How sauerkraut and kimchi are saving the world—one microbe at a time
Story by Robyn Crummer-Olson
Photograph by Elliot Olson
They lurk in your crisper drawer, in your fruit bowl, and on your counter. Your well-intentioned produce purchases patiently wait for their special purpose, silently passing from firm-ripe great ideas to their final resting place in your compost bin full of regrets. Anyone with a membership to a local farm share or community-supported agriculture (CSA) program knows exactly what I’m talking about.
I call it the tyranny of the produce drawer.
But thanks to the same processes and friendly microbes that bring you beer, you can cast off the oppression of your produce purchases and embrace the free-love alchemy of fermentation all year-round.
You already benefit from many methods of traditional food preservation, including refrigeration, drying, salting, sugaring, canning, using acids (such as vinegar) or alcohol, and fermentation. Cultures on almost every continent ferment in one way or another. Think: sauerkraut, yogurt and kefir, kimchi, cured meats, wine, beer, cider, olives, miso, sushi, soy sauce, fish sauce, coffee, and kombucha.
Orchestrating those magical microbes of bacteria and yeast to ferment your favorite ale is not all that unrelated to processes at work to ferment an inexpensive and nutritious crock of sauerkraut or kimchi. Simple, high-quality ingredients, willingness to experiment, and ample patience are all you need.
Alex Lewin is a health strategist, activist, blogger, and software engineer in Cambridge, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California, and the author of Real Food Fermentation: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen (Quarry Books, 2012). He explains the parallels between beer and food fermentation, “In general, yeasts consume sugars and produce alcohol, while bacteria consume sugars, starches, or alcohol and produce acids. Both alcohol and acids play roles in food preserving. As foods become acidic, they become inhospitable to most kinds of microbes. Fortunately for us, the microbes that can survive in acidic environments are safe for us to eat: many of them are microbes that live within our bodies.” So to be an effective brewer or fermenter, you must control the bad bacteria that cause funk and decay while encouraging the ones that preserve the food with the best flavor possible.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Sure, fermenting is a way to prolong the window of a seasonal food’s edibility and is a first cousin to brewing beer, but why else would you want to take perfectly good produce, shred it with a bunch of salt, and stick it in a crock for four days to four months? Well, actually, quite a few reasons. In addition to preserving the food without chemical additives that are present in many shelf-stable products, at-home fermentation gives greater control of ingredient variety and quality, enhances the natural vitamin and enzyme content of the food, and makes nutrients more available during digestion. Plus, it’s actually really fun.
Perhaps you’re like my slightly skeptical husband who prefers to dip his stomach into the gastronomic pool by trying new foods out of a package first. I give you OlyKraut. Summer Bock, OlyKraut owner and fermentationist, is a health coach and herbalist in Olympia, Washington who produces over 90 gallons of gourmet sauerkraut and kimchi a week. Bock recommends raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchi as both a delicious condiment and a beneficial digestive tonic. “It’s one of the only foods that contains natural bacteria that inoculate and live within your intestines. It’s the same bacteria that we’ve evolved with for tens of thousands of years,” explains Bock.
OlyKraut produces three year-round varieties: Original Raw Sauerkraut, Eastern European, and Spicy Garlic Chi. They also produce seasonal flavors every two months based on regionally available produce, including Spring Nettle Kraut and Onion Harvest Kraut. Their Eastern European flavor made with green cabbage, onion, apple, carrot, caraway seeds, grapefruit juice, sea salt, and Celtic Sea Salt won a 2012 Good Food Award in the Pickles category.
So, are you ready to take the plunge into the tangy, tingly world of making your own sauerkraut and kimchi? According to Lewin, there are three rules you must follow: (1) don’t be afraid.
(2) make something you like. (3) share it with friends and family. The rest you’ll learn through experimentation and trial and (not too much) error. For successfully fermented food, you must control the food’s environment without being a control freak, then leave a little room for the magic.
Rather than giving you an exhaustive step-by-step recipe for sauerkraut or kimchi, let’s start with some general guidelines. (Or you can follow the simple sauerkraut recipe in the sidebar. Baby steps.) Of Lewin’s own first fermenting experience he says, “When I was first making kimchi, I was following the recipe slavishly because at the time I guess I didn’t have as much cooking confidence. I used exactly as much salt as it said to and weighed my cabbage carefully. My first adventure was fairly constrained. It wasn’t until I read more that I learned where you can improvise.”
However, that doesn’t mean you can just start chucking vegetable matter in a crock and call it good.
There are a few key environmental factors that you must consider, because they will make or break your ‘kraut. According to Real Food Fermentation, the type of food, its acidity, the temperature of its environment, time, oxygen, and moisture all contribute to whether the microbes are working for or against you.
The transformation of your farm share cabbage into raw sauerkraut is not the work of one magical microbe. Rather, the process is more of an invisible assembly line of different species performing their own specialized tasks.
Sandor Ellix Katz, author of Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003) and The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), describes the procession of microbes acting on cabbage “not unlike the life of a forest, in which a series of different trees follow each other as the dominant species, each succeeding type altering conditions to favor the next.”
Coliform bacteria start off fermentation by producing acid, making the environment more hospitable for Leuconostoc bacteria. Coliform declines as Leuconostoc increases. As the acidity rises (and the pH drops), Lactobacillus arrives on the scene to relieve Leuconostoc. That’s right, all this is going on in your little crock, and you didn’t even have to lift a finger.
