I’m not a germaphobe. I will taste anyone’s drink without thinking twice, and I absolutely despise hand sanitizer. So I felt vindicated after learning about the joys of lacto-fermentation. It’s an ancient method of pickling and preserving food that pre-dates refrigeration and sterilization. I was lucky enough to learn about lacto-fermentation years ago when I worked for Just Food in New York City, but anyone can read Sandor Katz’s fabulous book Wild Fermentation to learn more about it.
Sauerkraut and dill pickles weren’t always preserved in vinegar. These foods were likely developed when cabbage and cucumbers sat out in barrels. Airborne bacteria settled in the vegetables and soured, fermented, and preserved them. Fermentation is an unpredictable process, so now food producers use vinegar to make consistent products. Unlike their traditionally fermented counterparts, these industrial foods don’t contain live cultures.
How do you pickle vegetables using lacto-fermentation? It’s a simple process. Slice your vegetables, place them in a non-reactive container, mix them with about 2 tablespoons salt, and cover them with water. Now leave it on your kitchen counter for about one or two weeks. Taste the ferment every few days. Place the container in your fridge when you’re satisfied with the flavor.
How does lacto-fermentation work? A variety of microscopic bacteria, yeasts, and fungi are all around us in the air. These microbes convert the sugars and starches in the vegetables to lactic acid. Submerging the vegetables in water creates the anaerobic environment necessary for the process, and the salt inhibits spoilage until enough lactic acid has been produced for preservation. The resulting product is a true reflection of where it fermented. Sauerkraut made in Austin won’t taste the same as sauerkraut made in New York City due to the different microbes in the environment.
Fermentation won’t kill you. In fact, it’s very good for you, and the process increases nutritional content. Just like yogurt, fermented vegetables contain a variety of live microbes that improve digestion. It also creates B vitamins and increases Vitamin C content. Eating a variety of live ferments promotes microbial diversity in our bodies.
- Lacto-fermentation is unpredictable. Taste your ferment every few days until it tastes good to you. Throw it out if it tastes bad.
- Always use non reactive containers and utensils. Weigh down any floating vegetables with a glass to prevent mold growth. This mold is unpleasant, but it isn’t harmful. It can always be skimmed off the surface if necessary.
- Warm temperatures speed the fermentation process. Your product will continue to ferment in the fridge, but the cold temperature will slow it down. Your ferment is a living thing!
- Save some of the brine from your last ferment and add it to the next one. This will speed the lacto-fermentation process.
- Have fun experimenting with a variety of vegetables and flavors. Lacto-fermentation is an easy way to preserve any leftover vegetables from a CSA share.
- Don’t be scared! Humans have used lacto-fermentation for centuries. Sauerkraut, dill pickles, kimchi, and yogurt are all traditionally fermented foods.
- One cabbage
- salt (about 2 tablespoons)
- spices like dill, celery seeds, or caraway seeds (optional)
1. Chop cabbage to desired thickness and place in a nonreactive container
2. Thoroughly salt the cabbage and stir to distribute evenly.
3. Pour in enough water to completely cover the cabbage. Weigh down any vegetables floating to the surface.
4. Taste the sauerkraut every few days, and place it in the fridge when it has achieved your desired flavor. It is a living thing and will continue to ferment in the fridge, but the cold temperature will slow the process.