The Standard American Diet, for the most part, consists of dead food. Westerners spend more money on diet aids than on vegetables. While it's true that diet aids are more expensive than vegetables, the point is: we have a problem! Traditional diets included fermented and cultured foods like sauerkraut, kimchee, dosas, idlis, injera, ogi, kvass, vinegar, corned beef, sourdough, curtido, and traditional corn tortillas, just to name a few examples. In fact, this is how food was traditionally prepared and preserved for generations. Unfortunately, our food supply has been in a steady decline since the early 1900's with heat processing, packaged, canned and highly processed foods, not to mention the preservatives, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, antibiotics, hormones and other unnatural substances often accompanying what we eat. Just look around, we have the diet related diseases to show for our poor food culture.
While people generations ago prepared food this way out of necessity, they likely did not understand the many nutritional benefits that this traditional method offered. Probiotics, gut, microbes, microbiome, gut flora, beneficial bacteria and lacto-fermentation have become buzz words in health minded circles. What's it all about?
What is Lacto-Fermentation
Essentially lacto-fermentation is a method to preserve food. What's even better, it increases and/or preserves the vitamins and enzymes in food. It improves the digestibility of the fermented food and allows beneficial bacteria to proliferate. It's important to mention that it has nothing to do with milk or lactose, rather lactobacillus, is a specific species of beneficial bacteria important to lacto-fermentation.
You may have heard about the importance of having a healthy gut. Gut is a funny word, but it's often used to describe our digestive system. A healthy digestive system is really the core of good health. When we have a compromised digestive system, or gut, it leads to more problems than just a tummy ache. Hormonal imbalances, eczema, sleep disorders, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, food intolerances, allergies, auto-immune disease, anxiety, depression, and other chronic health issues all point to an unhealthy gut. Approximately 75-80% of our immune system is to be found in our gut. In addition, it's where our nutrients are absorbed and processed and where the majority of detoxification takes place.
So what does that have to do with lacto-fermentation? We are dependent upon microbes, in fact, trillions of microorganisms are necessary just to stay alive. Specifically, in our gut, the microbes break down food; providing us with energy, protect us against germs, and promote absorption of nutrients. Eating lacto-fermented food is one way to nourish our intestinal microbiome. In other words, it's a good way to supply our digestive system with little beneficial creatures that will be put to work keeping us healthy.
Awhile ago during a lacto-fermenting class, a student pointed to a jar of fermented vegetables and said, "You mean to tell me this is a jar full of probiotics?" Bingo! That's exactly what it is and probiotics that your body actually recognizes and can easily utilize: popping a probiotic pill... not so much.
How Does Lacto-Fermentation Work
A successful fermentation prevents the proliferation of bad bacteria, while allowing good bacteria to flourish. Various strains of beneficial bacteria are on the surface of plants, as well as in and on humans. Lactobacillus, specifically, produces lactic acid, the same acid that's responsible for the tartness of yogurt, pickles, vinegar etc. Lactic acid is beneficial as a natural preservative, because it inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria, allowing good bacteria to flourish.
There are several different types of fermentation. Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic fermentation. That means a fermentation that takes place without the presence of oxygen. Essentially what's important, is that the food that you're fermenting remains submerged below a liquid. Food that's above the surface of the liquid is exposed to oxygen and susceptible to mold.
Salt is an important component in lacto-fermentation. It inhibits the growth of competing bacteria, allowing salt-tolerant lactobacilli to propagate. Lactic acid takes over, which in turns allows vegetables to be stored for a longer period of time. It also hardens the pectin, keeping vegetables crunchy and introduces more flavor.
Of course, you'll want to use a high quality salt to begin the process. Without going into a lengthy discussion on salt, suffice it to say that it's best to stick to a natural sea salt that has no added iodine, or anti-caking agents. Salt can vary quite a bit in it's weight. Many people use a scale to weigh, rather than measure their salt. However, if you're using a standard grind salt instead of say, a coarse, flake, or finely ground salt, using a volume measurement rather than weight will work fine.
People have been lacto-fermenting vegetables for thousands of years, long before expensive powdered cultures were around. Frankly, all you need to lacto-ferment food is non-iodized salt and non-chlorinated water. That being said, many people do use a starter of some sort, especially when they're new to lacto-fermentation.
