Fermenting... Fermenting... Fermenting...
For once, I am so glad that history repeats itself.
It seems that, not so long ago, everyone in my family was fermenting foods and it was a natural affair, like baking our own bread, churning cream into a delicious butter, or making jams from fruits, berries or freshly picked wild herbs.
Making chutneys is also something I have learned to make at home and for clients.
With most of my family somewhat ageing (reaching or over 70 years old), not many are, in fact, regularly fermenting and pickling, aiming for a more simple life with less effort in the kitchen, which, in some way, is understandable, especially, that most are regular people and, in no way, trained in cooking or fermenting.
You have probably noticed that fermenting is back with a force, and it is not surprising that, too, I am adding fermenting recipes regularly to my blog to share with you techniques and methods to successfully and safely ferment and pickle at home.
It is rather strange, in fact, that fermenting is back.
It has gone nowhere...
Eastern countries live on fermented food, the best way to preserve and enjoy vegetables during the harsh and long winter months. Alaskan inuits ferment fish and sea mammals. The far east are known for their pickled and fermented vegetables such as kimchi, tempeh, miso, and fermented sauce. Some parts of Africa make porridge-like meals out of soured grains. So, it is not only about cold and seasonal restrictions of fresh produce.
In Western Europe and in some parts of Americas, the weather is not that difficult and our infrastructures allow us to enjoy a wide selection of fruits and vegetables any time of the year. Agreeably, some are not at their peak when reaching the supermarket shelves, but for some it is better than nothing.
Fermented foods have been found in most supermarkets and health stores for decades; however, these foods are usually pasteurised (for a much longer shelf-life) and this process is usually enough to kill any of the bacteria, including the good bacteria, that we are relying upon when consuming fermented foods.
These foods are usually found in tin, usually lined with BPA to prevent contact with the tin metal, as this will also kill the bacteria and impact on the taste.
For these reasons, it is always best to buy Raw fermented foods found in glass jars.
Other vegetables are also found pickled but they are pickled in vinegar (not lactic acid), the result of industrialisation and mass-production, benefiting from a predictable outcome.
At home, you can only use glass (or plastic) to ferment foods. You cannot use metal forks and spoons either. You can use silicon or wooden spoons. The sieve, or mesh strainers, must also be made of plastic.
Some people are advocating the use of stainless steel but you can only use such utensils only, and only if, they are made of medical-grade stainless steel, which, in fact, only a few are made of, and these are not found in your supermarket or sell-all stores (e.g. Argos, John lewis, etc.).
N.B. This is why some of your stainless steel cutlery may display some rust patches over time.
The great thing with fermenting yourself, you can enjoy any food you like any time of the year, and as much as you like.
Because you have made it yourself, you know it is alive, free of additives, preservatives, taste enhancers, and other junk.
Why Fermenting is the new trend?
As discussed above, fermented foods should hold a greater part in our daily food intake, but, still today, millions of people have no idea about it and the impact on our heath.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors, for example, would never have had exposed to clean foods the way we do today. We are also exposed to less bacteria because we are intensively using antibacterial and other chemicals, even more so when we have a young child in the house, and are the result our immune system does not developed as it should. It also mean that we are ingesting clean foods. Some people, in the like of hotels, restaurants, and food manufacturers, are using bleach or bleach-based tablets to clean their fruits and vegetables. This, indeed, kills bacteria, viruses, and fungus that could be present on the skin of fruits and vegetables. Even if you are using more natural products, you are still doing the same.
Cleaning our vegetables and fruits is a necessity, for our health and preserve us from foodborne illness.
Fermented foods are, therefore, the answer. Lactobacteria transform sugar into lactic acid, the main bacteria responsible for the fermentation processes, but these bacteria are also found on the surface of most plants, especially those growing close to the ground. They also hold a major space in our microbiome, the amalgamation of all the bacteria found in the human body. Lactobacteria form our gut microflora but are also found in other part of the body where bacteria are able to thrive, such as the respiratory system, the digestive system (including the mouth), and female reproductive organ.
Will this, therefore, question the impact of such bacteria on our health when they are found nearly everywhere?
Lactobacteria, including Lactobacillus, are able to convert lactose and other sugars into lactic acid. Lactic acid is a natural preservative and is used widely in manufacturing processes, because it prevents the growth of harmful bacteria.
Does this sound familiar?
Gut experts have been working hard to expose the beneficial aspect of a symbiotic gut microflora, where good and bad bacteria live happily ever after. These terms are not allowed anymore, because research, it appears is not decisive enough and more studies are necessary to make such strong statements.
