Happy New Year everyone. If you’re making resolutions and thinking about eating more fermented food you are in good company. Fermented food is number 1 of the top 10 food trends for 2018 according to the BBC Good Food Guide. So how is your gut health? Haven’t been asked recently? You must have been in hiding (or MacDonalds). Everywhere you turn someone is rotting something and scoffing it.
My Mum and many others find this rise in fermentation baffling. She is a very good food preserver of many years experience and talking with her about the principles behind lactic pickles and drinks she admitted to being at a loss to understand why anyone would intentionally let their food rot. She succinctly explained to me that she has spent the best part of her life avoiding dishing up rotten food. But she did recall being given “that slimy thing you fed with tea back in the 80s” but that didn’t last long. Fermentation in our house meant homebrew and ginger beer bugs and both were excellent (mostly). Our food was sweet, sour, salty or bitter and umami was a crane from folded paper right?
Captain Cook knew the benefits of fermented foods nearly 250 years ago, feeding his sailors sauerkraut to ward off scurvy. But sadly very few fermented foods dropped anchor into the kiwi culinary psyche. Maori cuisine has a far richer tradition of fermenting food that our national cuisine could have embraced, letting select Kai slowly soften into a delicious rot in running streams was one method and also a handy way of removing deadly toxins from some foods like Karaka berries, although that is a not so common practice now.
Even today our widely practiced preserving traditions are still rooted in a deep and well-founded mistrust of bacteria. Despite many parts of the world having a rich and ancient tradition of preserving with fermentation, the notion that there are good and bad bacteria is only just bubbling to the surface here. And we’re not alone – the rot is setting in across the Tasman too. The Fermentary is at the front of the Australian fermented food scene producing tastebud jangling products that appeal to jaded palettes and intestines alike. From their base in Daylesford, Victoria, Sharon Flynn, and Roger Fowler write, make, teach and sell a diverse range of fermented foods and fermenting supplies. Sharon’s book “Ferment for Good“ is a great read and guide for anyone with an interest in the subject.
Like any new food trend, it is easy to get carried away. I had a conversation before Christmas with a friend who has recently immersed herself and her kitchen in the dark and quiet art of fermented food and drink. It went something like – (me) “So what did you think of the water kefir then?” – (her) “Well it’s nice but I think I prefer the Kombucha because I already have the milk kefir that I alternate with the yogurt – although it might be good for the sourdough starter or to get the kimchi going – help yourself to another lacto-green bean – they’re good aren’t they – um when do you get time to eat anything that isn’t fermented these days?”.
You can reach “peak ferment” where your bench looks like a laboratory with various specimens bubbling, bobbing and burping away and you spend all your time nursing along this bug or that. Tending them all is a bit like one of those online games where you have a pet, farm, tribe or whatever that you must sustain – except this is real and you are sustaining yourself which wins out in my book. Like your ferments – you will find a happy medium where you work out which bugs you get along with and how many of them.
So what are these good bacteria? and what makes them good for preserving and good for us? There are many different safe bacteria, yeasts and moulds that help create food full of delicious umami flavours (umami being the fifth taste that the bulk of us also knew nothing about until we tasted soy sauce). Many come from the Lactobacillus genus (hence Lactic fermentation) which includes species such as acidophilus, kefiri, sakei, plantarum, rhamnosus, casei and many more. Members of this family also make cheeses and yogurts. They are present in the air and on the skins of fruits and vegetables and given the right conditions they will multiply spectacularly.
Ironically, this rampant proliferation of bacteria is one of two things that makes fermented food safe, the other is salt and we’ll come that. Basically, in the right conditions these bacteria break down the sugars and starches in the food they’re fermenting and turn them into superior flavours, awful smells, and lactic acid. Importantly it is this lactic acid that preserves the food. Just a different type of acid than the vinegar (acetic acid) or citric acid we are used to using for preserving pickles. Same principle. Bad bugs don’t grow in acidic environments.
But how do you know your lactic acid producing bacteria are getting jiggy and actually making the acid? Until you get to know the look, smell and taste of a healthy ferment I recommend trusting in science – put a pH strip in it. If the bacteria have worked their magic you’ll see a low pH of around 4.5 which is acidic enough to safely preserve the contents from other harmful bacteria. Anything above 4.5 is not safe for longterm food preservation. (that bit was important – read it again)
Salt is the second safe element of a good lactic vegetable fermentation. A salty brine gives a great flavour and another layer of protection for the ferment to safeguard the pickle while the bacteria multiply. Luckily they don’t mind salt. We use a natural sea salt with no iodine or anti-caking agents in it. Once you’ve reached the desired tang and acidity you can store your ferment in the fridge or in a cool place and as long as the food is under the brine and fitted with an airlock (I don’t recommend tight lids for living pickles) then it will keep for a year or more. Modern homes are warm and it is hard to find a cool spot to store your pickles. Cool is good because it slows down further fermentation. If you get into it you don’t want to clog up your main fridge with a year’s worth of pickles. I use a wine fridge that also gets used for cheeses – and everything except wine.
