When I was growing up in rural Muskoka, my grandparents fermented all kinds of foods. This tradition served to preserve foods over the long winter months when trips to the grocery store in town were few and far between. In autumn after the garden was harvested, jars and crocks would be loaded with beans, carrots, cucumbers and cabbage for fermenting into an assortment of tangy pickles and tongue-tingling sauerkraut.
Fermentation with Salt
Of course, when grandma was singing the praises of fermented foods, she didn’t mean the typical commercial preparations made with vinegar and then sterilized or pasteurized. Those modern day methods tend to destroy the ‘good’ bacteria which naturally develop during the fermenting process.
The fermented foods enjoyed by grandma were made in the Old World style known as lacto-fermentation. This calls for the use of a culturing medium such as salt, whey, kefir grain, dried culture or simply some proven juice from a previous batch of fermented food which is used to ‘start’ the fermenting process. The purpose of using a ‘starter’ is to inhibit the growth of undesirable or harmful “microbes” or “micro-organisms” which can cause food-borne illness such as botulism, while at the same time promoting the growth of friendly, desirable bacteria known as “lactobacilli” with its many healthy properties.
Fermentation is a fascinating process. Basically, it is a chemical change brought about by the action of microscopic yeasts, molds, and bacteria which are spurred to grow when conditions are ideal. For thousands of years, cultures around the world have been fermenting all kinds of foods and beverages as a means of preservation and nutritional enhancement.
Fermented Foods for Healthy Guts
As far back as I can remember, Grandma claimed that fermented foods and beverages are “good for the guts.” But only in more recent years have medical studies confirmed these health benefits. When you add fermented foods to your diet, you are introducing friendly bacteria known as probiotics to your body. These work hard at boosting the immune system and promoting intestinal well being. Friendly bacteria help to prevent Crohn’s disease, ulcers, colitis and other bowel and stomach-related problems. (For more on this, read: “In Praise of Probiotics” by Dr. Zoltan Rona.)
Recent studies indicate that most people today do not consume enough naturally fermented foods to maintain a healthy population of ‘good’ bacteria in their intestines. As a result, ‘bad’ bacteria can overgrow in the intestines when exposed to pasteurized (sterile) foods, antibiotic medications, and other processed foods and beverages. Fortunately, eating fermented foods can restore intestinal balance which in turn works to prevent ailments like allergies, eczema, IBS, lactose intolerance, asthma, as well as cold and influenza.
So for good health and well-being, get out your fermenting crocks and jars and start brewing up some wonderful, beneficial probiotics to add to your diet. Below are some of my favourite fermented foods and beverages.
SALT – is the oldest known food preserving agent and one of the most commonly used starters for fermenting foods, especially those meant for long term storage. Salt causes liquids (namely brine) to have a higher density, thus it inhibits air movement inside the fermenting vessel which can cause spoilage during fermentation.
Salt draws the moisture out of food, producing a more flavourful and crispier finished product, so it’s the best starter for vegetables such as pickles and sauerkraut. But be cautious with the amount. Excessive use of salt can actually halt the culturing process.
You don’t have to use much salt; in fact you can ferment food without the use of any salt. But using at least a small amount helps to prevent undesirable bacteria from forming and increases shelf life. Most of the foods covered here are meant to be eaten in small quantities as condiments.
As a general rule of thumb, each quart jar of food requires about 1 to 2 teaspoons of salt. If working in larger batches you could go with about 3 tablespoons of salt per 5 pounds of vegetables as a basic ratio (or adjust the amount to suit your own taste). I like to stay on the lower end of given measures and, unlike grandma who used pickling salt, I prefer to use sea salt in my recipes. A benefit of using quality sea salt or Himalayan salt from the health food store is that it’s full of trace minerals which are a good addition to a healthy diet.
Do not use regular white table salt because it has been bleached and processed with chemicals to make it white and flowing, which in turn can interfere with the fermenting process.
WHEY – Like salt, whey prompts the growth of good bacteria. Because it is dairy-based, it should be avoided by those who are dairy-intolerant. If using whey, make sure you start with a fresh strained batch. I make my whey by lining a sieve with cheesecloth, filling it with plain yogurt or buttermilk, and allowing it to sit in a warm place until the whey has dripped through into the bottom bowl.
A guideline is to use about 2 tablespoons of whey per quart (or per 1 litre) of food. Using whey produces a less crispy, less flavourful finished product with a shorter shelf life so you should make smaller batches. Or you could add about 1/2 teaspoon of salt along with the whey to each quart of food for good measure.
KEFIR GRAINS AND DRIED STARTER CULTURES – You can use milk or water kefir grains or freeze-dried starter cultures (available at health food stores) according to package directions. The latter is made out of vegetable bacteria and may contain salt for taste, crunch and mold protection. It may also contain trace amounts of dairy which will be labelled on the package should that be of a dietary concern.
FERMENTED JUICE – This was grandma’s favorite starter. She simply saved some leftover fermented juice from a previous batch of food to use as starter for her next batch. A little extra salt should be added for taste and crunchiness and to give the mature brine a boost of fresh power. Use about 2 tablespoons previous juice with a 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of salt per quart (or per 1 litre) of food.
Equipment, Ingredients, Timings
Always use washed, scalded glass jars, or ceramic or earthen crocks for fermenting foods. Never use plastic or metal. I like to use my own organic garden fruits and vegetables, but if buying foods to ferment, try to use organically grown ingredients that are in prime shape.
