Fermented foods have been important in the past as a way to preserve ones garden produce, meat, and even milk since there was no refrigeration. Today's diets don't incorporate fermented foods often, which is a shame they are tasty and very healthy.
Fermentation for most people brings to mind beer or wine, certain yeasts convert the sugars in the grape juice or grains into the fermented product, alcohol. With lacto-fermentation it's bacteria that is responsible for the process. The “lacto” term refers to a specific species of bacteria, called Lactobacillus. You may be familiar with "Lactobacillus acidophilus" which is commonly used in the process of making yogurt. The Lactobacillus strain of bacteria converts the sugar in the substance, to lactic acid.
Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful, bacteria. This allowed people to preserve foods for extended periods of time. Lactic acid also promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract. That is why lacto-fermented foods are considered probiotic foods.
Beyond preservation advantages, lacto-fermentation also increases the vitamin and enzyme levels, as well as digestibility, of the fermented food. In addition, lactobacillus organisms produce antibiotic and anti- carcinogenic substances that may contribute to good health. That is another reason to have an abundant amount of lactobacilli residing in your intestinal tract.
The diets of every traditional society have included some kind of lacto-fermentated food. In Europe they have been primarily dairy, sauerkraut, grape leaves, herbs, and root vegetables. the Alaskan Inuit, ferment fish and sea mammals. The orient is known for pickled vegetables and kimchi in particular.
Here in America pickles and relishes are part of our food tradition. But the kind of pickles and sauerkraut that can be purchased in most grocery stores today are not at all the same products our ancestors knew. Most pickling is done with vinegar, which offers more predictable results, but no lactic acid. However, with just a little patience, instruction, and minimal supplies, it's possible to learn the time-honored art of lacto-fermentation.
How It Works
Lacto-fermentation really is more art than science. The science part is simple: lactobacillus (from a prepared culture, fresh whey, or just naturally occurring) plus sugar (naturally present in vegetables and fruits), plus a little salt, minus oxygen (anaerobic process), plus time, equals lactic acid fermentation.
The length of fermentation can vary from a few hours to two months or more. The ideal temperature is around 72°F, but warmer or cooler temperature will still work. (Some strains of bacteria require specific temperature ranges.) The length of time is dependent more on the flavor you prefer than anything else and since the flavor level of lacto-fermented vegetables increases with time you will want to sample often until you are experienced enough to know what works for your tastes. You don’t want to introduce a lot of oxygen to the fermentation process as this increases the chance of spoilage. Lacto-fermentation is generally done in an airtight container or a crock with a water seal that prevents air from contaminating the culture. If you have a reliable recipe to follow, you can make minor adjustments as you see fit.
The important thing is not to be intimidated by lacto-fermentation. You are not going to make your family sick by giving them home-fermented foods. Unless it smells unmistakably putrid (in which case common sense says throw it away), fermented foods are some of the safest foods you can eat. They are easy for even a beginner to prepare and it doesn’t take long to gain enough confidence to venture beyond basic yogurt or sauerkraut to an endless variety of vegetable and/or fruit combinations.