As we learn how vital microbes are to the health of our inner and outer ecosystems, interest in fermentation and its benefits are multiplying. Happily we are now rapidly reclaiming this knowledge and the delight of safe, natural, lacto fermentation.
Lacto fermentation is an anaerobic (oxygen is excluded) process, whereby lactic acid producing bacteria 'lactobacilli', transform the carbohydrates (sugars) contained in an ingredient into self protective volumes of lactic acid with acetic acid, carbon dioxide and a small percentage of ethanol (alcohol, generally not more than 1%) as by products. It is the combination of these substances that keeps the medium from spoilage and gives naturally fermented foods their distinct effervescence, delicious complex flavours and delightful crisp texture.
The great news is that really, you need no specialised or expensive tools to make your own. As Sandor Katz writes in The Art of Fermentation, the process is simple: 'chop, salt, pack and wait'. You need your clean hands, a large clean bowl, metal will do, several very clean glass jars with lids which seal, the fresh vegetables to culture and some sea salt - simple.
For all that cleaning, hot water and mild soap are enough; there is no need to sterilise anything. It is good to ensure you are working well away from any rotting compost or the rubbish bin; which could introduce unwanted invaders.
As a rough guide: You will need, approximately, 1.1kg of vegetables to properly fill a 1L jar
1 large red cabbage, sliced thinly
1 white cabbage, sliced thinly
3-6 carrots, chopped in small chunks or grated
To taste or, if you like to measure say 1-2% of the total weight of cabbages in Celtic or other sea salt
1 tsp lightly toasted cumin seeds or your choice of spices or herbs e.g. caraway, fennel, chilli, oregano etc. or none.
Chop and grate the vegetables, contain and weigh in batches.
Add up the total weight, if the weight is, say, 3kg you will need 30-60g salt (the greater the surface area i.e. the finer you chop, the more liquid will be produced).
Add the salt and mix well, leave to rest while you have a cup of tea!
Rub and squeeze until the cabbage releases plenty of liquid.
Mix very well with any other ingredients.
Fill your jars and press down the mix until the vegetables are totally submerged in their own liquid.
Ensure there is a good 3cm between the liquid and the underside of the lid - the mix rises during fermentation and the jar may leak.
Wipe any bits of vegetable off the air space in the jar, so there is no food source for possible opportunistic mould spores to grow on.
Lid tightly and leave in a cool spot, out of direct sunlight. A cellar at earth temperature is ideal or somewhere in your kitchen between 18o-24oC. Natural fermentation will occur. You will notice the mix begins to ‘boil’ (ferment), this takes between 2-7 days depending on temperature. Slower fermentation produces crisper vegetables with delicious flavours, too quick and they may soften and taste too sour but it is a matter of taste.
Carbon dioxide released by the microbes will raise the level of the vegetables in the jar, you can open and push the mix down again, to ensure the vegetables stay submerged and then close the lid.
On about day 5-7 place the pickles in the fridge and store there as you use them.
Whilst the jar is ‘boiling’ you can release the build up of gases each day or so, or you can buy specialised jar lids or fermenting crocks with airlocks which allow gases to escape without letting air in but these are not essential.
A thin film of white mould is common and not a danger, remove it with a wide spoon and if needs be, discard the top layer of vegetables too, what remains below will be fine. Bright coloured mould could be a danger, discard the whole batch, you caught something unwanted, do not consume.
Unopened naturally fermented vegetables should keep up to 12 months. Once opened, store in the fridge, if uncontaminated they should last several months. If there is not enough liquid to submerge your vegetables, top up using salted filtered water.
The flavour continues to develop and certain beneficial bacteria predominate as the months go by but these pickles can be eaten any time after the initial fermentation process has completed, say 5-7 days but taste over time to determine the stage you enjoy most.
These foods are generally eaten as condiments, they are the highlights that make other dishes pop and sing with complementary flavours and textures. They are the side dishes that you will feel connected to, grateful for and perhaps somewhat in love with. Fermentation enthusiasts tend to adore the products they make; with the help of their billions of microbial friends. You may never again assume you are alone in the world.
Holly Davis is a wholefood chef and food educator. She provided the ‘Sydney leg’ ferments for Sandor Katz’s recent blockbusting tour of Australia and New Zealand organised by Milkwood Permaculture.
For dates to Sandor Katz's UK and Ireland Tour read HERE
Michael Pollan: ‘Say Hello to the 100 Trillion Bacteria That Make Up Your Biome’- via New York Times