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  • Emily Boese, BNatMed

Fall Fermentation Mania (And how to make your own sauerkraut)

As fall descends upon us here in the Northern Hemisphere my thoughts turn more to spending time in the kitchen, cooking up warm stews, curries, and soups.

I have cleaned out my garden and planted some bulbs - looking forward to a sweet garlic harvest next year! I am definitely a gardening novice but I did have a great kale harvest this year (until the aphids went crazy) and I've got some beautiful rosemary. And somehow I'm still getting strawberries in October. If you are a gardener, or even a farmer's market fiend like myself, then you will know that at this time of year we've got to pull up or buy what we can before we are left with the sad shadows of veggies which make their way up from California in the winter here. The New Zealand equivalent of this is overpriced, flavourless Australian tomatoes in the winter. Highly disappointing. Learning how to preserve the harvest is an art which is coming back into fashion in a major way. I think it is awesome - and from a food security perspective - it is vital! While many of you may be familiar with freezing (my go-to) or even canning if you are fancy, today we are going to talk about fermenting - where the rubber meets the road in the gardening and health world.

Fermented foods are certainly a hot topic in the health and nutrition world right now, but if you've been hearing lots of buzz about “fermented foods” but aren’t sure where to start (or even what the hell a "fermented food" is) then read on!

What are fermented foods?

Fermented foods are foods which are broken down and preserved by beneficial microorganisms, usually bacteria or yeast.

They have been traditionally eaten in almost every culture, as fermentation is a method of preservation, and came in handy before the days of refrigeration. The bacteria feed on the sugars or carbohydrates, leaving behind a more sour-flavoured food.

This way of preserving foods is coming back into fashion as we start to understand the health benefits of this type of preservation – so much better than brining in vinegar!

It is also a super cost-effective way of preserving food – and can last for years in many cases.

Some popular fermented foods you can try today for a dose of beneficial bacteria:

  • Sauerkraut

  • Kimchi

  • Kombucha

  • Kefir

  • Yogurt

  • Pickles

  • Miso

  • Tempeh

  • Novel probiotic foods/therapeutic – Gut shots, BioK

Other foods which traditionally have been fermented include:

  • Sourdough bread

  • Cheese

  • Salami

  • Wine, beer, cider

  • Vinegar

Fermented foods are awesome because they naturally contain probiotics (the good bacteria which act as bodyguards in your body against pathogenic, or bad, bacteria), and prebiotics, the food for the good bacteria.

Prebiotics are essentially fibre- the parts of the plants that we eat but cannot break down and digest ourselves. Our gut bacteria do this for us!

One issue with buying fermented foods is that as we’ve industrialized food processing, we’ve wanted food to take a shorter time to prepare and to last longer. Therefore, many foods which have been traditionally fermented are now made commercially with shortcuts, reducing or eliminating the majority of the health benefits.

Examples include pickles or sauerkraut made with vinegar; bread made with added yeast, and anything that has been pasteurized with high heat to make it shelf stable.

To know if a fermented food is going to help the gut, look to see if it is unpasteurized as the pasteurization process will kill off any bacteria, beneficial or otherwise! It should be kept in the fridge.

Health benefits

Your body is home to trillions of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts, which make up your personal microbiome.

Every person’s microbiome is as unique as a fingerprint and has distinct needs. Amazingly, bacterial cells outnumber our human cells by as much as 10:1. (10 trillion human cells: 100 trillion bacteria)

We need the right kind of microbes in our gut. Having the right population of microbes is important for digestion, immunity, and even brain function.

You can control the ideal balance of bacteria in the gut by including foods rich in live probiotic bacteria in your diet, and fibre (or prebiotics) to feed the bacteria regularly.

Changing your diet to one that includes more plant food can alter your gut bacteria for the better in as little as 24 hours.

It seems like every week researchers are exposing yet another vital function that these bacteria play in our lives. Good gut bacteria can help with IBS and digestive issues, weight and metabolism regulation, immune function, and mental health.

