Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Gobsmacked by the Implications

So I've been edging closer to lacto-fermentation as a preservation method. There are still some nice looking cabbages out there in my garden. And though significant work has been done on turning a corner of our basement into a root cellar (I know, I haven't posted about this before), we haven't had any properly frigid weather to bring it down to a good temperature, and truth be told it still needs work. The thing that's kept me at arm's length from lacto-fermented products is that I don't like pickles or briny-tasting things. I can't stand olives or capers, and have never understood the appeal of pickled cukes. I've revisited these particular disliked foods and tried to have an open mind, and just found that I really genuinely dislike these things. That said, I have enjoyed kim chi in the past, and I love pickled ginger. So it seems to me that there's some room for optimism that I can make this method of preservation work for us.

Why would I even contemplate trying to work around firmly entrenched food aversions of mine? Well, there are some pretty impressive upsides to lacto-fermentation. For one thing, it's just about the lowest energy-input form of food preservation. You don't need to heat or significantly chill the food being preserved; a cool room will suffice. Over and above that though, lacto-fermentation is the only form of food preservation that gives you a product with more nutrients than the raw food contains. How does that work? The microorganisms doing the lacto-fermentation partially breakdown the food and in the process make more nutrients available to us than our own digestive systems can manage alone. The icing on the cake is that those microorganisms also create narrow-spectrum antibiotics that protect us from a handful of the most common food borne illness culprits (e. coli, listeria, clostridium). So when you eat lacto-fermented foods, you're protected in multiple ways from dietary related illness.

So here's where the wheels in my brain really started spinning. Say you're a nutcase like me, and you're trying to provide as much of your own food as possible on a fairly limited amount of land. You have two challenges: produce enough calories, and produce enough nutrients. Most garden plants give you nutrients, but not too many calories. In order to provide both nutrients and calories you must allocate garden space to crops that supply these two different needs. Lacto-fermentation shifts the space requirements for these two goals.

Let's say, for simplicity's sake, that you divide your 1000 square foot garden into two equal parts: one devoted to cabbage, and the other devoted to potatoes. Cabbages provide excellent nutrition (as well as fiber, by the way), while potatoes are an excellent calorie crop. Let's also say that you can technically meet your family's nutritional needs for the year with 500 square feet of cabbage. But perhaps 500 square feet of potatoes will only provide 40% of the calories needed to feed your family each year. If you can double the nutrition provided by cabbage through lacto-fermentation, you could sacrifice half the garden space given over to this crop without jeopardizing the nutrient needs of your family. If you give that space over to calorie crops, you could get that much closer to self-sufficiency.

My numbers here are entirely hypothetical. I don't know how exactly how much more nutrition results from lacto-fermentation. It probably varies by the vegetable or fruit that is lacto-fermented. Nor do I know how much space is needed to produce 40% of an adult's caloric needs in potatoes. But what's clear is that lacto-fermentation is an important tool that could allow some garden space to be reallocated to calorie crops without sacrificing all-important nutrition. The implications of this are potentially huge for those producing food on small plots of land. More nutrition from the same space, or the same nutrition from less space. I firmly believe that finding ways of increasing food production on - and food value from - small spaces is going to be critically important to future generations.

I'm going to try really hard to find lacto-fermented foods I enjoy eating. I'll start today with a homegrown head (or two) of cabbage, and will post later on how it goes. I plan to explore this method of food preservation over the next year. An acquaintance of mine fairly rhapsodized about a sauerkraut her mother used to buy from a Jewish market that included fresh cranberries and was seasoned with caraway. That sounds delicious to me! If you have any tried and true recipes for lacto-fermented vegetables (especially cabbage), I'd love it if you'd share them or point to them in the comments. And wish me luck!


Wendy said...

I'm lacto-fermenting cabbage right now. In fact, I grew cabbage this year with the intention of making sauerkraut, because, well, I like sauerkraut, but I've always been afraid to move into it as a preservation technique - mostly because I don't fully understand how it's done. I guess learning to do sprouts and conquering my fear of the pressure canner has made me more bold this year ;).

I still don't know what I'm doing with it, but such is my way of moving toward self-sufficiency. It's all trial and error - and luckily, no one's gotten sick ;).

Can sprouts be lacto-fermented?

el said...

You know, Kate, I think you're on the verge of a huge revelation.

There's a mountain of difference between a store-bought unripe red tomato from a sun-ripened backyard one, and you will find the same is true with homemade sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi. Nothing compares!

If you're leery, I suggest small batches first. Half-gallon Ball jars work well for mini-experiments, and they don't take as long to pot up. Find Wild Fermentation (or just visit his site and Terra Vivante's Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning at your library or bookseller, and have fun.

MyBulletinBoard said...

Kate, I'm interested to see where you go with this. Checking into the resources suggested above by el as well. Thanks, Liz

Tree Huggin Momma said...

