Bacteria Are Us–Part 3

Along with the growing interest in heirloom vegetables and free-range meats and eggs, there is an increasing appreciation for how our ancestors grew and prepared their foods. Now with more knowledge about the importance of probiotics, there is a revival of interest in fermentation of vegetables.

Equipment needed for fermenting vegetables

Equipment needed for fermenting vegetables

My southern grandmother gardened year-round and cooked many types of greens to serve with cornbread. She canned pepper and tomato relishes to use during the winter. My mid-western grandparents also grew lots of vegetables. They had a cellar to store root crops and cabbage for the longer and colder winters when the garden had been put to bed. Based on their ancestry, I am sure they made sauerkraut, but we have no surviving recipe. Perhaps it was so simple that no recipe was needed.

I was pleasantly surprised to find how easy it is to store a nice-sized cabbage in a quart jar. The only unusual tool pictured at left is a wooden stomper, which came with a food grinder. You will also need a large bowl, preferably glass, but stainless steel will do. A grater or slicer would be helpful also. The large white container in the center is my own invention and will be explained later.

If you have any paranoia about germs, please put that aside before you start. The first recipe I found said to sterilize the jar, then proceeded to describe how you should use a wide-mouth quart jar so you can use your hands to tightly compress the cabbage, forcing enough juice out of it to provide the brine. I decided to skip sterilization of the jar, since I cannot sterilize my hands. I had to assume that a process that has been used for thousands of years, and long before discovery of germs, did not really require sterilization of the containers.

The fact is that the bacteria which are naturally on the cabbage and on your skin provide the starter culture. You can add whey or other sources, but none are really required. Other than fresh cabbage, preferably organic, and a teaspoon of unrefined salt, no other ingredients are needed. I used Redmond Real Salt, which contains about 98% sodium chloride and 2% minerals. Extra minerals are beneficial for the microbes, especially if you have to add any filtered or distilled water which contain none. Although some do not require it, my recipe also called for a teaspoon of raw sugar. I used the natural sugar pictured because I had it on hand and it might also contain a bit of minerals.



I found that I could not compress the cabbage in the jar firmly enough by hand to cause juice to appear. So I resorted to the tamping stick which made it much easier. I did like using a wide mouth jar though, because it is easier to pack and also to get the sauerkraut out later.

Today I discovered a video that showed repeated tossing and squeezing of the thin-sliced vegetables in the bowl by hand, after sprinkling a teaspoon of salt over the top. It didn’t take long for a generous amount of liquid to appear, which was enough to cover the mixture when pressed into the jar.

My recipe said to add a little heated salt water if needed to bring the brine over the vegetables, leaving a half-inch of space at the top. Then it said to get out any air bubbles, put the lid on tightly, and put the jar in a container in the corner of the garage for six weeks. It warned that the lid could be tightened, but not loosened, and that there would be plenty of kraut odor. The container was to catch any liquid that might bubble out of the jar.

Since I didn’t have a garage and it was too cold outside for fermenting, I decided to keep the jar in the kitchen. Because of my concern that it might spew or otherwise become a nuisance, I fashioned a container from a plastic milk jug by cutting off the top with scissors, leaving the handle. The sealed jar fit into it perfectly, although it didn’t sit quite level. So I dropped the red plastic cap into the bottom to level the jar. No odor or other reaction was noticed, but after removing the jar from it’s temporary housing, there was a little residue in the bottom, showing that my effort was not wasted.

The beneficial bacteria thrive in a salty, anaerobic (without oxygen) environment and consume sugars. They overcome any bad microbes in the process. The resulting lactic acid culture is beneficial to our health.

The best surprise was that my sauerkraut is milder than any I have eaten. I have read that results may vary, even with the same ingredients, so I would need much more experience and experimentation to speak with any authority.

The most comforting advice was that we don’t have to worry about whether the fermented food is safe to eat. If any discoloration or froth appears on top, it can be dipped off and the rest should be fine. The smell will be noticeably offensive if it is not safe to eat. In that case it can be composted.

I am looking forward to making another batch with shredded carrots added and maybe a little garlic. I have read that onions are not recommended because they can get stronger and overcome all other flavors. I also want to try making my own whey for a starter culture. Most recipes I have seen lately list a much shorter ferment time than six weeks, so that would be nice also.

I may not find a recipe that everyone can agree on. But I would like to teach my grandchildren how to ferment their own vegetables. Since the health benefits are so great, everyone should know how to do it. This is one tradition that deserves to be preserved.

