Preserving the harvest while sleepwalking
When it comes to strategies for putting food by, I’ve got just one word for you: lacto-fermentation. OK, so maybe it’s two words. But seriously, I think this could be a life-changing subject. A few weeks back, Ana Antaki spoke at one of the Merryspring Nature Center’s Tuesday Talks about this amazingly simple and healthful method to preserve the garden’s bounty to an attentive audience. It was music to my ears.
Antaki captured everyone’s attention from the get-go when announced she does not cook, and she meant it. Yet she and her husband grow and then preserve a year’s worth of fresh produce every summer. Most folks think of preserving foods by canning or pickling or dehydrating, but this method is entirely different. It lets enzymes do the work.
Indeed the lacto-fermentation process does not involve any cooking. It barely involves any energy at all, certainly not any heat. (And it has nothing to do with milk, in spite of the lacto-preface.) This concept is so simple, so elementary and at the same time traditional — and did I mention how healthful it is — that someone could practically do this in their sleep!
Well maybe not in their sleep because some prep involves sharp knives. But this is basic, simple stuff, folks. If you can measure accurately, you can do it. Sea salt is all that is added to chopped or sliced fresh vegetables or a brine of sea salt, pickling or Kosher salt (not iodized salt) and un-chlorinated water is used for whole vegetables. Chlorinated water can interfere with the fermentation process. Lacto-fermentation is the basis of things such as sauerkraut and that spicy Korean kimchi. Lacto-fermentation can be used to preserve a wide-ranging variety of fresh produce from cauliflower to green beans to apple slices or mixes of vegetables, even whole cherry tomatoes. When Antaki is ready to serve the results, she said she simply opens jars and spoons out the perky contents.
Antaki reported that the lacto-fermented foods she has prepared retain their color and texture well, something that heat-canned foods do not. Here are some reasons she prefers this process:
• No energy is required in the preparation
- Process has been tested for centuries
- Foods are “living food” with pro-biotic enzymes and beneficial bacteria which:
- Are pro-biotic, adding beneficial bacteria to intestinal tract
- Food’s nutrients are better absorbed by the body, synthesizing vitamins B and K
- Contain anti-cancer agents rich in antioxidants
(I’d like to add that with this process any gardener can easily preserve the organic foods they have grown for healthy meals throughout the year.)
Antaki recommends using glass jars with rubber gaskets and wire bails. She uses Luminarc and Fido jars (fantes.com or crateandbarrel.com), which are large clear glass jars. They accommodate the fermentation process in a way that regular sealed jars cannot by allowing a controlled release of pressure that is built up inside the jar as fermentation occurs. In effect, these jars create a “gas seal,” that protects the food. Ordinary sealed jars can allow so much pressure to build up inside that the jars could explode. Antaki cautions that once properly sealed, jars should not be opened up until you are ready to consume the contents. Jars can be kept at cool temperatures, but need not be refrigerated until after they have been opened.
Throughout her presentation, Antaki referenced a book, “The Art of Fermentation,” by Sandor Felix Katz, and I would encourage anyone serious about preserving their harvest by this method to get the book. A YouTube video can also answer a range of important questions on the topic. It is of Katz at Cornell University in April 2012, and can be viewed at: youtube.com/watch?v=kmDtbyRZnw4. It is about an hour and a half in length. Or attend one of Antaki’s presentations on the subject. There are a lot of fine points that simply cannot be included here.
The handout for her presentation was four pages long, and included basic recipes for preparations such as sauerkraut, sauerruben (fermented root vegetables), salsa, pepper relish, kimchi and more. But I will pass on Antaki’s “recipe” for fermented dilly beans, which calls for a salt brine.
Clean and prepare beans, cutting them to desired length. Add herbs (garlic, dill or others as desired). Pack tightly into fermentation container, pressing beans down into container. Add prepared brine (two and a half tablespoons sea salt per quart of water) to cover beans by about two inches, seal and set aside to ferment.
Antaki noted that once the container has been filled and sealed that in about a day you should notice a few bubbles rising to the surface.
“As the days progress, you should start to see more bubbles rising and settling at the surface of the liquid, eventually forming a ring of small bubbles, like a necklace around the neck of the container,” she said. “The bubbles tell you that the fermentation has begun. Eventually you will see a generous thick necklace of bubbles. It means the fermentation is well-established and advancing strongly. At this time you can take it to the root cellar or other cool, dark place where will continue to ferment, but very slowly. Once the fermentation is done, the brine will be clear and there will be little or no bubbling activity.”
It’s so simple. I’ve got my jars bubbling away, whispering their ancient secrets of fermentation, on their way to something special. Thanks, Ana Antaki for opening the door to this subtle new adventure in preserving the harvest.
Lynette L. Walther is the recipient of the Garden Writers Association’s Silver Award of Achievement, and she gardens in Camden. Got questions, or comments? Visit her blog, and join in the conversation at: gardeningonthego.wordpress.com or ”friend” her on Facebook to see what’s growing in the garden day-by-day.