If gut bacteria are fed the right food, they are able to thrive and naturally prevent the overgrowth of opportunistic bacteria, bacteria that are waiting for what makes them grow in number and develop, and take over the most sought after residential spot in the whole world. These bacteria include all forms of Candida, E. coli, etc. and are pathogenic, meaning that they can make us sick, with varied symptoms, some more painful than others.
Knowing that gut health is often a sign of overall health, and for very good reasons, it makes sense to eat fermented foods.
First, the gut is the second brain of the body, The brain and the gut have a direct line, constantly communicating together. Second, the digestive system, starting from the mouth, the first barrier from pathogenic microbes (compounds found in saliva are able to kill microbes), the stomach (stomach acid kills pathogenic bacteria and viruses) and the intestines, sending messengers whenever they are threaten by foreign matter, which should not be there. This is for this reason that the intestines have the most intricate immune system, the last barrier before these foreign are able to enter circulation and wreck havoc on our body.
Lactobacteria, however, may survive the stomach acid and enter the intestines intact. They actually promote digestion.
Lacto-fermentation not only increases – or preserves – vitamins and enzymes of the fermented food but fermented foods by increasing symbiotic bacteria are contributing to health by digesting foods that our digestive tract would not otherwise (promoting the assimilation of protein, fats and carbohydrates), and releasing compounds that our diet is unable to supply, such as B vitamins, Vitamin K, and some amino acids.
How to become a master of Lacto-fermentation?
Before anything, it is crucial to understand three important points: Hygiene, Hygiene, Hygiene...
You cannot ferment food if the wrong kind of bacteria are able to take over and multiply. Every single piece of equipment used must be thoroughly cleaned, but not sanitised. You cannot use antibacterial dish or hand soaps, or antibacterial to wipe surfaces. This will destroy all living bacteria and prevent fermentation, allowing fungi and other opportunistic bacteria to settle and develop.
This is also valid if you are using muslin, cheesecloths or kitchen towels.
Lacto-fermentation is not only for vegetables. It is the same process used to make cow's milk yogurt or coconut yogurt, dairy or coconut-based kefir.
The great thing about fermenting: you don't need to measure exactly everything and it is great for people who like to use formal recipes as a jump-off point. Indeed, the recipe includes measurements, if you have an extra handful of cabbage, just toss it in, this will, in no way, alter the fermenting process.
Once you have made your first life-changing batch of sauerkraut and realise how easy it is, you will try to ferment anything and everything, experimenting along the way like our foremothers did before us, perhaps, starting again, passing on knowledge from one generation to the next, like it used to be until supermarkets took over our food chain.
What do I need to make Sauerkraut?
The answer could not be any simpler: cabbage and salt...
Yes, you are reading right. That's all.
But, once you understand how these two ingredients work together you will be able to make any variations that strike your fancy.
The essential vegetable.
You need to choose tow cabbage heads of about 1 kg each, firm, tightly packed heads with shinny leaves. They should not appear to be bruised or have damage showing on the outer leaves, as this may indicate interior damage too. For this reason, it is crucial to steer away from plastic wrapped heads, as it may be difficult to judge by touching only, and they may also have loss their nutrients, the same as pre-cut options.
If you are growing your own cabbages, never cut the entire root or pull the plant out of the ground. Keep some outer leaves to promote the growth of baby cabbages from the side of the root core.
There are various seasonal cabbages. There are the usual winter cabbages, the summer and fall cabbages, which means that you can find fresh cabbage from July onwards, until practically February.
During the out-of-season, cabbages may be imported, as a result may contain less nutrient (undeveloped, picked too early), and may be dry from long hauling, the exposure of different temperatures during transit and storage times.
Do not use table salt as it has been bleached to get this shiny white.
Use grey sea salt (unrefined) or Celtic salt.
Make sure to respect the salt measurements, as too much salt may kill the lactic acid forming bacteria too or, at the very least, reduce their activity. Salt is a conservator and as such has antibacterial properties.
2 kg Cabbage
3 tbsp rock sea salt, grey or Celtic salt
Rinse the cabbages in a large bucket or bowl with fresh water. Remember that everything needs to be cleaned, but we are not canning, so there is no need to sterilise anything.
Again do not use any antibacterial soaps as these could inhibit the fermentation process, especially when you are elbow-deep in cabbage and brine).
Core and shred the cabbage. If you are making a much consequent batch, you may want to sprinkle salt as you slice the cabbage. This will allow the cell membranes to break and release their water a you progress through shredding.
