Food preservation is one of the most-often written and talked about subjects in homesteading today. When you grow your own food, you don't want to see it go to waste. Plus, you want to enjoy the fruits (plus meats and vegetables) of your labor even after your garden has gone dormant for the winter.
Fermentation, not only increase the longevity of your harvest, it elevates simple homegrown foods to the state of being exquisite pleasures. Plus, it's pretty easy to do once you know the basics.
Here's everything you need to know about fermenting foods.
Getting Over the “Yuck” Factor in Fermentation
Before we get into some easy ways you can start fermenting at home, let's address the “yuck” factor that makes some people fermentation-phobic.
Human Relationships with Micro-Organisms Already Exist
Fermentation is a process of inviting beneficial micro-organisms to partially pre-digest your fresh food. That might not sound so appetizing initially. But when you consider the alternative – as in food rotting and becoming inedible – it starts to have appeal.
Also, when you further consider that pre-digestion of food by billions of micro-organisms is taking place in your own intestines every time you eat, fermentation starts to seem a bit more normal in theory.
Finally, when you stop and recognize that some of the best tasting foods in the world – sourdough bread, cheese, yogurt, wine, beer, pepperoni, and most of your favorite condiments (ketchup mustard, soy sauce) – are all fermented products, then you realize you are already a fan and just didn't fully appreciate the microbes already at work in your food supply!
Fermentation Makes You Aware of What Was Already in Your Home
Still, when you start fermenting at home, there will be some aspects of preparation that might not be the most appetizing. For example, if you make things like vinegar, you may get little gnats flying around the lids of your jars.
When you ferment vegetables, you may end up with some white powdery stuff floating on top of your brine. The outer layer of your cured meat may show signs of rot before the salt starts to do its magic. If you make cheese, sometimes an off-culture enters the mix and makes cheese stinky.
These experiences can sometimes be off-putting to people new to fermentation. However, when you think about it, these things are already in your environment.
Gnats didn't magically appear because you made vinegar. They were already in your home and had just been drawn to one location by the particularly appealing scent of acidity-in-the-making. (Which makes them easier to kill!)
That same white yeast by-product you see on your ferments is what finds its way into wounds on your canning tomatoes. You know – that stuff you cut off before you use the rest of that tomato to make an amazing sauce.
That rot on meat is the same stuff that finds its way into your containers of left-overs buried in your fridge. Unlike the stuff in your fridge, though, the rot on your fermented meat dies as the process of fermentation fortifies your meat making it rot-proof. After a few days, that rot turn black, dries, and becomes hard and is no longer a risk to your food.
Be a Food Saver!
Taking an active part in fermentation, and turning off that initial yuck response, is just about accepting what already exists and is at work in your home and life. Then, by harnessing the dark and mysterious forces already in your environment, you can make foods that are amazingly delicious and durable.
Rescuing food from possible decay, through good fermentation, makes you a food hero!
What is Fermentation?
Yuck-factor dispensed with, let's talk about what happens in fermentation. Essentially, the good invisible-to-the-naked-eye guys, e.g., yeast and bacteria, convert the not-so-long-lasting components in your foods into something delicious and enduring.
Those micro-organisms mainly eat sugars or acids and then create food preservatives as a by-product. This is kind of like the way that plants take in carbon dioxide and send back out oxygen. Or, the way worms eat kitchen scraps and make vermicompost for our gardens.
Fermentation is nature's version of recycling at work in your kitchen!
Similar to preparing good soil for plant growth or creating safe habitat and offering preferred food sources to worms to ensure good vermicompost, we can also participate with nature to make sure good fermentations happen.
To do that you need to understand a few things about the process.
4 Ways to Ferment Food
There are several common ways of fermenting that are often used in homesteading.
1. You can ferment foods using salt in an anaerobic environment.
Usually, this method involves using something like a salt brine and submerging vegetables in the brine to initiate fermentation. In this scenario, the salt makes the environment too acidic for the bad guys, so the good guys get time to do their thing.
