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ALL ABOUT FERMENTATION


Two mason jars filled with sauerkraut next to ingredients being chopped on a cutting board

 

So what’s all the fuss over fermentation? “Fermented foods and drinks are quite literally alive with flavor and nutrition,” says food writer and avid fermenter Sandor Ellix Katz, best-selling author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. “Though not everyone loves every flavor of fermentation, humans have always appreciated the unique, compelling flavors resulting from the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi.”

One of the benefits of fermentation is its power to preserve food, since the process produces bio-preservatives (naturally derived antimicrobials) including alcohol, lactic acid and acetic acid (otherwise known as vinegar, a common ingredient used in canning). These fermentation byproducts are responsible for many of the world’s most beloved foods and drinks, from yogurt and cheese to soy sauce, kimchi, sauerkraut, and, of course, wine and beer.

But what about bread? Katz notes that the distinctive bubbles you see in beer and sourdough-making happens when naturally occurring yeast consumes the carbohydrates found in the grain and transforms it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. “In bread, the carbon dioxide is the more important product,” says Katz. “Its bubbles are what rise the bread, giving it texture and lightness. The alcohol evaporates as the bread is cooked.”

What’s the difference between purchased yeast and the naturally occurring kind? Wild yeasts form what Katz calls biodiverse microbial communities, while store-bought yeast is a single concentrated microorganism. “The [naturally occurring sourdough] bacteria… get a chance to break down hard-to-digest gluten, liberate minerals and add B vitamins,” he says. “The lactic acid and other metabolic byproducts of fermenting organisms contribute complex sour flavors and enable the bread to keep longer. With pure yeast breads, nutrition, digestibility, flavor and preservation potential are sacrificed for speed and ease”.

You can easily create your own sourdough starter at home by allowing any kind of flour and dechlorinated water to sit for about a week at room temperature, which activates the fermentation process.

To make your own sourdough starter, mix 1/4 cup of flour with 1/4 cup of room-temperature water. Katz advises to begin with a small amount of starter, as you will add three times more flour and water before baking and you don’t want to be overwhelmed. Stir your starter a few times each day to keep the yeast proliferating and the surface fresh. Cover your bowl with a cloth to keep out insects while allowing for air circulation. After a few days, you’ll notice small bubbles at the surface of the batter; this means fermentation is occurring. If you don’t see any bubbles after 3 – 4 days, you may need to put the starter in a warmer location.

When you see bubbling, it’s time to feed the starter. Katz recommends adding 3/4 cup of flour mixed with 3/4 cup of water and stirring well to activate the yeast. After a few more days, add 3 cups of flour and 3 cups of water to the mix. Wait a few more days for bubbling to occur, after which your starter is ready to use in any sourdough bread recipe.

Always save some of the starter for your next baking adventure. A small jar should suffice. If you don’t plan on baking for several days, keep it in the fridge to slow the fermentation process. Take it out a day or so before you plan to bake, and feed it more flour and water to get it going again. Keeping sourdough is a bit like having a pet – if you don’t feed and care for it, it will die.

Sauerkraut

If sourdough isn’t your thing, you can ferment a variety of garden vegetables, from cabbage and beets to turnip, radish, and carrots. Basic sauerkraut is one of the easiest fermentation projects, perfect for beginners. Leave it plain or flavor it with herbs and seasonings such as dill, garlic, juniper berries and caraway seeds. You can also mix it with other colorful vegetables such as beets and red cabbage, or make it spicy by adding sliced ginger or horseradish. When it comes to kraut combos, the sky really is the limit.


Transferring sauerkraut ingredients from a bowl into a fermentation crock


Choose a container with straight sides. A large bottle works well or the ceramic pot from a slow cooker. Old-fashioned ceramic pickle crocks also make great fermentation vessels. Find a plate that fits snugly inside your crock and a weight to put on top of the plate. Use a well-scrubbed and boiled rock or fill a resealable bag with water. When it comes to ingredients, shredded cabbage and some salt are all you’ll need. The salt pulls the water out of the vegetable through osmosis and creates a brine that keeps the fermenting cabbage crunchy and allows it to sour without rotting.

Basic Sauerkraut Recipe

(Recipe from You Can Too! Canning, Pickling and Preserving the Maritime Harvest by Elizabeth Peirce)

Ingredients
5 pounds cabbage*
3 tablespoons sea salt, kosher salt or pickling salt

*Use red or green cabbage or a combination of both to create pink sauerkraut. You can also use other vegetables to fulfill the required 5 pounds.

Method

Chop or grate your cabbage (and any other vegetables you’re using) to the thickness you like and put in a large bowl. Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go; use your clean hands to mix the salt and the vegetables together. Add any additional spices you desire. Some seasoning variations to try, separately or in combination, include sage, cumin, bay leaf, onion or cloves. Caraway, dill, juniper seeds and celery seeds are often found in traditional sauerkraut.


Shredding cabbage using a mandolin


Pack a small amount of the mixture at a time into your fermentation vessel, tamping it down hard with your fists or a kitchen implement (masher, ladle). This helps to force the water out of the cabbage. Cover the crock with a clean plate or other snug-fitting lid and weigh it down with a clean rock or jar of water to keep the vegetable submerged beneath the soon-to-appear brine (the water drawn from the cabbage). Cover your crock with a clean cloth to keep dust and flies out.


Image left: Adding salt to the sauerkraut ingredients in a bowl. Image right: Hand mixing sauerkraut ingredients in a bowl.


Keep the crock near at hand for the first couple of days as the brine is appearing so you can press down on the lid when you pass by. The brine should rise above the cover within a couple of days. If you’ve used an older cabbage that contains less water, you may have to make additional brine to cover the vegetables. (To do so, dissolve 1 tablespoon of salt in 1 cup of water.)


Fermentation crock filled with sauerkraut ingredients


Let the contents ferment in your kitchen or in a cool basement for a slower fermentation. Check it every couple of days. Don’t worry about the scum that forms at the surface; simply skim it off when you are able to. (The kraut is safe beneath the anaerobic brine.) Try tasting it after a few days remembering that the flavor gets stronger with time. Whenever your taste buds say it’s ready, store it in the fridge.

It can be eaten cold or warmed, but boiling it will kill the beneficial bacteria in the kraut, which is why canning it is not advised.

Yield approximately 3 – 4 quarts




Text by Elizabeth Peirce

Elizabeth Peirce is an award-winning author, editor, gardener and teacher. Her book You Can Too! Canning, Pickling, and Preserving the Maritime Harvest is available from Nimbus Publishing and at all major bookstores. Elizabeth offers workshops that focus on how to grow and preserve our own food and she is hard at work on an online course called "Gardening in Tough Times." Visit her website at elizabethpeirce.ca.

References:

Katz, Sandor Ellix. Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods updated and revised edition. (White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2016). Peirce, Elizabeth. You Can Too! Canning, Pickling and Preserving the Maritime Harvest. (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2013).

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