This weekend I am all about populating the house with those heavy hitters of the nourishment world: bone broth, and traditionally fermented foods. More on the broth in tomorrow’s post – today I want to talk about the benefits of traditional fermentation.
In the long span of history before refrigeration, fermenting was the primary method of preserving food for long periods, ensuring that families would have nourishment in lean times or over cold winters when fields lay fallow. It’s a practice found in traditional cultures around the world: Germany is well-known for sauerkraut but it is actually an ancient food that the Romans prized both for taste and medicinal qualities (and probably imported to that region of Europe now called Germany). Korean and Japanese meals, even today, are not complete without some sort of pickled vegetable served on the side (kimchi or umeboshi plums, anyone?) to which they ascribe great health-giving properties. American pioneers made the most of summer harvests by fermenting corn, cucumbers and even watermelon rinds into relish and pickles,turning ripe tomatoes into ketchup. Honestly, just about every kind of food out there can be fermented, although you might better match them up with synonyms like curing (meats) and culturing (dairy). Today I’m focusing on fermenting vegetables.
All right, you might be asking, so why is traditional fermentation better? To quote Sally Fallon from my kitchen bible, Nourishing Traditions:
“…preservation of vegetables and fruits by the process of lacto-fermentation has numerous advantages beyond those of simple preservation. The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anticarcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.”
Traditional fermentation is not a quick process (although preparation time is short), but leave it to the 20th century and its penchant for speeding everything up, to replace the old ways with quick-fermenting vinegar which, unfortunately, bypasses the nutrient-building that happens with a slow, traditional ferment. As we became more divorced from nature (again, largely a 20th century invention) we also became micro-phobic, desiring to eradicate any bacteria from our foods. The process of widespread pasteurization killed off harmful bacteria but along with it killed the beneficial bacteria that would have likely taken care of the bad guys themselves, while also making themselves available to populate our guts for better digestion and overall health. The result is what I call a “dead” food – pasteurization literally kills the life in our food. I believe (and I’m not the only one) that this now-common practice has led to the proliferation of food allergies, intestinal disorders like Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Crohn’s disease, and the epidemic rise of autism which, along with schizophrenia and ADHD, has been strongly linked to gut disorder.
A few years ago I started checking labels of the fermented foods I bought, trying to find brands that use traditional ingredients like salt, sugar, whey or lemon juice. They are out there if you really look, but eventually I decided I’d just learn how to make those foods myself. It’s far cheaper and more satisfying.
Fermentation is a craft, one of those domestic arts that was nearly lost but is being revived, thanks largely to the internet and the traditional foods community, led by websites such as Real Food Media, Nourished Kitchen, Cheeseslave and Nourishing Days (and, now, Maggie’s Nest!). Books like Nourishing Traditions and Wild Fermentation also champion the effort to bring this ancient kitchen wisdom into the 21st century.
Today’s recipe, modified slightly from Nourishing Traditions, is touted as their favorite introduction to traditionally fermented foods: “the taste is delicious; and the sweetness of the carrots neutralizes the acidity that some people find disagreeable when they are first introduced to lacto-fermented vegetables. Ginger carrots go well with rich foods and spicy meats.”
Lacto-fermentation is best created by adding fresh whey to your vegetables, but sea salt can be substituted and that’s what I did since I haven’t made my own whey yet.
Quick & Easy Gingered CarrotsIngredients: approximately 10 medium carrots (about 8 inches long and 1 inch thick) 1 big knob of fresh ginger (about 2 inches long and 1 inch thick) 2 Tbsp unrefined sea salt (if you have fresh whey, use 4 Tbsp whey and 1 Tbsp sea salt) 2 Tbsp lemon whey or lemon juice (set aside)
1. Grate carrots and ginger in food processor. A hand grater can also be used; you’ll come up with a finer grate with the food processor, but it’s much quicker and your hands will thank you! It’s also a nice way to thoroughly mix the ginger and carrots.
2. Gather grated carrots and ginger in a large flat-bottomed bowl or pot. Mix in the salt (and whey) and pound with a wooden hammer or meat pounder to release the juices. This will take about five minutes, so be patient.
3. Place pounded carrots and juice into one quart-sized jar or two pint-sized jars, and continue pounding until juices cover the carrots. Carrots should be at least one inch below the top of the jar, to allow for expansion during fermentation.
4. Top up jar(s) with a bit of whey or lemon juice that was set aside. This will provide a bit of a seal on top to deter any growth of unbeneficial bacteria.
5. Cover jars tightly and place on counter at room temperature for 3 days, depending on the warmth of your kitchen (colder kitchens will produce a slower ferment, so lean toward 4 days), then place in refrigerator or other cold storage, like a basement or root cellar, for long-term storage. Gingered carrots can be eaten immediately after fermentation, although flavor will deepen over time. This recipe should keep for at least 6 months, and has been known to keep for upwards of two years!
As I said earlier, fermentation is a craft and does take some practice. It doesn’t always work, but it’ll come out right more often than you’d think, so don’t give up hope! For inspiration, read about my failed first attempt at sourdough starter (another traditional way to ferment grains).
What are your favorite fermented foods?