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How to move from onlooker to the fermented.
So, you ask, if pickles and sauerkraut are inexpensive and plentiful at the localmart, why would you bother to make them at home?
Fermenting is in. Not just because your Eastern European bubbe used to make pickles every spring, it’s all about your gut. Keeping your gut healthy means keeping it full of precious probiotics—healthy bacteria that keeps the bad guys at bay. Indeed, it’s more complicated than that, but this is a narrative about food and fermentation, not a lecture about drinking more kvass and eating fewer cheeseburgers.
We got into fermenting gradually. It is a multistage addiction that starts with family heirloom recipes and heads north—no pickling or preserving project is too offbeat. Fermentation’s coolness factor can be measured by two separate but equally interesting trends: the growth of fermentation-related Meetups, and young, independent thinkers taking their love for all things lactic acid to bold extremes.
Case in point, Fermentation on Wheels is the effort of a Texas woman by who converted a prison bus into a lab that travels the country evangelizing about the merits of making your own kraut, pickles, kombucha, and all things that gently brew into tasty, healthy concoctions.
Before we go from beginning to advanced recipes for fermentation, it’s important to distinguish between pickling and fermenting. Not all pickles are fermented, and not all fermentation constitutes pickling. In order for a food to be fermented—and the range of things you can ferment is astounding—there needs to be something in the recipe that creates lactic acid which is what builds probiotics. That something could be a starter, such as a scoby for kombucha, or in the case of bread (yes, bread can be fermented), a sourdough yeast starter. And, for the record, I believe my wife has starter that dates back to the gold rush.
The two gateway DIY fermentation projects that will lead to more complex efforts are kombucha and kraut. Having done both of these recipes countless times, they appear far more difficult than they are.
Starting with kraut, we’re all familiar with sauerkraut in the form of stringy cabbage that’s ladled onto a hot dog by a street corner vendor along with mustard, ketchup, and relish. That pale imitation does not resemble what you can make at home. A few simple ingredients, some patience, and a cool place to store your fermenting goodness, and you have moved from onlooker to the fermented. One of the best videos on how to make basic kraut comes from vegan cook, Laura Miller.
As someone who has an intolerance to all things sulfuric, I do the same recipe but instead of red or green chopped cabbage, I make a kraut using carrots, fennel, and celery root with the same results. While not part of my routine, many more advanced fermentors who understand the need to keep your vegetables submerged in their natural brine, will use a contraption called a kraut source (which poorly defines the product).
Let’s not skip over one of the most popular and easy-to-make fermentation foods—pickles. And where else would we go to learn the secrets of making the best pickled cukes? Here’s the mad food scientist, Alton Brown, going step by step through the process.
At somewhere around $3.50 a bottle, our bottle-a-day kombucha habit was getting out of control. Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage that, in recent years, has taken on a life of its own far beyond such hipster hangouts as Brooklyn, Austin, Portland, and Los Angeles. We added kombucha to our lives after reading about the benefits of a more alkaline diet. A few glasses of kombucha on tap at a farmers market, and this probiotic-rich drink became a diet staple.
In order to keep from overwhelming our exorbitant monthly grocery budget, it was time for a little kombucha DIY. It was then we discovered the fermented drink starter known as a scoby which we were able to buy at the local co-op. From my understanding, a scoby is some relationship to a mushroom, but I have never explored that connection in depth. As the video below who show you, step by step, making your own kombucha is ridiculously simple.
A few side notes from a self-proclaimed kombucha master: You will find out that after brewing your first batch, the scoby starter has doubled in size, creating a new starter. After a while, your fridge will be overrun by scobys (I speak from experience), so I suggest you start offering them to friends, family, or even your mailman lest your chillchest resemble a science project.
Anyone who has scanned the kombucha section of their local supermarket has seen plain old kombucha morph into countless flavored varieties. My favorite is tangerine with sea salt, a recipe I have tried (with little success) to duplicate. Once you master the basic formula, use the video below as a guide to add the flavor of your choice.
Ah grasshopper, you are ready for some advanced fermentation projects. Two that I recommend are ginger beer and kvass.
While it has nothing to do with creepy crawlies that roam the garden, a good ginger beer starts with something called a “ginger bug.” The bug (water, sugar, ginger) is what provides the fermentation starter for your beer which will end up with a beverage that is far superior than anything that comes mass produced. Why make your own ginger beer? There are dozens of tres moderne cocktails that use ginger beer as a main ingredient. I’ll have a black and tan, please.
And then there’s kvass. One look at this fermented beet drink, and it’s safe to say few people who consume it without financial compensation. Trust me—it’s wonderful, and the sort of breakfast pick-me-up that will start your day off with a healthy blast of probiotic vegetable power. I have seen commercially made kvass—brought domestically from Eastern European tradition—on the shelves of Whole Foods, but it’s quite simple to make yourself.
I think you’re picking up on the fact that fermentation is only limited to your imagination. Fermentation aficionados make their own kiefer, lemonade, vinegar, and a garden variety of things from their gardens. The one thing all home-based laco acid chefs know is that cleanliness is the key to avoiding a trip to the ER. Keep your jars, crocks, utensils, and speciality doodads sparkling clean, and the only bacteria you encounter will be the healthy probiotic kind.
Next time you walk down the supermarket aisle, and pass the pickle and kaut shelves, turn up your nose and know you can do it better yourself.
Photo via zeevveez/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Allen Weiner has been a market research analyst in the area of new media and technology since 1994. He’s worked as writer, publisher and newspaper executive. He is the co-founder and publisher of Kombucha Network and the former managing vice president of Gartner.