Fermentation 101

I'd been reading about fermentation for years. It's far easier than pickling which I find a somewhat tedious labor because I could never get the ratio of ingredients just right.

Humans have been fermenting food and drink for at least 9000 years! Fermentation is a chemical process that breaks down one form into something simpler. The lactobacillus bacteria eats the sugars and turns it into lactic acid that naturally preserves the food.

Think of sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt. Beer, wine, kombucha, and kefir are fermented drinks. I never realized so many foods and drinks were fermented until I started researching the process.

I was nervous the first time I fermented anything. I was sure I was going to poison the two of us, or at the least make something inedible.

Imagine my surprise when we realized that not only did it taste good but it actually improved our digestion. All those probiotics you read about? They are naturally occurring in fermented foods.

One spoonful of sauerkraut a day can keep you regular by keeping all the good bacteria circulating in your gut.

I'm no expert on fermented foods. I get most of my recipes online, though now that I'm more comfortable with the process, I can improvise with different flavors that we tend to favor.

I've had some failures too. My pickles didn't turn out well. They tasted fine, but were too mushy. It was entirely my fault. I didn't add tannins (grape, oak, or horseradish leaves) which supposedly keep the cucumbers crisp. At the time none of my trees, grapes, or horseradish had sprouted leaves so I had left this crucial ingredient out.

I plan to try it again soon, this time with the leaves to see how it goes.

Overall though, fermentation is surprisingly simple. It's especially easy IF you use a fermentation lid that allows you to pump out the oxygen as the food ferments.

I can recommend two different makes. Farmhouse Essentials and Easy Fermenter

No matter which brand you choose, all you need are wide mouth canning jars, the lids, and glass weights.

Prep the vegetables according to instructions, fill the jars, weigh down the veggies with the glass weights, then seal them with the lids. You check them every couple of days and pump out any excess oxygen.

Depending on what you're fermenting, you could be eating your handiwork in as little as two weeks.

So far, my very favorite ferment has been the sauerkraut. Once you've tried your own homemade sauerkraut, you'll never go back to that canned stuff again. There are worlds of difference.

Right now I'm fermenting garlic. Fermentation is supposed to make the garlic milder and easier to eat whole. I've had it commercially like this and I'm hoping it'll be just as good.

I also planted half a dozen sweet banana pepper plants because Greg loves pickled peppers. If this ferment works, it'll save me from having to pickle them the traditional way.

Some of my friends make their own kombucha and kefir. I've yet to try any. Greg likes the commercial stuff, but not enough for me to go through the trouble of making it from scratch.

I really do like both lids from Farmhouse Essentials and Easy Fermenter. I've tried others, but these were the most dependable. Definitely, get the weights though. Just make sure they're not flat on both sides. You want to be able to pull them out of the jar when necessary.

Here is a simple recipe for sauerkraut. The only tip I have is to make SURE you knead the shredded cabbage for at least five minutes. It needs to sweat in order to make its own brine.

Fermented Sauerkraut

Ingredients and equipment

1 medium head of cabbage (shredded)

Himalayan or other good quality salt (with NO iodine added)

Additional brine (if necessary).

Two 1-quart-sized jars with lids

Glass weights

  • Peel off the outer leaves of the cabbage and cut out the core. (save the outer leaves)
  • Weigh your cabbage.
  • Wash the head well.
  • Shred either by hand or with a food processor.
  • Salt your cabbage. 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons per pound of cabbage. You'll have to wing this. I like 2 tsp per pound but you might prefer it less salty.
  • Mix well. Let the salty cabbage sit for 15 minutes.
  • Massage the shredded cabbage for a full five minutes. Don't be delicate either. You want to break down those fibers.
  • Pack shredded cabbage into clean jars. Notice the liquid left at the bottom of your bowl from kneading the cabbage. If you found you didn't get much liquid from your salted cabbage, you can make a brine and add that.
  • Brine: 1 teaspoon per 1 cup water. I use filtered water as the fluoride and chlorine from city water can change the taste of the ferment.
  • Fill the jar with brine, but leave enough head space for the weight. The most important thing here is to keep all the cabbage submerged.
  • Use the pump (included with both makes of these lids) and pull only once or twice. I generally pump out air once every day or so. You'll notice little bubbles coming to the top as you pull out the air.

Within two weeks your sauerkraut will be ready, but you can start testing it as early as one week. For me, it's at its best within two and two and a half weeks. When it gets to the desired taste you like, stick it in the refrigerator.

If you try this, do let me know how it worked for you. It's yet one more way to preserve food.

Don't be like me and sit on the sideline for years. Fermentation is not hard and it actually takes very little work except for prepping the vegetables. Take it in baby steps and start with an easy ferment like sauerkraut. Once you've tasted it, you'll be hooked and ready to try others.

Who out there has done any fermenting? Can you share any tips or discoveries you've made along the way? Do you like sauerkraut, kefir, or yogurt? It's not everyone's cup of tea. For instance, I like sauerkraut but won't touch yogurt unless it's part of a recipe.


Michael Keyton said…
I love greek yoghurt with grapes and/or bananas. Ref Sauerkraut, I've still got half a jar left from the supermarket. Do you know any recipes needing half a jar? It's what left from the last time I cooked Bigos - a Polish hunter's' stew using three kinds of meat, sausage, cabbage and Sauerkraut. You might want to try it some time with all that sauerkraut you're making :)
Maria Zannini said…
Mike: I almost always eat sauerkraut straight out of the jar rather than in a recipe. I'm told that if you heat the sauerkraut you destroy the probiotic effect.
LD Masterson said…
I'm not sure I'll ever try fermenting anything but I will share an odd fact. I'm seriously allergic to cucumbers. They make me violent ill. But I can eat all kinds of pickles. Something in the fermentation process removes whatever it is I can't eat. For which I'm very grateful since I love pickles.
Author R. Mac Wheeler said…
I experiment with fermentation every Saturday, with a Mic Ultra
Maria Zannini said…
Linda: You are the first person I've ever known to be allergic to cucumbers. Now I'm curious what it is that makes you sick. At least you can still eat pickles.
Maria Zannini said…
Mac: That sound suspiciously like my husband. Same brand too. :D