There's a kitchen technique that requires no special ingredients or fancy gadgets. It doesn't even need electricity.
And yet it boosts both the flavor and the nutrition of fresh produce and other foods. And it keeps those fruits and vegetables from spoiling for months and months.
It's called lacto-fermentation (aka lactic-acid fermentation). Sounds a little mad scientist-esque, right?
But there's no hocus-pocus to it. It's the simple technique behind fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi and old-school pickles.
"It's probably the oldest form of fermentation and it's very simple," says Mary Karlin, author of the new "Mastering Fermentation: Recipes for Making and Cooking With Fermented Foods" (Ten Speed Press, $29.99).
As with so much in the kitchen these days, everything old is new again. Fermentation, canning and other old-school DIY techniques are gaining followers. Many credit the writing of Sandor Katz, a self-taught "fermentation experimentalist," with fueling interest in recent years.
Lacto-fermentation works without water-bath canning or other cumbersome preservation techniques thanks to a one-two punch of basic chemistry: An adequate amount of salt kills the nasty bacteria present on fresh produce, allowing the good stuff (namely lactobacillus) to thrive. Thus, food is preserved, develops that distinctive tangy flavor, and gets packed with good-for-you probiotic properties. Since it is never cooked, these fermented foods retain all of their raw-food benefits.
"I'm a big fan of acidity in how it balances with other components in a dish," says Paul Virant, chef-owner of Chicago's Perennial Virant and Vie in Western Springs, Ill., and a food-preservation expert who has written a book on the subject. "We do a lot of different things at both of the restaurants. We ferment fruits for jam. We ferment fruits to ultimately make wine and vinegar. We do fermented hot sauces, traditional sauerkraut. … Anything you can ferment, we do it."
To the uninitiated, however, fermentation can be scary. Nobody wants to create a kitchen experiment that might make someone sick. But as long as your utensils and fermentation vessels are clean, and you keep food fully submerged under brine, lacto-fermented foods are hard to ruin.
"Between what you'd see and what you'd smell, you'd know if something isn't right," Karlin says. "It's an ancient form of food preservation and, done properly, it's absolutely safe and it's healthy for us."
If you ferment
Lacto-fermented foods can take days or weeks to reach desirable flavor. Taste your creations as they ferment to see how flavors evolve. Foods ferment most quickly at room temperature, but the process continues (albeit more slowly) even under refrigeration.
Some produce (such as cabbage) will create its own brine when salted and left to ferment. Others with less water will need to be submerged in a brine to prevent spoilage. This recipe uses the brine method.
Airlocks are typically three-piece plastic stoppers that get partially filled with water. They allow carbon dioxide to escape the fermentation vessel while keeping oxygen out. In a pinch, cheesecloth can be used.
Apple caraway sauerkraut
Prep: 25 minutes
Rest: 3 weeks
Makes: 1 quart
Note: From "Mastering Fermentation" by Mary Karlin.
8 cups coarsely chopped napa cabbage, about 2 1/2 pounds
4 teaspoons unrefined sea salt