Last month in my post My Life As A Squirrel, I discussed various ways of preserving foods for winter. I did an overview of various preservation methods, advantages and disadvantages to those methods. I also made the case for why we, as Americans should be preserving more food. If you missed that post, be sure to check it out, it is full of great information.

I have also been featuring lacto-fermented foods on this blog . My most recent foray is in traditional juniper berry sauerkraut. You can see the recipe at the end of this post. My posts on lacto-fermentation have raised a lot of questions and comments from my readers about this ancient art of food preservation. Is it safe? For many the process of lacto-fermentation goes against fundamental things were have been taught about food safety. We have been taught to be afraid of food, in a world of industrial big agriculture, salmonella and e-coli scares.

I really did not feel like enough of an expert to answer some of those questions, being a lacto-fermentation newbie myself. So I consulted a professional! Through my good friend Jen, I was introduced to David Klingenberger owner of The Brinery, an Ann Arbor, Michigan business focused on the ancient art of fermentation. David agreed to answer some of my questions, and yours about this process of food preservation. He and I share a lot of similar thoughts and values when it comes to not being afraid of food, and what he calls the “re-skilling” that is so important to people interested in preserving traditional foods.

Lacto-fermentation has had a very long history. What personally draws you to this ancient form of food preservation?

As a young man 10 years ago, I found my way to a local organic vegetable farm here in south eastern Michigan. I felt deeply drawn to growing food, and feeding my community. As I learned the skills of agrarian life, I was drawn to lacto-fermentation. I love that it is a raw food, teeming with beneficial bacteria that not only preserve the food, but are of the utmost benefit to our health!

The process of lacto-fermenting scares a lot of people. When I write posts about it, I have even gotten emails and comments from people claiming I will kill my readers if they make my recipes. The idea of allowing vegetables and other perishable food items to sit out at room temperature for weeks and sometimes months goes against the modern way of looking at food safety. What do you tell lacto-fermenting newbies who are interested, but at the same time afraid of these types of foods?

I think there is a re-skilling and a re-learning that is necessary for our modern culture! I like to remind people that fermented foods have been very common and continue to be so. Everyone knows yogurt, cheese, salami, sauerkraut. These are all naturally fermented foods. Yogurt is the perfect example, and perhaps the most socially acceptable in our modern age. It’s a much similar process with lacto-fermented vegetables. There is a modern myth that we must destroy all Bacteria. (for example anti-bacterial soap). We need the beneficial probiotics found in lacto fermented foods!

Once the food has gone through the fermentation process, how does it need to be stored? Many recipes and books call for refrigeration, but people have been preserving foods this way before the advent of refrigeration and some say they can be stored in a cool basement. Can these foods be stored out of the fridge, and if so for how long? At what temperature? Are there some basic guidelines that you can share based on your experience?

Good question! Theoretically fermented foods do not need refrigeration! However the warmer it is the more it ferments. I have had sauerkraut in a basement for 8 or 9 months before. It wasn’t the best texture or flavor, but was totally edible and fine! So Yes, I do believe out of the fridge is fine. The middle of summer is probably not a good time to leave it out for extended periods! Make batches in the fall, and it will ferment slowly and keep longer in the cold of winter! Fermented foods will keep better the colder they are stored! And that is where refrigeration comes in! It’s not necessary, but allows more temp. control. Remember: if a proper laco-fermentaion has occurred then, you cannot get sick! I think it just comes down to taste/texture preference!

How can you tell if something has been properly lacto-fermented? Are there any tell-tale signs?

As far as I know, proper lacto-fermentation occurs under the brine! As long as the veggie are submerged under the salty brine, they will ferment! Conditions become very inhospitable to pathogens in that salty brine! The ph lowers quickly, which means the acidity levels rise! I have an electronic ph meter that I use to measure ability levels. LACTO-FERMENTATION CREATES CONDITIONS UNFAVORABLE TO PATHOGENS! Especially when their is no hermetic sealing of the jars!

Your company, The Brinery, sells several different kinds of lacto-fermented veggies. What is the first lacto-fermented food you tried, and do you have a favorite variety today?

At the Brinery I make Sauerkraut, Pickles, and Kimchi. Within those categories, I make many variations! I started out 10 years ago with good old sauerkraut, which I think is the perfect gateway fermented veggie to make at home. It doesn’t get more simple and pure than cabbage and salt! For my business, Kimchi has become quite popular. I just started making it for the Brinery, and love it! I try and do my own variation on a traditional Korean kimchi. I use dried Korean hot pepper flakes, and fish sauce for a traditional flavor. I try and source all produce from local organic farms. I also offer a vegan kimchi with no fish sauce. I have enjoyed making cucumber pickles, and turnip pickles as well. I am constantly experimenting and attempting to come up with new recipes!

Do you have any tips, anecdotes, etc. for people that are interested in learning how to prepare fermented foods? Any advice to those who have some experience but want to broaden their fermentation horizons?

I love preserving food through fermenting! Anyone can do it with little experience or investment. I feel it’s an important step in the re-skilling of our modern culture. Do it for health, for fun, for homesteading! Don’t be afraid. Trust yourself. Food is not scary. It doesn’t have to come from a factory or a laboratory. Food was naturally fermented at home for thousands of years! Even if you see moldy funky stuff on the top of you fermented veggies, that’s o.k. Scrape it off, and most likely, what ever has been under the salty brine is o.k! Don’t be afraid!
Anything you want to share with readers that I did not cover in the questions, but that you feel is important to share?

Have fun, eat living raw food! I think the best introductory book is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz!

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Recipe for Traditional Sauerkraut with Juniper Berries
from The Joy of Pickling

INGREDIENTS:

5 lbs trimmed and cored white cabbage- save some of the outer leaves
3TBS pickling salt
1TBS whole juniper berries

TOOLS:

5 pint sized mason jars

METHOD:

1) Quarter the head and shred the cabbage very thinly.

2) Add salt and juniper berries to the cabbage and thoroughly mix with your clean hands.

3) When it has softened and released some liquid – about 10-15 minutes, pack the cabbage into pint sized mason jars and tamp down with the back of a wooden spoon or spatula, pour the brine evenly over the cabbage.

4) Weight the cabbage to keep it under the brine. Place a clean outer leaf from the cabbage on top of teh shredded cabbage and then place a food grade plastic bag filled with more brine on top of the leaf (1 ½ TBS pickling salt for each quart of water), in case of a leak. This helps if the brine gets scummy – you can replace the leaves instead of skimming off the scum or mold. Cover the container with a cloth or pillowcase and store in a dark place.

5) Within 24 hours the cabbage should be submerged in its brine. If it isn’t dissolve 1 ½ salt in 1 quart of water and pour as much as you need to over the cabbage. Check the sauerkraut every day or two for scum. If you find it, remove it, and replace the brine filled bags and cabbage leaves.

6) Start tasting the kraut after 2 weeks. It will be fully fermented in 2-4 weeks at 70 degrees and 5-6 weeks at 60 degrees. It will have a pale golden color and tart flavor.

7) Store it, tightly covered in the fridge or cool place. Or you can freeze it for later use.

This is part of The Healthy Home Economist’s Monday Mania. Check out the other great posts!