A starter culture can be as simple as whey drained off of raw, or commercial yogurt, juice from sauerkraut, or a previous ferment. Whey tends to produce a little more consistent and predicable results.
What exactly does a starter culture do? It introduces lactic acid, making the brine initially more acidic, instead of waiting for the lactobacillus to get around to doing it on it's own. It essentially gives lacto-fermentation a jump start. It produces a less favorable environment for undesirable bacterial growth right away. You can use less salt, because the added lactic acid is doing part of the salt's job. It can make ferments a bit more predictable, as well as speeding things up just a bit.
Container: Lacto-fermentation was also around long before fancy specialized jars were invented. You really don't need to spend money. You likely have a food safe jar already that will work just fine. Avoid plastic and metal containers.
Lid: A fancy lid isn't important, or necessary. A simple canning lid on a mason jar works well. You don't need any fancy equipment. Believe me, I've tried out a lot of different types of gadgets over the years and I always go back to a basic canning jar and lid.
Weights: Again, don't go out and spend money. Fermentation weights are nice, to keep fermenting food under the brine, but not necessary. Many years ago, I used sterilized rocks from my garden, although depending on the type of rock, that may not be a food safe practice. Another method is to use a smaller jar inserted in a larger jar to weigh down fermenting food. I've had success with not weighing my food down under the brine, if I push it down under the brine once a day.
Canning Funnel: This isn't necessary, but it's helpful for getting vegetables into a jar with less mess.
Blender/Chopper: Not necessary, but nice to speed up salsa preparation time.
Scale: If you're planning on doing self-brining ferments, such as sauerkraut, a scale is helpful, so you know how much salt to use. You don't need to spend a lot of money. There are lots of good options on Amazon for under $15.
How Do You Know Fermentation is Done
The answer to that is: whenever you like the taste. Having said that, one of the biggest clues is when it tastes pickled instead of salty like sea water. Sour flavor indicates the presence of lactic acid; evidence that lactobacillus has been at work. The longer it goes, the more sour it will become. Taste your brine before you set your container aside to ferment. Taste it again in a couple days to see how it's changed. Continue to do that until you begin to notice a distinct change from a sea water taste to a tart pickle-like taste. At that point, you can decide to refrigerate, or move to a cold cellar.
Ferments can take anywhere from a couple days to weeks, months and even years. The timing will depend on what type of ferment you're doing and what taste you prefer.
When I began lacto-fermenting, I was nervous. I didn't want to disturb my jar of fermenting food and I worried about when it was done. However, there is no need to be so uptight about your ferments. Dip in and taste it occasionally to see how it's progressing. You can even occasionally give your ferment a stir to discourage mold growth on the surface where it's exposed to air.
What If It Molds
Typically mold occurs because of exposure to air. If you have a good brine, the mold will only survive at the surface. Keep your vegetables submerged as much as possible. If a stray veggie floats to the surface and molds, it's fine to scrape it off, give the mixture a stir to expose any mold to a more acidic and less hospitable environment. A harmless yeasty white scum is particularly common with kvass. Skim it off and the kvass is still perfectly safe to drink. That being said, trust your instincts. One time I accidentally doubled the vegetables for a ferment, but didn't double anything else. Because it was early on in my lacto-fermenting journey and I was basically self taught, piecing together bits of information here and there, I didn't recognize what was wrong. The result was that there were too many vegetables for the amount of liquid and it failed to properly ferment. So, although lacto-ferments can actually be safer than canning when following proper procedures and food safety practices, if it smells bad, or looks particularly questionable, throw it out. Better safe than sorry.
Have Fun and Enjoy!
Lacto-Fermentation is a fun and easy way to preserve food, consume benefical microbes, enzymes, vitamins and minerals. Follow some recipes at first to give you a feel for it. Much like sourdough, it's an art and not everyone does it exactly the same, but the results can still be delicious, as well as nutritious. If you're new to fermenting, don't get overwhelmed. Lacto-fermenting is simple; much easier than canning! Here's several recipes to start out with, so don't worry about remembering everything.