My wife and I finally got ourselves a water bath canning set that we had been wanting for a long time, and I’ve been learning more about preserving foods that way. However, I want to continue to broaden my mind when it comes to food preservation — redundancy is the key to any prepared homestead. I have been hearing people talk about fermented foods for years, and recently it seems I see a new post at least on a weekly basis by someone or another discussing ferments. With all the talk about fermented foods, I decided to learn more about it to add another entry into my food preservation book of knowledge. So starts my family’s walk on the path of lactofermentation.
What are “Fermented Foods”?
I can remember when I was a kid, sitting in a bean bag chair in the living room watching M*A*S*H with my mom and dad. I recall a particular episode where the Korean locals were burying something, and Major Burns noticed it. He thought they were burying mines. A little later in the episode, it was revealed that what they were burying was actually a kimchi pot. Hawkeye to Frank: “Don’t you understand man, you’ve struck coleslaw!” I had to ask my folks what kimchi was, but the only answer they could give me was, “it’s kind of like Korean sauerkraut — it’s made from cabbage.” They weren’t entirely wrong, but it didn’t really clear things up for me. At that time, all I really knew about sauerkraut was that it was some sort of pickled cabbage and was absolutely delicious on hot dogs (especially with yellow mustard, chopped onions and garlic powder)!
Ok, I know it sounds like a highly complicated process that you couldn’t possibly master, but I assure you it couldn’t be simpler. You may even be surprised at some of the foods that are made through fermentation. You already know about kimchi and sauerkraut, but foods such as yogurt, sour cream, soy sauce, Tabasco sauce and Worcestershire sauce are all made through fermentation. Other fermented foods you may have heard of include kombucha, kefir, miso, fish sauce and crème fraîche. In fact, vinegar, beer and wine are all made through fermentation, as well.
So what are fermented foods? Well, in their simplest form, they are foods that have been through the lactofermentation process to be preserved for longer storage. Lactofermentation won’t make your foods last as long as say canning or freezing, but it is one of the oldest food preservation methods in the world. Fermented foods also have a distinct sour taste (again, think sauerkraut) due to the formation of lactic acid caused by anaerobic bacteria feeding on the sugars and starches in foods kept in a container deprived of oxygen.
The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
The benefits of fermenting food go way beyond a longer shelf life, though. The process creates B-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics — bacteria that aid in digestion, boost the immune system, and promote better overall health in the body. They’re the bacteria we WANT to have in our bodies to help fight the nasty ones that make us sick.
Wait… bacteria? Isn’t that bad for you? Truth be told, yes — some bacteria strains are bad for you. However, the ones produced by the fermentation process are actually beneficial bacteria. We all have bacteria in us all the time. In fact, there are roughly 500 species of bacteria living in our gastrointestinal tract alone. They’re what help us break down foods to their base elements to feed the body what it needs and get rid of the rest. There are also good bacteria that attack and kill the harmful bacteria that end up in our system one way or another which is one reason a lot of people don’t believe in taking antibiotics — for fear they will also kill the beneficial bacteria in our systems.
Getting Started with Lactofermentation
I recently had the chance to talk on the phone with Matt from Fermentools.com. I had never done any kind of fermenting before, but he told me how easy the process truly is. He asked me if he could send me a 6-pack set of their fermenting equipment to try for myself, and I quickly agreed! I love trying new things, and with all the information I had about the probiotic benefits of fermenting foods, I was pretty excited at the opportunity to help my family improve their health and eat some delicious new foods at the same time. So Matt shipped the product out to me, and I had it in hand in just a couple of days.
The 6-pack kit I got comes with 6 airlocks, 6 lids, 6 silicone gasket rings, 6 stoppers with holes in them, 6 stoppers (without holes), and 6 glass weights. You have to provide the wide-mouth mason jars and lid rings. Also, if you want to put a regular lid (I recommend the Tattler reusable lids) on the jar after the fermenting is complete, you have to provide those, as well.
The first thing I wanted to make was sauerkraut (did I tell you how delicious that stuff is on hot dogs?). Unfortunately we didn’t have any cabbage in the house, so I decided to try carrots instead because we had a ton in the fridge. When I started looking up recipes online, I saw not only were people fermenting carrots, but celery as well. Hey, I have that, too!
My First Ferments
I actually decided to try carrots in one jar, carrots and celery in another jar, and in a third jar I put celery, onion and radish slices. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out and see how it tasted. The little booklet and bag of salt that came with my Fermentools said a 2% brine solution was ideal for what I was making. I wasn’t sure how to figure a 2% brine, but lo and behold, that information was on the salt bag, too! Man, can this seriously get any simpler?
