Most food cultures have a traditional way of preserving food that involves fermentation. Salting cabbage and letting it sit, submerged in its own juices in a cool, dark place, makes sauerkraut. Not only does fermentation preserve the sauerkraut, but the process also produces beneficial organisms that help with digestion and increase some vitamins. Specific yeasts added to grape juice convert its sugar and turn the drink to wine. Yogurt is the most popular fermented milk product in the world. Sourdough bread is made by fermenting dough, using naturally occurring yeasts and lactobacilli (lactic acid bacteria). Kombucha is a sweetened tea, fermented with a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeasts. These are just a few examples.
Around the world, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Russians and Eastern Europeans preserve vegetables and some fruits through a process called lacto-fermentation. (All plants contain lactic acid bacteria, and lactic acid is released during the fermenting process.)
A simple recipe for Kimchi, or Korean sauerkraut, calls for a head of Napa cabbage, cored and shredded; a bunch of green onions, chopped; a half cup of grated daikon radish (optional); a tablespoon of freshly grated ginger; three garlic cloves, minced; a half teaspoon of dried red pepper flakes and two tablespoons of sea salt. [Note: To kick start the production of lactic acid, you can reduce the amount of salt to 1 tablespoon by adding 4 tablespoons of whey instead. (Whey is a byproduct of cheese making or yogurt making. You can make whey in your own kitchen by draining one quart of plain organic yogurt through cheesecloth or a very fine sieve. The liquid whey is rich in live bacterial cultures that promote fermentation.)] Once you choose your vegetables for kimchi, pound them with the salt (and whey, if using) with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer in an unbreakable bowl to get them started giving up their juices; tightly pack the vegetables in an impeccably clean Mason jar. The vegetables and their liquid should be at least one inch below the top of the jar. If the vegetables are not submerged in their own juices, add some water to cover. Now, cover the jar tightly and keep at room temperature (around 72 degrees) for about three days, refrigerating it after that, or place in a cool, dark place (temperature around 40 degrees). Lacto-fermented vegetables will keep for many months, but lacto-fermented fruits and chutneys should be eaten within two months.
We often think of pickling as relying on vinegar, but this same lacto-fermentation process can be used to pickle cucumbers, carrots, onions, garlic, beets, radishes, turnips, red peppers, ginger, grape leaves, etc.
If you want to start with simple sauerkraut—just cabbage and salt—you can find step-by-step instructions (each step illustrated with a video) at www.wikihow.com/Make-Sauerkraut.
For additional information about lacto-fermentation, see these sources:
- “Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and Diet Dictocrats” by Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig, Ph.D. © 1999, 2001
- “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz (Foreword by Michael Pollan) © 2012