Okay your speculative numbers brought back nightmares of rows and rows of home canned kraut. I can't stand the stuff. Although I like pickles, and capers, and olives mmmmm salty ;)
But I am interested trying to work around my dietary aversions as well. Because of the aforementioned kraut nightmares (shred, shred, shred, shred, shred) I have an aversion to cabbage. But its local and its cheap. I also don't care for coleslaw (I don't care for mayonaise) but I love red cabbage in my salad. So this is where I am going. I am looking to sneak some cabbage into my life. I am looking for a simple recipe for stuffed cabbage. I would like one that I can sub lentins in for ground beef, but an not sure about the whole cabbage leaf thing. Do I steam them, boil them or just use them? And I think my head cracked so don't know that I can do it. Maybe it just ends up nice rabbit feed (we have a couple of wild ones on the property), I like waking up in the morning and seeing them. I think they like digging through my compost pile.

Karen Anne said...

I am not a fan of sour stuff, but I like sweet and sour a lot. I guess it isn't very healthy to dump in sugar, though. But dried cranberries are quite sweet and nutritious, and I dump them in a lot of things, so I can see how cranberries or other dried fruits in sour stuff could work.

My Mom always added caraway seeds to her sauerkraut. I don't have her recipe.

Joel said...

Another clever way to maximize nutrient produciton is to plant extremely densely, and thin gradually, eating sprouts and the greens of young plants.

Some of the nutrient-dense plants can fit in odd places, too...purslane is a good container plant, for example. I've heard its good pickled, by the way.

octopod said...

Wendy, I'm pretty sure they can -- they've got sugar in them, right? That's all you really need.

Probably need to be pretty careful about monitoring them though, as they're so delicate they'll probably ferment ultra-quickly, like raw to mushy in 3 days.

ThiftedBliss said...

Kate-very interesting post, will check out those links mentioned by el. Tree Hugging Mama-one of our favorite ways to eat cabbage is to slice up 1/2 head into thin strips, chop 1/2 large onion and saute in olive oil until soft, add cabbage and 1/4 cup of water or 2 frozen veggie broth cubes, cover and turn down to low. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring now and then to make sure it does not burn. Totally yummy!

Kate said...

Wendy, I started my first batch of sauerkraut yesterday. For some reason, this lacto-fermentation thing doesn't intimidate me as much as canning did. I feel there's less chance of food poisoning, whether or not that's an accurate assessment. No idea on the sprouts, but it looks like octopod has weighed in on that question.

El, I really hope I'm on the edge of a revelation. I'll be bummed if I can't find a way to make this tool appealing to myself. I've got Wild Fermentation on the way (used, from Powell's!), and will request your other recommended title through inter-library loan.

LizBeth, thanks. I'll be sure to post about the results. Just hoping they'll be positive results.

THM, I know - it seems an imperative to work around our own food dislikes sometimes. And cabbage is such a nutrient powerhouse. I once had some Savoy cabbage leaves served to me that had been stuffed with lentils and a little meat, along with spices and onions of course. It was delicious! Savoy cabbage is one of my favorites. Mark Bittman might have a good recipe for that, if you comb through his cookbooks. And potstickers with meat and cabbage are pretty awesome too!

Also, after trimming away all the slug damaged outer leaves of my cabbages yesterday, your comment about rabbits makes me see how useful it would be to have meat rabbits. Project for next year!

Karen Anne, I didn't want to add dried cranberries to my first kraut trial, but I will definitely pick up a bag of cranberries when I'm next at the store. If I like them in the sauerkraut, I'll even consider growing a few lowbush cranberries. I hear they do well in many regions.

Joel, yes, there's always the strategy of maximizing the use of growing space. Lacto-fermentation simply maximizes whatever is produced. Purslane is rampant volunteer in my garden. I must learn to make better use of it.

octopod, thanks for the information!

Karen, thanks for stopping by. One of my favorite ways to cook cabbage is similar to yours. Cook finely sliced onion in butter until soft. Add finely sliced Savoy cabbage with some caraway, salt, and white pepper, and cook until wilted. Add a little cream and reduce slightly. This stuff is delicious and a very easily prepared side dish.

Lisa said...

I just tried my first batch of laco-fermented ginger carrots from the Nourishing Traditions book. Way too salty, and I like salty and used less than the recipe called for!! I am wondering if this batch can be saved. Perhaps if I added raisons or dried cranberries to it??

You have given me much to think about as regards the division of my garden space.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Kate, we have found the savoy cabbage to be the hardiest in the garden through winter, and the tastiest too.

I've been putting off making my kraut - but this is spurring me on to get it done.

Cheap Like Me said...

Kate, this is a great post and timely for me on the issue of working around food aversions. It was just suggested to me yesterday that some health problems might go away if I go gluten- and dairy-free ... but guess what my favorite foods are? Sure, wheat and dairy! I'm still thinking about that one. But I really enjoy your informative, thought-provoking posts.

I made some brined pickles last year -- quite a few batches -- from "Wild Fermentation's" guidelines. They were good, but we couldn't eat them fast enough and when I tried canning them, they got squishy. But when the batch went wrong, it was very obvious -- smelled like chicken soup instead of dill pickles, so we obviously did not eat those.

