Winter Superfood: Fermented Foods
I had originally planned to write about sprouts as the subject of my article this issue, thinking of the pleasure of growing a fresh, nutritional salad in mid-winter right on my kitchen counter, but the more I learned about the benefits of eating sprouts, the less I wanted to know.
Granted, I love a pile of fresh alfalfa sprouts in a sandwich and will continue to grow and eat them simply because I like the taste of them, but I now look at them in a different light. Many sprout enthusiasts talk about the nutritional benefits of sprouts as if they are a “superfood”—in particular, the seemingly magical increase of their vitamin content during the sprouting process. But it seems that in actuality the seeds contain extremely small amounts of vitamins. The sprouts contain higher levels, yes, but compared to what? It would be like saying the percentage change in size from the seed to the sprout is a 2000 percent increase. It looks impressive, but this figure is irrelevant because the vitamin content of the sprout is so minute! The truth seems to be that you would have to eat a dump truck full at one sitting to get the nutritional value equal to eating an apple!
If you want to increase the nutritional value of food then let’s talk about the ancient practice of fermentation. Some fermented foods that we commonly consume in the U.S. are cheese, fish sauce, miso, pickles, tempeh, yogurt, kefir and Worcestershire sauce. In many other cultures around the world the list is much more extensive. Fermented foods are enriched with amino acids, vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds essential for human health.
A leading scientist with 27 years of research experience in the microbiology and biotechnology of fermented foods, Dr. Jyoti Prakash Tamang’s studies show that “Fermented foods have great biological importance such as enrichment of bio-nutrients, bio-preservatives, resources of functional microorganisms, medicinal value, probiotic, degradation of anti-nutritive factors and bio-availability of minerals.” As an example, anti-nutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the absorption of nutrients such as oxalic acid, which is present in many plants, particularly in members of the spinach family. Oxalates bind to calcium and prevent its absorption in the human body. Fermentation prevents that. For those of you who supplement your diet with over-the-counter probiotics, it is reported that just one serving of fermented food supplies far more beneficial bacteria then you could ever get from a bottle of probiotic supplement. It all sounds a bit like soil science. But most important, it sounds like fermentation is a good thing!
Today, one of the most well-known fermented foods is sauerkraut. My mother remembers her grandmother fermenting sauerkraut in the big crock that sits on the floor of our kitchen hallway. It is the process of lactic acid fermentation that transforms salt and cabbage into sauerkraut, thereby increasing vitamins, particularly vitamin C and B. Homemade sauerkraut is also extraordinarily rich in beneficial bacteria.
Here’s an old and simple sauerkraut recipe I found from The Improved Housewife from 1844.
40 pounds fresh cabbage
1 pound plain salt
Remove outside leaves and cores. Shred cabbage. In a large pot, mix 5 pounds shredded cabbage with 2 tablespoons salt, stirring well. Pack into a large stone jar with a potato masher. Repeat method for each 5 pounds cabbage until jar is filled. Press down with a plate and cover jar with a clean cloth. Leave in a cool place to ferment for 10 to 12 days. When fermentation ceases, pack in sterilized cans and seal, or leave (covered) in the stone jar, for use as needed.
Making sauerkraut is a simple process, but if you are not a big fan of plain kraut (which I am not), you might like this great twist on traditional sauerkraut:
Hot Pink Jalapeno Sauerkraut
-From Nourished Kitchen
3 1/2 pounds red cabbage, shredded
3 cloves garlic, minced
4 medium jalapeño peppers, sliced thin
1 tablespoon sea salt
Instructions: Toss the cabbage, garlic, jalapeños and sea salt in a large mixing bowl. Knead the vegetables together by hand for five minutes until they begin to release their juices. Allow the shredded vegetables to rest a further five minutes, then return for five more minutes of kneading. Layer the salted vegetables into a quart-sized fermentation jar or crock, and pack tightly until the brine created by the vegetable juice and salt completely submerges the shredded cabbage and peppers. Weigh down the vegetables with a glass weight, sterilized stone or other heavy item small enough to fit within your crock. Close and ferment at room temperature. Taste after about three weeks and continue to ferment if the sauerkraut hasn’t achieved the level of tartness you prefer. Transfer to cold storage when sour enough for your liking and use within nine months.
Before refrigeration and modern day canning, most Americans kept crocks of cucumber pickles and other local fare such as beets, onions or garlic fermenting in the corner of the kitchen to provide a source of nutrients for the long winter to come. Even Captain James Cook took a store of sauerkraut on his sea voyages in the 1700s to help prevent scurvy. The Roman writer Cato mentioned preserving cabbages and turnips with salt. It is believed to have been introduced to Europe in its present form 1000 years later by Genghis Khan. And I thought it was a German specialty!
It is the lactobacilli in fermented vegetables that enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce many helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti- carcinogenic substances. Lactic acid, the main byproduct of lactobacilli metabolism, actually keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect, natural preservation, and that’s pretty convenient for us.
