I’ve always had a thing for fermented foods of all kinds — pickles, miso, yogurt, vinegars, olives, cured meats, beer and wine, even coffee, tea, cheese, and chocolate — but recently I got all fired up about making my own after hearing a talk by the hyperarticulate and hyperzealous Sandor Katz, author of a book I like a lot called Wild Fermentation, a paean to the yeasts and microorganisms that naturally surround us and to the things they can do for us. For Katz, fermentation is a “a health regimen, a gourmet art, a multicultural adventure, a form of activism, and a spiritual path, all rolled into one.”
Fermented foods are the opposite of industrial, processed food, whose processes either deaden or downright destroy the complex bacterial life so prevalent in fermented foods. We’re so paranoid about bacteria: we have antibacterial soaps, antibiotic drugs — and in Japan they have antibacterial underwear! — but there’s really no escaping microscopic bacteria and fungi. We breathe them, and eat billions of them every time we take a bite of something. Every culture on earth makes use of them. They help us digest and they boost our immune systems. We are, quite literally, the descendants of bacteria.
Happily, fermented foods are also chuck full umami, and bring us gripping and varied flavors.
There is much to say about Katz’s book; I’ll try to get around to a full review of it soon.
This sauerkraut couldn’t have been simpler to make. Seven heads of cabbage (4 green and 3 red, all of which turned red in the end), shredded with a Benriner (Japanese mandoline) and a bowlful of tangerine salt were the only ingredients. The only hard part about it is the constant pressing down of the cabbage with your fist; you add a layer of cabbage, salt it about as much as you would normally salt something, make a fist, and press down, which breaks down the cellular structure a bit and allows the salt to draw out the considerable water content of the cabbage. Add another layer, more salt, and press down some more, till you have no more cabbage.
The crock I’m using is a German one called a Harsch. It’s 20 liters — I was probably a little too optimistic in calculating my kraut-eating capacity when I bought it, so you might want to get a smaller one if you want to join me on this adventure. It has a brilliant design: two stone weights weigh down the food, which quickly becomes submerged in its own juices, brought out by the salt and by the pressing action. The brim has a moat, in which water is poured, thus preventing insects or anything else from getting into the crock. Fermenting time so far has been about three weeks, and the kraut is stunning — tangy and lively and a little sweet, nothing remotely like the canned/jarred kraut served on hot dogs at ball games. It’s really more like a slaw that’s fermented, with just the right notes of complex sour. I can imagine making this with a different salt, perhaps a saffron salt for a new layer of savory goodness, or maybe even adding some julienned young ginger to it. More experiments to come.
Kim chee is on deck for the crock, but I’ve got a few gallons of sauerkraut to get through first. If any of you in the Bay Area would like some, drop me a note and come on over with a container.