We love braised cabbage -- my husband got the recipe from an Irish chef. Quick, easy and delicious, plus nutritious. It was a revelation for me in terms of eating cabbage. We also adore okonomiyaki (I wrote about it a while back here.

Bureinato said...

I'd never cared for sauerkraut, but followed these directions and liked raw sauerkraut better than the canned stuff.

plus, stuffing an entire cabbage in a jar? fun.

Nanette said...

For Tree Hugging Mama, and anyone else who wants to eat more cabbage, I make this delicious warm salad with lentils. I saw it on a home and garden show, where they added spicy sausages, but I substituted spicy, marinated tofu, I marinate it in temari, lots of chilli, ginger and garlic and a splash of sesame oil.

Red cabbage was suggested, but I've used green ok, chop finely, and sprinkle with a small amount of salt and sugar....apparently this takes away the rubberiness, but still leaves the crunch.

Cook green lentils in a stock...I don't always have any on hand, so add some cumin, couple of bits of kelp or seaweed, anything really to give some flavour. Lightly brown off tofu.

Add parsley and coriander (cilantro) to cabbage, toss cooked lentils through, tofu on top, and add a vinegarette and you're done.

The leftovers are good cold the next day, but not too appealing in winter.


Kate said...

Lisa, I'm obviously quite new to the lacto-fermentation thing. So I'm not one to give advice. But I have noticed that there are slightly different methods out there for lacto-fermentation, so if I don't like one, I'm going to play around with others. Perhaps you could find one that gives less salty results.

T@TC, yes, we're huge fans of Savoy cabbage as well. We've got several out there in the garden. Glad to nudge you on to lacto-fermentation trials.

CLM, did you store your sauerkraut in the fridge? We're only two people in our house, so I'm hoping that the batches will keep for a while if they're kept cold enough. And I remember your okonomiyaki post. I even commented on it!

Bureinato, glad for another vote on the superiority of raw kraut over the canned stuff. I find this a totally plausible claim, and am looking forward to trying it myself. And yeah, stuffing a cabbage in a jar was kinda fun!

Nanette, thanks for the recipe suggestion. I wonder if the leftovers could be very gently reheated in a pan the next day, with a little extra liquid perhaps?

H said...

Love lacto-fermenting!! It's addicting for sure.

lauren silverman said...


Awesome blog. I am so happy to see what you are and Tom are up to.

Sending all of my love from Michigan :)

ilex said...

I've lactofermented almost every cruciferous vegetable (my favorite is a garlicky, spicy, dilly cauliflower and carrot mix- have a vat going right now) but I have a special place in my heart for a nice garlicky sauerkraut.

The key with kraut- you must pound it into submission. Pound it until your arms are tired- at least 10 minutes. I have a baseball bat-sized kraut pounder that I picked up at a junk shop last year. I'd used the little mallets before that, but a big heavy kraut pounder made all the difference. And if you don't pound it, you'll just have shredded cabbage.

Kate said...

H, we'll see if it proves addicting for me pretty soon here.

Lauren! Great to hear from you, and nice to see what impressive things you're up to via your blog as well.

Ilex, I didn't severely pound my first attempt at sauerkraut, more like packed firmly. I do have a big pestle for a Thai ceramic mortar though. I think it would do excellent duty for cabbage whacking. Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

I added some prepared horseradish and mustard seeds to my last batch of kraut, and it was fabulous! I've also made kimchee with mung bean sprouts (about 15% of total volume) and that turned out fine.

If the final product is too salty, you can rinse it (or at least drain it) before you eat it - or mix it half and half with raw cabbage for a really excellent slaw. Pickled ginger carrots on brown rice is divine!


Masha said...

Kind of a late comment, but here is a standard sort of recipe for sauerkraut:
For every 3 kg. (about 1/2 pound) cabbage, 50 g. (2 oz) salt.
Thinly sliced carrots and/or cranberries, if you want them
Thinly slice the cabbage and in a large bowl or basin, mix it with the salt with your hands, using up and down motions.
Put a bay leaf or two in a jar and some peppercorns, then dump in the cabbage (and carrots/cranberries), push down well. The jar should be filled nearly to the top. Put some weights on top of the cabbage, like a large, clean stone.
Put the jar on a plate (to catch any juice) and stand in a corner. After a while, a clear foam should form on the top. At that point, poke through the cabbage (with a knife, fork, whatever) all the way to the bottom several times, to let out the gas.
The cabbage will be ready when the juice goes down and the top layer wilts slightly. It should smell slightly sour, not bad, and it should not be slimy. Cover the jar and stick it in the refrigerator.
I think my grandmother put on some sugar as well, but I'm not sure how much, and I can't call her to ask, unfortunately, because of the costs (she lives in Russia).
If you've only ever tried store-bought sauerkraut before, don't judge all sauerkraut based on that -- I once thought I would try it, but it smelled so vile and looked so odd that I couldn't bring myself to eat it, and I love sauerkraut.
Also, I highly recommend salted pickles.

Kate said...

Masha, spacibo bolshoye! Recipes are welcome at any time, early or late. Yours sounds like a good method.