From kefir to sauerkraut
by Mollie Doyle
It wasn’t until I made kefir for the first time that I realized I had been brainwashed. I stood at my counter staring at a half cup of milk with kefir grains soaking in it. Could I really drink milk that had been sitting out on the counter for 24 hours in 72 degrees? I smelled it. A yogurty fragrance. I strained the grains out. They looked like part of a brain or water-logged bits of cauliflower. I poured the kefir into a glass and thought about this white fermented liquid moving down my throat. I am not one who compulsively washes my hands or fruit or even peels her carrots. I like moldy cheese. But somehow, with this homemade drink, I’d hit my bacterial threshold. I just couldn’t drink it. I poured my first batch of kefir down the drain.
Fortunately, Michael Pollan has an explanation for this. In his foreword to Sandor Ellix Katz’s book The Art of Fermentation, he writes, “We are living in the Age of Purell. And yet biologists have come to appreciate that the war on bacteria is not only futile—the bacteria, which can out-evolve us, will always win—but counterproductive…In the war on bacteria, Katz is a confirmed pacifist…A Post- Pasteurian, he would have us renegotiate the terms of our relationship with the microcosmos.” In other words, the marketers and advertisers for every antibacterial soap company had gotten to me. But Pollan and Katz, the widely acknowledged Godfather of fermentation, and many others believe that we need to get bacteria back in our food and our guts.
Humans from all cultures have been using the fermenting process in a variety of ways for thousands of years. Originally, fermentation was developed as a way to preserve raw food for future use, but cultures around the world soon began using it to make certain foods more digestible— think soybeans, which are essentially indigestible without fermentation. Fermentation was also a natural way to add flavors to our diets—kimchi, sauerkraut, pickled onions, pickles.
But beyond adding flavor and preserving food, the bottom line is that eating fermented food is good for our health. When I talked to nutritionist Stefanie Bryn Sacks she told me, “Even though fermented foods such as vinegar, pickles and yogurt are acidic, they actually help balance the gut and make your digestive system more alkaline. If our gut – the digestive system – is too acidic it becomes inflamed and cannot digest food or absorb the nutrients as well. This kind of inflammation can lead to disease.Foods that we commonly eat: red meat, dairy, eggs, and grains are acid producing, so it is essential that we eat other foods to balance that out. Whole foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and nuts do this. But fermented foods are another great way to introduce healthy bacteria and balance the digestive system. It’s good to eat a variety of things as each fermented food and whole food brings a different group of beneficial bacteria.”
Island Chiropractor Dardanella Slavin agrees and explained, “A little goes a long way. Most fermented foods like sauerkraut are condiments. You don’t eat a bowl of it. You eat a little—maybe with a Mermaid Farm hotdog.” Dardy added that if clients or kids don’t like the taste, they can “just add a spoonful of the sauerkraut juice to some chicken broth. While this is a small amount of probiotics, it makes a big difference.”
When I told Dardy about my kefir experience, she laughed and said, “It’s not for everyone. Some people can’t handle dairy. Don’t worry. When I serve kefir to my kids, I add some fresh fruit and a little Stevia [a natural sweetener] so they’ll eat it.” Her sons, Quinlan and Corrick, are six and two and a half.They also eat kimchi. If they can do it, then so can I.
But the more I read on the subject, the more intimidated I became. A popular food fermentation site, foodrenegade. com, has guidelines for sauerkraut that lists things to look for that mean your ferment is unsafe. They include: “a creamy film, yeasty odor, pink cabbage, browned cabbage, mold, slime.” The site also says, “Small amounts of white sludge on the bottom are ok, but not if it is coupled with slime.” And “White film is safe.” But I wondered, “What is the difference between a creamy film and a white film?” I read theU.S. Department of Agriculture’s material on fermented foods and found that there has never been one documented case of food poisoning from fermented foods. Amazing! But still, I was worried about the slime. So I called my friend Alysse Fischer, a self-described “Kimchi Fermenting Fool,” who has “never had slime,” for help.
Alysse arrived and moments later we were chopping piles of daikon radish, carrots, cabbage, jalapeño, onion, garlic,and broccoli for my first batch of kimchi. Once everything was chopped, we massaged four tablespoons of salt into the cabbage, daikon, and carrots until a few cups of juice were released—about seven minutes. We added the remaining vegetables, turned it around a few times with our hands, smashed it into a half-gallon Ball jar, screwed on a top, and that was it. Alysse’s directions were: “Open the jar every day to release the gas. If you wait more than 24 hours, it may explode. Taste it. Then push it down to get the juice to cover everything and put the cap back on. After about four days, you’ll have kimchi. Refrigerate once you like the taste to stop the fermentation.” Four days later, I had totally delicious, slime-free kimchi. And I’ve been having a little every day, along with other more basic, store-bought fermented foods such as yogurt.
Stefanie Bryn Sacks told me,“I don’t make a huge effort to include fermented foods into my diet because they are just there. I eat yogurt, use cider vinegar and other vinegars in my salad dressings, and love pickles. So, while fun and relatively easy to do, people don’t need to run out and start making their own kimchi or sauerkraut to reap the benefits.”