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Fermentation and Curing


We live in a world pretty intensely at war with bacteria: antibacterial hand soap, sterilizing hand gels, disinfectant cleaners, antibacterial wipes, sterilized packaging, etc., etc. It seems that we're all trying very hard to create living environments ala hospital operating room. The interesting thing is that bacteria are much like many other groups of species in the natural world (like insects and mushrooms): there are a few truly pathogenic, problematic critters, lots of pretty benign things, and lots of extremely beneficial ones. In fact, it is estimated that 75-95% of our immune system resides in our gut in the form of beneficial gut bacteria. Without our body's population of approximately 100 trillion bacteria we couldn't digest most of our food or protect ourselves from most diseases or illnesses. Truly, when we wage war against all bacteria, we wage war against ourselves. In nature, a healthy ecosystem is maintained by balance, and disease is an indication of imbalance. The same holds true for our own personal world of micro flora and fauna.

In light of that, we must understand that the bacteria that cause spoilage in our foods are not enemies: they perform a very vital function in our world. Without their help we'd be wallowing around in a world of undecomposed produce, leaf litter, trees, animals, etc. Unfortunately, their dedicated efforts can be frustrating if you are trying to delay the return of your lettuce to dirt, and some of those same bacteria can also be very harmful if you happen to ingest them rather than leaving them to safely do their jobs in the dirt.

Most of the bacteria that specialize in spoilage thrive in oxygenated, low sodium, non-acidic environments. There are many bacteria, however, that thrive in exactly the opposite environments, environments that inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria, and act to predigest tough plant fibers and increase the vitamin content in food. They happen to be the same sorts of bacteria that already inhabit a healthy gut. Partnering with these beneficial bacteria to preserve foods renders the food highly digestible and more nutritious than it was before. Fermentation and curing, the processes whereby salt and beneficial bacteria are allowed to acidify and preserve food, are not hard and have been practiced for millennia by cultures the world over. Many of the quintessential cultural foods we know of are fermented in some way. Foods we are familiar with that have undergone this symbiotic process include saurkraut, kimchi, yogurt, cheese, salami, prosciutto (cured ham), pickles, olives, pickled peppers, ginger ale, vinegar, kefir, sour cream, cream cheese, kombucha, sourdough bread, etc. Fermentation is an effective preservation method for almost all vegetables and most meats and dairy products. It is not a good option for most fruits unless your end product goal is alcohol or vinegar. This is because the byproduct of the first generation of bacteria to ferment high sugar products is alcohol. Once those bacteria have exhausted their sugar supply, they die off. If left open to air, a second generation of bacteria begins to flourish in the alcohol. These bacteria consume alcohol and produce acetic acid, also known as vinegar. Vinegar is stable and won't readily ferment into something else.

You will notice that most ferments call for some sort of salt, be that in a dry rub or a brine, and its importance and operation are quite profound. Salt itself is absolutely essential for our bodies: "Without the mineral sodium chloride, our muscles would cease to function, our organs would starve. Because our body doesn't produce it and because we need it to survive, humans developed a distinct sense for salt, and our bodies are highly attuned to the need for salt" (Ruhlman and Polcyn, Charcuterie, p. 30). In ferments, the same kind of fluid exchange that salt permits in our bodies happens at the cellular level in the vegetables or meat. "Attracted by sodium's ions, water rushes out of the cells to join them. Equilibrium is always sought, so there is a continual back-and-forth movement across the membrane as the concentrations shift and salt in solution enters the cells of the meat (bringing some flavoring) and returns to the brine or cure (along with blood). The ionic charges also change the shape of the proteins, loosening them and allowing them to contain more moisture. By pulling water out of the meat, salt, by definition, dehydrates it. When it enters the cells of the meat, it also dehydrates the microbes that cause decay and spoilage and other potentially hazardous bacteria, either killing them or inhibiting their ability to multiply. This is salt's main preservative mechanism€”dehydrating microbes. A secondary preservative effect is that it reduces the amount of water in the meat, which microbes need in order to thrive" (Ruhlman and Polcyn, Charcuterie, p. 32). This action happens whether it is meat, egg, cheese curd, or vegetable that is salted. One important thing to note is that salt in certain concentrations inhibits the growth of pathogenic bacteria while allowing for the growth of beneficial lactic-acid forming bacteria. Above that concentration, all bacterial action ceases: beneficial and pathogenic. So there is a balance to maintain if it is desirous to encourage some bacterial activity. Use salts that are either pure, high-quality sea salts or pure sodium chloride. Do not use commercially iodized salt.

As a note of interest, botulism, that most dreaded of all food-borne illnesses, comes from toxins secreted by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which is a very common soil bacteria. Botulism poisoning itself, however, was a very rare illness until the advent of canning, when cases skyrocketed. C. botulinum as well as other dreaded pathogens including Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Listeria, and Clostridium cannot survive in plant foods acidified by fermentation. "In a ferment, even in the case of contamination of the raw ingredients, the contaminating bacteria would have to struggle for survival in the presence of a stable community of acidifying bacteria specially adapted to the specific rich nutritive environment, and secreting acids and other protective compounds" (Sandor Katz, The Art of Fermentation, p. 19). This actually makes fermented vegetables arguably more safe than raw vegetables and certainly more safe than canned vegetables. Prior to the advent of canning, botulism was only a problem in improperly prepared dry-cured sausages, which is why nitrate, traditionally saltpeter, is used in the production of these products since it inhibits the growth of C. botulinum. Properly preserved sausages are perfectly safe to eat and are a foundational preserved meat for many cultures. In fact, when Marc Buzzio had to prove to the USDA that his traditionally prepared, raw sausages were safe, he hired a scientist frequently consulted by the agency to test his sausage-making process. "The scientist followed Salumeria Biellese's process to the letter, with one exception: He injected each product with pure E. coli and L. monocytogenes, producing much higher levels of bacteria than would normally be found in raw meat. Then he aged the products in the same way that they are aged at the salumeria. When the scientist tested the meats at the end of the aging period, he found that the very high levels of bacteria had been eliminated. Essentially, his study validated what centuries of practice had already demonstrated--that dry aging, when done knowledgably and with care, makes raw meat safe to eat" (Sarah diGregoria, "The Salami Maker Who Fought the Law," Gastronomica 7(4), p. 57 (2007)). When you decide to try your hand at meat preservation, start with jerky, move on to salted hams, then try thin sausages that cure more quickly, and, lastly, experiment with thicker salamis. This will allow you to develop the sense for proper curing needed to create safe, mouthwatering sausage. The farthest we've gotten ourselves is jerky and ham. We have all of the ingredients to do the others, including a fabulous sausage stuffer, we just haven't done it yet. I can say that the jerky and ham are fantastic!

