CULTURING/FERMENTING LIVE FOODS

I seriously enjoy fermenting raw/live foods (actually, it is not so much the work of it as it is the having of delicious things to eat). I started with raw vegan cheezes, and went on to sauerkraut (man, is that good stuff!), and, recently, I’ve gotten into fermenting other vegetables, as well. Sauerkraut still remains my mainstay (it can go into just about any meal I make, and I love the 3-day ferment, which makes it quick to get more). I make sauerkraut at least once a month.

When I first started interacting with other raw foodists on-line, I heard a lot of negative reaction to fermented/cultured/aged foods.  People I knew rejected fermented foods as being “rotten”.  I believe that that viewpoint, which I rejected, is why many writers have come to use the words “cultured” and “aged” when referring to cheezes and vegetables “pickled” in brine.

When you raw ferment vegetables or fruit in brine, particularly if you use some form of probiotics in your ferment, you actually enhance the produce you are fermenting.  While you still have the vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other good things from your produce, you also get the benefits of live probiotics, in addition, of course, to the delicious flavor of your fermented product.

Raw fermentation is different from most pickling, in that you use only raw vegetables or fruit, you don’t heat process the ingredients, and you add some form of probiotic to the ferment/brine  (I use New Chapter Probiotic All-Flora Capsules, or All-Flora Powder, when I can find it – I haven’t seen it for a decent price on the Internet – last week I saw it for $5 more than the caps, so I’ll remember that: I already have a new bottle of caps).  Some people just ferment with plain brine, but, in my experience, adding in the probiotics boosts the fermentation process and helps prevent failure of the fermentation process.  (When I first started making sauerkraut, just after I had put my first jars of sauerkraut up,  I was warned that I might likely lose my sauerkraut.  I have been fortunate in that I have only lost one jar of sauerkraut, and that was the one to which I did not add probiotic powder).  Whatever I have fermented, I have always added probiotic powder ever since.  Now, I’m even fermenting salsas – the probiotic provides delightful bubbling when I open the jars (letting me know that my jar is live!)

BOOKS ON FERMENTATION
As far as I know, there are no other books than these that you could possibly need if you are interested in making cultured/fermented/pickled foods or beverages.  Please be aware: Wild Fermentation is the only ALL RAW book on this list. Despite that, all three books have a number of raw, natural, simple, and, above all, delicious recipes for raw vegan cultured vegetables, fruit, and beverages.

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, Sandor Katz.
Very good, very thorough, easy to follow, with good recipes.  I always go back to this book when I am trying something new.  It is the only book on fermentation that is devoted to raw fermentation.

Truly Cultured, Nancy Lee Bentley
I tracked this book down because I’d heard it was the best book on natural sauerkraut and pickle making.  Although it is not completely raw vegan, it contains a good bit of information on fermenting, or culturing.  The sauerkraut recipe I learned from Truly Cultured has formed the base for all of the various sauerkrauts I have made.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Fermenting Foods, Wardeh Harmon.
Although this book is not even vegetarian, the sections on vegetable and fruit fermentation, as well as the section on non-alcoholic fermented beverages, are very good and useful.  Although the book recommends using whey (dairy) for the probiotic fermenting agent, it does give a vegan substitute (water kefir), and I have found that the whey can also be substituted with an equal amount of water in which probiotics powder has been dissolved.

The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz.
This is like a huge encyclopedia about food fermentation – it covers just about everything there is to know about fermentation – history, different kinds, etc.  It isn’t absolutely necessary, but it is very interesting.

NECESSARY EQUIPMENT
Fermenting vegetables requires very little equipment, actually.  The equipment I recommend here is for those who want to ferment in a small space at any time of year (I mention this because some ways to ferment involve smells coming from fermenting food, but the way I ferment does not).  Since my cultured vegetables are ready within a week, even if you are feeding a family,  you can use smaller containers than are usually recommended (no need for big crocks), because, if you see you’re running out of a favorite, you can put it up quickly and have it ready to go within 3-7 days.

CONTAINERS:  I now use wide-mouth Mason (Ball/Kerr brand is most common) jars with a two-part dome lid, although, in the beginning, I re-purposed any glass jars that were large enough for what I wanted to make (I used jars as small as mustard jars, and, of course, I re-purposed things that fermented items like kimchi and miso had come in.  I’ve switched to the mason jars because I generally make 1 or 2 quarts of whatever I am making, and the mason jars are easy.  The two part lids allow juice to seep out as the pressure from the culturing causes the jar contents to expand – this also lets me know that my live culture is still live.  Lately, I have been experimenting with re-usable plastic two part lids that must be used with the screw rings that came with the jars (this is because I have learned that the dome lids should not be used more than once –I have noticed that, after a few uses, they do corrode to the point that I don’t want to use them).  

Depending on where you live, you can get jars at Target or Walmart, or even at local hardware stores.  

If you live in New York City, however, mason jars are hard to come by.  You can order them online from Amazon, or from the Ball/Kerr manufacturer, but, see, when you look on-line at Amazon, even if you have Amazon Prime, they have the shipping built into the price. If you look at the other sellers, their shipping brings their pricing right back up to what Amazon is charging, and ordering from Ball/Kerr, you have to pay the shipping — either of these ways, you end up paying a hefty price. I have compiled a list of local places to get reasonably priced jars,places where you can buy onesies, or perhaps lots of 12, if you’re lucky, as well as places where you can order on-line and have them delivered to a local store for free.

