What is lacto-fermentation?
Predating modern canning, lacto-fermentation is a time-honoured practice which has been used by nearly every traditional society around the world to preserve such foods as: sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, yogurt and various traditional beverages. While modern, commercial preservation methods have fast replaced this artisanal process, lacto-fermentation has made a swift resurgence due to its numerous, researched health benefits. It can be a fun, easy and rewarding art to learn.
The process of lacto-fermentation.
While the name can sound a bit intimidating, the scientific process of lacto-fermentation is fairly simple. Lacto, unrelated to dairy in this context, refers to the bacteria ,lactobactillius, that is naturally occurring on the surface of all plants and common in humans and other animals alike.
These lactobactillius bacteria have the ability to convert the naturally occurring sugars and starches in vegetables into lactic acid – the fermentation process. The lactic acid acts as a preservative inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria. By creating carbon dioxide, and in turn using up oxygen, the lactic acid creates an anaerobic (low oxygen) environment, preserving the ferments and creating the fizz often associated with lacto-fermented foods.
The health benefits of lacto-fermentation are thought to be expansive, and have been increasingly researched. Specifically, the process is thought to increase the digestibility and enhance the nutritive value of fermented foods since numerous beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins , omega-3 fatty acids and various strains of probiotics can be created in the process. Probiotics have been shown to help slow or reverse some diseases, improve bowel health, aid digestion, and improve immunity.
In addition; lacto-fermentation, over other preservation methods, is often easier and more sustainable and as it requires very little processing and does not require energy from a heat source for boiling or cooking. It can be a cost effective way to incorporate probiotics into your diet.
How to lacto-ferment.
On a very basic level you can start lacto-fermentation on your countertop with only raw vegetables, unrefined salt, water and a mason jar. As you gain confidence you can experiment with a wide variety of vegetables, sauces and beverages. I have personally, fermented radishes, beans, dill carrots, pickles, salsa, kimichi, sauerkraut, water kefir (sugar not salt) and more, with excellent results using a very basic method. Lacto-fermentation, as an art and a science, refers to the fact that the process does not produce a stable product (in taste, appearance etc), as you get with a vinegar based canning method of preservation for instance. As such, the flavour profile evolves with the process and you can experiment, as an art, to get your ferments just to your liking – salty, tart, less tart ect. As a science, there exist a variety of equipment and cultures to provide more control and less variability in the fermentation process.
Lacto-fermentation does not require a starting culture since the lactobactillius bacteria naturally occurring in your vegetables acts as the culture. Traditionally, fermentation was done with only a unrefined salt brine; however, additional cultures are available and often used to speed the fermentation process such as; whey, miso paste, commercial culture starters or brine from another ferment, such as ferments available at Community Natural Foods – Wild Brine or Bubbies Pickles. Further, there is a variety of equipment, beyond a simple mason jar, that can be used to enhance the stability of the process such as fermentation crocks and airlock lids.
Here I have provided a basic sauerkraut recipe to get you started and included some basic tips and cautions throughout the methodology. Enjoy and have fun learning the art of fermentation.
Dill- Garlic Mason Jar Sauerkraut:
- 1 medium head of green cabbage, shredded
- 2 tbsp of Himalayan sea salt
- 1 cup of warm, filtered or distilled water – as needed
- 2 tbsp of fresh dill, finely chopped
- 3 -4 cloves of garlic (depending on how much you like garlic)
1 quart sized mason jar with a lid
- Slice cabbage finely: Pull off wilted, limp outer leaves and set aside. Core the cabbage and slice finely – I like to use a hand slicer (mandolin) but sharp knife will do the trick.
- Combine cabbage, salt brine and dill: Place the shredded cabbage in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle the salt over top. Work the salt into the cabbage with your hands, squeezing the cabbage for about 5 to 10 minutes until limp. This will release water, do not discard as this will become your brine. Add dill and work through.
- Peel Garlic: Peel the garlic and lightly smash with a knife. You can choose to mince and incorporate into the cabbage, salt and dill mixture or leave it in large pieces to place at the bottom of the jar.
- Press cabbage into the jar: Now you can put the cabbage into the jar and press it down so that it is very well packed, leaving about 2 inches at the neck of your jar. As you pack it in water should be released. If your cabbage has released enough water you should get a brine rising above the cabbage just below the neck of your jar. If it is not add water until it is just above the cabbage. The
- Pack in outer cabbage leaves: Use the discarded leaves from the first step above and pack them into the top to hold your cabbage down below the brine level. This ensures that the sauerkraut is not susceptible to ‘bad bacteria’ and the sauerkraut is preserved in the lacto bacteria.
- Put on lid and let sit: Put the lid on your mason jar and let it sit for up to 14 days. Over the next few days you will start to see small bubbles rising to the top. You can open your jars every two days to relieve some of the pressure created by the formation of lactic acid and press down on the top cabbage pieces to release more brine.
- Pause fermentation: After about 10-14 days (when you are no longer getting pressure released from your jars) your ferments are ready to eat! You can pop them into the fridge and eat them as you wish. Ferments can last for months in the fridge. If they produce any mold, slime or off putting smell, they may have gone bad – do not eat.
By Shannon Sereda MSc., natural living, whole food enthusiast