Lactobacillus bacteria (‘the good guy’) does not need oxygen like clostridium botulinum (‘the bad guy’) bacteria does in order to survive. So remember, it is important to keep food submerged in brine throughout the fermenting process. A small jar filled with water, or a washed rock or other weight can be used for pressing vegetables down in the fermenting vessel. Grandma advised the use of fresh-drawn well water in the fermenting vat but since most of us do not have access to our own backyard well, spring or distilled water can be used. Do not use chlorinated water (eg. municipal tap water) as it can cause an off-taste.
Fermentation time can vary depending on room temperature, type of starter used, and type and general condition of the food being processed. So how do you know when it is done? Well, as grandma would say, “Taste it and see!” After 2 or 3, 4 or maybe even 5 days, food should have a pleasant acidic taste. When done to your liking, place it in the fridge or cool place to stop it from fermenting further. The finished product will keep for months when stored in the refrigerator or ‘cold room’.
Grandma vouched that this tonic was good for whatever ails you, especially for building strong blood, flushing impurities from the body, and putting “colour in your cheeks.” Like her, I make this often during the cold months, using my root cellar stash of garden grown beets, but any organic beets will do.
- 3 or 4 medium-sized beets (scrubbed and chopped into cubes)
- 1 and 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
This is another delightful Old World drink. You can mix or match fruits like pears, nectarines, peaches with dried fruits like apricots and raisins for endless variety, always favouring organic picks where possible. Kids love this! In our house it is served in place of pop so I always have a jar going. For the batch shown in the photo, I used:
- 3 quartered, unpeeled, rosy-skinned apples from my own backyard tree
- 3 whole purple plums
- 1/2 lemon
- 1 cup organic golden raisins
- a small knob of grated ginger
- 2 tablespoons unpasteurized honey
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
If you’ve never heard of ‘scoby,’ you’ve probably never indulged in a healthy glass of kombucha – a super, healthy ‘living’ tonic. I call it ‘living’ because it’s like sourdough starter, something that grows from batch to batch! I prefer oolong tea as a starter, but you can use any good quality black tea leaves or loose tea with good results. I wouldn’t recommend herbal teas or those with special flavours or oils as they may not produce good results, especially for those just getting into the hobby of kombucha brewing. And you should only use organic white sugar for this brew.
The tricky part is having a ‘mother’ to help you get the kombucha started! Of course, I am not talking about your mom but rather a magical little gelatinous-like glob known as “scoby” or, as some people call it, a kombucha mushroom which is the starter culture needed for brewing kombucha. If you have a friend who’ll share their established scoby with you, you’re off to a great start. If not, buy a kombucha starter culture kit from a reputable source and follow their directions for use.
- 3 quarts of water
- 5 tea bags (I prefer oolong tea as a starter, but you can use any good quality black tea leaves or loose tea)
- 1 cup organic white sugar
These make wonderful additions to winter salads and tasty garnishes for sandwiches, wraps and other foods needing a little something special. This recipe makes two (500 ml) canning jars for sampling.
- 1/2 tablespoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons whey
- piece of cinnamon stick, a few cloves, or pinch of nutmeg
Fermented carrot sticks make colourful additions to vegetable platters and are great garnishes for salads and toppers for sandwiches. This recipe makes three (500 ml) sized canning jars but can be multiplied as needed.
- 5 cups of prepared carrot sticks
- a few sprigs of fresh herbs (rosemary, dill and thyme) or spices (cumin seed, coriander, celery seed)
- Hot peppers (optional)
- Garlic (optional)
- 1/2 tablespoon sea salt (per jar)
- 1/2 tablespoon whey (per jar)
If you find traditional ‘vinegar’ pickled eggs way too sour – you’ll love these mild, delicious eggs. You’ll need a 1 litre canning jar. (Makes 1 dozen.)
- 1 dozen organic or free range eggs
- peeled garlic
- a sprig of dill
- a few peppercorns or pickling spice to taste
- 1-1/2 tsp sea salt
- 2 cups water
I got this recipe from my Hungarian mother-in-law. They call these “sun-cooked” pickles in Hungary. I really love them – this recipe provides a great way to put over-grown garden cukes to good use at the end of the season. You simply cut the tips off large cucumbers so they will stand nicely in a gallon jar. I also toss in the cut-off tips for extra bites.
- garden cucumbers
- peeled garlic cloves
- sprig of dill
- 1 hot pepper (optional)
- 2 Tbsp sea salt
- 3 cups water
- 1 slice white bread
These make delicious topping for yogurt, ice-cream and breakfast cereals. You can use any berry in season, keeping in mind wild or garden berries work better than commercial produce. I use fresh picked wild blueberries and I use whey to cut down on needed measure of salt. You’ll need 2 (250 ml) jars.
- 2 tablespoons whey
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons unpasteurized honey
This is similar to “kimchee” which is traditionally made out of Chinese cabbage or bok choy, but I use a mixture of red and green cabbage as it is easier to come by in my kitchen. There’s no need to be exact in the measurements below.
- 1 pound each of shredded green cabbage and shredded red cabbage
- 1/2 pound grated carrots
- 1 large scraped and grated white daikon radish
- 1 minced onion
- 4 or 5 cloves minced garlic
- 1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
- a pinch of hot chili paste or minced chili peppers (optional)
- 1 to 2 tablespoons sea salt