Just like beer brewing, the right ingredients, a healthy respect for biochemistry, and plenty of patience are the foundation of food fermentation. Lewin says, “Making sauerkraut is so much easier than making beer. If you can make beer, then you can make sauerkraut with your eyes closed. In 10 minutes.”
Sauerkraut is an inexpensive and simple way to begin what are sure to be years of fermentation experimentation and exploration ahead of you. It’s really a shame that such a delectable food shares the same name as the lifeless, watery substance found on hotdog condiment bars.
Nomads brought fermented cabbage (now commonly called sauerkraut, the German word for “sour cabbage”) to Europe from China approximately 1,000 years ago. Today, almost every culture has its own variation of sauerkraut from whole heads of fermented cabbage to a mixture of shredded cabbage combined with other fruits and vegetables mixed with salt and left to stand for several days (up to as long as you can stand the powerful flavor).
Kimchi is a Korean relative of sauerkraut with its own unique textures and flavor combos based on napa (Chinese) cabbage combined with burdock root, daikon radishes, fish sauce, galangal, garlic, ginger, hot chili peppers, mustard greens, onion, scallions, seafood, turnips, or turmeric. Ingredients for kimchi are often cut in larger pieces rather than shredded as in sauerkraut. Kimchi recipes also call for soaking the vegetables in a brine solution, rinsing, and fermenting with less salt for a shorter time.
The culinary delights of sauerkraut and kimchi expand far beyond the reaches of your everyday bratwurst or bulgogi. Other serving suggestions: smash some avocado on toasted seedy bread and top with your homemade sauerkraut or kimchi. Sub kimchi for sauerkraut on your next reuben. Eat alongside your eggs in the morning or your ploughman’s lunch in the afternoon. Use the acidic taste to cut through the fat flavor of any dish. Lewin suggests topping your next baked potato with sour cream (another fermented food!) and sauerkraut. He says, “In fact, anytime you’re eating something, ask yourself if it would be better with kimchi on it. It probably will be. A lot of times foods lack acidic taste or salt. Instead of vinegar or salt, you can do the same thing with sauerkraut juice.”
Bock even describes several adventuresome bars serving shots of OlyKraut’s probiotic sauerkraut brine or adding it to mixed drinks like Bloody Marys.
When asked why sauerkraut tastes so good with beer, Lewin replied simply, “They both go so well with meat and fat. Beer and fermented foods are similar. There is a lot of harmony because of their similarities. They’re close relatives. They’re kindred spirits.”
Sidebar 1 /
You know about the virtues of sauerkraut alongside your beer, but what about in your beer? A michelada is a refreshing Mexican beer cocktail usually served with Clamato, lime, and salt. Writer and chef Alex Lewin recommends you add a little of your homemade sauerkraut or kimchi for a fall beverage taste sensation.
Recipe courtesy of Alex Lewin’s blog FeedMeLikeYouMeanIt.com
Pinch of interesting salt (such as Sel de Gusano, smoked salt, or sea salt)
1 (12–oz.) bottle beer
(lager is traditional,
but feel free to experiment)
1–4 Tbsp. homemade sauerkraut, kimchi, or other fermented vegetables, with brine
Wedge of lime
Dash hot sauce
Dash Worcestershire sauce
Wet the rim of a pint glass with lime juice or water. Salt the rim with salt of choice.
Add several ice cubes to glass, and carefully pour beer over ice. Add sauerkraut, kimchi, or other fermented vegetables with brine to the beer, and stir gently.
Taste, and adjust flavor by adding more fermented vegetables, lime juice, or a dash of hot sauce or Worcestershire sauce.
Sidebar 2 /
If the following recipes seem kind of vague, that’s because they are. I recommend that you approach your first fermentation with an open mind and a willingness to experiment rather than adhere dogmatically to a recipe. Always use the freshest organic ingredients you can possibly find, preferably local and in season.
Life of the Party
(up to 1 lb. total)
Cabbage is considered to be the most cooperative fermenter because of its balance of carbohydrates and moisture. Use it as the base and it can be combined with other more temperamental ingredients. Remove any tough skin, outer leaves, or core, if necessary. Shred, grate, or chop finely.
green or red cabbage
or a mixture of both
celery root or celeriac
(up to 1 lb. total)
Combine these foods with the Life of the Party and you’ve got yourself the beginnings of a flavor festival. Remove any tough skin, outer leaves, or core, if necessary. Shred, grate, or chop finely.
Use 1–4 teaspoons sea salt per 1 lb. of produce.
You can’t go wrong with a dash of this or a pinch of that.
In a large bowl, combine desired ingredients and add salt.
Enthusiastically massage the mixture for several minutes. A brine liquid will begin separating from mixture.
Place mixture and brine into a large jar or crock in small quantities, tamping it down as you go to remove air bubbles. Make sure every bit of your mixture is covered with a layer of brine (or you’ll be very, very sorry).
Use a Harsch crock made specifically for fermenting vegetables. Or, do as Sandor Katz: Cover with a tight-fitting lid or plate that fits inside the crock. Weigh it down with a clean rock, jug of water, or weights. Cover with a towel to keep out dust and debris.
Leave the crock to ferment in an unobtrusive location. Check on it every few days by tasting it with a clean fork. When it has the desired flavor, place in jars in the refrigerator to arrest its fermentation or allow it to continue to ferment at room temperature as long as you dare, usually up to several weeks.
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