Aside from my homebrew kombucha, my first experience with fermented foods, on recollection, happened in a café basement on a crowded street in Denver. You entered through the kitchen and, upon descending the skinny staircase, found yourself exposed to the underside of fine-casual dining. (Sort of fitting, if you think about it. The secret spaces where the magic happens. If everyone knew about it, they’d be doing it themselves. There’s foodie and then there’s You put what in your mac and cheese?) It was darkish, with string lights hung about. The quarters were tight and we were instructed to bring our own knives. Greet your neighbors. We’re going to be making kimchi.
That night, I added brine to my vocabulary. I flirted with danger by not only risking my own fingers to the knife, but my neighbor’s as well. We shopped around the little “mini mart” set up with beautiful organic produce, chopped strange things with strange names (HI, JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE), salted, seduced, massaged, stuffed. Our jars now a rainbow of turning temptresses: things were beginning to g r o w. Best of all, the course was taught by a rad coworker making a career change from social work into holistic nutrition (sound familiar?) and I was surrounded by some of my favorite people making “lovers kraut” jokes. We took home our prizes and waited. Burped, and waited. The thing about ferments is that they’re growing the good stuff quickly, so mostly it becomes about flavor: you can ferment as little or as long as you want. Me, being rather impatient when not outright forgetful, I opted try to the good stuff after only a few weeks.
And I hated it.
I thought my love affair with the probiotic underbellies was effectively over.
I was introduced to lacto-fermentation when I started my new job in California. We make some of the best sauerkraut* and pickles I’ve ever had. I didn’t even know that pickling (in vinegar) and fermenting (in saltwater AKA “brine”) yields two insanely different results, both in flavor and nutritional profile. (Fermenting foods grows the good bacteria we’re talking about. Soaking foods in vinegar just changes the flavor/texture.) That, coupled with my continued admiration for kombucha, led me to the Santa Barbara Fermentation Festival.
A festival like this is grounds for hippie/foodie/nutty/nutrition-y people to congregate and get their freak on. Well, in a way. Have you ever massaged cabbage before? It’s a sort of…feeling. ANYWAY. When you bring together people who love this stuff with people who know a thing or two about this stuff, it’s merry magic and then some. I took notes, and that’s really what I came here to share. If you have questions, please let me know and I will do my best to answer/point you in the right direction!
*I haven’t had enough sauerkraut to make these claims. But it LOOKS better than any other kraut I’ve ever seen and tastes BOMB, and I made it, so there’s that.
The Festival boasts a “Screamin’ Pickle” contest where folks can enter their own home-crafted ferments for a chance at the glass pickle trophy! Maybe next year I’ll enter some carrot kombucha…
DIY pickling station: Pickling is very easy. Stuff a jar with garlic, fresh dill, and your favorite vegetables and pour over saltwater mixture. Seal. Burp. Set. Don’t forget. To “burp” your jar is to unscrew the cap slightly to let out a bit of the CO2 that’s been building and then seal it back up again. The CO2 is a good thing, so we don’t want to let it all out. We just want to prevent an explosion during the multi-day ferment process.
Salsa demo: Ever opened that jar of salsa or hummus and felt a tingling sensation on the tip of your tongue as you registered this was probably a week past enjoyable? I can’t attest for the probiotic content of those cast-offs, but you can be intentional! If you like the zing, or if you want to get more out of your raw dip, it is SO easy. Make your salsa as usual and place in a glass jar. Weigh it down with olive oil by pouring about half an inch of oil on top, seal and let set!
On weights: Weights are important in fermentation because we want the good bacteria to grow, not the bad. Oxygen in ferments leads to internal mold growth, so we also need to pack things down and release all the air bubbles. America is more familiar with the bad, because we are so intent on sterilizing our nation and ourselves that we can probably spot the signs of mold anywhere. I didn’t even know “good” bacteria existed until I was introduced to kombucha in college. Literally, I had no idea. Of course, fermentation is an ancient, ancient tradition the world over, but it’s really no surprise that many of us in developing countries have been shielded from this knowledge. I digress: You will often see kraut, kimchi, pickles kept below waterline with a piece of cabbage or something. I’ve seen drier ferments weighted and sealed with a baggie of water. Below waterline, good. Exposed, bad. Exceptions, always. BUT as a general rule.
