Winter is the perfect time to start fermenting foods. Although it is possible (and sometimes even desirable) to ferment foods in warm weather, it’s harder to maintain a deliciously crispy texture in fermented vegetables when the temperature is consistently over 75 degrees. Cool-weather crops such as cabbage, carrots and radishes are ideal for fermentation. Sauerkraut and even fermented liquids such as hard apple cider are all traditional tastes (and processes) of the colder months.
We ferment a variety of foods at our house. My husband and I affectionately refer to the fermentation process as “festering.” This seemingly disparaging description amuses us, but it is also a recognition of the fact that fermenting your own food is not really an act of “rotting,” but is really an act of creation — one that can go deliciously right or noxiously wrong.
Getting started with vegetables
There is a huge renaissance in fermentation in America, led mostly by the author and fermentation expert Sandor Katz. Katz is the rock star of the movement and I had the pleasure of attending one of his workshops a few months ago. Katz is something of a fermentation evangelist, and this spirit was reinforced by the fact that he spoke at the pulpit of a local church.
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I had always been a little bit afraid of fermenting my own food and I was encouraged to hear Katz advocating beginning a fermentation practice with vegetables because it is, in Katz’s words, “intrinsically safe.” This is because lactobacillus, the lactic acid-producing bacteria produced in a vegetable fermentation like sauerkraut, almost always out-compete other bacteria, including potentially harmful ones. As a result, even when a vegetable fermentation project goes badly, it is unlikely to cause serious harm.
Katz discussed fermentation not only as “an essential survival practice” but also as a means for building community. His recent book “The Art of Fermentation,” is a giant love letter to the fermentation process, and it is packed with stories about Katz’s own experimentations and those of other fermentation aficionados.
Katz ends the book with an epilogue entitled “A Cultural Revivalist Manifesto” and it’s hard to resist his call to go forth and fester. For Katz, fermentation is not only a metaphor for the importance of creating communities, it is an essential building block of community-building.
At Katz’s workshop I started a batch of sauerkraut with carrots, carrots, turnips and garlic. It produced a serious stench after just a few days and I ended up throwing it out. I’m sure it would have been safe to eat, just not much fun to eat.
A second batch, minus the garlic, fared much better. I’ve even roped my husband into the mix. He focused on the alcohol-oriented end of fermentation by making a delicious batch of hard apple cider.
In the midst of my new obsession, I followed up the Sandor Katz workshop with a second fermentation workshop by Alex Lewin. Lewin’s new book “Real Food Fermentation” is concise where Katz’s book is exhaustive, but equally impassioned. Lewin describes Katz as “the grandfather of the modern fermentation revolution” and says he “feels [Katz's] presence whenever fermentation is on the table.” Read together, these two books provide both inspiration and how-to knowledge about fermentation. Katz’s book also offers a collection of useful step-by-step photographs that show readers just how things should look.
Both authors make the point that many foods we eat on a daily basis also use fermentation processes in their production. Sauerkraut and kimchi may be the classic examples of fermentation, but everything from bread to vinegar, yogurt, sour cream, corned beef, soy sauce, chocolate, coffee and beer all owe their existence to various kinds of fermentation.
My greatest fermentation success story (so far) is a delicious batch of red wine vinegar, which I started by acquiring a “mother” or starter from my friend Elizabeth. Making vinegar is a simple process of adding leftover wine to a starter. The starter or “mother” can come from another batch of homemade vinegar or a bit of unpasteurized store-bought apple cider vinegar.
Elizabeth also suggested that I try making kombucha, a fermented tea that is extremely popular for its supposed health benefits. She even gave me a kombucha starter, which is called a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY.
I’m sorry to say that I forgot about the poor thing and I’m not sure if it will still grow once I take it out of the refrigerator where I’ve been storing it. I’m not normally a huge fan of drinking kombucha and I should have known that my apathy toward drinking the stuff may not have given me the most committed approach to its production. However, the starter still rests in my fridge awaiting my next experiment in fermenting a new batch of kombucha. Time will tell if it works. But that’s the great thing about fermentation. It’s full of mystery, expectation and the promise of success.
The evangelical fervor for fermentation is contagious. So I urge you to get out there and fester.
Vinegar by Alex Lewin
From “Real Food Fermentation: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen,” published by Quarry Books and reprinted with permission.
Yield: 1 quart (946 ml), to start
Prep time: Minimal
Total time: Months; varies
1 quart (950 ml) wine, apple cider, or other fermented beverage
¼ cup (60 ml) vinegar from a previous batch, or some store-bought raw apple cider vinegar, to use as starter (optional)
Carboy, bottle, crock, or jar, ideally dark-colored glass and definitely lead-free
Handkerchief or towel with which to cover the container; you want to keep foreign matter out but allow the vinegar to breathe
Rubber band or piece of string
1. Pour your wine or cider into the vessel.
2. Add the starter, if using — roughly 1 tablespoon (15 ml) for every cup (250 ml) of liquid, or ¼ cup (60ml) starter per quart (950 ml) of liquid.
3. Cover with the cloth, fasten with the rubber band or string, leave in a dark place, and wait. Be patient. Taste the vinegar occasionally to monitor fermentation, but it will likely take one or two months to become fully sour.
Unfinished bottles of wine are great for this recipe. Once you have some vinegar in progress, you can add to it wine from any unfinished bottles that linger in your kitchen.
Top photo: Sauerkraut from fermented vegetables. Credit: Susan Lutz