So, do the benefits of lactic fermenting preserves outweigh the smell and the fear of giving someone (including yourself) the squits or worse by feeding them rotten food? Although I’ve been a late adopter of fermentation as a preserving method I am a convert for vegetables and drinks. Unlike fruits, vegetables don’t have naturally high levels of acid so they can’t be safely preserved without adding acid – usually vinegar. I grew up on vinegar-based vegetable chutneys, relishes and pickled onions and I still like an odd dollop of mustard cauliflower piccalilli with cold mutton but I find the clean, sharp flavours and the tang of lactic vegetable pickles are so moreish I actually crave them. My fermented drink of choice is water kefir, made with root ginger and dried fruit – kind of a hipster version of the ginger beer bug I grew up with.
I also like the process of making vegetable ferments because you don’t have to have a big boil up or worry about getting airtight seals, in fact, you actively don’t want this! My lacto-fermented beans recipe below is designed to do a single quart (litre) preserving jar which is sometimes all I’ve got time to do when I come in from the garden of an evening with a bunch of beans. You don’t need a lot of equipment. Good glass jars and airlocks and some weights to keep the contents of the jars submerged. We haven’t mentioned the health benefits of these living foods but some of the good bacteria make their way into your intestines too where research shows they can help everything from your digestion to your mood, appetite and even immune system! There are lots of reasons to give fermented preserving a go but flavour is the most important – they just taste so good.
Here are a couple of my favourite easy vegetable ferments to get you started. First up:
Crunchy Green Bean Pickles
Anyone who grows beans knows that for 3-4 weeks over the peak of the summer (now) there are always more beans than mouths to eat them. I have tried freezing beans and salting beans and drying beans but none of these methods does justice to the crunchy green beans of summer. This lacto-fermented method actually adds something to the bean and retains the crunch!
- 500g (1lb) of Green Beans
- Sprigs of Dill
- Chili Flakes
- 2 cloves Garlic
- 1 tablespoon Natural Sea Salt
- 1 ltr (1qt) glass jar with airlock lid
- a fresh grape leaf (optional)
Pick, wash, top and tail, 1/2 kilo (1 lb) of green beans. Put the grape leaf into the bottom of a clean 1 litre (1 quart) glass preserving jar. Put the jar on its side and stuff the beans in very tightly. Poke in some sprigs of dill, 2 cloves of garlic and some chili flakes depending on how hot you like it. Make a brine of 2 cups of filtered water and 1 tablespoon of natural sea salt (boil the brine and cool it if you don’t have filtered water) and pour it over the beans until they are covered. Fit an airlock and set the jar somewhere warm for a week, checking every now and then to make sure no beans are poking their heads up out of the brine. If you get any little patches of mould on top of the brine scoop it out. The brine will go cloudy – don’t worry. After a week, eat a bean and see if it is tangy enough for you. Check the pH and store in a cold place when ready.
Serve these crunchy pickles with a dish of yogurt or hummus as a moreish lacto-fermented snack. People rarely stop at one! They are surprisingly good. The grape leaf is a trick an elderly Russian lady passed on to me – apparently it adds crunch to the pickle – use any leaf high in tannins – oak or horseradish also are good.
- 1 Chinese Cabbage
- 1/4 cup Natural Sea Salt
- 2 tablespoons Fish Sauce
- 1 tablespoon Chili Flakes
- 4 cloves Garlic
- 1cm Fresh Ginger
- 1 teaspoon palm sugar or brown sugar
- 1 large carrot
- 4 spring onions
I like to think of Kimchi as interesting sauerkraut but that is doing sauerkraut a disservice really – they are both their own thing – but I like Kimchi and here is my version which is probably not authentic but I’ve been making it for a few years now and I love it. Chop a whole Chinese cabbage roughly. Rub in 1/4 cup natural sea salt (wear rubber gloves) until the bruised cabbage starts to give up its juices (5-10 mins). Soak in a bowl of cold water for 2 hours. Rinse the salt off, drain and dry well on paper towels.
Mix 2 tablespoons of fish sauce with 1 tablespoon of chili flakes, 4 cloves of garlic, 1 cm of fresh ginger grated and 1 teaspoon of palm or brown sugar and add this to a chopped carrot and 4 spring onions and mix well. I’ve also added carrots and red onion in when they are to hand.
Add the carrot and spice mix to the cabbage and mix well then pack into a large glass jar and push it down with a pestle so the juice comes up and covers the cabbage. Cover it with an airlock and leave it at room temperature for a week, pushing down a couple of times a day to keep the cabbage submerged and then taste it and if it is tangy enough move it to cold storage.