Micro-ecology for the Home
by Adam Elabd
Fermentation has been happening since before our kind moved from the trees to the ground and began to walk on two legs more often than four. For millennia, it existed without name or spectator as a spontaneous and living transformation of matter. Later, it would be regarded by humans as divine alchemy; a magical change so profound that it defied understanding and was credited to gods such as Ninkasi, Tepoztécatl, Osiris and Dionysus. To the earliest discoverers of this mystical occurrence, it was likely seen as an elemental and kinetic spirit not unlike lightning, wind or fire.
As with fire, fermentation was a natural phenomenon that our ancestors gathered around in wonder and slowly learned to direct and eventually domesticate over many generations. Small triumphs of understanding came to those with luck, persistence, genius, or, more frequently, a combination of all three. In order to master the practice of fermentation, one had to tune in to the environment and its effects on the outcome of the process. It requires a sense of nurturing, experimentation, and a degree of obsession that the powerful and intoxicating results of fermentation seem to instill in its beholders even today.
In an age where disconnection with the natural world has become the norm, adding fermentation to our rhythm of self-nourishment can be an effective and delicious gateway into reconnecting with Mother Nature in the way that our foremothers and forefathers once did. There is something about raising millions of microorganisms in a jar full of cabbage that invokes an affection, not unlike that of a child for a beloved pet. There is also a deep reverence and awe for life that comes from seeing, smelling and finally tasting the pungent change brought on by the work of organisms that we cannot see. Had it not been for the advent of the microscope, we’d probably still be praising the gods of fermentation today.
Fermentation, at its essence, is just as interactive and dynamic an art as farming. There is a constant conversation taking place between the inside and the outside of the fermentation vessel, and the job of the fermenter is to make sure that the discourse ends favorably. Knowing how to set things up for success, when to interject, and when to allow nature to take its course is where the art lies.
At its best, fermentation is a wholesome expression of our environment. Using raw and local foods deepens this expression by bringing the local terroir and its specific array of microorganisms into the vessel. The micro-biome, temperature, humidity, pollution and dirt under our fingernails all affect the ferment. This is why places of fermentation are often given similar care and reverence as places of worship. There is a ritual ablution of the self (or at least hands) and tools that takes place before beginning. By setting up your altar and vessels of fermentation, you are making your plea to the powers that be for safe passage of your unfermented foods to the land of enchantment and enhancement.
In the same way that industrial agriculture revolves around the goal of total control of the land and environment, so does modern day fermentation attempt to control the microscopic landscape inside the vessel. Sterilization, confinement and isolation are the main tenets of industrialized fermentation today. The downside of scientific advancement and deeper understanding of the process is the concomitant hubris that we should attempt to steer every ship that we board. On the contrary, the voyage whose course is most meticulously followed is often the most mundane. Fermentation should be an expression of the infinite variability of the moment. It should be an utterance of the fruit, soil, house, and hands that were involved in its birth. This is not reached by maximizing control, but instead by loosening one’s grip and allowing the dance to begin.
A word of explanation: fermentation can be separated broadly into two categories: wild and fixed (or controlled). In wild fermentation, the driving force is a wide scope of microorganisms (usually bacteria or yeast) which either already existed on the food or were added from a culture that was passed on and nurtured from one generation to the next. In fixed or controlled fermentation, strains of bacteria and/or fungi which have been isolated and propagated in a laboratory-like setting are used, thus insuring a relatively predictable outcome. This is how most of your bread, beer, wine and cheese is made. While consistency may seem paramount to industrial food production, there is a huge sacrifice of adventure and natural expression that is made in the transaction.
Although it is not often included at the forefront of the conversation surrounding food sustainability, fermentation is an important part of creating a clean and closed-loop food system. At its core, it is a way to preserve and make use of as much of nature’s bounty as possible during its peak moment. This not only reduces waste, but also ensures that we can eat a variety of foods regardless of the season without resorting to transporting it over long distances. For example, cabbage can be made into kimchi in the fall when it is harvested and then be consumed over the next year until it is cabbage season again. This eliminates the need to buy cabbage grown across seas and mountains during the spring and summer. A ferment like tepache utilizes the parts usually thrown away (the rind and core) to make a delicious and even medicinal beverage.
The beauty of sustainability in food is that it is often a win-win. Using parts that you would normally throw away not only decreases waste, but it also allows us to benefit from nutrients that may not be in the part of a fruit, vegetable, or animal that we normally consider edible. For example, the core of the pineapple –involved in making tepache– actually has the highest content of bromelain, an enzyme which helps with protein digestion and also acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory. Fermentation can also release and create nutrients that would otherwise not have been absorbable or present at all; the Japanese fermented soybean called natto has, by far, the highest vitamin K2 content of any food due to the specific bacterial fermentation that takes place. Beyond vitamins and minerals, the microorganisms themselves are beneficial to both our digestive and immune systems; they help with the breakdown of food in the digestive tract while also crowding out and competing with pathogenic and opportunistic bacteria and fungi that cause imbalance and disease.
Even if fermentation was not highly beneficial for our health, our connection to the earth’s rhythms and an integral part of any sustainable lifestyle, it would still be a worthwhile venture if only for the giddy pleasure of making something spectacular while breaking a bunch of rules. There is something about putting salty vegetables in a jar and leaving them at room temperature for a few weeks or letting raw cream sit out on the kitchen counter overnight that seems to go against everything we’ve learned about food safety from childhood. Fermenting food is equal parts celebration, exploration and defiance. It is a practice of getting closer to the natural world while distancing yourself from the industrialized one. Not only does this practice helps expand one’s palate, but it also expands your mind and the list of things that you think may be possible.
