BAR HARBOR— Harvest time brings a bounty of vegetables.
While some people preserve them in jars or in the freezer, others rely on the ancient art of fermentation not only to preserve the vegetables, but also to aid in their overall health.
“We all have some every morning,” said Jennifer Morgan-Binns, whose family also includes her 7-year-old daughter and husband. “We’re really healthy. I think a big part of it is our diet.”
In the early 2000s, Sheila Eddison, who founded A Stones Throw to Health, and her husband made a conscious shift in their diet that began with making their own bread. After her daughter studied natural health through nutrition, her advice was to shift to fermentation.
“She said, ‘get out your silver bowls and start chopping,’” said Eddison who got her commercial food license in 2012. “I felt like I was behind the wave, but the more I got out there, (I realized) I was ahead of it.”
Fermented foods have become extremely popular as more information regarding the positive role probiotics play in human health is discovered. When vegetables or fruits are fermented, lactobacillic acid is created. This is considered a healthy, or friendly, bacteria that can help break down food, improve absorption of vitamins and minerals, and help fight off unhealthy organisms that can cause disease. There have also been recent links to improved mental health with improved gut health.
“What we know about cabbage, when it’s fermented, the vitamin C triples,” said Eddison, who considers every sale of her product an opportunity to teach more people about the benefits of fermented foods. “Eighty percent of your immune system is in your gut. Inflammation is the root of all disease and this is the way to tackle it. Changing the pH in your system helps you crave sugar less.”
Adopting the Weston A. Price diet was what brought fermented foods to Morgan-Binns’s plate. Learning more about the connection of mental health to gut health was also important for her work as a licensed therapist.
Price was a dentist who found that communities around the world with the healthiest people were those that relied on food from animals and vegetables instead of processed foods. These communities also typically had some traditional fermented food as part of their diet.
“This is really fascinating and must be important,” Morgan-Binns remembered thinking before she began making variations of sauerkraut, such as kimchi, curtido, sukuso and chilero. “I like trying sauerkrauts from different cultures.”
Her daughter is a fan of sukuso, a Japanese sauerkraut that has a mild flavor.
“I personally like the more pungent,” she said, explaining that some are spicy, while others have a stronger sour flavor. “The curtido gets pink; that’s fun. The chilero is fun because it’s bright with carrots. It’s the main way of getting probiotics in our systems.”
Methods of preparing fermented foods can vary, similar to many natural arts like beekeeping, gardening and making cheese. There are many routes to success using the same basic information and ingredients.
“For me, it’s the love of doing it and playing with food,” said Eddison, who makes krauts as well as ‘pickled’ vegetables. “It created for me a love of cabbage I really never had… It’s really about magic and science.”
It’s also about, most importantly, salt. Salt is what draws the liquid out of the vegetables or fruit and with it the sugars that begin the fermentation process.
“Make sure you are using good salt; don’t use iodized salt,” said Eddison who orders in bulk from Maine Sea Salt. “I massage the cabbage blend to thoroughly incorporate the added sea salt. Sometimes I call this part my ‘yoga off the mat.’ It can be a very contemplative time.
“The idea is to be sure that there’s even distribution as this engages the release of liquid from the cabbage, creating a salty brine to allow the magic of fermentation to begin.”
Morgan-Binns doesn’t massage the salt into her cabbage; instead, she mixes it thoroughly and lets it sit long enough for the salt to begin drawing out the liquid. Both ladies tamp down (this is typically done with a flat-ended wooden tool) their product when putting it into the fermentation vessel. These vessels can also vary. Some people use ceramic crocks and others use glass jars. Often the chosen vessel depends on the size of the batch being made.
When producing fermented ‘pickled’ vegetables, Edison will pack them in jars and then add a salt-water brine, often including a bit of brine from a previous batch. As these ferment, pressure can build in the jars. Every 10 days or so, she will unscrew the tops to release that pressure.
“The science is wildly perfect,” explains Eddison, who studied with fermenting expert Sandor Katz. With fermenting, even when using the exact same ingredients, the results are rarely identical. “It’s never the same twice. All the spice balances could be exactly the same.”
That is part of what Eddison calls the magic, which is often due to any variety of factors such as the weather, temperature of storage environment, humidity, quality of ingredients and/or length of time a product is left to ferment.
While Morgan-Binns begins eating her batches after a week, Eddison gives hers at least a month before putting them in jars to sell or refrigerate.
“I try not to move things for six weeks,” she said. “The good bacteria improves continually for about 16 weeks and then it levels off.”
In Korea, the tradition of kimchi goes back centuries and is a staple of the cultural diet. Before there was refrigeration, crocks of kimchi were stored underground throughout the winter months where they continued to ferment until eaten. These days, a batch of kimchi may be refrigerated within a week, but traditionally, a batch could go months.
There are several resources available for learning more about fermentation. Don’t feel limited to cabbage when exploring this new frontier, as there is a recipe for nearly every vegetable. Often, what is created is totally up to Mother Nature, as Eddison can attest to with multiple jars of green beans before her.
“You just never know from year to year,” she said about what will be in abundance and available from farms. “That’s why I’m glad I slightly overproduced last year.”
Every other weekend or so, Morgan-Binns is making more of the fermented products she feeds her family.
“I like that I can take something as cheap and accessible as cabbage,” she said about the base ingredient used to keep them in good health. “It’s all cabbage and salt.”