To Ferment or Not to Ferment

1 - 2015-02-10 20.41.01Okay, I admit it. I am somewhat intimidated by the idea of making my own fermented food and beverages. I really WANT to do it, and it’s a simple process; I just keep not doing it. I know it would save me money to make sauerkraut and kombucha, but I just haven’t worked up the nerve. Or maybe I’ve just convinced myself that it would be too much trouble. Anyone else with me here?

I’ve decided it’s time to get over this particular speed bump in my food preparation repertoire. I mean, somewhere in the last decade or so I realized that I actually like to cook (in college, my specialty was a stir fry that I made with hot dogs — I could not make this up), so I suspect that if I give it a try I will find that I’ve needlessly fretted about adding this skill to the line-up. Nonetheless, I continue to waffle on actually beginning, though I am getting closer. In the spirit of taking action, I attended a workshop recently that was taught by Tara Whitsitt of Fermentation on Wheels. I watched and marveled at the simplicity of the process, which really was not news to me. Somewhere in my head I think that I still believed there’s a magic step that I’m missing. So, I did what I always do when I want more information, I began to research (I was going to find that magic step!). While I was unable to find any magic steps, I did learn a bit more about fermenting.

The scientific argument for including probiotics in the diet for health is pretty clear (if you like to read the actual scientific stuff, see this review of the research, and this article too). Probiotics (“good” bacteria, as opposed to pathogenic bacteria) are naturally occurring in our environment and in our bodies. Ideally, there is a balance of these bacteria in our gut that promotes optimum health. Some of the research that I mentioned above highlights the health benefits of eating fermented foods for establishing and maintaining that balance. Honestly, while I know first-hand that these foods (and drinks, such as kombucha) are great for digestive health and even immune health, I did not realize that there was evidence of health benefits with regard to cancer and other disease (seriously, check out the articles I linked above). And, really, if you’re going to include vegetables in your diet (which we ought to be doing anyway!), why not include some great fermented veggies that pack a little extra punch?

There are a few different methods for fermenting vegetables, so if you’re planning to do this yourself, pick one that speaks to you. The bottom line is that you’re creating or introducing lactic acid into the brine that bathes the vegetables – this is the change agent. This can be done by using whey (from milk), salt, or inoculants from previously fermented foods. I won’t get into details here because there are plenty of resources available, some of which I’ve linked to already.
There is so much information available about fermenting, it is almost overwhelming. This is my problem. I start researching and want to be sure I know “enough” before I begin — so down, down the rabbit hole I go — until I realize that it is now weeks later and I still have not made a single batch of simple sauerkraut. I have come across some amazing resources that I thought I’d share, in case anyone else wants to join me in the rabbit hole. Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, has a great website replete with a plethora of resource links. The Fermenter’s Club website has many interesting pages, including one that details the difference between quick pickling and fermenting. It’s a quick, interesting read.

At this point, I keep telling myself that I’m just waiting for it to warm up a bit before I give it a go. Ideally, the temperature should be consistently between 68 – 75 degrees Fahrenheit for optimal fermentation, and it’s definitely not in that range in my home right now. The good news is that when it does warm up a bit and I do give it a go, I can make as much as I want to and, once the fermenting is at its peak, store it in the refrigerator (or root cellar if I had one!) for months. This is a fantastic way to extend the life of the local, organic vegetables that are abundant during a short New England growing season. In the meantime if, like me, you’re not ready to try this during the still-cold New Hampshire winter, you can get some amazing, regional fermented vegetables from both Real Pickles, made in Greenfield, MA,  and Micro Mama’s, made in Henniker, NH, in the refrigerated case at Monadnock Food Co-op. Both of these companies source local, organic veggies in season to ferment up in unique, delicious ways. And, if you’re interested in Kombucha, that cultured tea drink that is all the rage, check out the Aqua Vitea line, both bottled and on tap, made in Bristol, VT. Eat (and drink!) up, my friends!

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