In my household, fermentation is neither a passing trend or fleeting fad; it is a regular part of how we live our lives. Long before we ever had houseplants, we tended tens of bubbling, burping and occasionally bursting bottles and jars. While fermenting surely speaks to the cook and scientist within me, it calls equally on the naturalist and environmentalist. Making a jar of sauerkraut is like creating a terrarium: assembling a living, breathing ecosystem and then watching it transform over time helps to ground me to the depth of Mother Nature. It is not only a dedication to her bountiful and nourishing fruits, but also part of an ongoing effort to respect and honor the gift of food by making use of every possible part of the plant. Perhaps –and most importantly– I believe fermentation gives those of us who don’t grow our own food the opportunity to have a long term relationship with what we eat. Serving up a batch of four-month old kimchi or sipping on a fruit wine that you’ve aged for several years both bring on a ceremonial and emotional experience that can only be compared to harvesting food which you’ve grown.
Today, we find ourselves caught up in the ceaseless marketing of convenience, speed and gratification. Now more than ever, we need to ground ourselves to what is sustainable and equitable, not only for our fellow woman and man, but also for our planet and the many ecosystems that come together to form it. Home fermentation is one of many possible avenues by which we can both care for ourselves and for our environment. By preserving and potentiating local foods during their peak season, we simultaneously reduce waste and pollution related to long term storage and transportation of food, support local farmers in our communities, and create foods that can nourish and heal us and those we feed.
Makes 1 liter
This zero-waste, wild ferment allows you to make use of every part of the pineapple while making something delicious and medicinal. You can drink tepache alone, with beer, or use it as a mixer in cocktails. I highly recommend trying it with mezcal or gin. The pineapple top can be suspended in water (like you would an avocado seed) until it grows roots, and then plant it in soil. After about a year of love and care, it will create another small pineapple. You can also save the la cup of tepache to use as a starter for other fizzy and alcoholic ferments like ginger beer, fruit wines and mead. if you leave it to ferment for a few days too long and it gets overly sour, don’t de air, you are now on your way to having pineapple cider vinegar. Just leave it out a few more days until all of the sweetness is gone and it has a strong vinegary taste. Bottle and use as you would any other vinegar for salads, marinades and pickles.
1 medium piloncillo
1 cinnamon STick
4-8 all ice berries
1.5 liters (1.5 qtrs.) of water
2-liter (1⁄2 gal) jar (preferably glass)
1. Twist off the top of the pineapple and set aside to plant later.
2. Remove the pineapple rind and cut the fruit from the core as you would to prepare the pineapple for eating. Add the rind and core to your 2-liter jar.
3. Cut up the fruit and sprinkle some chile and salt on it to snack on while you work.
4. Add the piloncillo, cinnamon, cloves and allspice to the jar with the rind and core along with enough water to cover all the ingredients within 4-5 cm of the top of the jar.
5. Cover the mouth of the jar with a piece of clean muslin or t-shirt fabric and secure tightly with a rubber band to keep out fruit flies and other insects. Allow to ferment for 2-3 days, stirring at least once a day.
6. Taste your tepache every day. Once you are happy with the level of fermentation (your preferred balance between sweet and strong), strain, bottle and refrigerate.
7. Add more water and piloncillo to the same jar of pineapple rind and spices and repeat steps five and six. Two to three batches can be made with the same pineapple rind and spices.
Makes 2 liters
In Korea, there are countless varieties of kimchi, with some of the most popular being napa cabbage, radish and cucumber. That being said, you can make it with almost any vegetable that you have on hand, and it’s a great way to save abandoned vegetables from a fate worse than wilting (the trash). As a general rule of thumb, the leafier the vegetable (think lettuce), the less time it will need, and the more fibrous (carrots and beets), the longer. While a lettuce kimchi may be ready within a few hours to a day, carrot kimchi would bene t from several months of fermentation. There is no steadfast rule about timing, so just check on it every once in a while in the beginning until you get a feel for it. Just don’t open and close the jar too often or you will increase the risk of mold growing on the surface.
1 kg (2 lbs.) of vegetables of your choice
4 tablespoons of salt
1 medium Korean or daikon radish (or 10 regular red radishes)
1 ripe pear (or apple)
1⁄2 large yellow onion
6cm piece of fresh ginger
1 head of garlic
2 teaspoons of fish sauce (optional)
1⁄2 cup of chile flakes or powder
5-8 green onions, finely chopped
2-liter (1⁄2 gal) jar (preferably glass)
1. Dissolve salt in one liter of water to create a brine.
2. Chop vegetables into bite-size pieces, place in a large bowl and cover with brine. Allow vegetables to sit at room temperature for 3-6 hours, to concentrate and deepen flavor.
3. Coarsely chop radish, pear, onion, ginger and garlic before combining in a blender or food processor. Puree to a smooth paste. Add fish sauce (if using) or substitute with 2 teaspoons of salt. Mix in the chile 1-2 tablespoons at a time until the paste mixture reaches your desired spiciness.
4. Drain vegetables of their brine. Add paste and green onions. Mix and massage until all the vegetables are completely covered by the paste.
5. Place vegetables in jar, pressing down to remove any air pockets. Spread any remaining paste on the surface of the vegetables. Wipe clean the inside walls of the jar and screw lid on tightly. Loosen lid slightly to allow gasses to escape during fermentation but not so much that bugs can get in.
6. Place jar on a plate or tray in a dark and cool place in your home and let the magic happen.