Looked at one way, a significant purpose of our cooking is to prevent our food from rotting.
Check any list of the many transformations of food that we call “cooking” — searing some steer on the grill, pickling a cucumber, salting ground-up pork for sausage, smoking salmon, culturing milk, drying apricots, canning the abundance of a summer’s shopping spree at a farmer’s market, or even merely freezing leftovers — and you’ll see that each staves off the decay that inexorably besets carbon-based matter.
We may think we’re just eating, but in its way, cooking is a plea for permanence.
Extending shelf life with the fermentation process
One of the earlier and more primitive transformations of foods is fermentation, the conversion by yeast, bacteria, or microbe — most often in their wild state — of one form of food into another, thus lengthening its useful life.
Milk spoils readily; cheese and yogurt less so. Grapes rot; wine does not. Oh, a cabbage might pass the length of an entire winter relatively intact in a cool cellar. But a sauerkraut made of it easily may last two to three years.
We tend to think of fermentation mostly in its liquid manifestations — wine, beer, and the distillates or spirits made from them — and less frequently in the ubiquity of its solid (or semi-liquid) foods.
Fermented foods are all around us. There are some in your refrigerator door at this moment: bread, of course (which is, when you think of it, a brick of beer), yogurt and kefir, a jar of sauerkraut or other pickled food, many a condiment (soy and tamari sauces, many mustards, many hot sauces, and anything vinegared), those cans of kombucha.
And cheese, wonderful cheese.
But, overall, we’re wary of creating fermentation ourselves, at home or on our countertops. It’s not practical or convenient to brew beer or make wine at home when bottles and cans of it are so easily got. And for many of us who grew up when packaged food got its groove, cans bulging with botulism were as scary as a just-yanked grenade.
However, homemade fermentations are not as complicated as we might fear.
In most fermentations, all you need is a jar and a lid. Nature provides the rest. From there, cooks may get as complicated or keep it as simple as they wish.
Many times during the past several years, I have fermented cabbage into sauerkraut and milk and cream into yogurt. The pandemic “mothered,” to play on a word, many a sourdough starter—a fermentation, to be sure—for countless loaves of homemade bread.
Home fermentation introduces palates of transformed flavors and aromas to both the kitchen and the dining room. A homemade sauerkraut, for example, is hugely more flavorful than even the best store-bought. I’ve never equaled the deliciousness of my own yogurt with anything purchased elsewhere in a tub.
Homemade fermentations also introduce masses of wild beneficial microbes into our microbiomes. These are healthier beyond those we consume as “single strains” via mass-produced, commercial yogurts or pickled and other fermented foods. Those foods, yes, contain microbial benefits, but their strains also have been engineered to be reliable and quality controlled. They are a sort of monoculture.
The mere exposure to air that is a wild ferment captures hundreds of species of beneficial bacteria that store-bought fermented foods, given their pre-isolated few species, cannot contain.
For this recipe for Classic Fermented Sauerkraut, then, don’t just leave your crockpot or other fermenting vessel in your kitchen or cellar or basement. After you start it, bring it outside. The fermenting bacteria will introduce themselves to the kraut as the microflora of nature itself—of your garden, say, or the air you breathe in the place where you live.
Classic fermented homemade sauerkraut recipe
From Sherri Brooks Vinton at myfermentation.com, July 9, 2019. Makes about 2 quarts.
5 pounds white fresh cabbage (1 large head or 2 small)
5 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon juniper berries or caraway seed
Peel away the outer leaves of the cabbage, and then quarter and core. Shred it finely using a knife, mandolin, or kraut board (a traditional tool for shredding cabbage, similar to a wooden mandolin).
Toss with the salt and juniper berries in a large nonreactive bowl until thoroughly combined. Transfer to a 1-gallon glass jar or ceramic crock and press down. Top the cabbage with a clean plate, just smaller than the opening of the jar. Fill a clean quart jar with water and use it to weight down the plate. Cover with a clean dish towel and remove to a cool place.
Check the kraut after 24 hours. With the help of the plate, all the cabbage should be submerged. If it’s not, pour enough brine (1 tablespoon of salt to 1 cup of water)to cover the cabbage.
Check the cabbage daily. Tiny bubbles should be rising through the liquid (easy to see in a glass container). If a scum has formed, don’t worry; just ladle it from the top of the liquid and wash and replace the plate and jar. Add more brine, if necessary, to keep the cabbage submerged.
The kraut will be fully fermented in 1-2 weeks at room temperature or 3-4 weeks in a cool basement. You’ll know it’s done when it stops bubbling and is a pale golden color. Store in the refrigerator, covered, for up to 1 month.
Choucroute Garnie (sauerkraut with meats)
This is the hallmark of the cuisine of Alsace, France. It certainly is a winter dish but could be served in the summertime outdoors on a cool night. Serves 8 or more.
2 smoked ham hocks
8 cups sauerkraut
1 large onion, peeled and sliced thinly
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 pound thick-cut bacon slices, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 medium sweet-tart apples, peeled, cored and grated on large holes of grater
1/2 teaspoon each juniper berries, black peppercorns, and allspice berries
2 bay leaves
2 cups white wine or “light” apple juice or ginger ale
4 pounds pork and pork sausages: kielbasa, bratwurst, smoked loin, thick-cut ham, or other, as you like, all precooked (nothing raw or uncured)
Flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped up, for garnish
Cover the hocks with water by 2 inches and cook them in simmering water for 2 hours. Remove to a bowl and reduce the liquid to about 2 cups. When cool enough to handle, strip them of their meat and toss the skin, gristle, and bones, reserving both the meat and the concentrated broth.
In a sieve or colander with small drainage holes, drain the sauerkraut of as much of its liquid as possible. Then wash the sauerkraut 3 times in cold running water, squeezing away the water after each rinse. In a very large pot or Dutch oven, over medium-high heat, cook the onion in the butter for 10 minutes, add the bacon and cook for an additional 10 minutes, lowering the heat if necessary to avoid burning the onions.
To the pot, add the rinsed and drained sauerkraut, the grated apple, the reserved ham hock broth, the wine, the spices and flavorings, and just enough water to cover what is in the pot, mixing everything together well. Bring to a boil, with the cover of the pot ajar, and simmer for 2 hours. Add the meats, including the reserved ham hock flesh, distributing them around the pot and submerging them into the sauerkraut, and, cook for 1 more hour, adding a little more water if necessary to keep the mix moist.
Serve with small, boiled potatoes, crusty bread, and the meats cut up and distributed among the plates, everything garnished with the parsley.
Reach Bill St. John at [email protected]