Are you scared yet? For some reason, in modern North American culture, bacteria has become something to be feared, and most certainly destroyed. Heaven forbid you put the word bacteria in the same sentence as food, because we’ve all decided that these two things most certainly do not mix. But wait a minute…most of us actually ingest a lot of bacteria and fungus-laden food and drink, such as yogurt, sourdough bread, olives, soy sauce, and wine, without really thinking about it. So how have we gotten so freaked out by these little microorganisms that we feel the need to wage war?
Elenore of Earthsprout and I got to talking recently, and as per usual, it was about all things edible. We both love fermented foods and decided to ask all our fav food bloggers to join us in spreading the word about how awesome and easy it is to make your own fermented foods at home! We have such a treat for you over the next seven days, as we celebrate fermentations with tons of recipes and ideas for all of you to get on board. Welcome to Fabulous Fermentation Week! (see all participants’ links at the end of this post…)
Most cultures around the world in fact use bacteria to make food more amazing, because something really cool happens when these two entities meet: we get fermentation. Fermentation is the process of a carbohydrate being converted into an acid or an alcohol. Under the right conditions foods will naturally ferment, which is precisely how the process was discovered over 5000 years ago.
So, um, bacteria kind of rocks. You heard me. I can rattle off a million reasons why those teeny-tiny organisms are good for you, and actually important for your health – not a threat as we’ve been conditioned to believe.
Why Bacteria is your Buddy
When we eat fermented foods, we eat the beneficial bacteria – the probiotics – that the food contains. This is important because we need a diverse population of bacteria in our digestive system for optimal health. To name just a few of their functions, probiotics are responsible for promoting regular bowel movements (helping to relieve diarrhea and constipation), improving digestion, enhancing immune function, producing antioxidants, normalizing skin conditions, reducing cholesterol, maintaining bone health, and managing blood sugar levels. The foods we eat play a huge role in the health of our precious populations. By eating fermented foods that contain natural, good bacteria, we boost the number and variety of bacteria living in our guts, almost like taking probiotic supplements, except much less expensive and much more delicious.
The bottom line is fermented foods are amazing for your overall health. The larger the variety of fermented foods you can take in the better, as this helps populate your digestive system with a variety of microorganisms. Some examples for fermented foods that are widely available are plain yogurt, miso, tempeh, pickles, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha. When purchasing these items make sure that they do not contain sugar, preservatives, food dyes, and most importantly that they have not been pasteurized. Heat destroys all the delicate bacteria, so the foods must be raw to be beneficial. This may mean a good old-fashioned DIY or that you visit a market or health food shop instead of a traditional grocery store, but I have no doubt you will discover a whole world of awesome fermented-ness that you didn’t even know existed! Party!
Lactic acid fermentation is just one process of which we are all familiar with, even if you’ve never heard the term before. Lactic acid fermentation is responsible for the sour taste of fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, and pickles. The sugar in the cabbage and cucumbers respectively, feed that bacteria and in turn that sugar is converted into lactic acid, which serves as a natural preservative.
One of my all-time favorite things to ferment is cabbage and turn it into kimchi. Through the process of lactic acid fermentation this humble cruciferous goes from ho-hum, to ka-BLAM! Kimchi is Korea’s national dish, and it is really spicy, tangy and totally addictive. If you’ve ever been to a Korean restaurant you’ve undoubtedly been served this fermented cabbage delight, most likely on the side of your meal.
I like to make kimchi because it is very simple and you don’t need to wait a long time to enjoy the results. Even if you have never made a single pickle in your life, kimchi is great first-timer’s fermentation project because it tastes great no matter what you do to it!
My version of kimchi is vegan and gluten-free. I am aware that most traditional kimchi is made with fish sauce or soy sauce, but I wanted to create a recipe that vegans and those avoiding gluten can enjoy. I’ve also chosen to go with a simplified method that doesn’t require soaking the cabbage in salt water overnight. I have experimented with both methods, and I just find the one I am presenting you with today is easier for beginners. I do not claim to be a kimchi expert, but I do know that this stuff is easy to make and darn tasty.