Also, covering the veggies in water makes the environment anaerobic (or airless) which is perfect because the micro-organisms that like to preserve our food for us by this method, really need airless environments to thrive.
Classic vegetable ferments like sauerkraut and kimchi are made by this method. Things like fish sauce and soy sauce do too. Coincidentally, fish emulsion fertilizer is also fermented this way (using naturally occurring salt in fish parts).
Typically, a salt solution of at least 2% of the weight of your food is necessary to allow fermentation. For example, if you wanted to ferment 1-pound of cabbage to make sauerkraut, you'd want to use .32 ounces of salt (16 ounces cabbage X 0.02 = .032).
Note: That also happens to be roughly two teaspoons of salt, so in recipes, you often see instructions to use two teaspoons salt to a pound of vegetables instead of percentages.
2. You can ferment foods using salt in an aerobic environment.
Rather than using a salt brine and submersing food, you can also salt-coat or rub food to create a protective acidic exterior. Then, as the food begins to dry, micro-organisms work their way through the food product digesting sugars. A classic example of this kind of fermentation is country ham or bacon.
Technically, the salt layer dries the surface of the meat, creating an environment that is almost anaerobic inside the meat. However, if you merely salted thin slices of meat, and exposed them to air, the meat would just dry faster (e.g., beef jerky) and would not ferment.
By instead, slowing down the drying process by using a larger piece of meat, you cut off some (but not all) of the air to the interior of the food. This slows down the bad guys and gives the good guys a chance to digest the sugars and preserve the food.
That process also creates that incredible umami flavor that many of us love about things like prosciutto and salami.
This is one of the more risky forms of fermentation because that dry outer coating can sometimes make foods completely anaerobic. When that happens, bad stuff like botulism can develop. It is one of the reasons why many people use sodium nitrate along with salt to prevent botulism when salt-curing whole muscles (e.g., hams) or making fermented sausages like salami.
3. You can ferment food using high concentrations of sugars in an anaerobic environment.
Do you like cheese, yogurt, or wine (or other forms of alcohol)? If so, then you are already a fan of this kind of fermentation.
Typically foods that are already high in natural sugars such as grains (like corn or barley), fruits (like grapes and apples), or milk are used for this kind of fermentation. Additionally, foods that are aromatic or impart unique flavors are often used along with other sources of sugar such as honey, granulated sugar, sorghum, or maple to increase the sweetness. Elderberry, strawberry, or jalapeno wine are examples of this.
Concentrated levels of sugar floating around in lots of liquid tends to attract the right kind of yeasts and bacteria in a hurry. Those little workers make quick work of the sugar, converting it into alcohol (in fruits, grains, veggies) or curds (in milk). They then, just as quickly, die fat and happy.
Unfortunately, the first crew that shows up for the sugar rush doesn't always finish the job before death. That is when the trouble can start during fermentation. It is also why it's so much better if we humans help control the outcome.
Our job in this process is to regulate moisture, air content, kinds of bacteria and yeast and control temperatures to encourage the micro-organisms we know will produce good tastes and longer durability.
For example, with cheese, we add cultures, heat milk to specific temperatures, control the drying process with humidity regulation, and control the temperature using cheese caves.
With wine, we use containers to keep air out and airlocks to release carbon dioxide to give yeast more time to act before the bad guys get in. We also control the temperatures during process and aging of wine.
This third kind of fermentation is not as easy to master as the first two, but with a little know-how and key equipment, you can make fine alcohols and cheeses on the homestead too!
Also, if you make strong enough alcohol, e.g. moonshine, you can use that to preserve your food. Cherries or peaches preserved in brandy, chopped up and thrown in homemade ice cream, make a fantastic treat!
4. You can ferment your ferments in an aerobic environment.
This last kind of ferments is something some of us do intentionally. But it's also something some of us do accidentally from time to time.
