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Summer Culture and the Summer Kitchen
Traditionally at this time of the year, our forebears gladly left behind the warm hearth of the “keeping room” and moved to the “summer kitchen.” The summer kitchen was an addition added to the back of the house for hot-weather meal preparation and dining. Facing north,1 this segment was positioned to escape the intense rays of the summer sun. The summer kitchen provided an informal lifestyle, with meals centered upon food picked fresh from the garden, using minimal application of heat for cooking.
Today, the warmer, extended days of summer invite us also to shift to a less-formal way of living. Summer can encourage us to change the pace, to lighten up, to adventure, and to try out new experiences. In view of the glorious fresh produce that summer gifts to us, I cannot think of a better concept to fit these seasonal themes than to ferment fruits and vegetables from our own backyards, orchards, or our local farmers’ market.
Fermenting invites exploration, experimentation and innovation because any fruit or vegetable can be fermented. It is an age-old technique that relies on the natural abundance of lactobacillus and other beneficial bacteria (that are associated with all plant foods and raw milk), as well as their ability to convert carbohydrates into lactic acid, other organic acids, and carbon dioxide. It is a different process from alcoholic fermentation, which involves yeast working on carbohydrates to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide, so fermented foods can be enjoyed by people who are yeast-sensitive.2
Fermenting fits the spirit of the summer kitchen because it requires no heat source and no fancy equipment. It is a living, dynamic process. Results will vary with temperature, humidity, and the ingredients used. Even with the same ingredients, every fermenting experiment can be unique, since fruits and vegetables vary in their degree of ripeness and nutrient density. And, ferments will also be unique because they incorporate on any given occasion a kaleidoscope of fermenting microorganisms from within your local environment. Of the millions of microbial cultures, no exact set will ever be replicated again in quite the same way. It is an endlessly interesting experience.
In the modern world of refrigeration/freezing we no longer must rely upon fermentation to preserve our food. But with the convenience of cooling appliances, have we lost sight of the health-enhancing qualities inherent in fermented foods? These were benefits that our ancestors seemed to appreciate so well. In the past, fermentation helped make foods more digestible and more nutritious and served to boost their immunity in times before antibiotics.
Because the lactobacillus is so prevalent, it quickly destroys toxins and makes foods more digestible and nutritious as it creates new vitamins, enzymes, and antioxidants. It enhances the taste of fruits and vegetables, especially as a condiment, and as you gradually acclimatize to the refreshing “zip.” And, fermenting foods is another way to “eat local” since preparing foods in this way helps incorporate beneficial local microbial organisms into meals.
Fermented Foods and Immunity…Probiotics. Fermented foods are “pro-biotics.” Unlike “anti-biotics” which kill off good intestinal flora, fermented foods are a natural source of “friendly” bacteria for the digestive system. They help to preserve and restore the balance of good bacteria in the intestinal tract to keep harmful bacteria and yeast in check. Establishing good intestinal flora is like providing and supporting the proper soil nutrients in an organic garden. A commercially-raised carrot will not have the same nutrient density as one grown organically. And, similarly, an organic carrot will not be digested and absorbed unless the “soil” of the digestive system is enriched by adequate friendly bacteria to allow for its proper assimilation. As fermentation guru Sandor Katz suggests:
By eating a variety of live fermented foods, you promote diversity among microbial cultures in your body…Your body is an ecosystem that can function most effectively when populated by diverse species of microorganisms.3
Our digestive system is the seat of our immunity. Having a healthy intestinal environment is the cornerstone of a strong immune system because it is here that the lymphoid tissue of the intestine creates lymphocytes and immunoglobulins. Friendly bacteria in the intestinal tract are also essential for the proper functioning of disease/cancer fighters like neutropils, macrophages, interferons, and cytokines.4 It is for these reasons that more than 80 percent of our immune system resides in the “gut.”5
