Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Witches Brew

So, my trick is working—you guys are eating and drinking delicious fermented food and getting interested in the health benefits, and how to make your own. Heh heh heh. Follow me, my pretties.

But then: I don't actually know anything special about fermentation.

What I DO know is this: it's really easy, and really flexible, and if you want to, you can ferment food, too.

Fermentation is a big part of why wintergreens began. I took a little how-to workshop and made my first jar of fermented mixed veggies less than two years ago. I immediately read Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation, and became a little bit obsessed. This was the perfect "recipe" book for me. Regular cookbooks seem like they're telling me what to do, which is a sure way to get no good end result. The bible of fermentation instead tells stories of queers in the U.S. South, of fighting corporate culture, of gourmet food, of living with HIV, of diy ethic, and slips in encouragement and ideas about various fermentation experiments. Perfect for the stubborn. It lets you know you can relax, you're not going to cause anything bad to happen, only good: no poisonings, no illness, just food suited to your personal taste.

People at the market this weekend were asking me the hows and whys of kombucha's health benefits. Again: I don't know. I never took chemistry (preferring physics), and don't entirely understand what's at work in probiotic foods. I figure that there are other people to take care of this part, to test and prove and explain. To me it's a magic little witches brew. My role is making great tasting ferments available in Beacon, and convincing you to try making them yourself.

Without any knowledge of chemistry, I know this food and this drink settle my stomach. They stimulate the sour and tart parts of my palate. They give me a little power zing, like a big dose of vitamin C or a shot of wheat grass. They put me in touch with foods my ancestors ate, and what people in other parts of the world eat. I always have a jar of something unusual to offer when I go to get-togethers. The colors please me, and make my meals more varied and nicer to look at. And I'm able to keep food from the summer crunchy and tasty and fresh for winter, when cold and dark threaten to make me lay down on the floor.

I crunched my way through some fermented okra this morning hours before the sun was up, and even though it was nine degrees or some ridiculous number, I relived summer just a little bit. I was thinking this and smiling: okra flowers are so delicate and pretty, and the pods themselves so phallic and silly, like an over-excited dog. I pictured where I was when I picked that okra, the big leaves of the plant, and remembered how the sun felt on my shoulders.

If you like other people preparing your food, that's cool. But if you like to experiment yourself (or are trying to get yourself off the floor), let's get started! Begin with sauerkraut or mixed veggies, or something that excites you, like good kimchi. Chop up your produce, salt it, squeeze it with your hands to get its juices flowing, and put something heavy on top of it so that it doesn't float. Check back in a day to be sure the brine (salty liquid), is covering all of the food. If not, add some salt water (1 to 5 ratio) until covered. Let this sit.* Taste it often, so you know exactly what's going on. Depending on how warm your kitchen is, you'll be tasting ripe delicious flavors in a matter of days.

Once you have your preferred fermentation times figured out, you can leave the food alone for longer periods, and the "bloom" that floats on the top of the brine becomes easier to remove, since it's one solid sheet. When your taste tests please you, refrigerate the food, or put it somewhere cool to slow things down, like a root cellar.

You are the master of your own fermentations.

Wild Fermentation is still far and away my favorite book (that's at all relevant to wintergreens), but people have been asking for other book recommendations. To that end, I'm setting up a Library Thing bookshelf. We've only just begun, but will work on building it up. Please let us know your favorites!

*This process is slightly different for kimchi, so read the book!


  1. (This comment was a response to a question on a different post, but since so many people are interested in the nutrition of fermented foods, I decided to comment here, as well, where it's easier to find.)

    I've stated before that I have little to no understanding of chemistry, which is what it would take to truly understand the changes vegetables go through when fermented. Sadly, I am not a nutritionist either.

    There are a couple of general ways pickles are valuable to nutrition:
    - Varying one's diet, including beneficial herbs and spices, and replacing processed foods.
    - If you're pickling yourself, or getting pickles from a trusted source, you know that these vegetables were grown with care, without chemicals, pickled while they were fresh, without travel. Both using vegetables fresh out of the garden and preserving through pickling (as opposed to freezing or canning) retain the nutrients in the vegetables.
    - It's the dead of winter, and you're still eating crunchy, flavorful, local vegetables instead of produce flown to you from someplace where it's summer. The nutrients are more intact.

    As for the more technical nutrition questions, I turn to experts. There are a lot of studies available online, and here's what I gather from them:
    - Pickled vegetables are easier to digest, and fermentation aids in the absorption of nutrients and minerals. Even shallow pickles (ichiyazuki, or overnight pickles) have undergone a "pre-digestion" transformation.
    - Fermented foods support and enhance beneficial bacteria, and a varied microflora in your gut. This balance is credited with keeping many illnesses at bay.
    - Pickled vegetables are low in calories, and the acetic acid inherent to fermentation is thought to aid the way the body processes sugars, and be very important for certain types of diabetes.
    - Brine pickles do have a lot of salt/sodium. However, studies have shown that healthy people who cut down on salt drastically have seen no benefit. Just use a good sea salt so that you're getting more important minerals into your pickles.

    Then there are all those tales about fighting "free-radicals" which I can't understand, probably because it's hard for me to accept a Free Radical being a BAD thing! And, of course, miso protecting the body from radiation. These are powerful claims, and I can't tell you whether they're right or not, because then I'd have to spend all my time in a lab instead of a kitchen.

    The Japanese are masters of the pickle, and I find it impossible to NOT be attracted to the arts of tsukemono! These pickles are beautiful, with a huge range of colors, shapes, and textures. They also incorporate a lot of additional ingredients that are healthful: red shiso, green tea, golden turmeric, pink ume, earthen nuka, red chilies, black seaweed.

    Let your body be the judge of whether these foods are good for you! And enjoy your experimentation.

  2. I just cleaned the cat boxes, and that, errr, reminded me of something I forgot in the above list.

    Pickles are a great anti-diarrheal food, since they promote good bacteria and fight the bad. Picture your pickles wearing capes.

    Constipation is much more of a problem in the U.S., but diarrhea, which I politely call "the cha cha chas," threatens lives in much of the world.