For example, you can ferment your food to make alcohol and then turn that alcohol into vinegar. I do this intentionally with old food scraps like apple peels and cores or the skins of things I use for wine.
Unfortunately, I also occasionally do it on accident when I open a bottle of wine with dinner and forget to put the cork back in it. The next day that wine already tastes like vinegar!
Once your foods have been transformed into something with less than about 17% alcohol by volume (ABV), if you don't limit their contact with air, acetobacter will move in and convert that alcohol to acetic acid through a secondary fermentation process. Acetic acid is the acid in vinegar.
Vinegar, which is a fermented product, can then be used as a preservative for other foods. Things like pickles and condiments like ketchup and mustard are preserved with vinegar.
Vinegar, with a pH of 4.6 or lower, is a great food preservative because only the bacteria that make it, can survive in acetic acid. Once they make enough acetic acid, though, the environment becomes too acidic even for the acetobacter, so they too die fat and happy from their work!
Note: Make sure you know the pH of your homemade vinegar, whether it is suitable for canning before use.
Make Some Ferments
Now that you know the basics about fermenting, here are a couple of simple recipes for you to try to get started.
Sauerkraut is the easiest place to start your fermentation experimentation. Cabbage is cheap and usually has sufficient water content that you don't need to make a separate brine solution before adding veggies.
- Finely chop one head of cabbage and weigh.
- Multiply the weight of the chopped cabbage by 2% to determine your amount of salt.
- In a bowl, massage your 2% salt into your cabbage leaves.
- Optional: Add a few caraway seeds to your cabbage for flavor.
- Transfer your cabbage to mason jars.
- Mash your cabbage into the jars using the end of a wooden spoon to press some of the liquid from the shredded cabbage.
- Weight your cabbage down with a baggie of rocks or fermentation weights to continue pressing out liquid and keep the cabbage submerged after the brine was added.
- Close jars with a lid that has a fermentation airlock lid if you have one. Alternatively, put a regular lid on your mason jars. Then, open and close your jars daily to release trapped carbon dioxide.
- After one week, taste your kraut, if it's sour enough, enjoy. If not, allow it to ferment longer.
If you're like me, once you've experienced how easy it is to ferment cabbage, you'll be fermenting everything from your cilantro for your tacos to making wild-ferments with all the weeds you've got growing in your yard. Going wrong with simple salt solution fermentation is hard!
Duck Breast Prosciutto
You don't have to start your meat fermentation experiments with a 25-pound green ham. (Ham that isn't cured is often called “green”). You can start with something smaller like a duck breast.
- Bury a fresh duck breast in sea-salt and place it in the fridge for two days.
- Remove from the fridge and wipe the salt from the breast.
- Wrap the breast in a light cloth, such as a flour sack, to protect from insects.
- Hang the breast in a cool, dark location (above freezing, below 75º F) until it has the dryness you prefer. In humid conditions, this may take as long as a week. In dry conditions, it may be done in 1-2 days.
- Store in a location with about 55-60% humidity such as a cellar or basement, or enjoy immediately!
- Slice paper thin to serve.
You can infuse your sea salt with thyme by filling a jar with fresh cut thyme, covering it with salt, and allowing the salt to absorb the herb flavor for two weeks. Then, pick out the thyme and use the salt for your duck breast.
Or, you can just add fresh thyme to your salt while you are salting your duck breast.
Note: There are serious foodborne risks associated with the consumption of uncooked meats. So, please make sure to do detailed research and make your own informed decisions about whether or not to try this at home. I eat this stuff regularly, but everyone is responsible for making their own choices about what's safe and healthy for themselves and their loved ones.
Welcome to the wonderful world of ferments!
I hope your journey from this point on is packed with delicious adventure. I encourage you to try all four fermentation methods above as you build confidence. Then you'll not only be a food saving hero, but you'll also be a culinary champion!