LACTO-FERMENTATION: It’s the rage, and not just among old hippie types who have—like their ancestors and their ancestors’ ancestors throughout history—been harnessing helpful bacteria to preserve food and make it distinctively tasty.
Lacto-fermented pickles, hot sauce, kimchi, preserved lemons all command a high price at the fanciest markets, as well as at farmstands.
And of course lacto-fermentation is what turns milk into yogurt, and what turns the familiar, lowly cabbage into sauerkraut (which we’ll learn a bit more about in a moment).
I got a lacto-fermentation 101 from Seattle-based Erica Strauss of the Northwest Edible Life website, who describes herself as specializing in “hipster homesteading stuff like urban gardening and backyard chickens and cooking and canning and DIY projects and natural living and frugality.” Erica is a former professional cook turned gardener, garden writer and now author of the just-released volume called “The Hands-On Home: A Seasonal Guide to Cooking, Preserving, and Natural Homekeeping.”
Read along as you listen to the Oct. 5, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: At the bottom of the page, get her recipe for Sauerkraut With Apples and Caraway.
my q&a on lacto-fermentation with erica strauss
Q. Welcome back, Erica, and how does your garden grow?
A. The garden is looking a little sad, I must say. We’re in that transition zone; all the warm-weather stuff has sort of given up, and the powdery mildew is creeping in. The tomatoes—I’ve yanked almost all of my tomatoes.
But that’s OK because we’re actually entering my favorite season in the edible garden, which is fall. I’m a big fan of it.
Q. And that’s because…?
A. I have a deep love culinarily for the Brassica crops that make up a huge portion of my fall garden: cabbages, Brussels sprouts, kale. All that stuff that’s trendy now, that I’ve been enjoying for years. Before it was popular, I liked Brussels sprouts.
Q. Me, too.
A. So there’s that, and I also really like the palette of the fall garden—the sort of chards and purple cabbages. It’s a little more muted than what we get in the summer vegetable garden, but I think it’s really beautiful.
Q. So we like it for taste, for cooking with—and also for beauty.
I was going to say, by the way, that we only actually like each other because we share a love of gardening, but because we are both enthusiastic watchers of streaming video products from the BBC. [Laughter.]
In case anyone else hasn’t heard of it: You just turned me on to a sort of documentary about historic farming.
A. Are you talking about “Victorian Farm?”
Q. Yes; you said it’s meditative and relaxing.
A. It’s so relaxing. It’s sort of like reality TV but done in this thoughtful, considered, educational way. Not at all like most American reality TV shows. I really enjoy it.
Q. I had to find it on YouTube: I couldn’t find it anywhere else. It’s like an actual experiment of people living a full year as Victorian farmers: the clothing, the food, the machinery, the jobs—no exceptions.
A. So are you ready to go back in time?
Q. I’m time-traveling. [Laughter.] So anyway, that’s my little interlude…but now, congratulations on your first book, “The Hands-On Home,” which is more than cooking and gardening and preserving—it also has homekeeping tips.
A. There are actually no gardening tips or techniques in the book, which is something some of my regular blog readers are sad about. But there are many really great how-to gardening books on the market already, so I wasn’t interested in recreating that particular wheel.
“The Hands-On Home” talks about the productive life inside: It’s cooking, preserving, natural home and body care, and the rhythms and routines that make it possible to have a more productive life within the context of this very busy modern world that we live in.
Q. With all this BBC stuff that we could be streaming, right? [Laughter.]
A. We live in a great world where you can indulge your fantasies of going back in time while on the couch with your laptop.
Q. I guess I think of the book as having “gardening” in it, even though as you point out it does not have horticulture in it per se, because it has the other part: Why grow the Brussels sprouts if you don’t know what to do with them? Why grow a year’s worth of garlic if you don’t know how to stash it, or cook with it? To me, the one and the other go together. I’m motivated by having some of the practical skills, to have the food garden in the first place. And you have those skills in the book.
A. And for me, I came at gardening as a cook, so that was the direction—it was always about the best food, the best flavor. Gardening was a natural extension of that, and I became very passionate about that, about sharing how people can grow their own food.
But you’re right: At the end of the day, the goal isn’t to grow very labor-intensive compost [laughter] but to grow something you put on your table to enjoy with family and friends, that nurtures you.