The bag of Ancient Himalayan Salt that came with the kit has charts right on the bag to help you figure just how much salt to use for the size container in which you are fermenting. I was doing pints, so for the 2% brine solution needed for my veggies, I needed to use 10 grams of salt. Unfortunately, I don’t have a fancy digital kitchen scale like this one (but you can bet I’ll be getting one sometime). Luckily, the flip side of the bag had a nifty little chart to help you convert weight to volumetric measure. For the 10 grams of salt, I would need to use 2½ teaspoons. This chart only applies to the salt in the bag, so if you’re trying this whole thing for the first time (like me), make sure you’re figuring out exactly how much salt you need to use for the brine in your ferment.
Another thing to keep in mind when fermenting is to use non-chlorinated water. Chlorine kills bacteria (which is why it is used in swimming pools), so with chlorinated water, the food wouldn’t ferment properly — if at all. If your tap water is chlorinated (and chances are, it is), you can remedy this issue by boiling your water for about 10 minutes, then letting it cool to room temp before using it for your brine.
So I put the food into the jars, mixed my brine in another jar and poured it in. It is important to keep the food fully submerged under the brine to keep it from going bad, so I used one of the glass weights that came in the kit to hold the food down in each jar. Then I placed a silicone gasket on the lip of the jar, followed by the lid with the stopper and air lock in place. Finally, I screwed on a ring to secure the lid. The rings don’t come in the kits — you can just use old ones or buy some new ones if you don’t have any. Take the top off the air lock, pour in a little water (just under half full), and put the top back on. This will allow carbon dioxide produced by the fermentation process to escape without letting any air inside. Letting air into the ferment will introduce particulate matter that may change the ferment — not good!
At this point, you want to put the ferments up somewhere so that they will not be in direct sunlight — the UV light from the sunlight will kill the bacteria and stop the fermenting process. Also, you need to keep the ferments in a location where the temperature is somewhere between 65ºF and 75ºF. Temperatures that are warmer than 75ºF could possibly kill the bacteria and stop the fermenting process as well. Any temperatures below 65º may be ok as long as they are not below freezing, but the lower the temperature, the longer the fermenting process will take.
Hurry Up and Wait
So the ferments were in the jars the tops were in place, and the waiting game had begun. This was the hard part. I watched the jars every day. The water began to turn cloudy and there were tiny bubbles in the water, but otherwise, I couldn’t tell anything was going on. I wasn’t totally sure how long to leave the food in there. One site said a week, another site said 2 to 3 weeks. I finally talked to some people who have been fermenting foods a long, long time. It seems there isn’t really any steadfast rule for how long to keep the ferment going. It’s pretty much a matter of taste.
So I took the top off the jars after 6 days, replaced them with the actual lids, and put them in the fridge. In the fridge is where the flavors “finalize” so to speak. The sourness of the ferment mellows a bit, which I am told is good for people (like me) who are first starting fermented foods to get used to the flavors. I talked to my fermenting friends again, and they said “you can actually taste them whenever you want”… and I was curious… so I tried the carrots. They weren’t bad! I had a couple of the carrot sticks, and they pretty much tasted like pickled carrots — which is, for the most part, what I expected.
I decided to let the rest of the stuff sit in the fridge for a while longer before trying any of it. It had actually been fermenting for 2 full weeks (6 days with the air lock, and 8 days in the fridge) when I finally tried some of the celery, onion and radish. I was most excited about the radishes because I love them so much raw. I tried it first, and oooh weee they were salty! I totally wasn’t expecting that. I tried the onion and the celery, and while they were both good, they were still way too salty. I think I actually mis-measured the salt in this one.
As for the third jar — the one with carrots and celery — I haven’t tried it yet. I’m going to let it sit for a little longer and see if the flavor mellows compared to the first jar of carrots. I’ll let you know how that goes in a future post (hint: the future post will be about sauerkraut).
What I Learned
I failed to mention this earlier, but you have to make sure everything is clean, just like when you’re canning. Remember, you’re trying to culture natural bacteria. Any outside interference from something dirty and the balance may be off, the ferment won’t go right, and if you eat it, you could get sick.
Be sure you measure your salt accurately. Too much salt in your brine and the food will just be way too salty. Use too little and the ferment may not work at all. This is kind of a science.
Some people are turned off by the word “fermented”. If you want someone to try your food, just tell them it’s pickled. Then if they like it, tell them it’s fermented. It will open a dialogue, and you can educate them. Plus, they may be interested in trying more fermented foods.
Fermenting, while it may be somewhat of a science, is actually very easy. The biggest thing to remember is making sure you have the right amount of salt. As long as that goes right, the rest is super simple.
Some of My Other Fermenting Friends
Lots of my friends are trying fermenting. Check them out and see what they’re doing and how it’s all working out for them.
- Cedar Hills Chronicles: Curtido ~ Latin American Sauerkraut
- Mom Prepares: My Fermenting Journey, Part 1
- Homestead Chronicles: Veggie Fermenting Simplified
- Bean and Bee: Lacto-Fermentation with Fermentools
- Timber Creek Farm: Easily Ferment Vegetables at Home