The ingredients and the process for fermenting vegetables are simple, and the results are delicious and a little amazing. The very concept that you could cut food up and leave it to 'spoil,' and then later eat it probably sounds like black magic to the modern American. But fermented vegetables have developed independently in every human civilization around globe. The modern American, in other words, is unique in the history of humanity in his diet of 100% either fresh or pasteurized/preserved foods.
My foray into fermentation is very recent, prompted by the gift from a cousin of an alternative diet cookbook (which is equal parts fruity and fantastic, mixing good science with psuedo-science on almost every page, but full of wonderful gems), so I was surprised and somewhat validated by the November 22nd New Yorker which includes articles on fermented food in general and on sauerkraut specifically. As Burkhard Bilger discusses in his article Nature's Spoils, our society's obsession with killing bacteria, thinking of all bacteria as pathogenic, has recently been recast as an extreme and sometimes detrimental view. Some good science and a lot of appeals to down-homey common sense based on anecdotal evidence are used to suggest that a thriving population of non-pathogenic bacteria is essential to good health. This argument is being used to promote a wide variety of foods and diets, from raw milk and dairy to raw food diets such as Primal Eating.
Image via WikipediaI personally am neither for nor against raw milk (though I think you should know the cow if you trust it not to be contaminated with listeria), look skeptically at any extreme diet, and believe that pasteurization is essential for industrial food production. That being said, I am fully converted to simply fermented fruits and vegetables. Statistically speaking, they are much safer than raw milk or meat, their benefits have been studied a little more rigorously, and they are (lest we forget) delicious. In fact, if prepared properly with due attention paid to temperature and the even distribution of salt, the likelihood of fermented vegetables carrying food born pathogens is almost nil. In the taste department, if you have previously been soured to sauerkraut, you may have had commercially pickled cabbage, which is completely different in flavor, texture, and nutritional value from the traditional room temperature fermented variety.
Nothing could be simpler than fermenting vegetables. All you have to do is add salt and sometimes water (vegetables should be covered in liquid, but their own juices often suffice), put it in an inert container (usually glass) and wait. Three days is sufficient for most veggies, two will suffice for most fruits. Without access to oxygen, lactic acid producing bacteria thrive and create a very low pH saline solution, destroying most other microorganisms. The result is similar to yogurt in that it is full of bacteria that is good for you and totally devoid of bacteria that is harmful. Speaking of yogurt, you can separate the liquids (whey) from yogurt by straining through a cloth and add a little of this liquid to the vegetables if you want to ensure the presence of healthy bacteria. The solids which remain will be a light, fluffy cream cheese.
After one extremely successful experiment with Kimchi, I decided to attempt a fermented cranberry sauce for thanksgiving this year, and stumbled upon this lovely recipe for lacto-fermented cranberry chutney. With just a little modification, I followed this recipe and the results were fascinating. Initially too sour for some of the family (I used water instead of juice, that was a mistake), with the addition of a little extra sugar it pleased the whole crowd. The fermentation process really makes the most of the aromatic cinnamon and clove, and I added the zest of a whole lemon (in one giant strip, not shredded) which also wonderfully infused the entire concoction.
Food production has become a complicated hydra of health and safety issues, with compelling arguments for and against every practice yet imagined or implemented. In this jungle of information there is something extremely satisfying about stumbling across a home process as simple and fool proof as fermenting. Follow the rules and you get consistently healthy and delicious results. It is also a cheap and energy efficient way to preserve summer crops through the whole winter, as fermented veggies can last for months in the fridge (or even root cellar in cooler climates) with no negative impact to their nutritional value or flavor.
If there is any cabbage to be found at the winter farmer's market here in Eugene, I am bound to be making a large batch of sauerkraut in the very near future. If not, however, I don't really see the point of fermenting conventional vegetables. The process depends upon the presence of live lactic acid producing bacteria. If you can't be sure whether the vegetables have been irradiated or not, then you can't trust them to ferment properly. By law, fruits and veggies cannot be labeled organic if they have been irradiated, so organics are still worth the effort.