Brighten Winter Blues with Fermented Foods

In case you forgot from biology class, fermentation is “the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions.”

That’s a bit of a mouthful, but what matters when it comes to keeping happy during the bleakest months is that the acids and bacteria produced during fermentation can have beneficial effects on the digestive system. In fact, this is exactly why delicious foods like yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut are do good for you.

The second brain

Gut health is getting a lot of attention lately from health scientists. They’re finding that the gut is a major player in determining how we feel. The bacteria in the gut influence not only our digestion, but our immune system and metabolism, too. Though many claims have yet to be proven, this research has given rise to the idea that our guts are really our “second brains,” since it includes a dense cluster of nerves. So, some argue, if the digestive system is as important as the brain in our head, then it’s not crazy to see how big an impact it has on our sense of well being generally.

Taking probiotics as a supplement or through fermented foods is a simple way to help encourage good gut health.

Make your own sauerkraut at home

Homemade sauerkraut can help beat winter boredom and supply you with tasty probiotic food for weeks.

Here is a basic sauerkraut recipe from Sandor Katz, one of the people bringing fermentation back into the public eye. We have everything you need at Abundance: Cabbage is usually $1.19/lb, salt is $.99/lb, and sometimes we can even supply you with a bucket as well, just ask!

Timeframe: 1-4 weeks (or more)

Special Equipment:

  • Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket, one-gallon capacity or greater
  • Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
  • One-gallon jug filled with water (or a scrubbed and boiled rock)
  • Cloth cover (like a pillowcase or towel)

Ingredients (for 1 gallon):

  • 5 pounds cabbage
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt
  • Process:

Directions

Chop or grate cabbage (finely or coarsely, it’s up to you; with or without hearts, however you like it). I love to mix green and red cabbage to end up with bright pink kraut. Place cabbage in a large bowl as you chop it.

Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage through osmosis, and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy, by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it. Three tablespoons of salt is a rough guideline for five pounds of cabbage. I never measure the salt; I just shake some on after I chop up each cabbage. I use more salt in summer, less in winter.

Add other vegetables. Grate carrots for a coleslaw-like kraut. Other vegetables I’ve added include onions, garlic, greens, Brussels sprouts, small whole heads of cabbage, turnips, and beets. If you want to be a little more adventurous, you can add burdock root or seaweed!

You can also add fruit (apples, whole or sliced, are classic), and herbs and spices (caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, and juniper berries are classic, but anything you like will work). Experiment with flavors you like.

Mix ingredients together and pack into crock. Pack just a bit into the crock at a time and tamp it down hard using your fists or any sturdy kitchen implement. The tamping packs the kraut tight in the crock and helps force water out of the cabbage.

Cover kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock. Place a clean weight (a glass jug filled with water) on the cover. This weight is to force water out of the cabbage and then keep the cabbage submerged under the brine. Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep dust and flies out.

Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force water out of it. Continue doing this periodically (as often as you think of it, every few hours), until the brine rises above the cover. This can take up to about 24 hours, as the salt draws water out of the cabbage slowly. Some cabbage, particularly if it is old, simply contains less water. If the brine does not rise above the plate level by the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine level above the plate. Add about a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water and stir until it’s completely dissolved.

Leave the crock to ferment. I generally store the crock in an unobtrusive corner of the kitchen where I won’t forget about it, but where it won’t be in anybody’s way. You could also store it in a cool basement if you want a slower fermentation that will preserve for longer.

Check the kraut every day or two. The volume reduces as the fermentation proceeds. Sometimes mold appears on the surface. Many books refer to this mold as “scum,” but I prefer to think of it as a bloom. Skim what you can off of the surface; it will break up and you will probably not be able to remove all of it. Don’t worry about this. It’s just a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air. The kraut itself is under the anaerobic protection of the brine.

Rinse off the plate and the weight. Taste the kraut. Generally it starts to be tangy after a few days, and the taste gets stronger as time passes. In the cool temperatures of a cellar in winter, kraut can keep improving for months and months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid. Eventually it becomes soft and the flavor turns less pleasant.

Enjoy. I generally scoop out a bowl- or jarful at a time and keep it in the fridge. I start when the kraut is young and enjoy its evolving flavor over the course of a few weeks. Try the sauerkraut juice that will be left in the bowl after the kraut is eaten. Sauerkraut juice is a rare delicacy and unparalleled digestive tonic. Each time you scoop some kraut out of the crock, you have to repack it carefully. Make sure the kraut is packed tight in the crock, the surface is level, and the cover and weight are clean. Sometimes brine evaporates, so if the kraut is not submerged below brine just add salted water as necessary.

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