Fermentation was the original way to preserve the harvest, and it’s very easy, said Cat Swenson, the fermenter-in-chief and managing partner of Great Ferments. It predates canning and pickling, and is even more fool-proof than those. People have been fermenting foods for 7,000 years under some very unsanitary conditions, she said with a laugh, and fermentation can preserve food for longer than you ever thought possible. (Look below to see Cat demonstrate her process to Allen. Or click here.)
Scientists recently uncovered a 300-year-old fermentation pit in Fiji, she said. It had breadfruit inside that was still safe to eat. Of course it wasn’t in peak condition; it had “unpleasant softening and some off flavors but it was perfectly safe.”
A preoccupation with health originally drew Swenson to fermentation, and she taught herself the craft from a book.
“As a farmer I’m very interested in the organisms and the soil,” she said. “We’re all little ecosystems, and I think we’re meant to eat fermented foods. We used to eat them all the time. And now we hardly do, and our foods are filled with things that actually kill microbes.”
She and her husband began farming seven years ago, and that kicked off her obsession with health.
“We were regular corporate types who had a mid-life crisis at age 50 and chucked our regular jobs and bought 44 acres,” she said. “We started raising our own pastured lamb and doing holistic managed grazing and raising our vegetables, and one thing led to another. That’s what led me to fermenting. My interest in the microbiome came first.”
Today, Swenson shares her knowledge, teaching fermenting classes around the state of Arkansas and beyond. She says the most common mistake is not creating an anaerobic environment for your vegetables.
“There’s 100 different ways to create your environment. You can submerge it under the brine. You can also have fancy airlocks, special jars and crocks and that type of thing. You can do both — submerge it under brine and have the fancy airlocks,” she said. “But that step is the number one reason ferments fail. The vegetables are exposed to oxygen or air and grow things you don’t want them growing. That’s why fermentation used to be done in pits. Pits and crocks.”
She recommends you start with clean vegetables, preferably organically grown.
“Naturally occurring on that vegetable, no matter how well you wash it, will be lactobacillus. The fermentation process creates the byproduct of lactic acid. Not vinegar. Vinegar is acetic acid,” she said. “And those organisms are popping and farting and making a lot of other byproducts, which scientists are still learning about. They make short chain fatty acids. The lactic acid has health benefits, like probiotics and live cultures. It’s kind of a fascinating process.”
It’s different from pickling because things packed in vinegar can’t support a live culture. She advises if you’re in the supermarket wondering if something is fermented or pickled, just look for vinegar on the label. If it’s in the package, it won’t have the live cultures you’re looking for.
“Fermentation is the original method of pickling. Modern pickling is really marinating vegetables in vinegar, and essentially pasteurizing it,” she said. “So, that’s the last 150 to 200 years that we’ve been canning. It started in earnest around one of the wars. So they could feed troops. But for 7,000 years prior, this is how people pickled.
When Swenson makes her products, they always ferment for at least three weeks. She says fermentation time will vary based on the temperature and the chop size. It takes longer to ferment in the winter than the summer because colder temperatures slow the fermentation process. If you use a starter culture, such as the whey from the top of your yogurt, it goes faster. But he prefers the wild method, using only brine and time.
To make her brine, she uses Redmond’s Sea Salt, but says it can be tricky because it’s not pure and some of the minerals can cause softening.
“Beginner canners and picklers, if they have trouble with softening, may want to use a canning or pickling salt, as some of the minerals can cause softening. But I prefer sea salt because you get all of your trace minerals, too,” she said. “But you can have too much, and that can stop fermentation. Cucumber pickles are difficult to make crisp. Or they’ve had to add things like Sorbate 80 or calcium chloride. Firm them up, you could add tannins like horseradish or a grape leaf, a bay leaf, or an oak leaf, or even a tea bag — things that naturally have tannins in them.”
In short, the process is very easy, but does take some trial and error to perfect. So, grab some salt, some fresh vegetables, and get started in your test kitchen today.