Transfer into a large kitchen bowl. Personally, I use a plastic wash basin that fit in the sink bowl that I clean and rinse with boiling water from the kettle. It seems that a bit of warmth helps to start the production of brine and favours an ideal temperature for ferments to feel at home.
Add half the salt from the recipe given above and knead the cabbage like you would bread (deep-tissue, not gentle rub) massaging the cabbage with your fingers, picking some cabbage in your hands and squeezing it. Repeat the process, working through the entire batch.
Taste the cabbage. If it is not salty enough add a little bit more salt and taste again.
It must be to your liking, not overwhelming salty nor bland. If it taste fresh and delicious, it will taste even better once fermented. If it suddenly tastes too salty, add more cabbage to re-establish balance.
If you are making a larger batch, you may have to let the cabbage sit for about 45 minutes to an hour, then again working it every hour also, until brine develops at the bottom of the basin. Keep it covered, though, to prevent evaporation and the cabbage drying out.
The cabbage will very quickly appear wet, shinny and limp. Depending on your efforts, the moisture content of the cabbage and the weather (yes, this plays a part too), you may already notice brine forming at the bottom. If you have frenetically massaged the cabbage and no liquid is released then you may have to jump to the comment below. But do not despair, let the cabbage sit for 45 minutes to an hour first, covered with a kitchen towel, and massage again. If, really, it feels like extracting water from a rock, then read below.
Add 1 tsp of Caraway seeds to add flavour or 1 tsp of peppercorns .
Transfer the cabbage (or vegetables) to a crock or a large jar. Do not be concerned if you think you cannot fit it all in. It will. Usually, the finish sauerkraut sits perfectly in two small 1-litre jars.
A handful at a time, fill the jar or crock, compressing every layer with your fist. You can also use a wooden rolling pin (like I do), or even a tamper or pounder, although, this may be an unnecessary expensive buy, since you can even use the pusher from your Vitamix or your potato masher. You need to make sure that you are forcing the air bubble out as you go. That's all. You are not creating an anaerobic environment at first (since, there is oxygen in water), but this will encourage the right bacteria to develop and thrive, and nicely ferment the cabbage.
As you are pressing down, you will notice that more and more liquid is being released, but that the volume has decreased so much that now you are wondering if you have made enough. The stress of it all....
If you have too much brine, you may have to remove some, scooping it out with a plastic ladle. The brine should reach no further than 10 cm from the top rim (the headspace) of the crock or 6–8 cm from the top of the jar, just below the shoulder.
If you do not leave enough space for expansion, your hard work may bubble out all over your kitchen counter.
If you have a smaller crock or jar, then use two jars, and pack the leftovers in a smaller jar.
It is now time to place your primary follower. A follower is often outer cabbage leaves that you have kept aside, or can even be a clean piece of muslin or cheesecloth, or if you are not against plastic, you can use a sheet of cling film. A primary follower helps making a barrier and keeping the cabbage submerged in brine. If for any reason the cabbage is allowed to float to the surface, fungi and bacteria will jump in and destroy the fermenting process.
Tuck a cabbage leaf under the shoulder of the jar, or flat in the crock, although you may have to use 2 or even 3 leaves to cover the cabbage in crock.
Place your secondary follower. A secondary follower can be anything from a plate to a teacup saucer, anything to keep the cabbage submerged. This, however, might not be necessary if, like me, you are using a water-seal crock. In a water-seal crock the lid sits in water, creating an impenetrable barrier for dust, bugs, bacteria and other pathogenic microbes.
Then, add weight!
What you are using must be heavy enough to keep the cabbage submersed in brine. You can use fermenting weights, a strong freezer bag filled with water (you may want to double it up, and prevent water escaping in the brine), or a jar that fit through the opening filled with water or ceramic baking beads. The lid should be screwed on very tightly.
If you are using a jar with a air-lock then place the lid. This system allows for CO₂ to escape while preventing anything to climb in. You may also have a large jar with a water filled gauge. This is practically the same system. Make sure to keep an eye on the water level and top up as necessary when using a water-seal crock. Be aware that when overfilling with water, the surplus will leak inside the brine and damage the texture of the sauerkraut. It is always best to remove the lid, top up with a little water and to carefully replace the lid onto the jar.
If you have used a small jar as a weight and you cannot close the sauerkraut jar, then you can simply cover it with a clean kitchen cloth, muslin or a cheesecloth wrapped around the top of the crock or jar. You may also use a large rubber band to keep it in place.
