Thrift is Beautiful: Fermentation

Mmmmm. (X1)
While growing up, my family kept a vegetable garden in the corner of our suburban lawn.  The garden was not huge - we've expanded it slightly almost every year to the present, but back back then it was maybe 12 feet on each side.  In typical suburban lawn fashion, the developers had scraped away and sold all but the two inches of topsoil necessary to cover the place in a resource-intensive grass lawn; below that was mostly hard, red clay.  My dad raised the beds with railroad ties, started a compost pile, and began turning the soil religiously.  Within a few years, most of the rocks had been picked out and the clay slowly gave way to richer soil.

We grew the typical garden fare: tomatoes, carrots, onions, bell peppers, broccoli, sweet peas, salad greens, beets, herbs.  Even in this modest plot, the yields could be pretty impressive.  Many years we would return from our state park vacation to find our tomato plants bent to the ground with juicy red fruit.

Too much juicy red fruit.
Keeping up with the garden's output was a challenge.  Inevitably we would fold and end up giving some away to the neighbors: plastic ice cream pails filled with tomatoes and carrots, tomatillos and jalapenos.

The garden's late-summer explosion of fresh produce always left me wondering: how did farmers, back in the days before refrigeration and industrial canning and pasteurization, make this work?  Everything in the garden seemed to be ready at once: boxes of onions and beets and bell peppers.  We would can some of the beets, and root vegetables could stay fresh for several months when stored in a cool room in the back of the unfinished basement.  Herbs could be dried, and grains could be ground into flour.  You could time the planting strategically to avoid everything coming to fruition at once.  But still...

How to preserve all of these delicious, extremely perishable vegetables without freezing or canning?
Pre-Wikipedia, I couldn't just jump online and read the page on food preservation.  The answer would only occur to me a number of years later, as I was finishing up my undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and chemical engineering.  I had teamed up with some friends to put these degrees to work on something practical and delicious: homebrewing.

While they played with malt and hops, I experimented with honey mead and hard cider.  The cider especially fascinated me: if you got the good unpasteurized stuff from the orchard across town, there was no need to add a packet of dried yeast to make something happen.  Left to sit at room temperature, the cider began bubbling all on its own within a few days, yielding a delicious, moderately-alcoholic young cider within two weeks.

As I delved deeper into the world of fermentation online, I discovered that many of the same blogs making hard cider and brewing beer were also fermenting everything else under the sun.  Fruits, vegetables, grains - anything with starch in it is fair game.  And most of the vegetable ferments are entirely spontaneous!  Once fermented, many of these ferments remain edible and delicious for months or even years.  Original question?  Sufficiently answered.

The Benefits

Once I got to grad school, I gathered a collection of books and blogs and began experimenting.  As I quickly discovered, food fermentation has a number of benefits:

It's Delicious
Fermentation is a very easy way to substantially increase the deliciousness of a wide variety of foods, vegetable and otherwise.  Make the ginger carrot recipe I describe below, and you'll see what I'm talking about.  Fermentative pickling is NOT the same as quick pickling; the former's tartness is delivered by lactic acid and a huge host of minor fermentation products, while the latter is just submerged in distilled vinegar.  With fermentation, you can discover all sorts of traditional flavors that you quite simply can't get any other way.

It's Healthy
Cabbage, carrots, garlic, chili peppers - gotta eat your veggies, so they might as well be deliciously fermented!  Like yogurt, many fermented foods have been suggested to improve digestion, and may help prevent other health issues by temporarily populating the digestive system with lots of commensal and mutualistic (harmless and beneficial) bacteria.  Fermentation partially breaks down the less-digestible components of food, such as lactose in milk fermentations and wheat gluten in sourdough fermentations, reducing the stress that these food ingredients have on the body.

It's Cheap
If you homebrew, you probably already know that you can make an awesome beer for about fifty cents a bottle at a reasonable home brewing scale.  Fermentation is a delicious, healthy way to save a buck (and as I keep saying, developing a stable of low-cost hobbies is the key to leading an awesome low-cost life).

Most of the fermentation-friendliest vegetables have great availability and extremely low cost throughout the US.  Green and red cabbage can be had, even in the very expensive Bay Area, for $0.40 a pound; a big bag of carrots is often $0.50/lb or less.  Radishes, garlic, chili peppers?  Nothing too exotic here.  Milk, apples, honey, salt, and flour?  I bet your grocery store has them.  Fermentation can take a limited fresh-food selection and greatly expand the possibilities.

Going back to my childhood wonderment about pre-industrial food preservation, fermentation offers an easy fix when your garden yields suddenly explode or you come across an insanely good price on some vegetable.  In South Korea, kimchi is prepared in huge batches and stored for months.  Apples in hard cider form will keep happily in a cool, dark place for years.

Food fermentation is also a great way to improve your food utilization ratio.  Bag of carrots starting to go soft?  Instead of throwing them out, chop them up and ferment them!  If you're in the survivalist end of the Mustachian continuum, food fermentation could also be a great way to prepare and preserve not-quite-perfect food rescued from the back of spendy friends' refrigerators (or even by dumpster diving!).

