Revive the ancient art of fermentation in your kitchen

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All kinds of hipsters and do-it-yourselfers are tackling home fermentation projects these days, reviving a craft dating back to antiquity, when the lack of refrigeration, out of necessity, led to the invention of preserved foods that would last longer and taste better.

Nowadays, ancient fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi, and beverages such as kombucha and kvass, have been shown to help balance the bacteria in the intestinal tract, boosting the good bacteria that protect the body while reducing inflammation.

Fermentation also makes vegetables like raw cabbage easier to digest and can enhance the uptake of nutrients.

“The Neolithic tradition of fermentation has sparked modern use of and interest in probiotic microbes,” Robin Foroutan, a registered dietitian nutritionist wrote in Food & Nutrition magazine. “From Korean kimchi and Indian chutneys to the ubiquitous sauerkraut, yogurt and cheese, global cultures have crafted unique flavors and traditions around fermentation.”

To help local foodies learn more about this delicious science, Pepperwood Preserve — a 3,200-acre nature preserve serving as a living lab for conservation — hosted a spring retreat in early April to teach some of the ancient preservation techniques for everything from hard cider to sauerkraut at the Dwight Center for Conservation Science.

“Over the past several years, a fascination with fermentation has infiltrated our culture,” said Margaret Boeger, youth and community project manager for Pepperwood Preserve. “The fermentation movement has included pickling a wide variety of root vegetables, brewing up tasty beverages, baking hearty and healthy breads, and producing rich cheeses and yogurts.”

The retreat started out with a workshop on beet kvass and a demonstration of making sauerkraut presented by two young craft people who work in Sonoma County.

Beet kvass from Ukraine

Adam Johnston, president of Biotic Beverages, produces five flavors of organic, vegetable kvass drinks in Petaluma: Beet, ginger, turmeric, lime and pineapple. He started the business four years ago, when there was only one other kvass-maker in the country. Biotic Beverages is now the third largest producer in the nation.

“Kvass is from the Baltic region,” Johnston explained. “The Russians make it with bread, sugar and raisins with yeast. Biotic Beverages makes it with vegetables, like they do in the Ukraine.”

The sour-sweet beet kvass provides the healthy properties of beets, which are detoxifying for the liver and beneficial for the bloodstream, enhancing the uptake of vitamins and minerals, from Vitamin A and B6 to calcium and zinc.

“It was the most popular drink in 19th-century Russia, consumed by the rich as an occasional refreshment and by the peasantry on a daily basis,” Elena Molokhovets wrote in “Classic Russian Cooking.”

“The drinking of kvass in late Tsarist Russia had become a culture-laden act that helped to define one’s Russianness.”

Unlike kombucha, which is made from sugar, tea, water and a scoby (a symbiotic blend of yeast and bacteria), vegetable kvass is fermented with salt and flavored with extras like ginger, citrus, carrots, beets and pineapple.

The resulting drink is a healthier alternative to kombucha because it has no refined sugar and a lower level of alcohol.

“You can make these products at home safely and easily, and they’re kid-friendly,” Johnston said. “We’re seeing a trend away from sugar.”

Compared to kombucha, the process for making kvass is quite simple. During the workshop, the participants simply trimmed the red beets, sliced them into chunks to increase the surface area, then put them in Mason jars with salt and water.

The jars were then left out at room temperature for four to seven days while being tasted and burped daily (lid unscrewed to let out gas) and kept out of sunlight. After that, the kvass was ready to strain and sip.

“A two-ounce dose a day is recommended,” he said of the healthy beverage. “You don’t need a lot … kombucha finishes sweeter and lighter, but kvass is more nutritious.”

In Russia, the lightly fermented kvass are also made from fruits or berries. Johnston suggesting trying kvass with apples once the season begins this summer.

Sauerkraut and kimchi

Sebastopol artist Dominic Padua, who sells his Dom Chi line of fermented products at his shop in Sebastopol (Dom Chi Designs at 1382 Gravenstein Highway South) grew up as a military brat, eating lots of sauerkraut in Germany and kimchi in South Korea.

After working at Laguna Farms in Sebastopol, he started selling his own vegetables. He then developed his own line of fermented foods, Dom Chi Ferments, based on the sour, sweet and spicy flavors of his childhood.

“The word ferment comes from fervor — to boil,” he said. “The little bubbles are a slow cook. We’re trying to slow it down by using salt and time.”

In its simplest form, sauerkraut is made from the cheap but nutritious green cabbage, which is dry salted. The salt draws all the liquid out of the cabbage, pickling it and loosening it up.

“It’s called lacto-ferment, because the salt inhibits the growth of a lot of bacteria, but the lactobacillus can live and tolerate salt. It helps break down the vegetables slowly.”

The lactobacillus are naturally occurring in the cabbage itself. To inhibit bad bacteria from colonizing the cabbage, you put it in a jar and keep it under the liquid.