It makes sense that we have to separate these skills in our head, but when it comes into the practical aspect of how you make this life work, it’s all very connected.
Q. For me it is, too.
Lacto-fermentation is one of the “aha’s” or how-to’s, the techniques or tactics, that appears a number of times in the book, as it does in the course of your own year as a grower and a cook and a preserver and a home economist. I sort of think of it as home economics—and that sounds like such an old-fashioned word, but I think it’s a good word.
A. It’s a wonderful word, and home economics is something I wish would come more into vogue as a discipline. I think the idea of taking a hard look at the economics and the productivity of one’s home, the sort of domestic sphere, can be very empowering.
Q. My grandmother, who was actually a Victorian lady—she was born in that era, and married just after World War I. She grew up in Wisconsin and was an early woman to go to college; she went to what was then called the Stout Institute [now part of the University of Wisconsin]. She had a degree in home economics. It was a serious thing; she knew how to do everything, and understood all the skills that are in your book and more. She knew how to go from start to finish with any process; I was always very impressed by her. Home economics.
So: Lacto-fermentation—because of the prefix lacto—sounds like it’s all about dairy products: like Lactobacillus, the cultures in yogurt. But it’s not all about dairy products, is it?
A. It’s not. Lacto-fermentation can be a little misleading, and I have had people ask me, “Where’s the dairy in this pickle?” But it’s not referring to lactose, but to lactic acid. Lactic acid is this particular acid that is excreted by the lactic acid bacteria family—beneficial bacteria that lead to good gut health. Everyone is probably familiar with this concept of probiotic bacteria.
This family of bacteria eat carbohydrates and excrete lactic acid. That lactic acid has a preservative effect on foods. Humanity and the lactic acid bacteria have been working together to make highly perishable foods longer-lasting for literally thousands of years.
Q. I read somewhere that the reason that one strain of cultures was named Lactobacillus was because the first research studies on it were with milk ferments.
Early in the book you set up the basic process, and the needed gear. What goes on?
A. Let’s talk about vegetables. We did a previous podcast where we talked about yogurt.
For vegetables, it’s very easy. What you’re doing is setting up an environment where those lactic-acid bacteria—where those beneficial microbes can outcompete spoilage microorganisms. What you need to do is create this environment that is preferential to those beneficial microbes.
The way we do this is to exclude oxygen from the ferment, because the lactic-acid bacteria perform much better in an anaerobic (no-oxygen) environment. If there is oxygen, molds and other spoilage microbes have an advantage. We add salt to the ferment—the lactic-acid bacteria are particularly tolerant of the saline environment. By adding the right amount of salt to your ferment, you give them the home-court advantage.
Then we control the temperature of the ferment, so it’s a nice, moderate room temperature, which is where these strains of beneficial bacteria do best. Then we put it all together in a clean jar. It’s very easy: Your basic ingredients are the vegetable, the jar and the brine.
Q. And the brine is…
A. It depends on what you’re making. If you have chunks of vegetables that you want to pickle—let’s say cucumbers—then you have a separate salt-and-water brine that you pour over those chunks.
Q. And it’s with no vinegar?
A. No vinegar. You can think of this as a pickling technique because you’re relying on the lactic acid to create that low preserved pH, like we do with vinegar pickles. But we don’t have to add any vinegar to this process.
Then we also have vegetables—like sauerkraut, which is shredded cabbage—and you toss that with the salt and it self-brines. The natural juices from the vegetable itself create the brine.
Q. The liquid comes out of the vegetable in response to the salt. You don’t make a brine first and pour it over like you would with cucumbers?
Q. We’re talking about a clean environment. I know you and I both like to use glass—as in Mason jars—or to use a crock, instead of plastic.
A. I really recommend people not ferment in plastic. There is the issue of the porosity—meaning it can be very difficult to get that sauerkraut-ey smell out of your vessel ever again. And then there is also some concern about chemical leaching. The pH of these products gets increasingly acidic as they ferment. There is some evidence that a high-acid environment and plastic are not good bedfellows.