5 thoughts on “Bacteria Are Us–Part 3

  1. caperash

    Carole, welcome to the loverly fermenting world. I am currently experimenting with lactobacilli in terms of bokashi composting/soil management. One way to get them which is interesting (though of course just getting them from yoghurt is fine and only takes a few hours) involves putting out some carbohydrates. In Asia where this has been done for quite a while they just soak rice in water for a while, then take out the rice (and cook it for food of course) and leave the jar of water, covered with cheesecloth or whatever to keep out bugs – or in my case a not tightly screwed tight canning lid – and out of the light, and then after a few days you will see the water is more milky-coloured and probably there is a scum on the top. That scum is mold, just as can happen with sauerkraut, and you filter or strain it out. Then you take your starchy (that’s the carbohydrate) water which has by now attracted lots of loverly microbial cultures and feed it to milk which, as a food, greatly favours lactobacillus growth. That takes another five days or so, after which you have a lumpy, semi-solid cottage cheese like curd on the top – which can be fed to animals (or humans) and is good for the digestion – and the whey on the bottom is your lactobacillus culture, which promotes seed generation, is good for digestion, can be used to pickle, also as a natural cleaning solvent when diluted, and is the basis for bokashi culture. I took my first 2 litre batch of whey from this method and mixed it with some wheat bran and then put it into a few potted plants and some new seedlings (for indoor winter growth). I also have a bin of vegetables for composting I have been saving for this process to see if I can use this simple lactobacillus culture alone to effect a bokashi-type composting effect. Later in the year I will similarly collect ‘indigenous micro-organisms’, aka ‘IM’ or ‘EM’, from the woods and fields nearby in order to have a more balanced culture/population. It’s fun.

    I find it VERY interesting (as an organic sourdough baker) that the same bacteria are necessary/helpful/part of the seed germination/sprouting process and the digestive process in animals and humans and also in helping to create vibrant soil for plant growth. Everything is so symbiotic. Also that pickling cabbage boosts the vitamin content by 20-50 times according to many. My suspicion is that these vitamins are not just being extracted more efficiently from the cabbage, but are being engendered by the microbes themselves. In other words, to my mind we are using the cabbage as food for the microbes which in turn we then absorb. They are not only beneficial agents in various processes but are also nutrients in and of themselves, which is why, for example, the protein content of bread goes up after natural (‘sourdough’) fermentation.

    Carrots and ginger are a good combination. The book ‘Nourishing Traditions’ by Sally Fallon has an excellent section on pickling along with many related scientific studies and suchlike arranged on the sides of the recipe pages.

  2. Carole Ramke Post author

    Wow. I have always loved making something out of nothing. But I never would have found this if I had to search for “bokashi culture.” I bought “Nourishing Traditions” several years ago and read most of it, but couldn’t really get motivated to try the different style of cooking. When I decided I really must learn to make sauerkraut, I got it back out.

    “Symbiotic” has been my husband’s favorite word since I told him about the soil food web. We are continually learning that things we were taught in school were wrong–like matter cannot be created or changed. But now we know that chickens can make eggshells without any source of calcium and without depleting their bones.

    I wondered how sourdough bread could have extra food value, since the microbes would be cooked, but I didn’t know about the elevated protein content. We have a lot to learn.

    Do you think that drinking alcoholic beverages is a detriment to the microbes we consume in fermented vegetables? I know that a drop of 14% alcohol can be absorbed through the skin to stop a cold sore, and that only 1% alcohol can stop conjunctivitis or pink eye, so that makes me wonder how drinking could affect our beneficial microbes.

    Do you think conventionally grown ginger is okay for fermenting, or should I hold out for organic?

    1. caperash

      Not being an expert at all: in terms of ginger I believe because it’s a fairly dense root that grows slowly it does not carry as much pesticides as, for example, the more rapid-growing leafy greens which carry a lot. But of course organic is generally better.

      Alcohol definitely retards, even stops, microbial activity though I believe they can remain dormant in alcohol a long time and if separated at room temperature with a food source they might come back to life, but I am not sure on that one. Possibly the reason one really should age wines properly is to ensure all the microbial cultures are dead. But in any case, with sourdough fermentation, for example, when you leave the starter culture ferment for much longer than usual, i.e. 1-3 days, it gradually turns into more and more of a goop but at some point starts sweating out alcohol (which often looks like dark, even black, hooch). Once the alcohol gets to a certain level, it inhibits further fermentation. We could say that at this point the ‘not beneficial’ elements have arisen to dominate the beneficial ones. Another way of saying the same thing is that the beneficial ones can not function in an acid environment and acid is the by-product of their lively feeding on sugars. So the situation is self-correcting. But in terms of regular consumption of alcohol: it’s quite possible that in relation to certain diets, which underneath are also microbe-related, for example regular intake of certain fats, meats, cheeses, grains and so on, that the alcohol helps clean out certain excesses from the recent meal (too much fat and sugar, starch whatever unbalancing the ‘normal’ culture distribution). I suspect this is like most things: if it contributes to being balanced internally, externally and mentally-emotionally-spiritually, then it is good; if it unbalances, it is bad. And it depends who you are, how you are living and how you behave when you are in communion with it.


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