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Fermentation Nation

By Anna Tracht

This past week, we were lucky enough to have AMI Alum Chelsea Wakstein lead us in a fermentation workshop. Many of us started off the day in the same boat- we often enjoy eating ferments (especially those left for us by previous years’ cohorts!), but were unsure about how to proceed in making our own. In just a few hours, Chelsea helped us create a variety of krauts, and told us about the many benefits of fermented foods.

Chelsea defined fermentation for us as “controlled decomposition.” It is a transformation in which bacteria break down materials to produce energy. This results in many of the foods and beverages we enjoy every day. Wine, beer, bread, yogurt, and cheese are all the products of fermentation.

We spent much of the morning talking about bacteria’s role in fermentation, in our bodies, and in the world. Bacteria are what make the fermentation process happen. I was surprised to learn that Bacteria outnumber cells in our body by more than 10:1. This means that if our digestive bacteria are out of balance, we feel the effects very acutely. Fermented foods are rich in beneficial probiotic bacteria that help our digestive system function better and our bodies assimilate the nutrients in the foods we eat. Ferments are also more nutrient-available in general, because the fermentation process begins the digestion process.

If you want to learn more about why fermented foods are so beneficial, and maybe try out some ferments of your own, take a look at Sandor Ellix Katz’s book “The Art of Fermentation.” For now, though, here are the basic steps for making your own sauerkraut. Basic kraut is very easy to make, and the best way to become comfortable with the process is to give it a shot. Feel free to add in different vegetables, herbs, and spices as desired. The creativity is part of what makes fermentation so exciting!

Homemade Sauerkraut:

Select your materials- Cabbage makes a great base, but as I said above, there are so many fun things you can add to spice up your ferments. One of our recipes used cabbage, beet and turnip greens, and sage, while another featured cabbage, basil, and garlic scapes.

2. Chop the veggies- Any size and shape you want will work great! Keep one or two outer cabbage leaves to use in a later step.

3. Salt your kraut- This is a very important step in the fermentation process. You want to be sure to use non-iodized salt, which will turn your kraut brown. We used celtic sea salt, which is full of beneficial minerals. You want to aim for one teaspoon of salt for every one pound of veggies. At this point, only add salt to your cabbage and other leafy greens. Set the other veggies aside for now. Chelsea recommended tasting your mixture, saying that if it’s mild enough that you could eat it as a salad, you should add more salt.

4. Massage the cabbage- Use a little elbow grease to knead the chopped cabbage. Doing this begins to break down the cell walls and releases water from the cabbage and other leafy greens.
5. Add in the rest- Mix in any other veggies, herbs, and spices, and an additional teaspoon of salt for each additional pound of vegetables you’re adding.
6. Choose your vessel- We used a combination of crocks and jars. Jars are fun because you can watch the fermentation process as it happens, but you can use almost any container.
7. Pack it in- Using your fist or a masher, pack down the vegetables. This is an anaerobic process, so you want all of the vegetable material to be submerged under water. If your vegetables didn’t release enough water during the massaging phase for this, you can add more water now. Be sure that you are adding non-chlorinated water, though, or the bacteria won’t be able to survive.
8. Weigh it down- To keep the vegetables fully submerged, you want to find something to hold them down. A jar or cup slightly smaller than the opening of your kraut vessel works well, and you can fill it with rocks or beans to make it heavier. If you are having trouble finding a weight that fits well, this is where you can use those cabbage leaves you set aside earlier. Fold them to the size of your vessel’s opening and lay them out on top of your kraut, as a “sacrificial” barrier between the kraut and the air. Then you can put a weight on top of those leaves.
9. Let the bacteria do their thing- Put your jar or crock on a shelf and let it sit. Don’t seal the top, because carbon dioxide will form that could cause the jar to explode, but you can cover it with a cloth to keep bugs and other things out. The ideal temperature is between 60-70˚F, but higher temperatures will simply lead to faster fermentation, while colder will do the opposite.
10. Taste your kraut- Different bacteria proliferate during different stages of fermentation, so it’s good to expose yourself to as many as you can. Some stages won’t taste as good as others, so don’t give up hope if it tastes bad one day. It is also good to taste your ferment to determine what your personal preference is for fermentation time. If you see any scum developing, scrape it off. It’s not dangerous, but it can lead to mold developing. If the barrier cabbage leaves look like they’re developing scum or mold, replace them with fresh leaves.
11. Put the kraut in the fridge- After letting the kraut sit for about 3 weeks, it’s time to move it to the fridge! Putting it in the refrigerator slows the fermentation to the point where it won’t spoil for months to come, and will essentially taste the same during that time. If you like crunchier ferments, try refrigerating it after a week, and if you like them mushier, you could let it sit longer. It’s all about what you want to do!
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