Fermented foods are easy to make and very nutritious
Making fermented foods at home is easy and takes little time. Fermentation adds vitamin B12, plus other vitamins and antioxidant compounds to vegetables, as a byproduct of the lacto-bacteria that do the work. Refrigerated fermented foods will last for many months as fermentation is an ancient and effective form of preservation. Fermenting is a great way get side dishes and condiments for many meals from one fast prep session. This is why fermented vegetables are far superior to pickled vegetables made with vinegar.
For the past year I have used the dedicated fermentation crock shown at the top of this article. Before that I just used standard canning jars or glass gallon jars. The main advantage of the dedicated crock is a much higher success rate, especially when fermenting vegetables other than cabbage and its relatives. The water trough/seal built into the top lip of the fermenting crock allows venting of the carbon dioxide produced but prevents contaminants(fungus, molds, “bad” bacteria, etc…) in the air from entering. Another advantage of a dedicated crock for fermented foods is that even the smallest ones generally available hold almost twice as much as a gallon jar, saving time by allowing larger batches. The crocks are not cheap, but are worth it if you ferment regularly. Fewer batches will spoil and you will get a bigger(longer lasting) yield from each prep session.
Fermenting cabbage and its relatives is nearly fool-proof
My usual fermented foods, always in the refrigerator and ready to add to any plate, are sauerkraut and kimchi. Both of these are cabbage-based and almost fool-proof even without a starter liquor. Just add salt, rub into the ingredients, press into the fermenting container and start tasting for readiness in about a week.
Cabbage and the rest of the cruciferous plant family grow in symbiosis with several strains of lacto-bacteria, both on the surface of the plants and within the plant structures. This is why they are so fool-proof and do not need a starter liquor to ferment to perfection. For the most basic sauerkraut, nothing is needed but cabbage and salt.
For variety, I also occasionally ferment cucumbers(the original sour pickles), green beans, okra and hot sauce. For these vegetables, not related to cabbage in the cruciferous plant family, I like to use a starter liquor from the latest batch of kraut or kimchi. The starter is not absolutely necessary but gives me a much higher success rate and allows me to use less salt. I am always thinking about new possibilities for fermentation and will try a chunky tomato salsa next.
For maximum nutrition and to take full advantage of the probiotic properties of fermented foods, don’t can them. Raw ferments will generally last more than a month at room temperature and many months when refrigerated. Simply pack them into glass jars with enough of the fermenting liquid to cover the vegetables completely and keep them covered with a fitted lid. If you want them to last more than a year at room temperature, can them using the water-bath method(ferments are naturally quite acidic, hence their sourness). Just be aware that you are giving up any probiotic benefits by canning, as all ot the bacteria will be killed by the heat.
Sourdough bread, another healthy fermented food
Another type of fermentation that I do continually at home is making sourdough bread. Sourdough is no more difficult or time intensive than fermenting vegetables. I have been using the same 100% whole wheat sourdough starter for more than two years, made by leaving equal amounts of whole wheat bread flour and water on the counter, with daily feedings of more flour and water, for about two weeks until it becomes quite active and bubbly. The only maintenance is a continued daily feeding. It stays at room temperature because I bake a loaf or bread or batch of rolls almost every week. If used less often, sourdough starter can be refrigerated and fed once each week or even frozen for up to a year.
Advantages of naturally fermented sourdough bread over bread made with commercial yeast are the longer fermentation time, the complexity of having multiple bacteria and yeast strains and the delicious sour flavor that gives real sourdough its name. My usual sourdough method takes two days. This is plenty of time for the bacteria to break down much of the wheat gluten into other forms of protein and develop the acids that make the sourness. The flours and grains used in the dough also have enough time to become fully saturated with moisture, taking on a softer, creamier texture. This gives sourdough its distinctive texture and mouth-feel.
Many people read “two days” and immediately think “no way”. I often find sourdough easier and more convenient because of the two days rise. On the first day, the starter is fed in the early morning as usual. Three to four hours later, when the starter is fully active and bubbly again, the sponge is made from starter, the additional flours for the loaf and more water as needed. The sponge is allowed to rise until doubled in size, usually five to six hours. Then I make the bulk dough, adding all other ingredients to the sponge along with enough additional flours to make a slightly moist bread dough. The bulk dough is covered and refrigerated over night, then removed to room temperature early the next morning. When the bulk is doubled in size I hand knead it with additional flour to make the final loaf. This is allowed to rise in a basket lined with a well-floured towel until doubled in size. Then it is baked and generally cool enough to cut and enjoy with a 6:00 p.m. dinner.
The time involved at each step is not more than ten minutes. The timing can always be adjusted with refrigeration to slow the fermentation and rise. Feed the starter in the early evening and refrigerate the sponge for the next day. Refrigerate the final loaf dough and this becomes a one-step-per-day process spread over four days with fine results.
Please try this at home
So try making your own fermented foods at home. No special equipment is needed. All clean-up is easy because nothing is cooked and only one mixing bowl, a knife and a cutting board are needed. The results are delicious and nutritious and last a long time without the need for canning. Start with sauerkraut for simplicity and reliability, then move on to more complicated ferments and other kinds of vegetables. Even fruit compotes, chutneys and jams can be fermented.
Making fermented foods will spoil you for the store-bought varieties, I guarantee. The kraut and kimchi are fresher, crisper and less salty. The cucumber pickles taste cleaner and sharper. The sourdough will be better than anything else unless you shop at an actual bakery.