Q. Even if we don’t know for sure, better safe than sorry—and glass is a beautiful thing. Inexpensive, easily available.
A. And everyone should have 9,000 Mason jars, anyway.
Q. I’m actually going to have to buy a separate house for mine if I get any more; it’s an addiction.
A. [Laughter.] I do understand.
Q. In making sauerkraut: Do you grow your own cabbage?
A. Cabbages do very well where I live, in the Pacific Northwest. That whole family does. I grow cabbage year-round, but fall is my main harvest season for cabbage. I’m a big fan of the Savoys [below]; I really like the crinkly leaf.
Q. The extra bang for the buck: the texture. In the book there is a Sauerkraut with Apples and Caraway recipe [full recipe at the bottom of this page; Erica will also talk us through it here in the transcript].
A. Caraway is this distinctive rye-bread kind of spice, and it’s very traditional in sauerkraut. I was playing around with some sauerkraut flavors, and I wanted to go traditional but with a little kick. I made this sauerkraut that is cabbage, but had added apples that give it a juicy sweetness I think is really great.
The flavor combo of the apples and caraway and cabbage is very Germanic, so if you like that sort of schnitzel kind of food culture [laughter]–I think you’re going to really like this sauerkraut.
Q. How do we start?
A. You want to start with a clean jar or crock. You don’t need to boil the jars or rinse them with bleach, but you want them to be perfectly clean. We don’t want other microbes that would compete with the ones we are trying to culture.
You shred your cabbage very finely, because you want the juices to come out quite readily. One big head of cabbage—about 4 ½ pounds—and you slice up some firm apples, like green Granny Smith types. Something that will hold up. Two apples is what I call for in the recipe, but this is a very flexible process—I want people to go forth and experiment, and feel confident. You can make little adjustments.
So you salt your one big green cabbage, all shredded up, and your two cooking apples, with 3 Tablespoons of fine sea salt.
A. Yes, in a big bowl. A really good ratio for people who are new to fermenting to remember: When you’re making a ferment like sauerkraut, which is self-brining, about 5 pounds of shredded or chopped-up vegetables to 3 tablespoons of fine sea salt is a reliable ratio for fermentation.
I usually put about 2 tablespoons of caraway seeds, or you can do it to taste. I let that all sit for about 30 minutes, and what will happen is that the juices from the cabbage will start to come out. Then you start packing your jar or crock with the sauerkraut.
Q. And “packing” is really the operative word, because you told us “anaerobic” at the beginning, right? We don’t want a lot of air spaces inside.
A. Packing is very important, but one thing: If you’re using a glass jar, be a little a little careful on how aggressive you are. I have broken a jar before.
Q. Firm not violent. [Laughter.]
A. You kind of want to rub the salt into the cabbage, and make sure the juices are coming up, and then very firmly—with your very clean fist or a potato masher, start packing the sauerkraut into the jars.
What you should find is that the juices fill up and come over the top of the cabbage. That’s what we’re looking for.
Q. Then where do we go?
A. Then you must stop all those cabbage bits from floating up to the surface, where they’d be exposed to oxygen. What I like to do is take an outer leaf from a cabbage, which can act like a lid. You put that on top of the cabbage, and then you weight that down.
One of the most effective things is just to fill a smaller jar with salt-water brine and put that on top to hold it all down. There are a bunch of things you can use for weights.
Q. I’ve seen marbles in a mesh bag…
A. I use ceramic pie weights in a mesh bag; some people like to use baggies filled with brine, but I have a little issue with the plastic.
Q. So we’ve made a lid with cabbage, weighted it down, and then how long does this take?
A. The thing about fermentation is that it’s done when it tastes good. I like my sauerkraut fairly mature, so I let it go about two to four weeks, typically. Some people like fresh, crispy sauerkraut—almost like kraut salad—and they’ll pull theirs off the counter and put it in cool or cold refrigerator storage after just a few days.
What I encourage: Taste your ferment frequently, because it’s going to change in flavor and texture as it matures. You should trust your instinct and palate, and when you like the tanginess and the flavor, that is a sufficient reason to call it done.
Q. If I want to keep some of it in the fridge—does it last awhile?
A. Fully fermented sauerkraut will last months and months, especially if it’s kept in a refrigerator. The living bacteria are still alive in your ferment, but if you chill them down, they just act so much more slowly on the ferment. They will continue to slowly culture your sauerkraut, but it will stay more in stasis. But if you leave your sauerkraut in the garage at like 50 degrees, that culturing process will continue a little quicker. I keep mine in the refrigerator, to maintain the flavor I like.