It's Social
Remember 'friendship bread'?  Many fermentation starter cultures - sourdough starters, mother of vinegar, ginger beer plant - can be propagated through a social network in exactly the same way.

In historical German, Eastern European, and Pennsylvania Dutch culture, it was not uncommon to see an extended family get together and go on a crazy cabbage-shredding rampage (1,2).  Fermentation is a great way to get kids involved and excited about food preparation, preservation, and healthy eating (3).

The economies of scale in home food fermentation readily invite coordination and exchange with friends and neighbors.  Make a really awesome kimchi?  Trade it for sauerkraut, real dill pickles, and some homebrew!

It's Safe
Food safety is often the first concern to come to the mind of the potential home food fermenter.  Worry not!  USDA food microbiologist Fred Breidt has said that fermented vegetables are definitely safer than fresh or home-canned vegetables (4).  Fermentation works by creating environmental conditions that allow the proliferation of harmless bacteria that are already present all around us.  The growth of these organisms in turn creates conditions (acidic, alcoholic) that wipe out pathogens.  This is why fermentation can be used to preserve foods for long periods of time without cooking or refrigeration.  Pathogenic E. coli and the organism that causes botulism, Clostridium botulinum, are unable to grow in the acid environment created by the Lactobacilli involved in vegetable fermentation.  Unlike canned and fresh vegetables, there have been zero confirmed cases of food-borne illness from fermented vegetables.


So it's settled: fermentation is pretty awesome.  But won't it require all sorts of equipment?

People will happily sell you $200 crocks and plastic contraptions with airlocks and all sorts of other things, but don't believe the hype - none of them are actually necessary.  All you really need to get started are a bunch of jars or crocks made of nonreactive materials (glass, ceramic, stoneware, stainless steel), a knife, salt, and some vegetables.

When starting out, I followed the common instructions that vegetables should be fermented in stoneware crocks.  A two-gallon crock by Ohio Stoneware is available at the local Ace Hardware for $20.  The crock is beautiful, but $20 is kind of expensive and you don't even get a lid.  Open-vat fermentations in a crock also invite the growth of yeasts on the fermentation's surface that, while entirely harmless to the food underneath, can look rather icky.

Today, I do my medium-scale fermentations in one-gallon glass pickle jars ($4, pickles and lid included, at Costco) and my smaller ones in wide-mouth Mason jars.  To completely avoid the problem of yeast contamination, I simply put on a lid without tightening it the whole way; the gases produced by the fermentation can escape, but the surface of the jar is protected by a blanket of carbon dioxide that completely prevents the growth of oxygen-requiring yeasts and molds.  It's the simple and thrifty answer to the airlock.

For larger projects, food-grade 5-gallon HDPE buckets are perfect; many restaurants will give these away for free if you ask.

For volume measurements: these 18/10 stainless teaspoon-tablespoons and 18/10 stainless measuring cups may cost a lot more than the plastic version, but they're virtually indestructible and will last a lifetime or more.

For mass measurements: any simple kitchen scale will do.  If you haven't baked by weight before... well, that's an entire separate article.

To be quite honest, I don't know a heck of a lot about knives.  What I do know is that I paid relatively little for a set of Victorinox knives (a 10" Chef's Knife, a 7" Santoku, and a 5" Mini Chef's Knife) and some knife maintenance tools (a honing steel) and after two years of use, they cut pretty much the way they did when I bought them.

If you're going to be fermenting pounds and pounds of stuff, especially if your knifework isn't super-fast (and mine is not), you might consider investing in a mandoline or v-slicer.  You can tear through a couple heads of cabbage as fast as you can safely(!!) slide them across the blade (careful!).  A Microplane grater is also invaluable for shredding fruits, roots, and spices quickly.

Apples, onions, and cabbage meet the V-Slicer.  Also pictured: slash-resistant glove

Your First Fermentation: Ginger Carrots

I picked this one because it's a) delicious, b) simple, and c) nearly impossible to screw up.  The crunchy sweetness of the carrots and the aromatic essence of the ginger contrast beautifully with the salty, sour fermentation process.  They're a great snack on their own, or you can serve them as the vegetable accompaniment to a dinner or as a tasty addition to salads or sandwiches.

All you'll need:
  1. A sharp knife (or V-slicer/mandoline and/or extra-coarse grater)
  2. carrot, 4 lb bag
  3. ginger root, 4" (love ginger? try more!)
  4. salt, 4 TBsp
  5. Mason jars, quart-sized, 2x
Thinly slice the carrots, grate or dice the ginger, mix the carrot, salt, and ginger in a bowl, and let sit for at least half an hour to allow the salt to draw out some water.  Transfer into the quart Mason jars.  You shouldn't need to add any additional water - when you pack the carrots down, they should submerge in their own brine (and if they don't, let them sit with the salt for a few more minutes and pound down again).  Loosely screw on a lid, leaving room for gas to escape, and let ferment at room temperature on a spill tray for three days.  Start sampling at Day 3, and refrigerate when it tastes how you'd like it to.

