Fermentation Magic: A Model for Health and Transformation

Illustration by Chelsea Granger

I originally started fermenting foods when I was in college. I had always enjoyed cooking, but I was in the process of falling in love with cooking when I made my first batch of sauerkraut. I certainly didn’t understand what I do now when I started fermenting; I just followed a short recipe and waited to see what would happen.

Now, after years of experimenting with making sauerkraut and many other types of fermented vegetables, meats and beverages, I feel like I really understand the process, and yet, it doesn’t seem a bit less magical. While I can explain in detail and almost imagine the biochemical processes that are taking place inside my crockpot — transforming bits of cabbage, salt and seeds into mouth watering, sour, crunchy, healthful kraut — I am still awestruck by the process of fermentation and the power that fermented foods have to help nourish, support and heal the body.

Fermented foods are a part of every traditional diet in the world. The process of fermentation involves creating an environment that allows beneficial bacteria to grow, while preventing the growth of harmful or putrefying bacteria. Fermentation produces lactic acid, acetic acid and alcohol, which are all bio-preservatives. For this reason, fermentation has been used throughout human history as an effective means of food preservation and quickly became widespread.

Before canning and before refrigeration, fermentation was used to preserve food from one season to the next. Even foods that we consider highly perishable such as meat and dairy were fermented — think of yogurt and cheese, chorizo and salami or fish sauce. In fact, one of my favorite examples of traditional fermentation is from the research of Dr. Weston A. Price, who writes about Alaskan Eskimos throwing freshly caught fish into a pit to ferment. This preserved a seasonal bounty of fish for months to come. The Eskimos also reported that the sled dogs could run faster and further, and go longer without eating, when they ate fermented fish rather than fresh fish.

Rich in Vitamins and Probiotics

Beyond simply having a shelf life, fermented foods are also very healthful. They contain amazing amounts of vitamins, antioxidants and enzymes. These healthful substances are not simply present because they are found in the vegetables and other raw materials used in the ferment. The process of fermentation actually creates new nutrients, most notably vitamins C and B, folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin and biotin.

European sailors would famously bring sauerkraut on long voyages to prevent scurvy, a disease caused by a deficiency in vitamin C. Not only does cabbage contain vitamin C, but the process of fermentation increases the amount present in the sauerkraut. The fermentation process also preserves the cabbage, whereas fresh vegetables and fruits (other reliable sources of vitamin C) would fall victim to spoilage over long voyages.

In addition to creating new nutrients, the fermentation process also stimulates the production of numerous strains of lactobacillus. Lactobacilli live in the human colon and in large part make up the lining of the colon. They help break down food and absorb nutrients and are an essential component of good immunity; an estimated 40 to 60% of our immune cells are located in our intestinal track. For this reason, lactobacilli are often called probiotic bacteria, because they support the human system, unlike other forms of bacteria that can cause illness. In fact, lactobacilli are one of the best defenses that we have against food born illnesses, and have been shown to prevent the growth of bacteria such as e-coli.

Stress, chlorine, pesticides, preservatives, alcohol, caffeine and many other things that we are routinely exposed to and consume, deplete intestinal flora. Fermented foods help to restore and maintain good digestive health and the overall balance in our body; it is one of the most important things we can do for whole body wellness. In addition to improving digestion, absorption and immunity, healthy gut flora can also help to improve chronic skin conditions, yeast infections and seasonal allergies.

Small Portions Give Big Results

Fermentation also helps to break down hard to digest starches, sugars and proteins, making fermented foods easier to digest and absorb than unfermented versions of the same foods. For example, many people find fermented dairy products to be easier to digest than unfermented dairy products. Soy is an even better example, as soybeans are almost completely indigestible before going through traditional fermentation processes that turn soybeans into tofu, tempeh or miso. Cassava, a tuber consumed as a staple food in many parts of South America, is poisonous before going through traditional preparation processes that involve fermentation.

Fermentation not only makes foods more healthful, easier to digest and absorb, it also neutralizes toxins. Because fermented foods are so easy to digest, they provide easy to absorb nutrition and are an excellent source of energy. Think of the Alaskan sled dogs; they had more energy after eating fermented rather than unfermented fish.

As a digestive aid and to support healthy intestinal flora, I recommend some type of fermented food every day and as often as every meal. You do not need to eat a lot of these foods; in fact this is one of those “less is more” situations. I usually suggest that folks start by eating a condiment-sized portion of a fermented food with meals. For example, a scoop of yogurt on your morning oatmeal, some sauerkraut with your eggs or on a sandwich, or a few ounces of kombucha, beet kvass, or a naturally fermented soda.

Fermented foods are wild and alive with lactobacilli, and for this reason are always changing. Even once a batch of kimchi or kombucha is finished and in the refrigerator, it will continue to slowly change, even if you hardly notice it at all. A well functioning digestive system is dependent on these colonies of ever changing and evolving flora.

These principals of transformation, change and flexibility that fermentation embodies are also important components of mental, emotional and spiritual health. When it comes to both food and our personal lives, these are concepts that we may find ourselves resistant to. Making and eating fermented foods is a process that requires us to be flexible, to troubleshoot and to try new things. In ways both subtle and powerful, fermentation can help us to build relationship with change and support larger pictures of health and wellbeing. May you ferment with fervor!

