Looked at one way, a significant purpose of our cooking is to prevent our food from rotting.
Check any list of the many transformations of food that we call “cooking”: searing some steer on the grill; pickling a cucumber; salting ground-up pork for a sausage; smoking salmon; culturing milk; drying apricots; canning the abundance of a summer shopping spree; or even merely freezing leftovers. Each staves off the decay that inexorably besets carbon-based matter.
We may think we’re just eating, but in its way, cooking is a plea for permanence.
One of the earlier and more primitive transformations of foods is fermentation, the conversion by yeast, bacteria or microbe, often in their wild state, of one form of food into another, thus lengthening its useful life.
Milk spoils readily; cheese and yogurt less so. Grapes rot; wine does not. Oh, a cabbage might pass the length of an entire winter relatively intact in a cool cellar. But a sauerkraut made of it may last years. The storyline is thus with many other forms of food.
We tend to think of fermentation mostly in its liquid manifestations — wine, beer and the distillates or spirits made from them — and less frequently in the ubiquity of its solid (or semi-liquid) foods.
Fermented foods are all around us: bread, of course (which is, when you think of it, a brick of beer), yogurt and kefir, that sauerkraut and other so-called pickled foods, and many a condiment in the refrigerator door (soy and tamari sauces, many mustards, many hot sauces, and anything vinegared).
But we’re wary of fermentation, overall. It’s not practical or convenient to brew beer or make wine at home when bottles and cans of it are so easily got. And for many of us who grew up when packaged food got its groove, cans bulging with botulism were as scary as a just-yanked grenade.
“I wish it wasn’t that complicated,” says Jean Denney, group editor at Ogden Publications, the issuer of a new magazine called “Fermentation.”
“All you need,” she says, “is a jar and a lid.” And from there, it looks as though cooks may get as complicated or keep it as simple as they wish.
Denney ticks off several pluses for home fermenting: It introduces “huge palates of transformed flavor” to both the kitchen and the dining room; it “shifts our attention away from the supermarket and back to an earlier time in our food history”; and it reminds us “that food was the first medicine.”
And this latter point is key for Denney and others who now are at the forefront of fermenting at home. It’s enormously healthy and introduces masses of beneficial microbes down into our bodies’ microbiomes.
While many fermented foods that we commonly purchase at grocery stores — the steadiest example is yogurt — do contain “active live cultures,” they tend to be “singular strains,” says Denney, “isolated and mass-produced for quality control.” They are a sort of monoculture.
Fermenting at home begins to produce (really, to introduce) “wild collections of diverse microbes” into food, perforce then taken up by the bodies that eat that food.
The mere exposure to air that is a wild ferment captures hundreds of species of beneficial bacteria that store-bought fermented foods, given their pre-isolated few species, cannot contain.
Zach Bush who has written extensively about the health benefits of home fermented foods suggests a broad definition of “home” to include your outdoor spaces. Perhaps, if making today’s recipe, we can take his counsel: “Now, don’t just leave your crockpot in your kitchen and don’t just let it sit for an hour or two, put a towel over it and bring it outside into the great outdoors. Bacteria will filter and absorb the microflora of the garden and outdoors.”
Classic Fermented Sauerkraut
From myfermentation.com; makes about 2 quarts
5 pounds white cabbage (1 large head or 2 small)
5 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon juniper berries or caraway seed
Peel away the outer leaves of the cabbage, and then quarter and core. Shred it finely using a knife, mandolin or kraut board (a traditional tool for shredding cabbage, similar to a wooden mandolin).
Toss with the salt and juniper berries in a large nonreactive bowl until thoroughly combined. Transfer to a 1-gallon glass jar or ceramic crock and press down. Top the cabbage with a clean plate, just smaller than the opening of the jar. Fill a clean quart jar with water and use it to weight down the plate. Cover with a clean dish towel and remove to a cool place.
Check the kraut after 24 hours. With the help of the plate, all the cabbage should be submerged. If it’s not, pour enough brine (1 tablespoon of salt to 1 cup of water) over the cabbage to cover it.
Check the cabbage daily. Tiny bubbles should be rising through the liquid (easy to see in a glass container). If a scum has formed, don’t worry; just ladle it from the top of the liquid and wash and replace the plate and jar. Add more brine, if necessary, to keep the cabbage submerged.
The kraut will be fully fermented in 1-2 weeks at room temperature or 3-4 weeks in a cool basement. You’ll know it’s done when it stops bubbling and is a pale golden color. Store in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 1 month.
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