At this point in the pandemic, many of us have a better handle on the difference between bacterial growth and viral spread than we did last summer. Coverage of the novel coronavirus and its worldwide propagation rightly consumes my news feed. But as I stood in my kitchen, staring down the fourth green cabbage to arrive in my CSA share in three weeks, I pivoted to making good bacterial growth work in my favor.

I’ve fermented herbs in salt the past couple autumns. But I’ve only lacto-fermented cabbage into sauerkraut once, about 10 years ago, as part of a collective internet cooking challenge. That fermentation exploration involved the unfinished part of my basement, a makeshift crock fashioned from a family heirloom vase and the bottom of a tagine from Algiers, and so much fear about what (unhealthy bacteria) may have also multiplied that I did not serve the finished product to my family until I had ingested it as a control group of one. I did not get sick. But I was nonplussed by the culinary results and didn’t pursue the process further.

That’s not to say that I’ve not eaten my fair share of lacto-fermented foods. It’s much more appetizing to me to eat a couple dollops of 30 Acre Farm’s Ruby Kraut or Gracie’s Gardens Django’s Ginger Carrots any day than to pop a couple probiotic capsules to spur on good gut health.

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige seals the jar with a fermenting cap fitted with an airlock. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The “lacto” in this natural food preservation technique refers to lactic acid at play. All fruits and vegetables have naturally occurring beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus on their surfaces. In an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment where water and salt (and optional spices) are the only other elements added to the vegetables, these bacteria convert sugars into lactic acid, which inhibits harmful bacteria growth, acts as a preservative and gives fermented foods their characteristic tang. That’s if you set up the process the right way.

Staring down the cabbage, a head of cauliflower too small to satisfy my family for dinner, and a handful of very spicy radishes that could do with some taming, I’m giving small batch lacto fermentation another go. I own a variety of wide-mouthed mason jars, and an internet search turned up a plethora of lid options to help me turn the bottom shelf in my pantry (the temperature which hovers in the fermentation comfort zone – 60 to 75 degrees) into a lacto-fermentation playground.

After reading countless reviews, I settled on testing three of these products: an all-stainless steel gizmo from Kraut Source that makes a mason jar resemble a cocktail shaker; Jillmo Fermenters, a mad-scientist-looking setup with a water chamber shooting out of the top of jar; and MasonLock plastic and silicone lids from Eden Farmhouse Essentials that allow me to pull the air out of the jar with a hand pump. I purchased the first from The Modern Pantry in Berwick and the other two from Amazon.

I make no claims about this test holding up to apples-to-apples product comparison because I fermented different vegetables, in varying sizes of jars, using a mix of spice blends. But the directions that come with each product agreed on the same basic set of facts about fermenting. They directed me to use distilled or boiled water to avoid possible additives in town tap water that could alter the good bacteria; to add the similar amounts of natural sea salt to the water (roughly 1 teaspoon to 1 cup) in order to make the brine; to cut the vegetables in similar sizes so they ferment uniformly; to keep the vegetables submerged under the brine; and to hold them at the right temperature for 3-10 days, testing them along the way for personal taste.

If I had to pick one of the three, I’d go with the MasonLock jars because they are less fiddly and fit better in my cabinet. But that says more about my need for order than it does about the efficacy of these products. The results from all three were crispy, crunchy, flavorful – and now sitting in the fridge where they will keep for months.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, a recipe developer and tester and a cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at: [email protected]

Rudalevige pours a salt water brine over vegetables to make lacto-fermented pickles, making sure they are submerged in the liquid. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Easy Fermented Mixed Pickles
As I am not a master fermenter, I can only recommend using this recipe to make 1 quart of lacto-fermented pickles using one of the dozens of fermenting toppers on the market today. I add tea leaves to my ferments, as their high tannins help keep the vegetables crunchy over time.

Makes 1 quart

1 tablespoon sea salt
3 cups similarly chopped vegetables (cauliflower, carrots, green beans, red bell peppers, radishes, cucumbers)
2 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
1 bay leaf
½ teaspoon coriander seeds
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns
3-4 juniper berries
1 teaspoon tea leaves
¼ teaspoon red chili flakes (optional)

Combine the salt with 3 cups of room-temperature water in a measuring cup and stir until the salt is dissolved.

Tightly pack the vegetables into a clean, quart-sized mason jar. Add the spices. Pour the salt water over the vegetables, making sure that all the vegetables are covered with water and leave about an inch of headspace at the top of the jar.

Cover the jar with your preferred fermenting cap fitted with an airlock. Store the jar in a place where the temperature will stay between 60 and 75 degrees. Let the pickles sit for three days. Remove the lid to taste. If they are to your liking, place them in the refrigerator to halt the fermenting process. If they are not yet flavorful enough, reaffix the airlock lid and ferment another one to five days until they are to your taste before refrigerating them.


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