Vegetable Fermentation: An Alchemy of Place
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
CULINARY FERMENTATION is the transformation of food by microbes. Historically, this practice was linked integrally to place. For the original vegetable ferments, people grew or gathered plants only from the place where they lived, and always fermented them in conjunction with the seasons, always in collaboration with native microbes, always in vessels made from local earth, stone, organs or bones, woven baskets, or local wood. Microbial reproduction is regulated in large part by climate, which was additionally moderated by local fermentation techniques and vessel construction. This interaction between people, microbes,climate, plants, and local materials truly made (and makes)fermentation a direct embodiment of place. The emotional attachment and cultural significance that people still retain towards specific fermented foods is an expression of this embodiment.Live-culture fermentation is a part of who we are.
The European colonization of the Americas disrupted and, in many cases, ended traditional food practices that linked people to this land. At the same time, colonizers brought microbial cultures and new practices with them.These continued to mix with one another into new forms and traditions. As the climate and human populations change, so do fermentation techniques and recipes.
Fermented radishes at Round the Bend Farm.
The current breadth and depth of fermentation possibilities can be both intriguing and overwhelming. There are thousands of individual recipes for particular fermented vegetables,many of which use such specific vegetable varieties,particular styles of hand-made vessels, cultural knowledge,and climatic conditions that they really are not replicable outside the place they are currently (or were historically)made. In the US today, fermentation is less and less attached to specific places and tends to embody a more globalized mindset. Anyone can look up a standard recipe, buy standard ingredients from a grocery store, and ferment at standard room temperature that is controlled by artificial home heating or cooling. This is the product of many different recipes,cultures, and techniques fusing into practices and ingredients that are blended into something widely accessible.
As a result, it’s easier than ever to access information about standard recipes, and more and more difficult to understand and practice fermentation in a way that engages you deeply with place. My personal perspective on this trend toward standardization of food is that it’s a cycle that will eventually break. The standardization of everything into homogenized forms and techniques makes for a singularly fragile system. Building resilience on your farm, in your community, or in your geographical region means being able to work and adapt with subtleties of variation in ecological systems. Practicing fermentation from a qualitative perspective,with a practical and intuitive understanding of form and function in relation to social and environmental fluctuations,is one way to build resilience on your farm and community,and engage deeply with the plant, microbial, human, and ecological worlds we are a part of.
If you live in a place where people have been fermenting in traditional ways for generations, those are the fermentation practices you should learn, because they are already tailored to the ecology of your specific area. But most of us live in places where those traditions have long been disrupted, scattered,or lost. If that is the case, learning the basic principles of fermentation will allow you to develop recipes that are unique to the place where you live.
Almost a decade ago, I started developing fermentation programs at farms and education centers in both tropical and temperate climates. I created systems and educational curriculum to facilitate larger batch production of live-culture fermented foods that were unique to whichever place I was working in at the time. At Rancho Mastatal in Costa Rica,we focused on big batches of locally grown fermented mangoes,green papayas, and limes; at Round the Bend Farm inthe United States, we are now growing cabbage varieties and root crops that work well for spiced fermented vegetables and big batch brining. This work was influenced by independent research across the Americas, as well as studies with fermentation author Sandor Katz at The Foundation for Fermentation Fervor in Tennessee, and the incredible generosity of many people who collaborated and shared microbial cultures and fermentation practices over the years.
During this time, I often worked in countries with climates and food traditions I had not grown up in, and facilitated workshops for students from around the world.And one of the things that I learned from this is how crucial our sense of place is to the practice of fermentation. Most of us are a mishmash of cultural backgrounds, and we all live in a world of scattered and fused food traditions. Food is a universal connector between all living things. We eat and become,and die and become. The rapid globalization and commercialization of food gives us the breadth of connection at the sacrifice of the depth of connection. Everything is at our fingertips, but this infinite access simultaneously impedes our own deep engagement with the place we are actually in. The practice of live-culture vegetable fermentation is a wonderful entry point to a re-engagement with, and active participation in, the place where we live.
Shaun Van Laarhoven fermenting cabbage at Round the Bend Farm.
Vegetable Fermentation Basics
There are many ways of fermenting vegetables, but all vegetable ferments share the following traits: 1. Vegetables are submerged under the liquid. Submersion inhibits the growth of molds and other oxygen-dependent organisms. 2. Submerged vegetables are subsequently acidified through the action of lactic acid bacteria. This acidification process is what preserves the vegetables and keeps them safe to eat.
The following is a great, simple recipe for fermented root crops like turnips or radishes. In temperate climates, the prime season for fermentation is fall, when roots crops are sizing up, and the weather is turning cooler. Vegetable fermentation is a fantastic way to preserve vegetables for eating all through the winter months.
Simple Fermented Roots
• Ingredients and Supplies:
• Whole washed turnips or radishes
• 1 five-gallon bucket (food grade wood, ceramic, or plastic)
• Sea Salt
1. Fill the bucket up to the four-gallon line with the washed radishes.
2. Make a salt brine and pour it over the top: Dissolve salt in water at a ratio of three tablespoons salt per quart of water.
Depending on how tightly packed your roots are, you will need more or less brine. Keep adding brine until the roots are completely covered.
3. Cover the roots with a wood or ceramic plate and weigh down the plate with a clean smooth rock or other food-grade implement. This keeps the roots under the surface of the brine, which is crucial to fermentation.
4. Let ferment in a cool place (ideally 50-60°F [10-15°C], but warmer temperatures work fine too) until the roots are sour (this usually takes a few weeks, but it is relative to various factors like temperature and vegetable variety).
5. Move the bucket to the coldest place you have which stays above freezing. This can be a basement, a root cellar, or any other cool area. Once your vegetables are acidified through fermentation, they can keep for months or in some cases years. (I’m still eating a bucket of sauerkraut I left in my parents’ basement four years ago.)
Using your ferments:
Throughout the fall and winter months, remove roots from the bucket in whatever quantity is manageable for you. (Make sure that every time you remove roots, the roots remaining in the bucket stay pressed under the brine.) At Round the Bend Farm, we usually remove a few quarts worth at a time.
Slice the roots thinly with a knife to use in sandwiches, salads, or with veggie dip. Or you can grate them into a relish with the grating implement of a food processor. Store these in the fridge in a glass jar with enough brine that they are still submerged.
You can change up the flavor at any time by mixing spices like garlic powder, chili, caraway, or other local herbs into the jar that you store in the fridge. Δ
Assorted fermented root vegetables tempting everyone at Round the Bend Farm.
Katz, Sandor Ellix. The Art of Fermentation. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012.
Shockey, Christopher, and Kirsten K. Shockey. Fermented Vegetables. North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2014.
Laura has nine years of experience developing farm-to-table food systems in both tropical and temperate climates. When she’s not immersed in food education you may (or may not!) be able to find her deep in the forest, bike packing, backpacking, and foraging for berries. Follow her reflections on body, place, food, and motion on Instagram @laurakillingbeck. For food education workshops in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, check out Round the Bend Farm (www. roundthebendfarm.org).