Hi everybody! I can't believe this is my first post in almost a year. While I haven't been busy blogging, I've certainly been cooking, branching out and experimenting with new techniques. Several months ago I found a new passion: fermentation. Lacto-fermentation to be more precise. So what does that mean? Fermentation is a form a food preservation that humankind has practiced for millennia. In basic terms, fermentation occurs during the controlled chemical breakdown of a substance using probiotic bacteria and naturally occurring yeasts. Doesn't sound very delicious does it? Well, it is! It's also sensationally healthy for you.
Fermented foods have funky, sour flavours and often a pleasant effervescence. The most common examples are kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha. Fermenting also deepens and develops flavours in things that you didn't even know were there. It's a lot of fun and I really encourage to try it for yourself. You can be so creative!
This process basically involves submerging vegetables (or fruits) in a salt brine. We live and thrive in a world that is boundlessly bacterial. The salinity of the brine is controlled so that the "bad" bacteria cannot survive but the good, probiotic bacteria are unaffected. This gives them the opportunity to feed on the natural starches and sugars without competition. The bacteria converts them to lactic acid (hence the "lacto" part of the name and the sour characteristic) and carbon dioxide gas or Co2. Just to be clear, there is no lactose involved in lacto-fermentation.
So why are fermented foods so healthy for you? Probiotic bacteria is essential for optimal digestive health. Your digestive system has a complex culture of bacteria throughout it. Our guts love probiotic bacteria. They're the good kind! Fermentation benefits the overall digestive function of our bodies which hosts our immune system. We can all benefit from more fermented foods in our diets. I've been experimenting with a number of things so far and I'm going to share them all with you in this post. Some were more successful than others. Some I can't wait to try again!
You know what makes a particularly delicious fermented product? Hot sauce! But that will be a whole post on it's own to follow this one.
Before we discovered the modern way of pickling which involves cooking a seasoned vinegar brine and pouring it over veggies/fruit in sterilized jars; we fermented. Just about anything that can be pickled can be fermented. Unfortunately the presence of vinegar kills the probiotic bacteria, therefore wasting the nutritional benefits. The fermented version of a pickle is the most traditional and much better for you.
So how do you get started?
1) Decide on what you want to ferment (cucumbers, carrots, onions, chili peppers, etc...) and fill a glass jar with it.
2) Prepare a salt solution of clean, drinkable water and non-iodized salt. Iodine disrupts the fermentation process so you can't use regular table salt. Kosher salt, Himalayan and sea salt will work just fine. Personally I prefer fine sea salt because it dissolves the fastest.
1 tbsp salt : 2 cups of water
I've used that same ratio for everything that I've experimented with so far and it's always worked.
3) Weigh the contents under the brine so they're totally submerged and not exposed to any air (it will cause spoilage). Don't use a metal weight either because the brine will become increasingly acidic and take on the metallic flavour.
I like to use a little porcelain ramekin as pictured above. I also have a ceramic cube (which is technically a large bead from an old Caribana festival costume) that also works well. I haven't tried it myself, but I've read a few sources that cite a sealed sandwich bag filled with water placed on top will work in a pinch. There are a number of things you can use as a "fermentation weight". If you insist, you can even buy one online. Haha.
4) Loosely fit with a lid and keep it at room temperature, out of direct light, for a few days to a week. Once or twice a day, loosen the lid to allow the escape of Co2 buildup. This process is called "burping" the jar and it's very important. Otherwise enough gas could build up pressure to crack or even break the glass. True story.
5) When you're happy with the level of fermentation, move your product to the fridge and store it there. This will mostly stop the rate of fermentation and you can enjoy your product for a few weeks. Lactic acid is a natural preservative so your product will stay edible (and delicious) longer.
If you follow me on Instagram, and of course you should @foodbybram, I have a helpful video highlighted on my profile where I demonstrate exactly how this is done.
OK, but how long do I leave something to ferment for??
That depends on a few factors. Mainly what you're fermenting, the climate where you live and personal preference.
Robust, hearty vegetables such as carrots and cabbage can ferment for about 7 days.
Lighter, softer vegetables such as cucumber, okra and tomatoes may only need 4-5 days.
For hot sauce, I let the batch ferment for 2-3 weeks, but I'll explain why in my next post.
Fermentation also tends to occur faster in warmer temperatures and slower in colder temperatures. This is important to keep in mind. You may try a ferment in winter that you love and recreate it in summer but have different results. The more you experiment the better you'll be able to gauge doneness.
The longer something ferments, the more sour and flavourful it will become. Generally speaking, the longer something ferments, the softer it may become too. It all depends on your flavour and texture preference. The best way to tell if something is to your liking is to try it! Let's say you're fermenting carrot sticks, for example. After 6 days or so you've noticed the smell develop and little bubbles have been forming in the brine and you're not sure if's ready. Try one and eat it. If you think you want it a little more sour, a little funkier you can let it go for another day or two. It's totally up to you.
What else should I expect?
During the fermentation process the brine will get cloudy. That's perfectly normal and safe. It's just a sign that the fermentation is doing what it's supposed to. You may also see a filmy, even webby substance that's white-ish in colour form on the top or inside the brine. It doesn't look very appetizing and can be confused with mold. It's called Kahm yeast and is actually harmless and imparts no flavour. If it's on the top of your brine and bothers you, you can simply skim it off and discard it. The rest of your ferment will be just fine. If you leave it in, that's fine too. It's safe to consume.
|Harmless Kahm yeast culture growing in ferment brine.|
Mold, however, can get you sick. If any mold grows on your batch at any time, you must discard it, including the brine. Mold is generally fuzzy, distinctly coloured and raised. If your batch is completely submerged under the brine, you shouldn't have any mold concerns. It's important to know the difference between harmless yeast and mold.
