What is Lacto-Fermentation?

Lacto-fermentation is a microbial process which uses beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium spp. and other lactic acid bacteria (LAB). These thrive in an anaerobic fermenting environment and, together with yeasts, they work together to convert raw food into more easily-digestible components, along with releasing and stabilizing nutrients of the food.

Like the fermentation of dairy products, preservation of vegetables and fruits by the process of lacto-fermentation has numerous advantages beyond those of simple preservation. The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anticarcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.

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Lacto-fermented condiments are easy to make. Fruits and vegetables are washed, cut up, mixed with salt, herbs and/or spices and then pounded briefly to release juices. They are then pressed into an air tight container. Salt inhibits putrefying bacteria for several days until enough lactic acid is produced to preserve the vegetables for many months. The amount of salt can be reduced or even eliminated if whey is added to the pickling solution. Rich in lactic acid and lactic-acid-producing bacteria, whey acts as an inoculant, reducing the time needed for sufficient lactic acid to be produced to ensure preservation.

During the first few days of fermentation, the vegetables are kept at room temperature; afterwards, they must be placed in a cool, dark place for long-term preservation. A room temperature of about 22 C will be sufficient to ensure a lactic-acid fermentation in about two to four days. More time will be needed if your kitchen is colder and less if it is very warm. After two to four days at room temperature, the jars should be placed in a dark, cool spot, ideally one with a temperature of about 4 C. In days gone by, crocks of lacto-fermented vegetables were stored in root cellars or caves. The top shelf of your refrigerator will do.

It is important to use the best quality organic vegetables, sea salt and filtered or pure water for lacto-fermentation. Lactobacilli need plenty of nutrients to do their work. If the vegetables are deficient, the process of fermentation will not proceed. Likewise if the salt or water contains impurities, the quality of the final product will be jeopardized.

Homemade Preserves Jars Eating Pickled Cucumbers

About one inch of space should be left between the top of your vegetables with their liquid and the top of the jar, as the vegetables and their juices expand slightly during fermentation. Jars should then be closed very tightly. Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process and the presence of oxygen, once fermentation has begun, will ruin the final product.

Sauerkraut Recipe

  • 3 large heads of cabbage
  • 3 green apples
  • 5 large carrots
  • sea salt

Method

  1. Prepare a large non-reactive vessel such as a bowl or a crock. Prep cabbage by removing any outer leaves with bad spots, halving, and coring. Thinly slice cabbage. Place in bowl with a couple of generous sprinklings of sea salt.
  2. Core apples, slice thinly, and then cut into bite-sized chunks. Add to cabbage with another small sprinkling of salt.
  3. Cut carrots in half length-wise and then into thirds length-wise. Dice and add to cabbage-apple mixture. Mix all ingredients very well.
  4. If it is a bit bland add more salt and mix well until it tastes of a well-salted vegetable.
  5. Place in bowl or crock and place a plate, bowl, or other non-reactive dish that fits just inside the vessel. On top of that dish place a few clean, heavy, non-reactive objects. These will weight the plate or dish down which will allow the vegetables to stay below the level of the brine. Cover the whole lot with a clean kitchen towel to keep bugs out.
  6. After about 24 hours check to make sure that a brine has formed in order to cover the cabbage. If not, prepare a brine by combing 1 pint of water and 1 tablespoon of sea salt. Remove the weights and dish and pour brine over kraut. Place dish and weights back on top of kraut and cover again with towel.
  7. Allow to culture at a cool room for at least four days. If you are culturing in a cellar or basement then you can simply allow it to continue to culture for weeks and months, removing any impurities that come to the surface of the brine. If you are doing it at room temperature then after it has cultured for 4-7 days you can transfer it to jars for storage in a cellar or refrigerator.