Kraut demo: The best way I can describe to you homemade sauerkraut vs. store-bought and ballpark versions is that it is drier. I’m convinced I don’t like most kraut because it’s just so weirdly wet. The kind we make at work can hold it’s own on a sandwich and isn’t going to leak everywhere and make everything smell rotten. All it takes is a head of cabbage and some salt. It’s brilliant with caraway seeds and a touch of sweetener. Chop up the cabbage, massage with the salt until the water starts to seep out. Stuff in a jar and burp once a day until it smells like kraut you want to eat (a week maybe).
Size matters: A helpful tip we learned from the workshop was that larger batches of kraut in larger jars yields the best result (in terms of proper CO2 buildup). Small jars let out too much CO2 when burped so it is recommended to use gallon-sized jars. I think it tastes fine in smaller jars, but again, it’s personal preference. Without the proper CO2 buildup, you may not be getting the biggest nutritional bang for your very real (though economical) buck.
Miso hungry: In the week before the festival, I was picking over beans in the rare bulk bin at my local grocery chain. I went with the cheapie black beans because money. But the other option was pinquito beans, which apparently are only grown on about four or five farms in the whole world, right here in Lompoc and Santa Maria. So a chef from an SB restaurant that specializes in taking local cuisine and fancying it up, taught us how to ferment them into miso! I can’t say the ingredients are that easy to source (I mean, it probably just requires a trip to the Asian market) but one day I might decide to do so. Until then, I’ll take us out to dinner at Barbareño and and request every sauce on the menu infused with this stuff.
Tempeh: There wasn’t a demo on making tempeh and I still haven’t researched it myself, but there was a food station serving it made out of beans other than soy (think: garbanzo). I think that’s a nice alternative.
Kefir: Most people know of kefir as a fermented dairy drink. Thusly, I have never tried it. The process involves kefir grains (different varieties for dairy and water) and a sugar water solution. One of the things I like best about starter grains is the intrinsic traditional value of them: they have to be passed down from somewhere. Even if we purchase them from a vender, they still carry with them vibrations from their former space. I have a certain nostalgia for all things with history. So kefir involves grains, and sourcing them involves knowing someone who homebrews or purchasing them through a vender (online is a good place to start). Then you can use the eventual ferment as a base for “soda” and other flavored beverages. Or drink it straight, which is basically sweet water. The dog really liked it!
Microbiome: So what is all this about, anyway? It is my understanding that the research is on the cusp of confirming what ancient tradition has always known to be true. In San Diego, American Gut is doing research into the microbiome to discover more about how our gut health affects our overall health. We got to chat with one of the project organizers and learn about the project. What stood out most from her information was the discovery that, when studying healthy humans like athletes and such, everyone had a different make up of microbiomes in their system, and they still haven’t been able to find one recipe for gut bacteria that equals impeccable health. Everyone is made up of different microbiomes and thus our diets are going to require different specifics. But it is important to cultivate good bacteria in the gut, and one way in which we know to do this is through fermented foods. A dollop at each meal could begin to improve your mental health, energy levels, immunity, bad breath, and, of course, colon clean-outs.
How to actually get fermented foods into your diet
Honestly, I’m still working on it myself. Because there aren’t tons of recipes (at least not North American recipes) that already call for the fermented goods, it’s probably more of an intuitive call. I’ve seen people enjoy kraut and kimchi in mac and cheese, so it can be done, people! I like kraut on a sandwich. I’d throw pickled vegetables in a wrap or spring roll. Salsa is a no-brainer. Beverages would be a good place to start, since you can replace unnatural beverages (soda, fruit cocktail, coffee) with a cup of kefir or kombucha. You can also add fermented drinks into smoothies and juices and other raw recipes that might call for a liquid. If you have tips and tricks, please share!
DISCLAIMER: All recipes are brochure handouts from SBFF posted to show source of information. Interpretations are my own.