Home Fermentation of Vegetables: A Modern Resurgence of Classic Preservation Techniques
For thousands of years, people have been fermenting their home-grown vegetables for their own consumption. It started out due to the need to preserve foods for as long as possible without modern refrigeration. Since then, the popularity of fermented foods has increased and decreased, but lately many more people have been returning to old techniques.
Essentially, fermented vegetables are ‘the flavorful space between fresh and rotten’; at least The Art of Fermentation author Sandor Katz thinks so. They are actually vegetables which have had their starches and sugars converted into lactic acid – a naturally-formed preservative which stops ‘bad’ bacteria from growing. It sounds gross, but fermented vegetables taste great! Some common examples of fermented foods include sauerkraut, pickles, kefir – even ketchup and mayonnaise started out their lives as fermented foods before they became mass produced.
It is believed that thousands of years ago, wine, cheese and bread were the original fermented foods. Alcohol probably started it all off over 7,000 years ago in what is now known as Iraq (formerly Babylon). In addition, hunter-gatherers may have eaten fermented and rotting fruits when food was scarce. Having to continue to eat this over time would have led them to develop a taste for fermented fruits. Evidence of bread (another fermented food) has been found in 3,500 year-old Egyptian tombs, and fermented milk and meat products are also thought to have been invented in Babylon.
These fermentation techniques and recipes were passed down through the generations, being developed as they went, to become what they are today. You may think you know a lot about modern bread and alcohol fermenting techniques, but when it comes to vegetables, there’s a big difference in how they were fermented in the past to the techniques used today.
One modern technique is to ferment the vegetables in a clay crock, before transferring them to jars, but a far quicker and tastier option is to simple ferment the vegetables while already in glass Mason jars.
Almost any vegetables can be fermented, but cabbage is a great starting point. It is important to remember that fermentation intensifies flavors, so onion, garlic and some herbs will be too overpowering. The washed and shredded vegetables need to be squeezed until their juices come out, then a little salt, celery juice or starter culture (such as kefir grains or whey, for example) should be added. Salt is the traditional ingredient; its purpose is to inhibit the growth of bacteria which will cause the food to putrefy. The more salt that is used, the slower the fermentation process will be. Next, once placed in the jar, the vegetables must be pushed down firmly to remove all oxygen, which unwanted bacteria need to grow. Within the jar, the vegetables should be weighed down (covering them with a cabbage leaf is perfect), before the lid is tightly sealed. The jars need to be kept in a warm environment – room temperature should be fine – in order for the fermentation process to take place. The length of time that this will take varies from a couple of days to a few weeks. To a large extent it depends on taste, so keep tasting it by dipping in a sterilized spoon. Once it’s ready, it can be moved to the refrigerator and enjoyed!
With improving knowledge and technology, fermenting vegetables at home is becoming easier, quicker and more efficient. Techniques have changed a lot since the cavemen tried this out, but the principle and some of the ingredients remain the same to this day. As you can see, home fermentation of vegetables is actually a surprisingly simple process, so you have no excuse not to test out this time-honored, classic tradition yourself!