Pickled Cucumber Vegetable Green Cucumber Food

Pickled Cucumbers
 

  • 4-5 pickling cucumbers or 15-20 gherkins
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, snipped
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 4 tablespoons whey (if not available, use an additional 1 tablespoon salt)
  • 1/4 litre filtered water
  • 4 or 5 grape or oak leaves

Method

  1. Make a brine from 5 tablespoons of fine-grained sea salt and two quarts of hot water. Allow to cool before using.
  2. Meanwhile wash your cucumbers and grape leaves really well and allow to soak in some cold water.
  3. At the bottom of a 1/2 gallon jar add a generous amount of dill, two grape leaves, a few cloves of peeled garlic, and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes.
  4. Start packing the largest cucumbers vertically in the bottom half of the jar so that they fit tightly. Add another layer of dill, grape leaves, garlic, and spices.
  5. Layer in the smaller cucumbers horizontally or vertically, however you can best pack them in tight, leaving a good 1 1/2 – 2 inches of head space. Add one more layer of dill and red pepper flakes.
  6. Pour the brine over the cucumbers until completely covered. Place a grape leaf over top of the cucumbers and dill so that it keeps them under the brine level. Make sure there is at least an inch between the brine and the top of the jar.
  7. Place the jar lid on tightly and leave at room temperature for 3-5 days, depending on the temperature. If is really warm (above 25), three days is enough. If it is cooler, leave them for another day or two, or until the brine is bubbly and cloudy.
  8. During this time, “burp” the jars every day to release some of the pressure.
  9. Place in the refrigerator or other cold storage facility. Eat them right away or leave them to age which will produce an even better flavor and you can enjoy them in the dead of winter.

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Key aspects!

  1. Use large jars. Unless you have tiny cucumbers, 1,5 or 3 litre jars are the right size.
  2. Keep your cucumbers whole.  Pickled slices tend to turn mushy. Whole cucumbers keep their crunch much better.
  3. Make your brine ahead of time using boiling water. The ratio should be 1 1/2 tablespoons unrefined sea salt per 1/4 liter of water. Be sure to allow the brine to cool completely.
  4. Use grape or other leaves to keep them crunchy. Grape or oak leaves contain tannins that work to keep your cucumbers crunchy.
  5. Do NOT overfill your jars and do “burp” them. Leaving headspace allows the brine to bubble up without exploding the jars. Loosen the lids once or twice a day and allow some of the fermentation gas to escape, to prevent an excessive buildup of pressure inside the jar.
  6. Do use various sized cucumbers. Fitting the cucumbers into the narrow jars can be a challenge if they are too big. Layering seasonings at the bottom of the jar followed by a layer of larger cucumbers standing straight up followed by another layer of seasonings and then a bunch of smaller cucumbers works well.

General lessons

  1. Do not use too much salt. Most of the fermented vegetable recipes you find around the net use too much salt. When you are mixing up your vegetables to culture taste them. They shouldn’t taste of salt. They should taste like vegetables that have been salted generously, not obnoxiously.
  2. Do not ferment in warm temperatures. Don’t place jars next to the radiators to ferment. Fermenting at around 15 C allows vegetables to stay crisp and the slower fermentation time develops better flavor.
  3. Do not make it harder than it needs to be. Recipes are great if you’re first starting out, but if your first few experiences with involve tedious amounts of unnecessary chopping, grating, or pounding of ten different ingredients then you’re not likely to do it again.

Making nettle beer

If you’re thinking about foraging and don’t know what to go for, stinging nettles are a good starting point. The plant is easy to recognize, it is available almost throughout the year, can be used in many different kinds of dishes, from soups to omelettes and in just about any dish where you would normally be using spinach or soft green leaves.

Last, but definitely not least, it can be used to produce a delicately flavoured drink that resembles both cider and a sweet wine.

Nettle beer is ready to drink just a week from picking. Fermentation takes between three and five days, although some people leave their mixture to ferment for up to two weeks. Fermentation needs to reach its natural conclusion or you run the risk of your bottles exploding.