By far, airlocks are best, for they truly improve the flavour quality by keeping the fermentation process in check and by preventing outsiders to get in. They also make the babysitting an effortless affair too. You do not have to sit and watch the progress, add water to the crock seal or the gauge at the top of the jar.
This sounds like a lot of effort, so do not make it complicated for yourself. Many eastern europeans simply use basins and leave them outside or on their balcony, leaving the freezing temperature to the job. And, they have been doing this for centuries.
Now that the hard work has been done, you simply need to set the crock or jar aside, somewhere in your kitchen, away from direct sunlight in a cool area (away from heaters or cooking appliances). The ideal temperatures are about 15–25˚c, but the cooler the better, although, the cooler the longer the fermenting process.
For the first 3 days, you may have to keep pressing down to help the release of air bubble that may become trapped. Then you can repeat the process once a week, until the sauerkraut is finally ready.
ALWAYS MAKE SURE THAT THE BRINE COVERS THE CABBAGE COMPLETELY AND THAT NO CABBAGE PIECES HAVE RISEN TO THE SURFACE!
If you see some scum on top or mould forming, scoop it out with a plastic spoon or utensil. This should be harmless, although if the smell is unpleasant then you may have to start again. Probably some of the equipments used were not clean enough.
Sauerkraut may be ready in 4 weeks or up to 6 weeks, and if stored in a colder environment, slightly longer, and this depends on your taste and goals. Some people ferment for even longer, preferring a much sour kraut, believing it increases its probiotic effect. The desired acidity should be anything around a 4.6 pH.
(some people pickle their vegetables for up to a year)...
Taste your kraut daily (or every other day) after the second week. If it is not ready, replace the followers and weight and continue monitoring, making sure the brine has risen enough to submerge the cabbage.
When it is ready, carefully skim off any scum from the top of the brine and any bits of cabbage that may be floating.
If you have used a crock, you may have to transfer the kraut in a large jar, or smaller jars. Make sure to leave as little headroom as possible, and press down as much as you can to expel the air bubble and that the brine still covers the kraut. Screw the lid on and refrigerate to make the fermenting process dormant.
If you have fermented in a jar, you can use the same jar and refrigerate (if it fits in your fridge).
Once you are more comfortable with fermenting you can add flavour. You can use spring onions, beetroots, fresh herbs, lemon zest, etc.
Is it ready?
When your sauerkraut is ready, it should:
HELP! Where is the Brine?
You have followed the recipe to the exact requirement, and yet, nothing seems to make a cabbage cry.
This often happens if the cabbage was refrigerated for a long time or that it was not thinly sliced enough.
Many fermenting puritans do not advise for the use of a shredder or a food processor, because it is time-consuming and does not deliver great results. For once, I may have to disagree. Mainly talking about homeware-type appliances, it may indeed be a task too much to cut the cabbage in small pieces and push it down the feeder. I, on the other hand, use a professional food processor with a wide feeder, making my slicing effortless. I can shred a quarter of the cabbage in one go and a whole shredded cabbage comfortably fit in the bowl.
It takes me about 5 minutes to shred two head of cabbages. This is not an inconvenience. If, for some reason, I find some chunky pieces of leaves, I simply sliced them with a knife, but these are often less than a handful.
Taste your cabbage again, and if you feel that you can add a touch of salt to help the release of brine, then do so. If this was the answer, then it is time to pack.
If this did not do the trick, nor leaving it to sit for an hour, then you may have to try packing the cabbage and pressing it in a crock or jar. If enough brine is released from the pressure to form a thin layer, this should be good enough, as long as the cabbage is completely submersed.
If this again has not helped, then you may result to adding other vegetables, such as onions, carrots, or even beetroots. Do not add more salt, as this will result in an overwhelmingly salted sauerkraut. Do not add water (or salted water) either, this will cause the cabbage to become mushy, and most probably to discolour.
Put the cabbage back in the basin and add the sliced onions, grated carrots or beetroots. Repeat the massaging process until brine finally appear.
You can add liquid though, such as a few tablespoons of lemon, grapefruit or orange juice, or the leftover fermented brine from another batch, but remember that may affect the taste too. You can resolve to a last resort: take a handful (or less) of cabbage from the basin and simply liquidise it in your blender. This will allow for a simple unadulterated sauerkraut. You may notice, however, that the final produce is not as crunchy as it should, but it is the best option if brine production is quite the issue.
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Olivier is a Michelin trained chef, a registered Naturopath and Nutritional Therapist, embracing fully his passion for good food and healthy eating.