Prebiotics. As mentioned above, almost anything can be fermented, and in infinite combinations. Fermentation can help put diversity back into our diet. Our Palaeolithic ancestors ate from an estimated 500 plant species, which provided a wide array of “prebiotic” foods. Prebiotics are non-digestible foods that foster the growth of friendly bacteria. Key prebiotics are foods with soluble-fiber such as tempeh (fermented soybeans), raw oats, whole wheat and barley, as well as inulin-containing foods like onions, garlic, chicory, jicama, and Jerusalem artichokes. Manufactured and prepared foods in the modern diet leave many people deficient both with respect to probiotics and prebiotics:
It may or may not be a coincidence that increases in inflammatory conditions in general, allergic conditions, obesity, coronary heart disease, and cancers in the western world have paralleled the decreased consumption of probiotics and prebiotics, but also a reduced variation in the prebiotics consumed.6
Fermentation Opens the Door to Possibility, To the Wonders of the “Whole” Beyond the Analysis of the Microscope. In the “magical” process of fermentation, microflora working on foods produce alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid. These substances work as “bio-preservatives” to retain nutrients, prevent spoilage, and make food more digestible. Sandor Katz defines fermentation as “the action of life upon death” whereby living organisms consume food matter and transform it, freeing nutrients for the further sustenance of life.7 Indeed, fermentation brings a bit of alchemy right into our own homes. It can open any kitchen to the worlds of innovation, exploration, and experimentation, and it can awaken the imagination:
The deeper we go into the facts of life, the more mysteries we encounter. Analyzing living systems, we often have to pull them to pieces, decompose complex biological happening into simple reactions. The smaller and simpler the system we study, the more it will satisfy the rules of physics and chemistry, the more we will understand it, but also the less ‘alive’ it will be. So when we have broken down living systems to molecules and analyzed their behavior, we may kid ourselves into believing that we know what life is, forgetting that molecules have no life at all.(( Nobel laureate Albert Von Szent-Gyorgyi.))
Fermenting Foods…A Simple Beginning Using Quality Vegetables and Salt
This newsletter is meant to simply whet your appetite for fermenting foods. Reading Sandor Katz’ and Nancy Lee Bentley’s books (see resource list, page 5) may inspire you to think of fermenting some of your favorite foods, particularly since this process is so closely tied to digestive-immune health and a mainstay defense against chronic disease.
How Does It Work?
The lactobacilli culture is on the surface of all plants—grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables. As mentioned above, lactobacilli work on carbohydrates in fresh produce, producing lactic-acid.8 As long as you have a preponderance of lactobacilli to start, they will destroy the pathogenic bacteria and dominate a fermenting culture.9 Salt is needed in the first several days to check putrefying bacteria until sufficient lactic acid builds up to take on the preservation role. Lactic acid increases the vitamin and enzyme content of foods, while it also supports good gut flora, neutralizes anti-nutrients, and improves digestibility.
What Do You Need?
All that is required… fresh organic vegetables, a sharp knife and vegetable grater, sea salt,10 filtered water, wide-mouth jars or glass/ceramic nesting bowls, and a tamper.
Containers: Glass jars or ceramic bowls work best. Avoid metal since fermenting acids and salt will corrode metal.
If using a bowl, a cylindrical shape is best because this shape is easiest to cover and weight ingredients to extract juices and to assure that all food is submerged. A round bowl requires only a plate to cover and then a weight placed on top. The weight can simply be a jar filled with water, or anything you have on hand. Once ingredients are weighted, the salt will continue to extract liquids from the foods, which usually results in ingredients that are submerged in their own juices by the following day.
If using wide-mouthed jars, be sure to pack ingredients tightly, using a tamper or your hands. If necessary, weight by nesting another jar filled with water on top of salted ingredients until enough liquid has been extracted to cover ingredients. You may need to add a bit of brine. Allow an inch or two at the top of the jar since foods and juices will expand during fermentation.
Salt: Salt not only pulls water from foods, but it also discourages the growth of “bad” bacteria, while allowing lactobacilli (which can survive in a salty environment) to set to work. After 2-3 days of fermentation, vegetables begin to soften and acidify. If you prefer to ferment without salt, you might try celery juice as a substitute.11 A good rule of thumb is to use 2-3 tablespoons of salt for every 5 pounds of vegetables. Use only a quality sea salt, since supermarket salts have added aluminum and anti-caking agents.
