Monday, September 13, 2010

More on the Lacto-Fermenting Addiction.

I am a little perplexed as I begin this post. First off, try as I might, I just can not understand food chemistry. A product of small town America, where the sciences were not stressed (except in farming matters), I just did not pay well-enough attention in my little 3rd floor high school science class... and even if I did, I'm not sure that at the time I would have found it very interesting. It's too bad, since I read this description of lactic acid fermentation over and over again, even out loud, in hope that the chemical breakdowns would make sense to me. Though I'm painfully visual, even Alton Brown's comical yet scientifically accurate approach to educating viewers on the "why" and not just the "how" of cooking leaves me smiling but still bewildered.

Obviously, then, I'm no expert then to teach anyone about the "why" of lacto-fermented vegetables. I mean, I can read recipes and see why they would taste good, but can not make out why they won't spoil in many months of cold-storage after lactic fermentation has taken place. I can tell you that the health benefits, cost efficiency and certainly the flavor involved in such experimentations are all the reasons I need to be hooked! Throw in the minimal time effort, and you have the stuff obsessions are made of.

First off, it seems to me, that pretty much anything can be fermented. A clean, quart jar (glass, of course) serves as an airtight local for the vegetable to take up residence in, and salt is added to preserve the vegetable until the lacto-fermentation kicks in. So far, I've been roughly following recipes in Sally Fallon's Nourishing Traditions. A concise excerpt she has written explains a great deal about the process and multiple benefits of this live food process.

If you are vegan and do not use whey, most of her recipes involving vegetables up the salt content to preserve the vegetable. I am hoping a science-minded reader will let me know why it is that salt can stimulate the lacto-fermentation process without the inclusion of pro-biotic rich whey, since I can't seem to make any sense of that part!

The above photos are of Sally's kimchi recipe. So far, this is the only lacto-ferment recipe that I opened after 3 days at room temperature and the jar bubbled over with excitement onto my counter. Even after the lid was off for a couple of minutes, tiny bubbles were still making their way to the surface, evidence that this is a living food. It's packed with garlic and ginger, and tell-tale heat of hot red jalapeno, an addition I just had to make. It is gorgeously orange due to the shredded carrots, a jar that just plain looks like Fall to me.

After that project matured and went into the basement refrigerator for cold-storage, I made her spiced beets which were really only flavored with the seeds of a couple cardamom pods and salt:

The liquid level should come up to over the top of these...

I opened them yesterday to check on them, but as I'm reading more I realize that I should probably curb my curiosity to checking after the 3 day mark, since oxygen interferes with the fermentation process. I even read an article by someone who was considering using an airlock method for her lacto-ferment veg. Hmmmmm. I wonder if I can retro-fit one into a canning jar lid...

But by far, my favorite experiment so far is the "Tomato Pepper Relish" or salsa. I brought back some tomatoes from my last visit back to "the Farm", and I intended to can salsa with all of them. I did can 7 pints of hot wax pepper salsa (a recipe adapted from The Complete Chile Pepper Book), that has a vinegary base and great flavor. But then I did save out enough peeled and chopped tomatoes to get a couple of different jars of this lacto-ferment salsa:

Unlike it's canned brother, it is vibrantly dark red and packed with a whole bunch of cilantro. The flavors are so fresh and explosive since it doesn't cook at all - it just hangs out on the counter for 3 days and then goes to sleep in the fridge. I used lime juice in my second jar, and did not use any water in either of her salsa type recipes. I had quite a bit of liquid from the tomatoes, and my vegetables were fully submerged, so I omitted it. The recipe below is Sally Fallon's, and I noted any changes. For my second jar, I added the juice of one lime.

Lacto-Fermented Salsa (Sally Fallon, Nourishing Traditions)
makes 1 quart
  • 4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
  • 1 bunch green onions, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1-2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 2 cloves of garlic, mashed
  • 1/4 c. whey
  • 1 T. sea salt
  • 1/2 filtered water (I omitted)
Mix all vegetables in a bowl, and pound lightly with a wooden spoon. Place in a quart size wide mouth mason jar, and press down until liquid completely covers the tomato mixture. Leave at least 1 inch headspace in the jar. Cover tightly, and keep at room temperature (70-75 degrees) for about 2 days before transferring to cold storage (about 40 degrees).

As I quoted Fallon in my first lacto-fermentation experimentation post, your nose is your guide to how long these jars will be good in cold storage. I think several months is a given, but the few jars I've made will likely be fully consumed long before that. I hope to make time to get several more jars packed away with the last of Summer's wealth of fresh and local vegetables, and let them hang out for a while before eating them. I will say that it does take some re-tweaking of my brainwaves to remember that this food preservation method pre-dates any home-canning method and is a viable home-preservation method. I love this quote from Sandor Ellix Katz in his book Wild Fermentation, and find myself using it more all the time: "Cleanliness, not sterility". If you keep a clean home and a modicum of common sense, lacto-fermentation is probably the easiest form of home preservation you could experiment with!

One extra benefit is that you don't need to understand the science to know that it works, and that the results are delicious - good thing for me!


  1. You beat me to it! I've been meaning to do fermented salsa all summer long, but have somehow neglected to do it.

    Now that I've read all about your adventures, I have even more motivation to get it done!

  2. The reason for the extra salt in the vegan recipe is because without the whey to add a big does of probiotic bacteria, you have to wait longer for the natural bacteria on the veggies to take over. The extra salt keeps the harmful bacteria at bay long enough for the good bacteria grow to be the dominant culture. The reason these don't spoil is the combination of salt and the acids produced by the fermentation process. The probiotic bacteria can handle the acid but harmful bacteria can't.

  3. Thank you, Kevin! That makes perfect sense. Fallon also says that to lacto-ferment fruit, you must include whey - any thoughts on that?

  4. Fruit has so much sugar you have to add a big dose of lactobacillus (from the whey) or it will rot before the native fermenters can take over. Conditions are just too good for the rotting bacteria unless you change the conditions with the acid in the whey and overwhelm them with the lactobacillus from the whey.

  5. I've made a lot of sauerkraut and want to try kimchi this year, but this is the first time I've heard of fermented salsa. It sounds fantastic. I'll definitely try it as soon as our tomatoes are ripe. BTW, keep those lids a little looser so the gasses can escape to prevent your jars from exploding on the counter (on in the fridge). I keep my jars in a dish or on a plate to catch any juices that ooze out with the fermentation.

  6. Love ferments. I've done a fair share now of kraut, kimchi, and relish with typical cabbage, root veggies but want to step it up to more of the salsas and fruits. Fallon says to have a small amount of fermented food at every meal to aid digestion. It's addicting for sure!

  7. Thanks for the recipe! I've just placed mine on the counter and will wait patiently for the three days. I snuck some onto a tortilla chip before adding the whey and it was already good!


Communication is a good thing, most of the time...