A Classic: Savory Sauerkraut

Ahhh, sauerkraut.  The drab-looking stuff you buy in a bag or jar at the supermarket has never interested me, and fortunately it's trivial to make the freshest, most delicious sauerkraut at home with very little time, effort, or equipment.

Cabbage ferments amazingly well, so pretty much anything else thrown into the fermentation with it will be taken along for the ride.  Experiment with small batches and keep a fermentation journal!  You never know what super-delicious combinations you might find.  The Internet is full of recommendations.

All you'll need:
  1. A sharp knife (or V-slicer/mandoline and/or extra-coarse grater)
  2. green cabbage, one head
  3. red cabbage, one head
  4. carrots, half a pound
  5. salt, 3.5 TBsp
  6. Mason jars, half-gallon, 2x (or an empty gallon pickle jar or similar)
  7. Optional additions:
    • fennel or radish (half a pound, if available in-season)
    • savory seeds (dill, caraway, celery), a tablespoon
    • juniper berries, 25-50 (peppery and delicious!)
Simply slice the cabbage at your desired thickness - I prefer a coarser sauerkraut - and chop or grate the carrots and fennel, then mix the vegetables and spices together and let sit for half an hour to allow the salt to draw out some water.  Pack the mixture rather forcefully into the jars, punching it down - I use a combination of my fists and a potato masher - until it submerges in its own juices.  Loosely screw on a lid, leaving room for gas to escape, and let ferment at room temperature on a spill tray.  Fermentation should begin in earnest within three or four days.  It's perfectly safe to begin sampling at this point, when it resembles a crunchy, sour coleslaw.  Keep sampling as the flavors develop, moving some to the fridge whenever you'd like to slow down the process.  Some people won't touch their sauerkraut until it's at least a month (or two, or three!) old, but I prefer to make and eat it in a fairly continuous process.  Enjoy the natural fermentative progression!

After several weeks, the sauerkraut will become quite sour and may begin to soften.  If it starts to become a bit strong for you, don't panic!  If you start some sauerkraut today, I promise I'll post my recipes for potato mozzarella sauerkraut casserole and smoked paprika potatoes and onions with sauerkraut before that time comes.  Cooking the sauerkraut or combining it with other strongly-flavored foods can mellow its bite.

There are thousands of sauerkraut recipes out there, incorporating just about every fruit, vegetable, and savory spice on the planet.  Read, explore, experiment!

With a willingness to experiment and a good introductory book (see below), you'll find that there's very little that can't be fermented.

My first batch of California sauerkraut: green and red cabbage and carrots

Further Resources

Sandor Ellix Katz is the best-known food fermentation subject expert.  He has written two books, both of which are very much worth your time.

The first is Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Food.  This was the book that got me into fermentation in the first place.  It's formatted more like a traditional cookbook, with a series of recipes followed by some information that places the ferment in context.

The second is The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Process from Around the World.  This book is pretty much what it says on the cover: essentially a world-wide encyclopedia of fermentation.  Katz did away with the cookbook recipe format, and this volume spends most of its time on the art, science, and philosophy of fermented foods.  I've written a rather extensive review of this book.

The Art of Fermentation especially is quite intimidating.  If you're an absolute beginner and you're looking for something with explicit ingredient lists, step-by-step instructions, and lots of glossy photos, Alex Lewin's Real Food Fermentation: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen is probably the best place to start.  As I say in my (also) rather extensive review, the scope is more limited but this is the book most likely to convert someone that's still not entirely sold on the food fermentation concept.

The fermentation recipes in Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions are oft-cited, especially her lacto-fermentations which use whey as a starter culture for vegetable preservation.

To save money and conserve resources, consider borrowing these books from a local fermentation club or library, or split the purchase cost with a fermentation buddy.

Kraut with a variety of garden vegetables, salt, savory seeds, and juniper berries

For further inspiration, check these out:

Wild Fermentation Blog
Nourished Kitchen
Critical MAS
Alex Lewin's 'Feed Me Like You Mean It'
Pickl-It Blog
Delicious Obsessions
Fermentation Subreddit

Mustachians, foodies, regular humans - what do you think?  Already fermenting?  Convinced to give it a shot?  Lingering questions?  Ask away, and I'll do what I can to answer!  More recipes (and some science) to come.

Like this article?  You might also be interested in the Ginger Beer Plant.
If food cost analysis is your thing, check out The Energy and Protein Value Density Calculator.

(1) Family sauerkraut making - http://news.hjnews.com/allaccess/article_006d7a84-019f-11e2-81e3-0019bb2963f4.html
(2) Tradition - http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/sectionfront/life/shred-this-making-your-own-sauerkraut-is-easy-and-fun-317889/
(3) Sandor Katz at the Edible Schoolyard - http://edibleschoolyard.org/esy-berkeley-journal/2011/05/18/making-sauerkraut-sandor-katz
(4) Is fermented food safe? - http://www.pickl-it.com/faq/273/is-fermented-food-safe/
(X1) Wikipedia: Tomato - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bright_red_tomato_and_cross_section02.jpg