MEASURING SPOONS: These are optional, I think. After a while, you can eyeball a tablespoon, which is the primary measurement I use.  Of course, if you are using probiotics in powder form, you would want a teaspoon measure, because the probiotics are rather pricey.

MEASURING CUP – 2 C minimum:  I have a 3-cup measuring cup.  I mix about 1-1/2 C water with the salt and probiotics for a quart jar (If I need more water, I can just add a little more plain water).

FOOD PROCESSOR:  I use a food processor (mine is a Cuisinart 7-Cup Food Processor, but you can get cheaper food processors. I finally got the Cuisinart after I had worn out two cheaper food processors in less than 5 years, and I am happy with the durability of this one — I got it at a Macy’s one-day sale for half-price – I used part of my rent money to get it, but it has been well worth the humiliation of paying my rent late) to chop cabbage, or grind beets, turnips, or other hard vegetables.  I use a Kyocera mandoline to finely slice things like jalapeno peppers (I chose the Kyocera because of its moderate price and very sharp blade, which is adjustable to several widths and slices even softer things.  I use a Microplane Kitchen Cut-Protection Glove to avoid adding extra protein to my recipes from slices of my thumb or other fingers (I am really happy with this glove, btw).

SHARP KNIFE:  I use a Chinese cleaver to chop most things like onions, cucumbers, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, and so forth.  My cleaver is one piece of solid stainless steel, handle and blade, and holds a sharp edge for quite a while.  I sharpen it before I begin a ferment project.  You can get by with any  good sharp large knife (you get tired faster using a small knife).

BOWLS:  It is a good idea to set your jars in bowls for the duration of the culturing period, as the jars usually weep liquids during the first few days (this is a good thing, as it lets you know that the fermentation process is proceeding well).  The bowl will catch the liquids which weep out, and keep your counter-top clean.

BASIC INGREDIENTS FOR ANY FERMENTING/CULTURING PROCESS:
SEA SALT: You need to use sea salt, or another organic salt (I’ve heard talk of an organic salt from the Great Salt Lake area, and I suppose that would work).  Regular table salt will not work.  I buy sea salt in bulk at a local natural foods store (I generally choose the cheaper sea salt because it is cheaper, dryer, and, so, easier to measure).

SPRING WATER/FILTERED WATER/DISTILLED WATER:  I always vote for spring water, because it is from a spring (duh), and, so, in my mind, anyway, it is very fresh water from a pure source.  Some people say you can use filtered, or purified, water, but I haven’t gone there yet.  Distilled water does work, but, to me,  it doesn’t have the same energy as spring water.  Make your own choice and see how it works for you.  I don’t want to work with tap water (I am not sure how it would work, with all of the additives in it).

HERBS AND SPICES: You can put in just about any herb or spice that you want to flavor your ferments.  Vegetable ferments tend to take different herbs/spices than do fruit ferments (you can look at all sorts of pickling recipes to get an idea of what you would like to put in your ferments).   I mostly only do conservative vegetable ferments,  and these are the things I have used:

GARLIC: I like to use fresh garlic in a ferment, because, then, the garlic pieces will also be something to eat.  You could use powder, if that is all you can get.

DILL: I once added fresh dill to a ferment, and I felt like I had to spend the rest of the day picking the dill off my teeth after I had eaten some of the first batch. I much prefer using dill seed, which is what is used in most pickles anyway.  

GINGER:  You can use powdered ginger, if you cannot get a piece of ginger root, but I do like to use slices of the ginger root (which I pick up either in a Chinese market or at Fairway, in New York City; depending on where you are, you might be able to find ginger root in a natural foods market.  Fresh ginger is hard to come by, but, when I see it, I do get it to add to a ferment).  

JALAPENO: I like to add sliced or chopped jalapeno to just about any ferment I make (I never make my sauerkraut without a good dose of sliced jalapeno). 

RED PEPPER FLAKES:  You can use red pepper flakes to add some spice to your ferment, if you choose.

PEPPERCORNS:  You can add black peppercorns (or another color, if you like) to your ferment – put them in the bottom, and, then, every day, shake up the ferment so some of peppercorns will float up among the other ingredients.

SEAWEED/SEA VEGETABLES:  Some folks like to add seaweed (wakame, hijiki, kombu, etc.) to their ferments, instead of salt.  I have never done this, but I think you would need to consider the salt content, and lower the salt in your brine — you’d have to figure that out on your own: I just add seaweed to my sauerkraut for a salad).  

WANT MORE INFO IN SHORT ORDER? Cultures for Health has an extensive list of articles and videos about culturing, preserving, fermenting vegetables and what not. (They are big on using whey-based fermenting agents, but, if you understand that, when they say whey, or starter, you read probiotics, or rejuvelac, or sauerkraut juice, then you can use just about any of the information in their database.  The list is a virtual book worth of tried and true information on fermenting/culturing/preserving raw foods.

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