I recommend that you place your jar on a disposable towel or in bowl. The carbon dioxide gas will build up pressure during the process and displace a bit of the liquid. It's not uncommon for some of the brine to trickle up, over and down the sides of the jar. A disposable towel or bowl will make clean up a lot easier.
When you've finished with a fermentation experiment, a complex culture of living probiotics will be present in the brine. The brine can be used again in another experiment (and again and again, as many times as you like). Just bear in mind that some flavours from the previous batches will carry on into the next. This can be a great thing. But maybe not, for example, if you make a spicy fermented batch and don't want the burn in your next one.
Now that we've gone over the sciencey, technical part we can move on to the inspirational part!
Here are examples of some fermentation experiments that I've done in the past. Some were more successful than others, but I haven't tried anything yet that I absolutely hated. Some I've already repeated.
Fermented Dill Pickles
I packed a jar with mini cucumbers, lots of fresh dill, crushed garlic, chili pepper, peppercorns, coriander seeds, mustard seeds and a bay leaf. After 4-5 days they were very decent half-sour pickles. The thing is, and I knew this already going in, when it comes to pickles I personally prefer the contemporary vinegar-pickling version. Although I added a bay leaf (the tannins present help to keep the cucumbers crunchy), I don't think I would have enjoyed them any softer than they were. They still had a nice crispness but as the "half-sour" name implies, it doesn't have the full-flavour punch of the vinegar version. To go the full flavour version, I think you may have to sacrifice the crunchy texture which is integral to me. Not a bad experiment, but I probably won't repeat this one.
OK, wow. These were phenomenal! I really recommend that you give these a try. Especially if you're new to fermenting. I packed a jar with fresh grape tomatoes, fresh thyme, fresh basil, crushed garlic, chili pepper and peppercorns and let them ferment for 4-5 days. The result was the classic Italian flavour profile but so complex and vibrant. As it fermented it smelled like sweet marinara sauce. The skins of the tomatoes remained intact but the texture inside got softer, similar to lightly cooked tomato. Eaten on their own they pop and burst in your mouth. A special treat, especially if you like them spicy.
I used them to make some balsamic-bruschetta and they were sensational!
Fermented Sliced Onion
Umph, another favourite! It's amazing how simple red onion, salt, water and time can make something so delicious. They have an unmistakable onion flavour but with none of the raw harshness. They stay nice and crunchy. They take on sour notes and and deep, umami flavours you never knew were there. They're fantastic in salads and on tacos and sandwiches.
Fermented Jalapeño Rings
I could eat these everyday. In this particular example, I used the brine from my sliced red onion ferment and used it here. That's why the brine is already cloudy in the first pic. You may have also noticed that fermentation makes vibrant green veggies turn dull and greyish. What it may lack in colour it certainly makes up for with taste. Similar to your standard pickled jalapeño rings, only crunchier and a little effervescent. Another good 5-day ferment. I find these particularly morish. They're perfect in Mexican and Texan dishes.
Fermented Okra Pickles
Okra is definitely a love or hate thing. Most people can't get past the slimy texture it's notorious for. While I certainly understand the perspective of being opposed to it, I love it. I can't explain it. I had known for a long time that in the Southern United States they pickle okra which was always really enticing to me. I had my first visit to the South just last October (New Orleans, Louisiana) and I managed to get my hands on some. Not surprisingly, I loved it. I tried to recreate it here in lacto-fermented form with garlic and chili pepper. This is now one of my favourite ways to eat okra. It's not quite as slimy as when it's cooked. The exterior remains quite crisp and the inside has a distinct effervescence which goes perfectly with the garlicky spice. I find these to be insatiably snackable.
I tried fermenting sliced radishes. I was really interested in how these would turn out. I love the crunchy, sharp pepperiness of a fresh radish. The deep red colour of the skin bled into the brine staining them all the same pink colour. I let them ferment for 5 days or so. In the end, they were ok. I was a little bummed because I've had versions of Korean pickled radish that I quite enjoy. These lost too much of their crunchiness and even the pepperiness really mellowed out. It's hard to describe, they were just ok. I don't think I'll be making them again. They did work beautifully in salad I made with them.
Fermented Carrot Sticks
Yum! These were another successful one that I could eat every day. These are also great for beginners to fermenting. The natural sweetness of carrots balances well against the sour notes they inherit. I suppose they soften a little but they still remained quite crunchy. In this example I fermented them with fresh ginger, chili flakes and a little liquid smoke. To be honest, the liquid smoke didn't really do much but the ginger was awesome. I think carrots and ginger go well together under any circumstances. This is certainly no exception. Ginger ferments beautifully well. It's a great flavouring for anything you'd like to ferment. Ferment your own gingery carrot sticks and enjoy them with hummus for a spin on a classic snack.
Fermented Long Beans
I've loved any kind of stringy green bean since I was a kid. I gave these a similar treatment as the okra with chilies, garlic and I even added some peppercorns to this batch. These were sensational. So snackable and they'd work great as an accent on a charcuterie board. Fantastic flavour and aroma. They're brilliant to nosh on by themselves but they're also particularly nice in a Caesar. That's a cocktail very similar to what Americans know of as a Bloody Mary only better. What makes it better? A splash of clam juice. Trust me, it's delectable. Canadians take Caesars quite seriously. It's a brunch staple.