Brine: Brine, which is simply sea salt diluted in filtered water, helps to protect against the growth of undesirable microorganisms, and it also helps enhance the flavor of the fermentation. How much salt you use is a matter of taste. The saltier the brine, the slower your foods will ferment, and the more sour (acidic) the final product. Ultimately, with too much salt, no microbacteria can survive.
Fresh and Pure Produce: Make sure that your foods, utensils, and jars are cleaned well. Fresh, local, organic foods not only are the most nutrient-dense, but also will have the most water, which is something that aids fermenting when the goal is to assure that all ingredients are submerged. Vegetables lose water with time and do not ferment as easily.
Steps to Follow:
Preparing foods for fermentation: Fresh vegetables are usually chopped or grated. I find grating works best if you are using wide-mouthed quart jars, where food is a little trickier to pack and to weight since the jar is not a perfect cylinder. Grating allows you to pack foods like shredded cabbage or carrots tightly into a wide-mouthed jar, which can be done with your hands or a tamper
Grating or finely chopping foods creates more surface area for the salt to work. Salt pulls out juices and pectins from vegetables, giving them more “crunch.” Pounding, packing, and weighting foods breaks down cellular walls and helps draw liquids. (You may want to chop rather than to grate beets, since beet sugar can ferment rapidly, favoring alcohol over lactobacilli…unless, of course, this is your intention!)
Fermenting whole vegetables: To ferment whole vegetables, such as cucumbers, zucchini, string beans, green onions, garlic, etc, mix a brine to taste and be sure vegetables are completely submerged.
Submerging ingredients: The key principle to assuring a good fermentation is to have all ingredients submerged in liquid so they are not exposed to air. Fermentation is a biochemical anaerobic (without air) process that involves the oxidation of sugars and starches. Should there not be enough liquid to submerge ingredients, simply mix a bit of filtered water with sea salt to create a brine and cover to insure that all ingredients are submerged. If ingredients are allowed to come in contact with air, they may mold. This mold is harmless…just scrape it off since all the foods below are perfectly fine. You may want to add a bit more brine to insure in the future that liquid is sufficient to block oxygen.
Time and Temperature: At a room temperature of 70-75 degrees, foods should ferment in two to four days. They should then be moved to the refrigerator or a cool, dark place.
Sandor Katz, Wild Fermentation
Nancy Lee Bentley, Truly Cultured
Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions
Simple Fermenting in Your Summer Kitchen:
Starter Recipe: Master Vegetable Ferment in a Quart Jar:
One wide-mouth quart jar
Grated clean, fresh, organic vegetables
Mix in 1-2 tablespoons of sea salt
Pack firmly into the jar, in layers as you go, either with your hands or a tamper
Use filtered water to fill to the cover ingredients, leaving an inch at the top because both ingredients and liquid will expand during fermenting.
Cover with a lid and leave at room temperature for three days, assuming a room temperature around 70 degrees. Warmer temperatures require less time, and cooler will require more.
Vegetables that work well when grated: Cabbage, carrots, turnips, daikon radish, zucchini, garlic.
Young zucchini with tender skin, grated
2 teaspoons of sea salt for every 2 pounds of zucchini
Pack grated zucchini into a quart jar. Mix sea salt with filtered water and add. Place on counter top for 3 days and then move the jar to the refrigerator. This is good with a salad of fresh tomatoes, onion, and zucchini.
Of all the vegetables man can conserve through lacto-fermentation, cabbage has been man’s preferred choice”…Annelies Schoneck.
One head of organic fresh cabbage, shredded
2 Tablespoons Celtic or sea salt
Mix cabbage and salt. Pound cabbage with a rubber or wooden mallet or a meat tenderizer to bruise cabbage to help release juices. Pack cabbage into a quart jar with a tamper or your hands, leaving about 2” of space at the top. Add filtered water until cabbage is fully submerged. Cover the jar with a lid and leave at room temperature for 3-7 days. Taste everyday after the third day and place in the refrigerator when you are satisfied with the taste. The kraut will keep in the refrigerator for two to three months.