(Wanna geek out? Check out these research articles here and here)

How to incorporate them into your diet?

Right so now that we know just how important it is to have a healthy microbiome, how do we get there?

Like I’ve said, one of the best ways you can promote healthy gut bacteria is to eat fermented foods! These contain beneficial bacteria, and most also contain prebiotic fibre as well.

Fermented foods tend to be a condiment, not the main event of a meal. Think:

  • Good probiotic yogurt/kefir in a smoothie/with breakfast

  • Kombucha instead of pop or coffee

  • Sauerkraut or kimchi with lunch or dinner. Think: on tacos, with sausages, on burgers, with stirfries. Eat with anything!

  • Tempeh in a stirfry, or baked and chopped and dip in hummus

  • Miso as a soup base

How to Make Sauerkraut

When I first got interested in the idea of making sauerkraut, it all seemed too hard. Everything I read was talking about adding an expensive culture to your cabbage, and I thought this can’t be right!

Enter Sandor Katz into my life- author of the books Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation. I found this great, 5 minute youtube clip, which totally demystified the whole process. I’m essentially going to replicate for you in word form below.

So all you're going to do is chop up the cabbage, mix it with salt, squeeze it, and then stuff it into a jar. Ta da!

What you need:

  • Cabbage

  • Salt

  • Vessel (eg: a jar, crock) – I use a 1L wide mouth mason jar. Easy and cheap

1. Start by chopping the cabbage finely. You want to create a lot of surface area so that the cabbage breaks down. Leaving it in larger bits will produce a crunchier end product.

Note that you can use pretty much any veggie that you like.

Also note that this recipes does not use a starter culture. For some fermented products, such as kefir, yogurt, or kombucha, you need a culture, sometimes called the “mother”.

With fermented veggies, we are simply relying on the naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria which is present in the soil and on pretty much all things.

Because you are relying on naturally occurring bacteria, I would also recommend that you use organic veggies for this. I have definitely made sauerkraut with conventional veg and it does work, but given that many sprays are designed to kill things, I want veg that are more likely to have a wide variety of healthy microorganisms.

2. Once you are finished chopping, you add salt. Salt has 2 functions- it works as a preservative and also helps to pull the liquid out of the cabbage by osmosis. The goal with sauerkraut is to have the cabbage submerged under its own liquid by the end. I never measure, I just start small and taste. You can always add more.

3. Now squeeze the cabbage. You want to break up the cell walls and pull the moisture out of the cabbage.

4. I usually try and do the squeezing bit for about 10 minutes, until there is a decent amount of liquid.

5. Now cram the cabbage into a jar. Make sure your jar is very clean. I wash mine in super hot soapy water, rinse, and rinse again with white vinegar and leave to dry. Or you can dry/sterilize them in the oven.

6. Make sure that the cabbage is submerged under the liquid. The best way I have found to do this is to put a whole cabbage leaf in the jar on top of the kraut (you will throw out this leaf before you refrigerate your kraut). Leave a bit of space at the top of the jar for carbon dioxide which will naturally build up.

Put the lid on, but be prepared to burp your sauerkraut regularly.

7. Leave the sauerkraut in your kitchen. It doesn’t need to be a dark room but I would keep it out of direct heat and sunlight. If your house is cooler, the fermentation process will take longer.

8. Burp your sauerkraut a couple times a day and ensure the cabbage is submerged under the brine. Cabbage which is not submerged can go mouldy. If this happens, use your best judgement as to whether you need to throw out the whole batch or just skim off the top. Usually the latter is totally sufficient, as pathogenic bacteria cannot live in the lactic acid environment under the liquid (but beneficial, lactic-acid forming bacteria can!)

9. Ferment for 3 days - 2 weeks, or as long as you like until you love the taste! Refrigerate when you feel it is ready. Eat it!

So what do you think? Are you read to ferment like a pro? Or at least like a novice? Give it a crack and leave your results/successes/disasters/hilarious photos in the comments below

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#nutrition #fermentation #DIY #Sauerkraut #Healthyeating