Makes a lot!
2 Napa cabbage (2 kg total weight)
1 daikon radish
5 large carrots
1 bunch spring onions (about 7)
70 g fresh ginger
6 cloves garlic
scant 1/3 cup crushed red chili flakes
¼ cup good-quality sea salt
1 large glass jar (mine has 4-liter capacity)
1 large bowl
knife + cutting board
food processor or mortar and pestle
1. Wash all veggies. Chop cabbage into bite-sized chunks, julienne or grate carrots, daikon, and apple. Slice green onion. Place all vegetables in a very large bowl.
2. In a food processor blend ginger, garlic, and chili until well combined. Add this mixture to the bowl of vegetables along with the salt.
3. Mix and vigorously massage all ingredients together until the cabbage begins to soften and release fluid. Continue until you have a fair amount of liquid in the bottom of the bowl, about 4-5 minutes. The vegetables at this point should have lost much of their volume. Let the bowl sit out at room temperature for a few hours, massaging once or twice more. Season to taste.
4. In a large, sterilized jar (or several small ones), pack in the vegetables trying to avoid any air pockets, making sure to leave a few inches of space at the top of the jar for carbon dioxide. Cover the jar with a loosely with a lid, or make sure to open it periodically to release any pressure that may build up. Leave the jar on the counter for 2-4 days. You may see bubbles forming in the jar – this is carbon dioxide and totally normal. Taste the kimchi now and again. Once the flavour is to your liking, seal the jar and place in the fridge. Keeps for several months.
*Tip: After removing kimchi from the container to eat, push the remaining back down to keep most of the cabbage submerged in the brine (the liquid). This will help keep it fresh for longer.
I will now attempt to predict your questions and answer them…
Q: My kimchi has been on my counter for a few days. How do I know when its ready?
A: Smell and taste the kimchi. The scent will be very strong, but pleasantly sour. The taste is the same; pungent and spicy, but not foul. The kimchi is ready whenever you feel it tastes as strong as you want it to. Remember that the longer you leave it at room temperature, the stronger it will become. The kimchi will continue to ferment in the fridge but at a much slower rate, so give it as long as you like in a warm environment before moving it to a cool one.
Q: I think my kimchi has gone bad. How do I know?
A: Trust me, you’ll know. Bad kimchi is really gross. And it’s really hard to get it to the point of spoiling, so don’t worry too much. You won’t be able to eat enough spoiled kimchi to get sick from it anyway – your taste buds will tell you to stop.
Q: My kimchi is moldy, what should I do?
A: If you see mold beginning to form at the top of your kimchi, your jar was probably not sterile enough. Throw out this batch and start again. Make sure to use clean equipment. And remember that when you take kimchi from the jar, use only clean utensils (i.e. don’t fork out a bunch, clean the fork with your mouth and go back for more).
Q: My kimchi is too strong for my taste. Any tips?
A: Yes! Mix the kimchi with other vegetables or grain to mellow out the flavour. Alternatively, lightly cooking kimchi greatly reduces the sour taste and spiciness. Remember – don’t heat it too long or you’ll lose most of the nutrition and probiotics.
I’ve done all kinds of fermenting in my young life, because I am a huge food geek. The more I experiment, the bigger my edible world gets! Pretty exciting stuff to learn that you can turn ordinary foods in super foods in just a few simple steps. I realize that leaving things sitting out on the counter is waaaaay counter-intuitive – it may even seem like a mental hurdle to get over, but please trust me, it will all be okay. Your universe is about to expand, your gut is about to get healthier, and your taste buds are about to go on the craziest joy ride, ever.
For more information and recipes, I highly recommend the best books on the subject, Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation, both written by my fermentation hero, Sandor Ellix Katz. Check out his website for forums, recipes and general geekiness too.
Love and bacteria,
Fabulous Fermenation Week Friends!
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Ola Domowa I & II
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Phickle - an entire blog about Fermentation!