We were on holiday in Prince Edward Island when we got the call from our teenage son, at home: “There was this loud bang, and when I came down to the kitchen, there was a pop bottle on the counter that looked like it had been ripped apart by a giant.”
One of my early fermentation experiments had gone wrong. Before going on holiday, I had left some ginger beer to ferment in a plastic bottle with a tightly closed lid. As it got fizzier, pressure built up, and the bottle blew, leaving a sticky mess all over the floors, counters and ceiling.
Despite my ginger-beer experience, fermenting your own foods at home is a safe practice. Fermentation offers a way to preserve fruit and vegetables, and add new flavours and greater variety to your diet.
Fermentation is the process of using naturally occurring bacteria and cultures to alter food. To make yogourt, you add live-culture bacteria which transform the milk. Preserving vegetables involves encouraging the growth of lactic-acid-producing bacteria. The simplest way to do this is to add salt to vegetables, immerse them in water, and make sure they stay submerged at room temperature until they develop the flavour you want. Storing them in the fridge or another cool place after that will stop (or dramatically slow down) the fermentation process.
Sandor Katz is widely seen as a leader of the current resurgence of interest in home fermentation. His book Wild Fermentation, published by Chelsa Green in 2003, became an unexpected hit. In August 2014, he visited Nova Scotia for the first time to offer fermentation workshops in Halifax and Wolfville—part of a touring schedule that has seen him travel to Australia, New Zealand, Northern Europe and India so far this year.
Katz grew up in New York City, but moved to a commune in rural Tennessee in 1993. That’s when, of necessity, he learned to ferment. “I got involved in keeping a garden and I learned that all the radishes are ready at the same time, and all the cabbages are ready at the same time—so, as a practical matter, I thought I’d better learn how to make sauerkraut,” says Katz.
Twenty years later, sauerkraut is still one of his favourites. (See www.wildfermentation.com/category/sauerkrautrecipes for his basic recipe.) “It’s what I recommend to anyone as a first fermentation project,” says Katz. “It’s easy, there’s no potential danger, you don’t need special equipment or special starter cultures, you can enjoy your results relatively quickly and it’s incredibly delicious and healthy. It has so much going for it.”
Sharon Labchuk of Millvale, P.E.I. started making sauerkraut at home 15 years ago. “I’m half Ukrainian, so it’s part of my heritage,” she says. She now prepares a variety of fermented foods and drinks in the kitchen of her solar-heated home, including a range of vegetables and beverages such as tea-based kombucha, and kvass, a traditional Russian drink.
“I’ve always got kombucha on the go, right now I have a gallon jar going, and I have a couple of bottles of pickles, fermenting yellow beans, little white onions, and some beet kvass,” Labchuk says. “My garden produces cucumbers, beans, and beets, so that’s entirely seasonal. But I make certain other things, like kombucha and kimchi, year-round.”
Labchuk says she has been pleasantly surprised by the growing local interest in fermentation. Last year, she offered an introductory fermentation workshop through the P.E.I. Food Exchange. Some participants were hesitant about the process, but “I brought samples and won them over,” she says. More recently, a workshop on making kimchi drew 50 people.
Although canning with vinegar in heat-processed jars may seem traditional, Labchuk points out that the process has only been around for about a century. It’s also more complicated than fermentation. “A lot of people at my first workshop were concerned about how the process worked and if it was safe,” she recalls. “They were nervous because it didn’t involve things they were used to, like sterilizing jars. Fermenting is easy. You just prepare the stuff and put it in a jar, and that’s it!”
Katz says there’s a hunger for this kind of information. “There is a huge amount of ignorance about how fermented foods and beverages are made,” he says. “The decades in which food production was disappearing from people’s homes and the fabric of everyday life were exactly the same period of time that we became terrified of bacteria.”
That fear has led people to shy away from fermenting their own foods, even though bacteria are part of the culinary traditions of every culture in the world. “There has never been a case of botulism from fermented vegetables, yet that’s what everyone’s afraid of,” says Katz. “How can I be sure I won’t get botulism? It’s like saying, ‘How can I can be sure I’m not going to get cancer from stepping on a nail?’ One has nothing to do with the other. When it comes to fermenting vegetables, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Mercedes Brian of Wolfville, N.S. sells kimchi, sauerkraut, ginger-coriander carrots, and other fermented products under the name Pickled Pink. Having suffered for years from digestive issues, Brian had been following a restrictive diet but she wasn’t getting any better. So she decided to take the opposite approach, and eat as many live-cultured foods as she could for a limited time. “I ate blue cheese and sourdough bread and Tancook sauerkraut, kefir, water kefir, kombucha—and I thought the worst that can happen is I’ll be in for 10 days of hell. Instead, my digestion, which had been in an uproar for years, just started humming.”
Although drawn to fermented foods for health reasons, Brian emphasizes that she doesn’t want the pickles “to be only about probiotics. I want them to taste really good, to add something to every plate.”
Registered dietitian Edie Shaw-Ewald, who lives in Halifax, recommends fermented foods to clients. “Probiotics are micro-organisms that live in our intestinal tract and help with digestion—they’re important to the immune system and a lot of other processes,” she says. “When you eat these fermented foods, it helps with your bacterial flora. I used to recommend probiotic supplements, but now fermented foods are much more available. You know, sauerkraut is very traditional in Nova Scotia, so I suggest that as a condiment.”
Like many bitten by the fermentation bug, Shaw-Ewald has gone from reading about fermented foods to making an expanding number of them herself.
Katz has seen this pattern repeatedly. Asked about why home fermenters seem so passionate about this way of preparing food, he says, “You are taking some of the most exciting foods, with some of the edgiest and most compelling flavours, and when you figure out they are actually incredibly simple to make and you can do it at home in your kitchen, it’s exciting. It makes you want to experiment and share your excitement with a lot of other people.”