If all that comes to mind when you hear the words “fermented foods” is dill pickles, then it’s time you take a stroll through an international grocery store.
Walk among the yogurt and cheeses in the dairy and check out the crème fraîche. Shop for salami and prosciutto in the deli for your loaf of sourdough bread. Make a left turn at the Tabasco sauce aisle and pick up a bottle of fragrant vanilla. Finally, don’t forget the olives and kimchi to go with your favorite wine or beer.
What is the common thread among all of these popular foods?
They’re all products of fermentation, a process that transforms a simple food – often fresh or raw plant material – into something more exotic, usually with the introduction of beneficial bacteria. (Imagine invisible little creatures creeping along, creating flavor and transforming the ordinary into something delicious and nutritious.)
Fermentation is about the conversion of carbohydrates into alcohol or acids under anaerobic (no oxygen) conditions. It’s a controlled decomposition involving yeasts, mold or bacteria – and it’s how certain foods traditionally are preserved.
It’s been going on for centuries, sometimes planned and sometimes not.
Remember the story you heard in kindergarten about the hungry hiker in the Swiss Alps who discovered after many days journey that the milk in his leather bota magically had turned to cheese? Or maybe you heard the one about the bottled grape juice in the monastery turning into divine Champagne?
So what do you remember learning about sauerkraut, that humble and nutritious first cousin of cabbage?
Bet you didn’t know that the Chinese subsisted on sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) as a daily meal to fuel their energy while building the Great Wall. Or that Genghis Khan and his mad marauders plundered through that wall on his way to Europe a thousand years later, taking the tasty treat with him.
The Germans might have laid claim to kraut, but they didn’t do it soon enough. According to food historians, only the Danish seafarers had the good sense to send their sailors to sea with a crock of kraut to avoid scurvy.
From there, it made its way to the New World, but there’s little mention of sauerkraut until after 1776, when it was savored among Pennsylvania’s German and Pennsylvania Dutch communities.
For longtime Durango resident Marye Jackson, making sauerkraut is a tasty and nutritious way to extend the bounty of fresh cabbage she enjoys from the garden every summer.
The sauerkraut she makes in her crock, by layering shredded cabbage with salt and subjecting it to pressure, “is crisper, with a brighter flavor” than the kind you can buy in cans, said the veteran gardener and home cook.
Plus, canned grocery store sauerkraut lacks the beneficial bacteria, which are killed by the heat required by the commercial canning process, she said.
“And making home sauerkraut has some intellectual appeal. I’m a foodie from way back. I’ve been reading about food nutrition since the days of Adele Davis,” she said.
Sauerkraut contains phytochemicals created during the fermentation process. An immune-system booster, it’s also considered by some to be a superfood comparable to chicken soup, with vitamin C, calcium, fiber and lactic acid that supports digestion and helps maintain intestinal flora.
But for Jackson, making sauerkraut is more than just good nutrition. It’s a creative, resourceful kitchen project.
She recommends reliable texts such as Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Pickling that describe pickling principles and equipment and explain how salt, vinegar, aromatics and technique affect outcome.
Jackson said inviting your friends into the kitchen is a recipe for fun.
“Get a good pickling book or read good information online. Pick and choose what you’ll do and give it your best shot,” she said.
Katie Burford, city editor for The Durango Herald and mother of two young boys, packs homemade yogurt into her children’s insulated lunch boxes each week.
“It tastes so much better than store bought,” Burford said.
Burford often uses raw milk from J&M Dairy in Breen. Her family participates in a cow- and goat-share program that provides her with a high-quality product from which she makes chèvre (goat cheese) and yogurt.
Burford has been studying home food preservation, including fermentation, for years, after having been introduced to traditional methods by her great-grandmother at the family’s bountiful Oklahoma farm.
She skips none of the safety measures, rattling off safe temperatures and techniques with ease. For Burford, transforming 3 gallons of milk into yogurt and cheese is a weekly ritual.
“It’s been a years’ long process to get where I am, every year learning a little more and getting more confident,” she said.
Burford reads informative blogs, purchases starter cultures at health food stores and online and continually fine-tunes results in her kitchen to get what she wants. She uses her supply of chèvre to dress pasta, eggs and salads. Yogurt substitutes for sour cream and is a medium that can be later flavored with honey, agave or maple syrup for a kids’ treat, she said.
For Burford, fermenting quality milk into useful meal items is worth the time it takes.
“It’s all three – taste, economy and nutritional value,” that make the work worthwhile, Burford said.