Rot On! A DIY Experiment In Fermented Foods

Why Would I Try Fermented Food?
Fermentation is everywhere, a virtual food miracle that is as old as humanity itself. From the early civilizations that inhabited present day India and South Africa who created mead, an ancient wine made from honey, to the pickles and sauerkraut found on grocery store shelves today, fermented foods have been valued for their complex taste and health-supporting properties.

Is It Healthy?
Fermented foods and drinks are literally alive! With flavors that are bold and pronounced, fermented foods not only taste good but they are rich with organisms that produce alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, all of which enhance and retain vital nutrients. Fermentation breaks down nutrients for digestion, preserves nutrients, creates new nutrients, and removes toxins from food. Eating fermented foods is an incredibly healthy practice that supplies your digestive tract with living cultures that are essential to assimilating nutrients. By eating live fermented foods, you are promoting diversity among the microbial culture in your body.

Slippery Boundaries
The distinction between food that is fermented and food that is rotten is highly subjective. In general, the alcoholic and acidic environments that fermentation yields are inhospitable to bacteria associated with food poisoning, such as salmonella. However, I cannot authoritatively state that something cannot go wrong in the fermentation process. Generally, the rule is if it looks or smells disgusting, feed it to the compost. In short, trust your nose. If your nose is not sure, taste a little. At the very least you can trust your taste buds, and if it doesn’t taste good, don’t eat it.

Super Size my Fermented Fries, Please!
Who hasn’t heard of McDonalds? Until recently, cultures over the world have evolved locally, creating amazing diversity in all aspects of life including food. However, today that rich diversity is being threatened by the expansion of a global market that demands uniformity. As a result, local culture, identity, and food have become diminished to a lowest common denominator: a nutritionally bereft corporate behemoth like McDonalds. Where once you could find local beer, bread, and cheese, these items have now been replaced with commodities such as Bud Lite, Wonder Bread, and Velveeta that taste and look the same no matter where you find them.

Fermentation is the opposite of uniformity, and is a small task you can undertake in your own home. When you learn to ferment you learn knowledge that has been used independently for generations of human food preparation. You begin to understand that unlike McDonalds fries, which always look the same and conform to your expectations, food actually possesses some quirky anomalies that will adjust your previous image of what you might expect. Therefore, fermentation gives you back the real knowledge of food that is lacking in the standardized American diet, as well as being easy and fun to try.

The DIY Experiments
The focus of this blog is to learn, experiment, and pass on some basic knowledge of fermented foods. I intend to try two recipes for some common fermented foods (recipes are from Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-culture Foods). I will report back on my success, or failure, with recommendations about the fermentation process and the resulting foods.

1. Brining Vegetables

What is a Brine?
The primary difference between vegetables that begin to rot and those that are destined to become fermented is salt. Using the watery protection of a brine is the easiest and safest way to ferment vegetables. Brine is a simple solution of water and dissolved salt. The main purpose of a brine is to serve as protection against the growth of unwanted microorganisms, and the favoring of growth of the desired strains of the bacteria, Lactobacilli.

Sauerkraut
Time Frame: 1 to 4 weeks

Ingredients (makes 1 gallon)
5 pounds cabbage
3 Tablespoons sea salt

Special Equipment
Food-grade plastic bucket (1 gallon capacity or greater)
Plate that fits inside bucket
1 gallon jug filled with water
Cloth cover (such as pillowcase or towel)

Process

  1. Grate cabbage (coarse or fine) into the bucket
  2. Sprinkle grated cabbage with salt as you go until all 3 tablespoons are used (can add more or less salt to taste)*
  3. Cover and weight the cabbage with plate and water jug
  4. Check back after a few days. Wipe away any surface sediment and rinse the plate and weight if needed. As time passes the flavor will get stronger. Taste it periodically over the weeks to see how the flavor evolves.

* Note: you may add any other vegetables, herbs, or spices in step 2 to be fermented along with the cabbage.

Observations

  1. When grating the cabbage, red and green have different consistencies. I found that green contained more water and therefore yielded more water for the brine. However, the red ended up being more crispy.
  2. I found that it was VERY IMPORTANT to have a tight fitting lid that fits snugly in your container. Mine was not! Therefore, some cabbage floated around the corners of the lid and became less fermented.
  3. After a week, due to warmer weather, the brine developed a film or scum that needed to be removed. I found that this was normal and to be expected. It continued to occur approximately every four days. I found that the lid would need to be removed and cleaned as well as the bottom of the weight.
  4. In the end, the brine retained a purple color from the cabbage while the cabbage itself  became a whitish to transparent color.

2. Cheese Making Made Easy

The following experiment is the most basic process for making fresh cheese. In its simplest form, it is technically not a fermented food. However, aging will begin to introduce cultures.

Farmer Cheese
Timeframe: 20 min to several hours

Special Equipment
Cheesecloth

Ingredients (makes 3 to 4 cups)
1 gallon whole milk
½ cup of vinegar

Process

  1. Heat milk to a slow boil, stir frequently. Then, remove from heat.
  2. Add vinegar, a little at a time while stirring, until milk curdles.
  3. Strain curdled milk through a cheesecloth-lined colander. Collect the curds in the cheesecloth and form into a ball.
  4. Hang the ball in the cheesecloth on a hook to drip.
  5. Weight the cheese for about 2 hours until it is firm and holds together. (Indian recipes often call for cubing the cheese, which is known as paneer.)

Observations

  1. One gallon of milk is a lot to put on the stove at once so I had to divide it into two sauce pans. Because it needed to be halved into two containers, I had to also halve the other ingredients as well. So, unless you have a large soup pot, plan on having to divide the milk.
  2. The recipe called for vinegar, but was unspecific about the type. So, I mixed rice vinegar and red wine vinegar together. I thought it would be more productive to use what I already had in the house for the recipe. I found it worked fine; however, I do not know how different vinegars would affect the curdling of the milk.
  3. Once the curds were strained they looked like cottage cheese but tasted like ricotta!
  4. Before pressing the curds under the weight to remove liquid and hold shape I added salt to help remove more liquid through osmosis. I also added dill weed and Bragg’s Organic Sprinkle for flavor.
  5. The cheese held shape after an hour under the weight and was mild and light.

So How Did It Go?
Overall the experiments were a success! To get me started in the realm of fermented foods, I chose recipes that were simple. Both the sauerkraut and the cheese were easy to make and tasted good in the end. In truth, all I wanted was something that was edible and I found that fermenting was as easy as it sounded. I would recommend it to anyone and I intend to continue to experiment with fermented foods in the future.

Posted by Anne

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