“As far as I know there has never been a documented case of food-borne illness from fermented vegetables.”
Fred Breidt, Microbiologist for the US Department of Agriculture.
Preserving food through the process of fermentation is as old as the hills. It is a well known fact that some animals ferment their foods to prevent them from fouling. It is thus perfectly conceivable that our stone-age ancestors carried the practice of lacto-fermentation with them as they emerged out of the primordial soup and began to spread across the globe as homos erectus.
In spite of its ancient lineage home cooks today believe that engaging in this form of food preservation is the astro-physics of culinary know-how. Many labour under the impression that such an advanced form of food preparation can only be practiced safely by trained chefs working with sterile equipment and an army of sous-chefs.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure chefs can ferment a carrot – but so can you. At home. On the kitchen counter with just a chopping board, a sharp knife, a crock, some salt and your vegetable of choice.
All you need is a jar – any jar will do: take your pick.
A sharp cutting utensil – this can be a knife, a mandolin, a grater or a food processor: decide what works best for you.
…and some spices of your choice: the later are optional and not strictly speaking necessary.
The practice of fermenting fruit and vegetables on the kitchen counter remains common in many, many global regions though in western Europe the tradition became unhinged from our consciousness long ago, only to be replaced with strict guidelines on sterilisation, warnings on unsafe, traditional food preservation and instilling the fear of God into our souls of any food containing any bacteria.
The fact that few families have seen their parents or grand-parents engage in salt brining, combined with a fear of food poisoning, has added to a natural reluctance to engage in this particular branch of traditional food preservation. Until I started making lacto-fermented vegetables I wasn’t even sure what home-made fermented pickles were supposed to taste like. Erring on the side of caution (and not the recipe) my early attempts tasted way too salty and not in the least bit sour. For many of us in western Europe lacto-fermentation is a leap into the culinary unknown. Unsurprisingly this makes us nervous.
Indeed fermenting food was the one branch of traditional eating and food preparation I put off for as long as possible – longer even than trying to cook liver and kidneys! I only felt confident once I’d attended a Sandor Katz work shop in London and came home with a jar of home-made kraut that tasted amazing and didn’t poison me. I lived to tell the tale! Phew.
There is so much to write about on fermentation – it could be the subject of a whole 300 page book not just a small chapter wedged in between other traditional recipes. Indeed, many have written excellent books on fermentation from the great Sandor Katz’ “Wild Fermentation” and “The Art of Fermentation” to Sally Fallon’s “Nourishing Traditions” and Michael Pollan’s “Cooked: A natural history of transformation”. I am just going to cover some of the simplest, most commonly eaten, fermented vegetables and fruit to get you started.
When beginning with vegetable and fruit fermentation bear in mind Fred Breidt’s statement quoted above:
As far as I know there has never been a documented case of food-borne illness from fermented vegetables.”
This is great news – even if our ferment goes horribly wrong and they taste like the bottom of the trash bag (they won’t but allow me some literary licence) there is very, very little risk it is going to kill us. Consider also Sandor Katz’s statements in his seminal work “The Art of Fermentation”:
“Rapid proliferation of acidifying bacteria make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for pathogenic organisms to establish themselves, even if they are present. In addition to lactic and acetic acids, the acidifying bacteria produce other “inhibitory substances” including hydrogen peroxide, bacteriocins and other antibacterial compounds….In this environment, Salmonella, Escherichia coli (E.coli), Listeria, Clostridium and other food-borne pathogens cannot survive.”
Bear in mind I am covering vegetable ferments only. I am not going to cover fermented meat and fish. They are protein dense foods containing little or no sugars so require extra special attention. The risk of contamination with pathogenic bacteria is higher with meat and fish and never having fermented meat into a salami or prosciutto I do not feel qualified to write about this traditional form of preserving meat.
Nor am I going to cover the fermentation of grapes into wine or grain into beer. Alcoholic fermentation is already covered by a vast body of literature. The only other fermented beverages I write about are fermented milks and effervescent drinks fermented with a SCOBY.
There are three ways to ferment fruit and vegetables. The first method, dry-salting, refers to ferments such as sauerkraut and the Korean kimchi. Dry-salting entails bruising and crushing the vegetable in order to release the plant’s juices and sprinkling salt over the whole. This causes the cell walls to break open and juices to be released. The crushed vegetable is then submerged under its own juices and left to ferment before being stored in a cool dark place. They are some of the easiest recipes so I begin with these.
The second method, brining, is where whole vegetables are submerged in a pre-prepared salt water solution. Gherkins, tomatoes, onions, beans are common to this form of food preservation. This is the form of fermentation that can be harder to master to begin with since many novices are put-off by surface moulds and the cloudy brine. Even Sandor Katz recounts that his first attempt at soured gherkins went wrong. Once you’ve mastered them though you’ll be delighted with the results.
The third method is to crush fruit and vegetables together to make a fermented chutney. Chutneys, commonly associated with India are also popular in traditional Japanese and Chinese cuisine. The presence of fructose in the fruit will speed up the fermentation turning it lightly alcoholic and effervescent.
I hope the step-by-step recipes will encourage you to give fermented vegetables a go. Although communicated through the written word and not via a live work-shop, I hope it will nevertheless give you the same kind of confidence I felt when I came back from London with my jar of Katz-kraut.
Remember if traditional societies, indeed our very ancestors, could safely do this year in, year out, in much smaller, less well equipped kitchen than surely we too can ensure these health giving foods can form a regular part of our daily repetoire.