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Ferment your vegetables in a jar or crock pressed down by a plate with a weight on top. Illustration by Chelsea Granger

Sauerkraut Recipe

1 large green cabbage
Unrefined salt (this can be a mineral salt, sea salt or kosher salt, but no iodized salt)
1 tsp. caraway seeds
Filtered water

Remove the outer leaves of the cabbage and compost. Rinse remaining head, if necessary. Cut the cabbage into quarters (you can remove the core or not) and slice finely (1/8–1/4 inch thick).

As you cut the cabbage, place it into a large mixing bowl. Each time you add cabbage to the bowl sprinkle it generously with salt. I don’t usually measure the amount of salt I use, but if you need a place to start use 1–2 tablespoons salt per large cabbage or 3 tablespoons for every 5 pounds of cabbage.

When you have finished cutting the cabbage, add the caraway seeds and any other vegetables, herbs or spices that you wish to include and another sprinkle of salt.

Begin to mix the cabbage and the salt together in the bowl, squeezing and macerating the cabbage by the fistful. Continue to toss and knead the cabbage; it will begin to break down and lose its water and eventually become somewhat translucent. Eventually, liquid will drip out of the cabbage when you squeeze it between your hands. This is good; the salt as well as your kneading will pull water out of the vegetable and create the juice/brine that the cabbage will ferment in. Continue the macerating process for 5-10 minutes. The amount of liquid that comes out of the cabbage depends on how long you knead or pound it for, how much salt you used and how much water was in the cabbage.

When you have finished squeezing and kneading, pack the cabbage into a crock or into a glass jar. Push the cabbage down and clean any loose pieces from the edges. All vegetable material must be submerged in liquid brine to avoid molding or rotting. Cabbage or other material left sticking to the sides of the jar or poking up above the brine will most likely grow mold.

If the cabbage did not produce enough liquid to completely submerge the cabbage you will need to add salt brine. To make salt brine, mix 1 tablespoon of salt with 2 cups of filtered water and mix or stir until all the salt is dissolved. Then pour this brine into the crock or jar until the cabbage is just covered.

Place a plate on top of the cabbage and push it down so that the liquid brine rises above the plate. The plate should keep the cabbage below the liquid (see illustration). Place a rock or a jar full of water on top of the plate to act as a weight. A crock is ideal because it has a wider opening and it is easier to fit a plate inside it. Crocks are also preferred because they hold temperature and will keep the kraut at a more stable temperature despite fluctuations in the environment. It is harder to use a plate as a weight when you are fermenting your sauerkraut in a jar because of the jar’s narrow mouth. Some folks use a plastic bag full of water as a weight, which is good because the shape of the bag and water are both flexible. Once the cabbage is submerged below the brine, cover the crock or the jar opening with a towel or cloth. This allows air and gas to be released during fermentation but prevents bugs and other contaminants from getting in.

Place your sauerkraut in a cool place, ideally where the temperature does not fluctuate much. You can check on it as often as every day or wait a few days at a time. If there is any mold or bloom (white powdery looking stuff) floating on top or growing on the edges of the jar/crock, scrape it off and remove it. It is harmless — just a result of contact with air. The cabbage itself is fermenting in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment beneath the brine, and the salt is preventing harmful organisms from growing.

You can taste your kraut as often as every day to watch how the flavors evolve. It will start to sour after a few days and the flavor will intensify over time. The fermentation process will happen more quickly in warm weather and more slowly in a cold environment. You can ferment sauerkraut in a cool basement for months, while a batch made and left on the kitchen counter in July may be ready in just a week or two. It is up to you how sour you want it to be. Once it gets to a flavor that you like, scoop it out of the crock and put it into a jar and store it in the refrigerator. The cold temperature of the refrigerator will slow down the fermentation drastically, so even though it is still a living food the flavor will not change very much.

Recipes Variations

• Use purple cabbage on its own or with green cabbage; this makes a lovely purple/pink colored sauerkraut.

• Try adding other vegetables such as grated or finely sliced carrots, beets, turnips or radishes.

• Add interesting herbs and spices. Very traditional German sauerkraut is made with caraway seeds (you don’t need much, as you can see from the recipe above). I like to make kimchi with fresh ginger and garlic. You can also add culinary herbs such as parsley, oregano, thyme and sage or spices like cumin or coriander. Be creative!


• The more salt you use the crunchier the cabbage will be.

• Do not use chlorinated or treated water in your brine as chlorine and chloramine (another similar compound used to treat municipal water supplies) kills lactobacilli. If there are not strong enough colonies of lactobacilli present in your ferment then putrefying bacteria will grow and cause your kraut to rot. Iodized salt also kills lactobacilli, so avoid using it.

• The leftover brine is delicious and a wonderful digestive aid, full of lactobacilli, vitamins, enzymes and antioxidants. You can drink it or use it as a culture starter in your next batch of sauerkraut or lacto-fermented pickles. You can also use it as a flavoring agent in soups, stews, sauces, etc.

Illustrations by Chelsea Granger

Brittany Wood Nickerson is a practicing community herbalist and the owner of Thyme Herbal in Amherst, MA. She combines knowledge of nutrition and a passion for using food as medicine with her training in Western, Ayurvedic and Chinese herbal medicine. She teaches classes and apprenticeship programs at Thyme Herbal and UMass Amherst and lectures throughout New England. You can learn more about Brittany at www.thymeherbal.com or call (413) 549-1415.

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