By now many of you have heard of the resurgence of fermented foods in America. Fermented foods never really left our lives; they are present in many common items we buy at the grocery store such as beer, bread, and yogurt. However, after declining for several decades the practice of homemade fermented foods has received widespread attention lately thanks to separate appearances on the NPR program Science Friday by popular food based author Michael Pollan, and fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz. The history of fermented foods is really very interesting if you think about it. One of the reasons our ancestors fermented foods was to preserve them from spoilage. The acidic environment created by the bacteria growing in the food acts as a preservative that protects food from decay by microorganisms such as mold. Of course with the invention of the modern refrigerator, we have less need than before to protect our foods from decay. This is evident in the gradual fading away of this type of knowledge from the American consciousness. However, because of people like Michael Pollan and Sandor Katz, this knowledge has not yet gone extinct, and renewed interest in the practice of homemade ferments is exactly why Katz is called the fermentation revivalist. Just because we have refrigeration doesn’t mean we should abandon the practice of fermentation; there are other benefits available besides preservation. In addition to protecting your food from decay the bacteria partially break down the food in a process similar to cooking. Think of fermenting the same way you think of cooking, it is a technique used to make food easier to digest. This biological process increases nutrient bioavailability, and reduces anti nutrient factors. Eating fermented foods is also thought to replenish the community of beneficial microorganisms present in your intestines.
If you are new to do-it-yourself fermented foods then an easy and delicious way to begin is with a simple sauerkraut recipe. My teacher Todd Caldecott introduced me to fermented food preparation through his book Food as Medicine and I will be sharing his sauerkraut recipe below. I’ve really been enjoying this sauerkraut recently because not only does it taste great, but as I mentioned in my post Bitter is better, eat wilder foods the brassicaceae family of which cabbage belongs should definitely be represented in your diet. The important thing to remember about sauerkraut recipes, and really any recipe, is that it doesn’t need to be followed exactly. Following a recipe is a great idea the first time you make something but it can definitely be modified to your preference on your subsequent attempts. Remember, nearly any fruit or vegetable can go into your sauerkraut. Other possibilities include grated carrots, beets, parsnips, or daikon. I have also enjoyed using chopped cauliflower, garlic, thin sliced cucumbers, and even pieces of apple. Spices can also be added or removed as desired. Here it is:
1 small cabbage head
1 small onion or scallion
1 Tbsp salt
½ tsp dill seed
½ tsp coriander seed
½ tsp black pepper powder
½ tsp caraway seed
Create surface area by chopping or grating the cabbage and onion. In a large bowl mix the cabbage, onions and spices and then squeeze, smash, crush, and/or bruise the cabbage for around 5 minutes. Stuff the ingredients in layers into a reused glass jar, or a canning jar. With each layer pack and crush the cabbage as much as possible. By now there should be enough water released from the cabbage, but if you need more then top off the jar so that all cabbage is completely submerged. Mold will not grow on submerged vegetables, so a weight can be used to prevent the cabbage from floating on the surface. You could use a sterilized rock from your yard, or whatever you want, but I haven’t been using any weights. Put the lid on, but be aware that much gas will be produced during the fermentation. Most people recommend unscrewing the lid daily to release the gas, but I find that you can also leave the lid on loosely. I like to wait 3 weeks before eating, but earlier is also possible depending on your preference. After 3 weeks I pour off the excess water and refrigerate to slow down the fermentation process.
We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat”, which basically refers to the fact that the food we eat goes through a transformative process and eventually becomes our bodily tissues, but in Ayurveda people say “you are what you digest”. Just because you eat something doesn’t mean that you will efficiently digest it, and if you don’t digest it then it can’t be transformed into your tissues, or used for energy. Adding fermented foods to your diet is an easy way to improve your digestion and ensure that you are extracting as many nutrients as possible from your meal. One last comment, people often mistakenly associate the food poisoning that results from improperly canned food as a possibility during the fermenting process, but Katz reassures us that there are no documented cases of food poisoning deaths from fermenting. In fact, fermented foods are actually safer than fresh foods because they have been naturally preserved, so don’t be afraid, the bacteria are our friends, go ahead and give it a try.