Well, it’s official. Autumn has come and, for some of us, nearly gone. Frost has descended, and the garden beds are nearly all in deep slumber for the wintry months ahead.
In many homes, kitchens are now abuzz with the sounds of boiling water and clinking glass jars as we store away the remains of the harvest. Yet, in all our fury to get the apples cored, the tomatoes skinned, and the cukes pickled, it’s easy to forget that there exists an older, simpler way to preserve food used by people around the world: fermentation.
Fermenting foods can be easy, fun, and delicious. Also called lacto-fermentation, or sometimes even “pickling,” fermentation uses natural bacteria that reside in vegetables and in the air to preserve the food for later use.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Bacteria? Isn’t that unsafe? That’s why I wash my vegetables before I eat them!”
But some bacteria can actually be really good for us. Hundreds of medical and scientific studies confirm what traditional cultures have always known: fermented foods help people stay healthy. When foods are fermented they produce microflora — helpful bacteria that are beneficial to the gastrointestinal system. These colonize your intestinal tract, and work to keep harmful bacteria and other unfriendly organisms, including parasites, under control.
Fermented foods are all around us. In fact, you’ve probably had some just recently, and didn’t know it. Sauerkraut, pickes, miso, yogurt, cider, bread, aged cheese, wine, and beer are all popular fermented foods.
So what can you ferment, how do you get started, and what do you need?
Before fermenting some of your harvest, it’s important to find out whether you like fermented foods. Fermentation gives food a very particular flavor and smell, which isn’t to everyone’s taste. If you like the foods mentioned above, chances are you will probably like other fermented foods as well.
Just to get you started, here is a short list of foods that are good for fermenting: cabbage, carrots, beets, radishes, apples, turnips, tomatoes, green tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and eggplant.
But don’t stop there. Search around to see if any of your other favorite foods can be fermented. You will find that almost any fruit or vegetable can be fermented, and have been by someone at some time through the course of history.
There are many different kinds of recipes for fermenting, but you will find that generally the process for fermenting is similar for most vegetables. Generally, you will submerge vegetables for a week or more in a mixture of water and salt called “brine.” Then you just watch and wait for the vegetables to begin to change.
It is important to know what to look out for when fermenting as there are different stages and changes that occur to the food that can sometimes seem alarming but are all just part of the normal process. This is one reason that fermented food is often called “living food.”
A good source for fermenting recipes and tips is the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. This book is full of great recipes, well-researched information about the history and benefits of fermented foods, and helpful hints on the fermentation process in general.
Once you know what you want to ferment, and have a good understanding of the process and/or a recipe on hand, you’ll want to make sure you have all the right equipment.
When preparing lacto-fermented foods, just like in canning, you’ll want to use very clean sterilized glass jars and lids. Also, as in canning, you will need equipment like a crockpot, a five-gallon food-grade bucket for large batches, a ladle, a funnel, and a colander. Cheesecloth or butter muslin is handy, as well.
You’ll want to also make sure that your vegetables are fresh and free from blemishes. Impurities and lack of proper nutrients can increase the chance of spoilage. Other ingredients to have on hand include non-iodized salt, vinegar, sugar, and non-chlorinated water. Proper equipment and ingredients will help ensure a superior product and are well worth the investment ahead of time.
Like a good bottle of wine that needs to age before being opened, fermented vegetables are best after they have cured for some time, and can last for several months in cold storage. Fermented fruits won’t keep quite as long as vegetables, though, and will need to be eaten sooner. Once ready, fermented foods are a great addition to anybody’s meal regimen, and greatly increase the health of your digestive tract and immune system.
So before you reach for the water bath canner and your trusty jar gripper, think about other ways to preserve and extend your harvest, such as the time-honored process of fermentation.
Until next time, keep growin’
Check out our article on easy ways to preserve summer’s bounty for more great food preservation tips!