For his hands-on sauerkraut demonstration, Padua used a large German mandoline to slice the cabbage for the kraut.

“The smaller you cut it, the quicker it ferments,” he said. “You want it thin but not too thin. That’s how the cabbage keeps its crunch.”

Then he added the salt and massaged the cabbage gently for about five minutes, until it released its juices. Next Padua added lemon juice, fermented garlic and ginger to the cabbage, then let it ferment for a week, burping it every day. He stores it in the fridge.

“Some people like it crunchy, some like it soft, some like dill, others like turmeric,” he said. “The Chinese were the first fermenters … they taught the Europeans to make sauerkraut to avoid scurvy on ships.”

For his kimchi, Padua cuts up Napa cabbage and salts it overnight, then washes it several times before seasoning it with garlic, ginger, green onion and Korean dried red pepper.

“A cabbage that sits through a frost gets sweetened, so October is a good time to make kimchi or sauerkraut,” he said. “The spring crop has more water.”

In the end, every variation in your fermenting method is going to change the flavor of the end product, from how long it sits on the kitchen counter to how many times you burp it.

You just need to taste it along the way and decide when you like the flavor the best, Padua said.

No matter what, you’ll end up with something far fresher and more nutritious than that soggy sauerkraut from a jar.

“It’s fresh, and it’s aged without any preservatives and really enhances the nutritional value,” he said. “This was once a survival food, and now, it is essential to being alive.”

The following recipe is from Adam Johnston, president of Biotic Beverages of Petaluma.

Beet Kvass

Makes 1 pint

2 organic beets

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

13 ounces water

Sanitize or wash your pint Mason jar with lid.

Wash the beets and trim top and bottom. Slice the beets into cubes about 1/2-inch thick and add to jar.

Add the salt to the beets. Fill the jar with water 1 inch from the top. Put on the lid. Shake to dissolve salt.

Let the beets ferment at room temperature (out of sunlight) for four to seven days, burping the jar daily (unscrewing the cap to release gases) and tasting it daily.

When it has developed the flavor you want, strain and refrigerate. A two-ounce dose a day is recommended.

The following two recipes are from Dominic Padua of Dom Chi Ferments. For small-batch sauerkraut and kimchi fermentation in Mason jars, you can purchase silicon, self-airlocking lids at Target and Walmart. Padua named his sauerkraut after his son, Caspian, and also after Captain James Cook, who helped prevent scurvy by serving his crew sauerkraut.

Capt. Caspian’s Sauerkraut

Makes 14 pints

5 pounds of cabbage,

3 tablespoons (45 grams) sea salt

2 lemons juiced

4-5 gloves garlic, smashed or minced

1 knuckle ginger, grated

Sanitize or wash your Mason jars and lids.

Wash the cabbage and discard outer leaves. Cut the cabbage into quarters and remove the core. Cut the quartered wedges in half and run the cabbage through a shredder in your food processor or shred by hand, thin but not too thin.

Place shredded cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Knead the cabbage with the salt with your hands for 3 to 5 minutes, until the cabbage releases its juices. Add lemon juice and set aside.

Peel and grate ginger and smash or mince the garlic Add all the ingredients to the bowl and combine well.

Stuff the sauerkraut into jars (1 pint or 1 quart) to ferment, pushing down with a fork so that the liquid covers the cabbage and there is an inch of air left at the top. Add more water if you need to cover the cabbage. Use a pickle weight to submerge it. Leave it at room temperature away from sunlight.

After one day, press it down again, and burp it every day (opening the lid to release gas or squeezing the silicon lid) for a week. Then place in the fridge. It can be eaten immediately but improves with age.

Dom Chi’s White Tiger Kimchi

Makes 4-5 quarts

1-2 heads of Napa cabbage (about 3 pounds)

1/4 cup sea salt

1 cup daikon radish, cut into matchsticks

1 cup carrot, cut into matchsticks

4-5 green onions, chopped

1/4 cup minced garlic

1 teaspoon ginger

1 cup Korean red pepper flakes

Sanitize or wash your Mason jars and lids

Cut cabbage in half from bottom, sprinkle salt evenly in between the leaves of cabbage, and leave in bowl to rest for one hour, turning every 15 minutes. (Adding weigh on top of cabbage helps expedite process.)

While cabbage begins to “soften”, cut the rest of the ingredients and mix together in a separate bowl.

Rinse cabbage thoroughly. If you would like to cut cabbage at this point, you can, or you can leave it halved for fermentation.

Season cabbage with the mixture of vegetables and spices in between each leaf, or season it thoroughly if you have already chopped your cabbage.

Pack the cabbage into pint or quart Maxon jars with a fork, pushing the cabbage below the liquid. Use a pickle weight to submerge it, and put on a regular lid or a silicone airlock lid.

Let ferment for three days at room temperature, burping it every day by unscrewing lid or squeezing silicon lid. Refrigerate and enjoy.

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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