Variations: I like to mix in some grated apple or carrot, or try some seasonings like caraway seed or juniper berries.
Ginger Carrots (yield: 1 quart)
4 cups grated carrots, tightly packed
1 T. freshly grated ginger
1 T. sea salt
In a bowl, mix all ingredients and pound with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer to release juices. Place in a quart-sized, wide-mouth mason jar and press down firmly with a pounder until juices cover the carrots. The top of the carrots should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar. Cover tightly and leave at room temperature about 3 days before transferring to cold storage.
Source: Sally Fallon
A Final Comment…The Art of Fermenting Varies With the Lens of the Artist…Just as in our June 2009 newsletter discussion of natural sweeteners, it seems even the experts do not agree. Fermenting is truly an art and you are welcome to indulge in your own “writer’s license.” It seems that fermenting is generally more predictable when you seal off oxygen and when you add whey for the acidity that it adds, but neither is essential. You can see what fits best for you and how much experimentation and variation you are willing to tolerate. There are many workable variations…
Is whey necessary to ferment fruit?
• “Whey is essential in the recipes calling for fruit.”…Sally Fallon
• “We ferment with a mix of vegetables and fruits, but you can ferment fruit alone…If you have extra whey, use it, but it is not necessary.”…Richard Pooley, M.D.
• Sandor Katz also ferments fruits without whey (See recipe below).
Recognizing that produce needs to be submerged in brine, must you also cover with a lid thought the fementing process?
• “Ferment “until ripe. Taste your ferments as often as you like for the taste that you find most pleasing to you.”…Sandor Katz
• “Leave a 1 inch space at the top of the jar…and close the lid tightly…the presence of oxygen, once fermentation has begun, will ruin the final product.”…Sally Fallon
¼ pineapple 1 small bunch of grapes, stemmed
2 pitted plums ½ cup cashews, or other nuts
2 cored pears 1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
1 cored apple 1-2 fresh jalapeno peppers, finely chopped
2 teaspoons sea salt 1-2 hot chilies or red hot pepper in any form, fresh or dried
Juice of one lemon 1 leek or onion, finely chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped 3 T. grated ginger
Chop fruit into bite-sized pieces. Leave grapes whole. Add in any other fruit you want to try. Add nuts and mix together. Add salt, lemon juice, and spices and mix well. Stuff kimchi mixture into a clean quart-size jar. Pack tightly into the jar, pressing down until the brine rises. If necessary, add a little water. Weight down with a smaller jar, filled with water, nested at the top. As this sweet kimchi ages, it will develop an increasingly alcoholic flavor. Let age on the countertop about a week. Shift it to the refrigerator.
Source: Sandor Katz, Wild Fermentation
Copyright 2009 Pathways4Health
- The front door and living spaces faced south to catch the sun’s warmth during frigid winter months. [↩]
- I owe Richard W. Pooley, M.D., much for sharing many of these ideas and inspiring me to incorporate fermentation into my own kitchen. [↩]
- Sandor Katz, Wild Fermentation. [↩]
- Natasha Campbell-McBride, M.D. [↩]
- This newsletter is not meant as an exhaustive study of the relationship of the good intestinal flora, the immune system, and physical and psychological health. I leave this for a future newsletter. [↩]
- University College of London, Liver Institute. PubMed UI: 11706296. [↩]
- Wild Fermentation, 33. [↩]
- When it comes to limiting the action of bacteria that spoil foods, lactic acid is more powerful than any other organic acid and, unlike alcohol and acetic acid which must be broken down by the body and eliminated, lactic acid can be used constructively to enhance health…Annelies Schoneck. [↩]
- Richard W. Pooley, M.D. [↩]
- Not to be confused with supermarket table salt, with contains anti-caking “fillers.” [↩]
- A favorite technique of Sandor Katz. [↩]