Ingredients

  • 50 young nettle tops (top 10 cms)
  • 6 l water
  • 500g sugar
  • 25g cream of tartar
  • 8g brewers yeast

Method

  1. Take the nettle tops, making sure you have picked them in a « clean » environment, wash them well, add them to the water.
  2. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Remove the nettles, they can go on your compost heap or, as we do, be given to the hens.
  3. Add the sugar and 25 grams of cream of tartar powder to your nettle tea.
  4. Stir to dissolve, let the liquid cool to tepid and add the brewers yeast.
  5. Leave in a sterilised bucket with muslin over the top for 3 to 5 days.
  6. Siphon the clear liquid into sterilised bottles.
  7. Start drinking within a week of bottling.

 

Discover Brazilian Chef Alex Atala

At 49, Alex Atala, chef and owner of D.O.M., in Sao Paulo, looks like a rock star. Sporting a red beard, prominent tattoos,  the man is one of the stars of world gastronomy. His restaurant in Sao Paulo, D.O.M. -Deus Optimus Maximus, “God the Greatest and the Best” – has been ranked among the top ten in the world for four years.

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Alex Atala (CreativeCommons image by Lucasdeandrade6)

A prestigious status for someone who left school at 14 to discover the “big city”, became a punk DJ and did more than his share of drugs, as he freely admits.

Milad Alexandre Mack Atala, a descendant of Palestinian immigrants, grew up in Sao Bernardo dos Campos in southeastern Sao Paulo. At 20, he is backpacking through Europe. With empty pockets and a Belgian visa about to expire, he decides to enrol in a cooking school, the “École Hôtelière de Namur”, in order to stay in Europe. He discovers a passion and works at Jean-Pierre Bruneau’s 3-star Michelin restaurant in Brussels. He will then spend 10 years in France, working under Bernard Loiseau at Hôtel de la Côte d’Or in Saulieu, then in Montpellier and finally in Milan.

In 1994, he is back in Brazil and works in Sao Paulo in a Japanese restaurant before being offered a redesign of Filomena’s menu. This earns him the ‘best young chef’ award of the Brazilian Association of Bars and Restaurants. In 1999, Alex Atala opens Namesa, his first business. A few months later, he opens D.O.M. in one of the beautiful neighborhoods of the economic capital of Brazil. In just three years, D.O.M. gains national acclaim and, in 2006, it is included by British magazine “Restaurant” in its list of the world’s 50 greatest restaurants.

The Amazon as a culinary paradise
Alex Atala owes his fame to the Amazon, this “new frontier of flavors” where he draws his inspiration. The region has become his favorite territory, “a universe in its own right with an almost infinite wealth of products”. Atala is an explorer and can spend days in the forest, looking for new ingredients, from which he will create new dishes.

“The Amazon makes up 47% of Brazil, so it is normal that it occupies at least 47% of my culinary research.”

 

His menu includes insects such as saúva, a large Amazon ant, which tastes of lemongrass and ginger, served on a piece of pineapple. Atala serves pirarucu river fish, pitanga fruit, tucupi, a yellow juice extracted from the traditional cassava root of the Amazon, priprioca, a herb that was previously used in the cosmetics industry, but also flower ceviche with local honey or wild boar.

“The difference between being good, very good and exceptional as a cook,” says Atala, “is in having the flavours in your memory. If I tell you mozzarella tastes of Italy and miso speaks of Japan, then tucupi [fermented manioc juice] and ants are the taste of Brazil.”

A chef with a mission
Recognized as one of the best chefs in the world, Alex Atala has also launched the ATA Institute, which aims to rethink the relationship between man and food. “Far from Facebook, food is the biggest social network on the planet. It is food that connects us with nature on a daily basis,” says the chef, who believes in the power of social transformation of cooking. He now strives to defend regional ingredients, to protect nature and to defend small producers. “Knowing the path food takes to reach our plate already causes change and raises awareness in society.”

His other self-assigned mission is to save traditional knowledge before it is lost and keep alive “the recipes of the great grandmothers”. Atala claims this forgotten heritage, which he considers must be respected and safeguarded in the face of national laws that “aim not for diversity but pasteurization”.

D.O.M.: Rediscovering Brazilian Ingredients. Alex Atala. Photo © Phaidon.