Q. I have a cabbage; I’m going to try it. Thanks, Erica.
more from erica strauss
- Erica’s book-tour dates and other events
- Erica’s Miso Sesame Kale Sauerkraut
- Erica’s Lacto-Fermented Tomatillo Salsa
- All the Lacto-Fermented Recipes on NWEdible Life blog
enter to win ‘the hands-on home’
I’LL BUY A LUCKY READER a copy of “The Hands-On Home” by Erica Strauss. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:
Ever made any lactofermented anything, whether dairy- or vegetable-wise? Or do you have a favorite store-bought fermented product you like to eat?
No answer, or felling shy? Just say something like, “Count me in,” and I will, but an answer is better. I’ll choose a winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, October 11. Good luck to all.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Oct. 5, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
recipe: sauerkraut with apples and caraway
(c) 2015 By Erica Strauss. All rights reserved. Excerpted from The Hands-On Home: A Seasonal Guide to Cooking, Preserving, and Natural Homekeeping by permission of Sasquatch Books. Photography by Charity Burggraaf.
IF YOU COULD count all the grandmas from Germany to Korea and every place in between, you’d have a good approximation of the number of ways you can ferment cabbage. From sauerkraut to kimchi, cabbage just takes to fermenting well. I love this version of a traditional caraway-studded kraut, given a little twist with juicy apples. I eat this raw as a salad, or I warm it slightly and serve it alongside sausages.
MAKES ABOUT ½ GALLON
- 1 large head green cabbage (about 4½ pounds)
- 3 tablespoons fine sea salt
- 1 to 2 tablespoons caraway seeds
- 2 large firm cooking apples, such as Granny Smith
Prepare 1 half-gallon or 2 quart-size jars, their lids, and a fermenting weight.
Peel off a few clean large outer leaves of cabbage and reserve. Quarter, core, and finely shred the remaining cabbage. You should have about 4 pounds cabbage after shredding. Add the cabbage to a very large nonreactive bowl. Add the salt and 1 tablespoon of the caraway seeds, or a bit more if you really like caraway.
Make sure your hands are squeaky clean and squeeze, pound, and massage the salt into the cabbage. You don’t have to be gentle with this; if you have any pent-up frustrations from your day, take them out on the cabbage. Lightly cover the cabbage with a clean lint-free towel and set aside for 30 minutes.
After about 30 minutes, the cabbage should be sitting in a small pool of liquid. This is exactly what you want. Peel, quarter, core, and finely slice the apples. Add the apples to the cabbage and gently toss together to distribute the apple.
Pack the cabbage mixture into the prepared jar firmly. If you are using 2 jars, divide both the cabbage and liquid evenly between the jars. Use your clean fist or a tamper like a cocktail muddler to press down on the cabbage and compress it, but be careful not to tamp so hard you shatter the jar (I’ve done that, and it really harshes your fermentation groove). The liquid should rise up even with or above the level of the shredded cabbage.
Make sure all the shredded cabbage is tucked down under the liquid, then add 1 or 2 of the reserved leaves to the top of the ferment, trimming if necessary to get it to just fit the jar. The cabbage leaf will hold down little pieces that would rise up to the surface of the ferment.
Weight the ferment well so that everything, including the top cabbage leaf, is under the brine. Cover the jar lightly and ferment for at least 3 days at cool room temperature, out of direct sunlight. Vent the lid as necessary to prevent pressure from building up in the jar, and skim off any white scum that develops on the brine.
Opinions vary greatly as to how long sauerkraut should ferment. I’ve enjoyed fresh, crispy, tangy sauerkraut at 3 to 4 days, and still enjoyed it 1 month later when it softens and takes on a sharper tang but also the greater complexity of age. Taste frequently throughout the fermentation and when the sauerkraut tastes good to you, remove the weight, lid the kraut, and move it to the refrigerator, where it will keep for at least 6 months.
(Disclosure: Purchases through Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission. Book photography by Charity Burggraaf, except Savoy cabbages by Erica Strauss.)