Thursday, November 3, 2011
Fermentation is Science for Cooks!
This week the theme is ferments. Fabulous Ferments, of course! I am conducting a fermentation workshop on Saturday for the members of our new GAPS support group (and anyone else who wants to learn, of course). Starting GAPS is hard enough without struggling to make unfamiliar things like kraut and stocks, so this is where we need to start, with the basics. When I do a workshop, I always bring as many samples as I can, to demonstrate the possible variety, so I am scrambling to have enough to showcase. Because my ferments have been kind of wacky recently. Well, slimy is a more exact word. Odd, though, that the vegetable matter isn't slimy and the smell and taste are fine. It's just the brine that has the consistency of raw egg whites, which is not a big selling point for most people.
So I am conducting a major experiment: I bought a monster cabbage at Sunny Farms--it weighed over 20 pounds!--and prepared the whole thing by shredding and salting, using my thrifted old-timey cabbage shredder (which looks like an overgrown mandoline, and makes cutting the cabbage in fine threads so easy) Then the fun really began! I stuffed each of five mason jars with the basic kraut mixture, then added a different starter to each one: powdered yoghurt, powdered kefir, a commercial probiotic, liquid whey, and the fifth was left wild, using the lactobacillus naturally present on cabbage. One more jar was also left wild, but airlocked, in a Pickl-It jar.
I have had some success with the Pickl-Its, but we have odd flora on the boat, and they somehow managed to infiltrate the supposedly closed system. I have scalded the jars, sterilized them with bleach (yuck, I know, but I am desperate to get rid of the funky slime). Still I have this ropy liquid I am hesitant to call brine. Which has led me to turning the boat into a laboratory this week. I think the natives are getting restless, what with the discombobulation in our small floating home. Let's see what the experiment tells us in a few days... Hopefully it will have been worth the mess and disruption, when I have a successful approach to ferments in our marine environment.
A note about starters: I used what was available to me locally, which means I didn't have a dairy-free starter. Those are available online, and I am going to get my hands on some for experiments. Whey (from dripped yoghurt)is obviously a dairy-based starter, but I have always been able to tolerate the small amount that remains in my kvass, despite not doing well on dairy (other than butter, and the newly-introduced homemade sour cream--yay!) Powdered starters are convenient, though they are not perfect. I believe that it is much better to use real kefir grains than any starter, but I neither have any nor am I at all sure how I would use them to ferment something thick like applesauce. Another experiment in my future! When I make yoghurt I use a good quality commercial yoghurt, with no fillers or extra ingredients, as the starter. Using the dried powder starters seemed to be a good starting place for my investigations, as they are reliable, relatively easy to use, something I can teach others to do.
Call me crazy, but when I get on a roll, well, lots of things get done! In addition to the plain kraut, I made one jar with cumin and fenugreek and one with juniper berries and cauliflower. There is a new jar of basic beet kvass (I like it well aged, so have to make ahead), no additions, and a jar of Dr. Natasha's Vegetable Medley. Add in a jar of ginger carrots (from Nourishing Traditions, and four jars of fermented applesauce--two raw and and two cooked, and WHEW!! I am done for now, and am enjoying the array of bubbling jars on the shelf behind the setee.
There are wonderful sites, blogs, and books now devoted to the art of fermenting, but I always come back to Sandor Katz' Wild Fermentation, with a book and blog of the same name. He does an amazing job of introducing many types of ferments, why we would want to make and eat them, and--best of all--he transmits a infectious joy for all things microbial. I encourage any of you who have yet to dip a toe into the world of ferments, traditional and inventive, to explore what "Sandorkraut" has to offer.
We humans have more microbes in our digestive tracts than we have cells in our bodies--about five pounds of the stuff! These microbes--bacteria, yeasts, viruses and tiny parasites, come in both beneficial and pathogenic varieties. The beneficial beasties help with digestion, with conversion of various substances we eat to usable forms, and they even manufacture some nutrients that we depend upon (vitamin K is a well-known example). They help keep the pathogens in check, both the ones that reside in the gut, and the ones that show up on occasion--so they are a functioning part of our immune systems.
Unfortunately, there are multiple factors in our modern life that can destroy our microbial friends. The list is long: antibiotics (which do not discriminate between the good guys and the bad), steroids, birth control pills, denatured foods, metal toxicity, multiple chemicals (in foods, the environments, cleaning supplies, etc), and more.
As concerning is the fact that we don't have or take in the microbes that we might have in the past. Babies are supposed to acquire probiotic bacteria as they travel through the birth canal, swallowing fluids from mama, and then through the skin-to-skin contact of nursing and being held. As more babies are born by C-section, and fewer are nursed, and many moms receive antibiotics during labor, many babies start life at a microbial disadvantage.
In the past we sourced our water from streams and wells, where we gained the benefit of pure water (no chemicals) and trace soil organisms. Our forbears ate quite a bit of their food fermented, perhaps originally owing to a lack of refrigeration, but eventually because people enjoyed and thrived on the changed foods. We developed a taste for all sorts of ferments, things you might not even know were once fermented: soda, yoghurt, vinegar, sausages (such as salami), bread, beer, wine, ketchup, fish sauce, myriad pickles, chocolate, coffee, tea. Just about every culture has a favorite culture! Think dosas and iddlies in India, sauerkraut in Germany, root beer in the USA, tsukemono, natto, and miso in Japan, kvass of all sorts in Russia. I know I am just scratching the surface, but that should give you a sense of the enormous variety in the world of fermentation.
Eating cultured food does not replace the flora we should have gotten at birth, but it goes a long way toward keeping us healthy. Hippocrates famously said that all disease begins in the gut, and now we are finally proving this scientifically. Luckily, though, we don't need scientists to help us shift the balance toward the beneficial, friendly, tribe. We just need to take the offenders out of our lives, as much as we can control, and add the good guys in on a daily basis. In an acute situation, a bottled commercial probiotic can be helpful, but we all need to consume some amount of cultured food to keep the healthy balance we were meant to have. Some folks have even reversed very troubling issues with powerful probiotic foods such as kefir (see Dom's site for one inspiring story).
OK, so these foods are almost miraculous. Will they change the world? Will they satisfy those agitating for various political and economic shifts? Why should we put so much energy into food? I don't have all of those answers, but I will say this: slowing down to make and appreciate real, healing, foods may indeed change your life. It has changed mine. And if our lives change, we may influence some others. We may be able to turn around and help a friend, a neighbor, a relative. We can set an example of a simple and healthful life, which might shift the energy in our social circle. That in turn, can affect a neighborhood, a town, and who knows where the change might end.
It is entirely possible that by helping our microbes instead of killing them, that maybe we might Ferment Change in the world.
All it takes is a head of cabbage, some salt and a jar....