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Preserving food with fermentation

My love of sauerkraut inspired me to try fermentation for the first time. Encouraged by a fellow farmer with lots of fermentation experience, I followed a recipe and nearly cramped my hand massaging salt into sliced cabbage and packing it tightly into quart jars. I’ve since discovered that making this delicious condiment doesn’t need to be quite so strenuous, but thankfully that first experience was successful and within a week it was ready to eat.

Fermentation is a process of lactic acid bacteria consuming a food’s sugars or carbohydrates. As lactic acid and other good bacteria form, they destroy pathogens that could cause foodborne illnesses and make the fermented food safe for consumption. While this sounds complicated, the process is possible with little more than fresh produce, salt and time. Fermentation is an excellent way to turn your kitchen into a food lab, producing crunchy, tangy treats out of produce.

To use sauerkraut as an example of the fermentation process, mixing salt with cabbage draws out the cabbage’s juice and softens it. You then press the cabbage into a container so all the cabbage is covered by its juices, and store the container at room temperature for several days. After a few days, taste the kraut to see if you like the flavor- the longer it ferments, the stronger the tang. Once the flavor is where you like it, you can store the sauerkraut in the fridge for up to six months.

Acquiring the right vessel and setup for fermentation can take some creativity. There are large stone crocks that are traditionally used for fermentation, but any large glass or food-grade plastic container could work. It’s important that the produce you’re fermenting remains under the brine of its juices and salt, so you’ll need to find a plate that fits inside the container and on top of the produce, or employ some clean cabbage leaves as a plate substitute. On top of the plate or cabbage leaves, a jar full of water sits and puts weight on the produce below to hold it below the brine.

You can ferment with a lot of the vegetables you grow in your garden, and even take fermentation beyond vegetables into the realm of fruit wines. Virginia Cooperative Extension has a great resource on Winemaking for Home Gardeners that has been linked on the Virginia Food Works’ website.

My favorite cucumber pickles are fermented, and you can make great hot sauce by fermenting your peppers. Carrots, cauliflower, and green beans are excellent vegetables to ferment. Compared to processing these vegetables in recipes that require a water bath, fermenting vegetables maintains their crunch and adds that wonderful texture to meals all year long.

You can find more gardening and food preservation resources on Virginia Food Works’ website: www.virginiafoodworks.org/Home-Canning-Resources.

Katharine Wilson is the director Virginia Food Works. She can be reached at info@virginiafoodworks.org.