One of my favorite liquid fermentations, besides rhubarb soda, is old-fashioned root beer. While most home brewers now make their root beers from commercially sold concentrates, that is not the traditional method, but then again gathering roots of the sassafras tree and sarsaparilla vine, native barks and berries and slowly simmering them with spices, sugar and yeast is a lot more labor intensive. Backing up the claim that fermented foods are beneficial to your health, root beer started out as a medicine rather than a soda pop. Sparkling mineral water was believed to be good for your health during the 1800s and the addition of roots, berries and herbs not to mention carbonation became the “miracle cure of the day”.
Like many other historically-used herbs, barks and berries, there is controversy over sassafras, the most important flavor ingredient in old-fashioned root beer, because it contains safrole. Studies suggested the development of liver cancer in rats fed safrole, resulting in the FDA declaring the end of sassafras as the main flavor ingredient in root beer. On the other hand, some studies indicate that safrole may actually stimulate the death of certain cancer cells. (Cinnamon, nutmeg and basil also contain safrole, but remain popular ingredients in many recipes.) Wintergreen, not sassafras, is now the dominant flavoring in root beer.
There were many different versions and names of root beer recipes. Here are a couple old timers:
The Improved Housewife 1844 Spruce Beer
Boil 1 handful of hops and 2 of the chips of sassafras root in 10 gallons of water; strain it and turn on, while hot, a gallon of molasses, 2 spoonfuls of the essence of spruce, two of ginger and 1 pound of allspice. Put in a cask and when cold enough add a half pint of good yeast. Stir in well, stop it close and when clean bottle and cork.
Take a small bunch of sweet fern, sarsaparilla , wintergreen, sassafras, prince’s pine, comfrey root, burdock root, nettle root, Solomon's seal, spice bush and black bush. Boil them in 3-4 gallons water with 2-3 ounces hops. Boil the roots for 6 hours.
Strain and add a quart of molasses. When lukewarm put in a pint of fresh, lively yeast. Place in a temperate situation covered but not so close as to retard fermentation. After fermentation bottle it close or keep it in a tight keg.
Homemade Root Beer
-From Nourished Kitchen
1/4 cup sassafras root bark
1/4 cup wintergreen leaf
2 tablespoons sarsaparilla root
1 tablespoon licorice root
1 tablespoon ginger root
1 tablespoon dandelion root
1 tablespoon hops flowers
1 tablespoon birch bark
1 tablespoon wild cherry tree bark
1 teaspoon juniper berries
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup unrefined cane sugar
1/2 cup ginger bug*, fresh whey or 1 packet kefir starter culture
*Ginger bug is a slurry of ginger, fermented yeast and sugar water. It captures beneficial microorganisms like wild yeasts and bacteria in the same way that sourdough starter does. The wild microorganisms eat away at the sugar in the ginger bug, and produce carbon dioxide as a result. When mixed with a flavored sweet tea, fruit juice or other sugar base, the microorganisms in the ginger bug begin to consume the sugar, and, as they do reproduce and emit carbon dioxide. The result is a fizzy and effervescent, naturally fermented soda that is rich in beneficial bacteria.
Bring two and one-half quarts filtered water to a boil and stir in sassafras, wintergreen, sarsaparilla, licorice, ginger, dandelion, hops, birch, cherry bark, juniper and cinnamon. Reduce the heat to a slow simmer and simmer for twenty minutes.
Strain the infusion through a fine-mesh sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth. Stir the sugar into the hot infusion until it dissolves and allow it to cool to room temperature. Once the sweetened infusion has cooled, stir in the ginger bug or fresh whey and pour into individual bottles (preferably flip-top bottles which are easy enough to find online), leaving at least one-inch headspace in each bottle.
Allow the root beer to ferment for three to four days at room temperature, then transfer to the refrigerator for an additional two days to age. Serve over ice.
*There are many sites online with old-fashioned root beer recipes. Nourished Kitchen (www.nourishedkitchen.com) has one of the most comprehensible recipes I have found.
Although home food preservation has declined drastically over the past century, we all seem to have experienced some old-time favorites like the true sour pickle (made sour through fermentation rather than through vinegar) a recipe that every family seems to have made their own version of. Many other fermented food recipes seem to have been lost in the shuffle of modern life in America, although fermented foods can be bought and many are marketed as health foods. But, an interesting discovery about the decline in local, native fermentation of foods is that even when fermented foods are being consumed, they are increasingly likely to be from supermarkets, rather than directly from households or local family farms. This is leading to fewer and fewer people possessing traditional knowledge of fermented foods and the ability to make these from scratch, which in turn is leading to a decline in the biodiversity of microorganisms, or ‘microbial- biodiversity’ according to Dr. Jyoti Prakash Tamang’s studies.
Well, that was enough information for me to go dust off the old crock, find a cabbage, grab my coat and head for the woods.
Fermenting crocks, starter cultures, and recipe books can be sourced from Lehman’s old-fashioned products catalog at Lehmans.com.