Wednesday, January 5, 2011


A few months ago, I started looking into how to ferment foods. It sounds kind of gross - to the novice it would appear as though one allows food to begin rotting, then sticks it in the fridge for a later meal. "Half rotten" is indeed part of the story, but let me give you the larger perspective.

Humans have been eating fermented foods for many millenia. Wine, beer, cheese and yogurt all require fermentation. In the old days, this is how pickles were made. (Now days most people process their cucumbers with a liberal dose of vinegar, which is also tasty, but this version lacks the live enzymes that boost our immune systems.)

As is true with wine and cheese, the fermenter must be careful to coax along the right bacteria so that they can get a head start and knock out the bad bacteria. One of the most abundant "good bacteria" is also known as lactobacillus and can be found on just about any plant. It is the same bug used to make yogurt. This "half rotten" food is essentially slightly predigested for us, making the food's nutrients more accessible for absorption.

The first recipe I tried involved simply shredding and macernating carrots until they were good and juicy, putting the whole mess into a jar, and pushing the solids down until they were beneath the surface of the natural juices. Then I put them in a dark, warm place and waited two or three weeks.

I must admit that I was pretty dubious this little experiment would result in anything edible. I mean, maybe it wouldn't kill me, but how could it possibly taste good?

About 20 days later, I opened the containers and tasted. My "pickles" were delicious and retained all their crunch. The flavor of the finished brine is much more delicate and complex than vinegar.  I was completely impressed. I haven't seen a kitchen experiment go so well since vinegar and baking soda in 2nd grade science class.

Lactofermenting shredded
beets & carrots
The next experiment was with beets and carrots. It too came off without a hitch, though I modified my technique a bit. I couldn't generate enough natural juice to cover the solids, so I added just a bit of saltwater brine (1 tsp. salt to 1 quart of water.) This is a more foolproof technique as the salt inhibits the growth of most bacteria, but does not hurt the salt-tolerant lactobacillus thus it will get an early foothold. In some of the jars, I also used whey that was left over from making feta cheese with Lily's goat milk. Whey has a higher concentration of lactobacillus and is said to speed up the fermentation. (I didn't notice much difference.)

We finished the fermented carrots months ago now, but we just finished the beets a couple nights ago (we add them as a side slaw to our salads). Carlos put in a request for more, except this time suggested I use powdered spices rather than whole spices. I have to admit, biting into a couple whole cloves is a surprising palate waker-upper.

As I put my batch of beets up this time around, I felt like something of an expert, or at least a lot more confident than I was with the first attempt. Here's how it went:

6 beets peeled and shredded
3 carrots shredded
1/2 tsp Chinese Fivespice
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground star anise
1/2 tsp salt dissolved into 2 cups water
(if your water is chlorinated, let it sit out uncovered for a couple hours before using)

Fill either quart jars or a large crock about 3/4 full with vegetables. Pack them down with a spoon or your fist. Then add saltwater brine sufficient for the vegetables to be about an inch beneath the surface. Cover your container(s) tightly with lids or even tin foil works fine. Place the container(s) on a cookie sheet in case the juices bubble over.

That is it! You're done! You can now simply leave your "experiment" in the "experimentation corner" of your kitchen. Over the next 20 days, take a peak now and then to make sure everything is still submerged. If it's not, you can either add the same dilution of brine or use something heavy to hold the solids down (like a rock - not a calcium rock though.)

At 20 days, you should have some beautiful and tasty beet slaw. If you used whey, you may find a milky, gelatinous layer on top. This is a natural part of the process. Simply remove it and feed it to your chickens. Your fermentation is all the more delicious for it. You can keep your finished ferment in the refrigerator or outdoors in a colder climate for at least a couple months. Even at several months, if it still tastes like vinegar, it's still good.

I am thrilled to have discovered a means of preserving food that doesn't require energy (like a freezer or canning)! All one needs is a little salt and some water. I even found a published study that successfully used seawater to ferment vegetables. The study was done in Kuwait where fresh water, except from an expensive desalination plant, can be a scarce commodity. You never do know, this kind of knowledge just might come in handy one day.

Anyway, if you like pickled vegetables, I think you'll love these. Bon appetit!

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