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Reducing food waste with fermenting / by Nathan Albert

Lacto-fermentation is an ancient food preservation technique that can be a neat way to keep a summer or fall veggie bounty fresh and edible throughout the winter. In fermenting foods, humans across cultures and traditions have harnessed rot to transform their foods into shelf-stable, nutritious, and delicious treats. Many of these traditions have been lost, particularly in the West, due to the industrialization of food preparation and preservation and a food supply that no longer requires DIY preservation for year-round access to fresh vegetables. However, learning the simple steps necessary to ferment can be an exciting way to not only limit your waste, but to give you access to a new array of flavors and nutrients that can change the way you look at food.

The general science behind lacto-fermentation is as follows: all vegetables have naturally occurring bacteria on their surfaces. If we create an environment where good bacteria thrives and bad bacteria dies (i.e. by submerging a vegetable in an anaerobic, salty solution), the good bacteria—lactobacillus—will win out and produce lactic acids as a result of the fermentation process. Thus, the basic rule of lacto-fermentation is to keep every inch of your vegetables submerged below a saltwater brine, where this controlled process can only occur. Salt and water are really the only things you need to make it happen.

Fermented foods have become increasingly popular particularly as a source of probiotics, as your DIY fermented vegetables will be festering with friendly bacteria for your gut and immune system so long as you don’t cook it. Fermented foods are also considered to be more nutritionally available to the human body, as the fermentation process breaks down nutrients in foods, making them easier to digest. Furthermore, there has been an increasing body of scientific literature singing the praises of protecting your “microbiome,” and lamenting our society’s overabundance of antibiotics in both the food supply and in the doctor’s office. To counteract GI complications that I trace back to a teenage fling with acne antibiotics, I have found some relief in regularly consuming probiotic foods. DIY fermenting seemed like a fun way to diversify my probiotic intake beyond readily available options in stores, which generally involve excessive dairy (i.e. yogurt, kefir), or excessive cost (i.e. kombucha, raw kimchi and sauerkraut). I hope it can do the same for you!

There are a number of resources online and in print where you can learn more about DIY fermentation – in particular I would recommend the work of Sandor Katz, a writer who has done great research not only to make fermenting accessible to ordinary people, but has also provided cultural context to this ancient practice.

Below are two easy recipes that I hope can provide you with the basic tools for a future with fermented foods.


Glass or Ceramic Jar/Crock
Large Mixing Bowl
Kosher Salt or Sea Salt (NOT IODIZED SALT)
Add-ins (optional, caraway seeds, juniper berries, apples, beets, garlic, or anything else you can think of can be used! I used caraway seeds for this)

(illustrations by Faye Orlove based on photographs of my hands by Kate Meizner)

1) Peel the larger, thicker leaves off of the cabbage head and place aside for later use.
2) Cut the cabbage in half (splitting the stem in half). Carefully cut out the cabbage’s tough core.
3) Shred the cabbage by slicing along the flat plane of the cabbage half. Cut as thick or as thin as you like. I personally like a thick cut because the sauerkraut comes out crunchier.
4) Put the cabbage shreds and any small add-ins into a mixing bowl, and add salt evenly. The amount of salt is not an exact science, but generally applies to a ratio of two tablespoons for every five pounds of cabbage. Knead the cabbage and salt with your hands, crunching the leaves for several minutes. This process draws water from the cabbage by breaking down the vegetable’s cell walls, and also due to the presence of salt. The cabbage should start to get visibly wet after about a minute, and eventually brine should pool at the bottom of the bowl.
5) Pack the wet cabbage tightly into a jar, pressing down each handful with your fist. The size of your jar should fit your vegetable with an inch or two extra of space at the top. Pour excess brine into the jar to cover the cabbage. I was able to fit a four-pound cabbage into a quart glass jar.
6) After finishing to pack your cabbage into a jar, you will need to ensure that your vegetables stay below the brine line for the duration of the fermentation process. In general while fermenting, you should use a weight like a glass or ceramic stone or a smaller jar that fits into the lid of your jar. However, in the case of cabbage, you can use the larger, thicker leaves we put aside after Step 1. If you fold one or two of these in half and stuff them into the top of the jar, you ensure that the shredded cabbage stays below the brine line. Even if the thicker cabbage leaves get slightly exposed above the brine, they are going to be too tough to eat. Cover the jar with a cloth or a lid, but do so loosely – if you tightly close the jar it will spray everywhere when you open it in a few days.

And then – WAIT! Sauerkraut needs at least 5 or so days to ferment, but it will continue to ferment and gain a stronger taste for several weeks to come. Keep the jar out of direct sunlight and excessive heat. Sometimes, particularly when there is some vegetable exposed above the brine line, a white film will appear on the surface of the water. This is called kahm yeast and is harmless; you should scrape this off and throw it away. Once you feel happy with your sauerkraut’s progress (taste it!), you can transfer it to the refrigerator to slow the fermentation process. This may also help if after eating some you have trouble keeping the sauerkraut below the brine. The sauerkraut will last in the fridge for months.

Pickled Cauliflower and Carrots

Cauliflower is probably the one vegetable that I vastly prefer eating raw as opposed to cooked. Pickling it allows me to preserve the crunchiness and tanginess that I positively associate with its raw form, all while gaining a new and radical taste.

For this recipe you will need:

One head of cauliflower
Five carrots
A few bunches of fresh dill
1 tablespoon of black peppercorns
Glass or Ceramic Jar
Fermentation Weight (either use glass or ceramic stones you can find online, a boiled and scrubbed rock, or a small jar that can fit into the larger jar mouth)

This recipe will take much less time and work than the sauerkraut – it simply involves cutting up the vegetables into small, bite size pieces, adding the spices evenly, and submerging in brine in a jar. In the case of these vegetables (and most others), you will not be able to produce sufficient brine from the vegetables themselves by using salt and your hands, so you will need to prepare your own brine with salt and water. Most vegetables ferment best with a 2% brine --- 1 tablespoon of salt for every quart of water. In order to produce an ideal brine, you should combine the salt and water in a pot and stir it on a low flame until the mixture reaches body temperature (i.e. doesn’t feel warm to the touch). This will ensure that your salt evenly and thoroughly dissolves. Also, many municipal water systems chlorinate their tap water, and that could adversely affect the growth of bacteria in your ferment. If you have access to a good water filter or bottled water, I would recommend using them.

After preparing your brine, simply submerge your vegetables in it, apply weights, and cover lightly with cloth or a lid to prevent dust and flies from entering. As with the sauerkraut, it will need to ferment for a minimum of 4 or 5 days, but can go for much longer. That’s it!

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