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Water Cooler: Fermenting foods at home

Why spend money on store-bought sriracha when you can easily make it at home?  (Associated Press)
Why spend money on store-bought sriracha when you can easily make it at home? (Associated Press)

The last few years have seen a shift in the food culture in the U.S. Fermented foods are in. What seems to be a new food trend is actually a shift back to traditional food preservation techniques.

Fermentation techniques have been used by humans since the Stone Age as a way to extend the life of food and beverages. It’s also a natural process that happens within the gastrointestinal tracts of animals. Eating fermented foods works wonderfully with how our digestion is already set up, allowing for easier digestion and maximizing the availability and absorption of nutrients.

Fermented foods are crawling with microorganisms that eat up the sugars present in food, yielding alcohol and lactic acid in turn. Consuming these microorganisms in itself is beneficial to the digestive system because they contribute a diversity of beneficial bacteria and other organisms to the microbiome. The microbiome has been a hot area of scientific and medical research in the past few years, and scientists have learned a lot about the connection of a healthy microbiome to immune function, reducing food sensitivities and even cognitive function and mood.

These live microorganisms consisting of bacteria, yeasts, fungi and other single-celled organisms are called probiotics. Foods claiming to be rich in probiotics become have become widely popular and so have probiotic supplements. Although it is great to have probiotic options available on the market, a bottle of high-quality probiotic supplements often cost over $20. Good quality sauerkraut, made of one of the cheapest vegetables available, will almost always cost over $5 a jar. Instead of always turning to commercially produced probiotic foods, give fermenting a shot at home. It’s a labor of love, but it is cheap and allows you to customize your flavorings.

Lactic acid bacteria, or LAB, are the bacteria found in decomposing organic matter that produce lactic acid a metabolic end product. Lactic acid is what creates that sour taste in fermented foods. These beneficial bacteria also help kill off the bacterias that cause spoilage in food, so a successful fermentation requires the perfect environment for LAB to flourish. LAB prefers an anaerobic environment, or an environment without air. This is why lacto-fermentation requires the food to be submerged in water. Adding salt aids in preventing the propagation of unwanted bacteria, and it also develops flavor and gives the food crisp and crunchy texture.

There are other types of fermentation, like alcohol fermentation to make beer and wine or acetic fermentation to make vinegar and kombucha. Lacto-fermentation is what you use to make things like sauerkraut, Kimchi, yogurt and the like.

Before getting started, make sure you have clean work space and wash your ingredients. Preparing foods for fermentation doesn’t require complete sterilization like canning does, but a clean space also helps prevent introduction of harmful bacteria. You will know that the food has spoiled if you see mold forming on top. In that case the food should be thrown out. However, make sure you know the difference between mold and yeast buildup. Yeast buildup looks like white scum and is normal. Simply scrape it off and enjoy the rest of the food.

A temperature range of 60-75 degrees is optimal for the fermentation process. Any colder slows the process way down. Any warmer and the process speeds up and things can get out of hand with abundant yeast growth and potential mold.

Sauerkraut is one of the easiest recipes for beginner fermenters. For every 5 pounds of cabbage, you will use about 3 tablespoons of salt. Use a knife, or preferably a mandolin if you have one, to thinly slice the cabbage. You can add other vegetables like grated carrot, garlic or jalapeno as well as additional spices to customize the flavor of your sauerkraut, but just keep in mind that any flavors you add will be intensified during fermentation. Add all of your ingredients and salt into a large bowl or bucket and start mashing it all up with your hands to release the liquid from the vegetables. Mash until the ingredients are broken down to your preferred texture.

Add the mixture to a jar. Most people use a glass jar so you can see the fermentation process. You need something to weigh the mixture down so it remains submerged. Use some of the cabbage leaves, or you could also use a plastic bag half full of water and push it into the top of the jar. This works well because it keeps the ingredients submerged while also allowing enough space for the gas bubbles to escape. Cover the jar with a clean cloth to allow the gas to escape while preventing debris from getting in the jar.

The length of the ferment is up to you. The longer the ferment, the more lactic acid buildup and sourness. Ferment anywhere from five days to five weeks. Check it every few days for a taste and remove any yeast build up. When the sauerkraut gets to your desired flavor, put a lid on it and store in the refrigerator to stop the fermenting process.

Another simple fermented product you can make at home is sriracha. Fermented peppers is what provides that special funk to this condiment. Choose whatever chilis you prefer. Deseed most of them, but leave some seeds if you want extra heat. Add about 5-7 chilis to a food processor with a bit of ginger, garlic, salt and sugar and blend until pureed.

This mixture is an anaerobic environment in itself, so you don’t need anything to weigh it down, but cover it with a cloth and give it a stir every day so nothing harmful grows on top. After a few days you will notice gas bubbles in the sauce. That’s when you know the fermentation has started. Let it ferment according to your desired flavor. Once it tastes to your liking, blend it with some vinegar to create the final sauce texture.

You can ferment almost any vegetable like beets, cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower, asparagus, corn, peppers – the list goes on. For a simple vegetable ferment, all you have to do is let the vegetables soak in a salt brine.

A typical salt brine uses a 2-3% ratio of salt to water. There is a simple way to calculate this. Use a kitchen scale to tare the weight of your jar. Add your ingredients and add enough water to submerge everything. Weigh the ingredients and water in grams. Multiply that number times .025 and that will tell you how many grams of salt to add. Pour the water back out and mix in the salt. Add the salted water back in. For tougher vegetables like beets, bring the water to a boil first to slightly cook the vegetables for a better texture.

Weigh down ingredients if they are light enough to float. Wait at least four or five days before eating, or let the process go for a few weeks for extra funkiness. Gas is going to build up during the fermentation, so you have to “burp” the jars each day or so by unscrewing the lid and letting the gas out. You can also buy lids made for fermenting that allow the gas to escape.

As with all cooking, trial and error is involved and you may get a bad batch here and there. Over time you will develop your best system and fun flavor combinations and the results will be delicious, nutritious and rewarding.

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