This is the eighth post in Faeterri Silver's series Home Grown. The opinions expressed in this post are Faeterri's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Food Security Network NL.
Before gas and electricity were available for refrigeration, freezing, dehydrating and cooking, an easy method of food preservation, also known as lacto-fermentation, was used by our ancestors all over the world who had crocks full of soured cabbage, cucumber pickles, beets, onions or garlic in the root cellar.
Lactobacillus is the name of a family of bacteria naturally found in all living things (including humans) that convert carbohydrates by the process of anaerobic fermentation, that is without the need for oxygen. This process produces carbon dioxide with lactic acid being a major end product. Acids lower pH, inhibiting the development of unwanted micro-organisms, and also preserve foods. Other compounds produced in the process impart particular tastes and aromas to the final product. I have found that lacto-ferments taste much like their vinegar-based pickled relatives, slightly sour to even tangy.
Lacto-fermentation enhances food’s nutritional value, even generates new nutrients including B vitamins folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin, and omega-3 fatty acids. Some ferments have been shown to act as antioxidants. In addition, it is the lactic acid produced by lactobacilli during fermentation that preserves the vegetables by inhibiting the growth of other adverse bacteria that may decompose or spoil the food. Actually there are few changes in the composition of the food. The proliferation of lactobacillus bacteria in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility, increases vitamin levels, improves digestion by promoting healthy gut flora (probiotics) and boosts the immune system.
There is no big fuss or mess with this method of preservation. A low-salt brine is made by using between 1½ to 3 Tablespoons of salt to one liter of non-chlorinated water for many kinds of vegetables. Salt with iodine will not work nor chlorine in water because each can kill these friendly healthful bacteria. Salt is used because Lactobacilli are salt tolerant but many undesirable organisms are not. That’s it: salt, water, veggies, maybe some herbs, a fermentation vessel (bottle, crock, etc.), a few cabbage leaves and a weight (I often use a small bottle that fits inside the large bottle), and a recipe. I have picked up quite a few crocks at yard sales, old crock pot pots. Antique crocks need to be inspected thoroughly for cracks as lead used to be used in the glaze.
All kinds of vegetables can be soured: cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, turnip, beet, radishes and other root crops. I have recently pickled garlic scapes and before that ‘white icicle’ radishes. I have done greens, zuchs, cukes, peppers and beans, and of course cabbage, beets, and turnips.
Lactofermentation can be done open in a crock or as a closed fermentation in a tightly closed bottle. An airlock system will allow fermentation gases to escape while keeping air out (though I do not like to use plastic lids) and therefore reduces any mould formation. Fermentation continues slowly over time. Some recipes instruct to ‘ferment until ripe’. What is ripe to one may not be ripe enough for another.
I can usually keep my ferments for around 6 months before they start to go by. You will know if something has gone by or is not fit to eat by its smell. If in doubt, don’t eat it. Sometimes a ferment will get a surface mould because of contact with air. Sandor Katz, an expert on the subject and author of Wild Fermentation, feels there is no harm in it and just removes it by skimming it off.
I like the closed method and my simplest recipe uses a brine at 2 Tbsp. whole salt to 1 litre water. An unrefined sea salt is good but best is to use whole salts because they are rich in minerals. I make my pickles by placing in the bottom of a clean wide-mouth litre-sized mason jar seasonings like garlic, hot peppers, lemon thyme, tarragon, dill, or any other that I may desire, if any. I then pack raw cabbage (but really most veggies can be used either whole or cut), and cover with brine allowing for about 1 inch of space from the top of bottle. I then wedge down a cabbage leaf to keep the veggies below the brine. I cover tightly and leave at room temperature for 3-4 days depending on how warm it is (warmer=less days). Then I put the bottles in long term cold storage. A little each day helps to keep my digestive system strong and my body generally healthy. Fermentation is still popular today. Try it; you might like this simple preservation method. Enjoy.
This video explains more about lactofermentation and its history and processes: