeration? One of the ways was through lacto-fermentation. Fermentation is a form of preservation that dates back thousands of years.
Fermenting food may seem weird but almost any food can be preserved using this technique. Some examples from around the world are: sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled vegetables, kvass, sourdough, kombucha, yogurt, sour cream, kefir, crème fraiche, even chocolate—just to name a few!
How Does Fermentation Happen?
Fermentation is essentially a sort of pre-digestion that takes place when naturally present bacteria in foods, often of the Lactobacillus strains, begin breaking down the sugars and starches in the food.
As these bacteria divide, they produce lactic acid, which halts the growth of the bad or putrefying bacteria. This lactic acid preserves the food and prevents it from rotting. Lactic acid is responsible for the sour taste that is inherent to fermented foods. It also promotes the growth of the healthy bacteria already in the gut.
You can see why this process is sometimes called lacto-fermentation: Lactobacillus – lactic acid – lacto-fermentation.
As long as the foods are kept under a brine or a liquid, and in cool storage (a root cellar, for example, or a refrigerator for the rest of us who don’t have root cellars) fermented vegetables will last for months and months, sometimes even over a year.
Benefits of Fermenting Foods
Now that we know that fermenting can preserve foods for months on end, what other benefits do fermented foods have for us? If we don’t NEED to preserve foods, why even ferment? As it turns out, there are many benefits other than preservation!
- Fermented foods are more digestible. Because they are pre-digested by the bacteria, they can be easier for your body to digest!
- Fermentation can create new vitamins, particularly B-vitamins and vitamin K2.
- Fermented foods are full of good bacteria (probiotics).
- The lactic acid produced during fermentation encourages the growth of healthy bacteria already living in our intestinal tract.
- Fermenting grains can neutralize the anti-nutrient phytic acid naturally present in grains, making them less damaging to the body.
- Fermented foods can help boost our immune systems.
- Fermented foods can curb cravings for sweets and other overly processed foods. In fact, if you add fermented foods to your diet daily, your sugar cravings may go away completely! It takes time, but it does happen.
- 1/3-cup serving of fermented vegetables can contain around 10 trillion good bacteria.
- Eating probiotic foods can help decrease bad breath and flatulence (Well, isn’t that a great benefit?)
- And, of course,fermentation preserves food. There is no healthier way to “put up” your summer garden bounty.
The Basics of Fermentation
There are two different types of fermentation – wild and controlled. A wild ferment is when you allow the bacteria naturally present on the food to do the fermenting. No starter is needed. A controlled ferment is when a bacteria or starter culture is added to the mixture to give it a little head start.
To ferment, you must have a container to hold the food you are fermenting. A simple mason jar with lids/rings is the most convenient and popular. Others like to use a fermenting crock that can ferment in large quantities.
If you are choosing to do a controlled ferment, you will need a starter. A simple option is liquid whey (avoid if you have a dairy allergy). This is simply the liquid that sits on top of your yogurt or milk kefir. Another favorite is the culture starter from Body Ecology. Liquid from a previous batch of fermented veggies, plain kombucha, and even probiotic capsules can work!
You will also need salt for your ferment. Most recipes call for salt as it adds flavor and helps the veggies maintain their crunch. Salt also acts as a natural antimicrobial, helping to keep off the growth of the bad bacteria. However, it can also slow down the growth of the good guys. The longer the process takes, the more chance there is for mold to grow or bad bacteria to take over.
When fruits and vegetables are being fermented, they MUST be kept below the liquid level, away from oxygen. This keeps the process anaerobic and helps to keep out any molds, fungi, etc., from outside sources.
A brine can be composed of a variety of things, but generally the brine is water + salt + (sometimes) a starter or inoculant (something to add good bacteria to the mix). Some brine options include water and starter culture, water and whey, liquid from a previous ferment, freshly pressed juices, kombucha tea or water kefir.
How to Ferment
Following this simple process will get you on your way to fermenting ANYTHING! Fermenting is not a perfect science. Just relax and go for it!
- Gather the fruit or veggies that you want to ferment. Wash. Peel/slice if necessary (example: carrots).
- Put fruit/veggies in a clean quart-size mason jar (1 quart = 2 pints)
- Add garlic, herbs, or spices if desired (example: garlic and dill with carrots)
- Add between 1 teaspoon and 1 tablespoon sea salt, depending on how salty you like things (If you are not using culture starter or whey, use a bit more salt)
- Add ½ tsp culture starter or 2 tbsp liquid whey (optional for vegetable ferments)
- Fill with filtered water, leaving about 1 ½ inches headspace
- Press down to ensure food is below brine
- Tighten lid and leave at room temp. How long? Rule of thumb is that your food will be ready to eat in 24–48 hours for fruit, or 5+ days for veggies
- Taste to see if it is to your liking
When your ferment is ready it should have a pleasant sour taste and smell. If your ferment smells rotten or putrid, then throw it out. Pleasantly sour is what you are going for. Over time, you will learn this well.
There are so many options when it comes to fermenting. Some favorites are sauerkraut, dilly carrots, pickles, dilly green beans, Brussels sprouts, jalapenos, you name it! A favorite in our house is fermented salsa – check out the recipe here.
Go ahead and give fermenting a try! The bugs in your belly will thank you. For more information on fermenting, check out our book Oh Lardy’s Guide to Fermenting Fruits and Vegetables – available now!