Fermentation Nation

Atop my counter, at all times, sit tea towel-covered glass jars full of vegetables in varying states of bubbliness. I’ve made sauerkraut with beets, cabbage, Russian kale, Daikon radish – just about any winter vegetable. In short, I’ve become addicted to anything fermented.

It started when I had to kick my homemade kombucha habit this past summer due to an unfortunate incident with the fruit flies inhabiting my kitchen. Two years running, I’ve attended a friend’s autumn kraut party. She has a giant ceramic crock into which everyone must take a turn grating cabbage before they’re allowed to feast on borscht, homemade bread (another fermented product), and wine (still another).

Home fermenting has been hot for a few years now among health enthusiasts and the DIY and farmers’ market shopping crowd and I’ve been waiting for it to catch on. It’s starting to, judging from this article in The San Francisco Chronicle.

It’s initially surprising to learn how many essential foodstuffs are fermented. Besides the aforementioned bread and wine, what about salami, cheese, yogurt, fish sauce, coffee, and chocolate? Fermented foods exist in almost every culture and fermentation has been practiced for thousands of years. Simply put, fermentation converts sugars and carbohydrates into alcohol, changes the structure and flavor of foods, and works as a preservative. Not only does fermentation provide us with some of the most delicious foods in the universe, but fermented foods are filled with healthy microorganisms that are beneficial for your immune and digestive systems.

It’s ridiculously easy to ferment in your own kitchen without a starter culture or special equipment. All you really need is a cabbage, a knife, a glass mason jar, and sea salt. The cabbage will utilize the microbial organisms in the air and you’ll be eating homemade kraut in 3-5 days.

Home-fermenting Resources:
Wild Fermentation
Food Artisan

Here’s a basic recipe, but you can use any vegetables you like and add herbs and spices:

– 1 head green cabbage, sliced as thinly as possible
– 2-3 carrots, peeled and grated on the large holes of a box grater
– 1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt

Put the vegetables and salt in a large bowl. With clean hands, toss and squeeze the vegetables until they start to soften and release liquid (about 5 minutes). Pack them and all the liquid tightly into a 1-quart glass jar, pushing down with as much force as you can until the level of liquid rises above the vegetables. Put a smaller jar inside the glass jar to keep the vegetables submerged. Cover with a clean tea towel and secure with a rubber band. Set on the kitchen counter for about 5 days. Check once daily to be sure the vegetables stay submerged, pushing down on them if needed. Taste daily starting on the 3rd day. The sauerkraut is ready when it tastes good to you. This could be anywhere from 3-10 days. When it’s to your liking, put the lid on and transfer it to the refrigerator (but don’t let metal touch the vegetables). It will last weeks or months in the refrigerator. It’s only bad when it doesn’t taste good to you.

Image: Joe Photo

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.