Pickles Katz, Wild Fermentation, p. 50-52

Ingredients:

  • 3-4lbs un-waxed cucumbers (small to medium size)

  • 6 Tablespoons sea salt

  • 3-4 heads fresh flowering dill, or 3-4 T dry dill

  • 2-3 heads garlic, peeled

  • 1 handful fresh grape, cherry, oak and/or horseradish leaves

  • 1 pinch black peppercorns

Directions:

  • Rinse cucumbers

  • Dissolve sea salt in ½ gallon of water. Stir until salt is thoroughly dissolved.

  • Place all ingredients in your fermenting container with the cucumbers on top.

  • Pour brine over the cucumbers, place a clean plate over the cucumbers and weight it down with a water-filled jug. Add more brine until it covers the plate.

  • Cover the container with a cloth and store in a cool place.

  • Check the crock every day. Skim any mold from the surface. If there is mold, rinse the plate and weight. Taste the pickles after a few days.

  • Continue to check the crock every day.

  • After 1 to 4 weeks the pickles will be fully sour. Continue to enjoy them, moving them to the fridge to slow down fermentation.

Sauerkraut Katz, Wild Fermentation, p. 41-42

Ingredients:

  • 5 lbs cabbage

  • 3 T sea salt

Directions:

  • Chop or grate cabbage and place in a large bowl.

  • Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. 3 tablespoons is a rough guide: use more in summer, less in winter.

  • Add other vegetables if you like.

  • Mix all ingredients together and pack into crock. Add cabbage slowly tamping it as you go to pack it in tightly.

  • Cover the kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock. Place a clean weight on the cover. Cover the crock with a cloth.

  • Press down on the weight periodically to help force water out until the brine rises above the cover. This can take up to about 24 hours. Some cabbage contains less water and so will not generate enough brine. If the brine does not rise above the plate level by the next day, add enough salt water to bring the brine level above the plate. Add about 1 T salt to 1 C water to make a brine.

  • Leave the crock to ferment.

  • Check it every few days to make sure the brine still covers the kraut. It will start being tangy after a few days and will continue improving over time (for months in the winter, more quickly in the summer). Eventually it becomes soft and the flavor less pleasant.

  • Enjoy eating the sauerkraut throughout its life as it develops its full flavor.

Salted Air-Dried Ham Ruhlman and Polcyn, Charcuterie, p. 197-198

Ingredients:

  • Salt

  • One 12-15lb fresh ham, skin on, aitch-bone removed

  • ½ C Lard

  • Black pepper

  • Cheesecloth

Directions:

  • Rub salt heavily all over the ham, especially on the exposed flesh and around the femur bone.

  • Place skin side down in a nonreactive roasting pan or plastic tub, cover with plastic wrap, and place another pan on top. Weight the ham with about 10lbs. Refrigerate for 1 day for each pound, checking every couple of days to make sure all areas are still covered in salt. Pour off any excess water and add more salt if needed. Avoid touching the ham with your bare hands.

  • On the last day of curing, the ham should feel firm and dense to the touch, and weigh 15% less than when it started. If it doesn't, re-salt and cure for several days longer.

  • When cured, wipe the remaining salt off the ham and rinse under cool water. Pat dry with paper towels. Spread lard over the exposed meat and pack the cracked pepper onto the lard. Wrap the ham in four layers of cheesecloth and tie with butcher's string.

  • Hang the ham in a cool, dry place with good ventilation (60° with 60-70% RH) for at least 4-5 months, or as long as a year. The ham should lose almost half of its original weight. It is ready when there is not much give when you squeeze it.

  • When the ham has dried, wipe off all the lard and carefully remove the rind with a sharp boning knife. Slice the meat paper-thin, parallel to the bone with a sharp slicing knife.

Apple Cider Vinegar Katz, Wild Fermentation, p. 127, 153-154

"Since the beginning of time mankind has sought the magic elixir which bubbles from the fabled 'Fountain of Youth.' For most of us, apple cider vinegar may be as close as we'll ever come to such a universal remedy" (Emily Thacker, The vinegar Book, p. 2). Apple cider vinegar has been shown effective in aiding the treatment of or preventing arthritis, osteoporosis, and cancer. It has also been shown to kill infections, soothe itches, burns, and sunburns, aide digestion, control weight and preserve memory.

Ingredients:

  • 1 gallon apple cider (without any preservatives added)

Directions:

  • Leave the cider out at room temperature. Cover with a cloth. After about one week it will be hard apple cider.

  • Leave the cider on the counter for several more weeks and it will become apple cider vinegar.

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