BY IMKE AHLF-WIEN

Ferments by Shelli Widmer
Shelli Widmer’s interest in gut health led her to lacto fermentation; the Hyattsville resident started making her own ferments last year.
Courtesy of Shelli Widmer

 

February is the month when even hard-core farmers market enthusiasts can get impatient. At markets that are still open, you may still find apples or potatoes from storage or cucumbers and tomatoes from greenhouses. But it will take another two to three months for the bright green leaves of spring lettuces to emerge from the ground, or the first tender stalks of asparagus to peek through the earth.

Have you ever wondered what people ate in winter before the arrival of refrigeration and shelf-stable products, even before canning became a thing? Last year, I wrote about root cellars — spaces that made it possible to store root vegetables like potatoes and carrots during the colder months. What you could also find in an old-fashioned root cellar was a pickle jar or, in my home country of Germany, a crock of lacto-fermented sauerkraut or cucumbers.

Lacto fermentation has been used to preserve food for thousands of years. In this process, the bacteria that are naturally present on the surface of all fruits and vegetables start producing lactic acid, “which inhibits harmful bacteria and acts as a preservative [and] gives fermented food its characteristic sour flavor,” according to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Extension (UIUC) website.

In his book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-culture Foods, Sandor Ellis Katz explains that “the process of [lacto] fermentation makes food more digestible and nutritious.” Unheated fermented food has increased levels of vitamins A and C, as well as several B vitamins, and carries beneficial bacteria into our digestive tract, where they aid digestion, according to the UIUC. 

Many cultures around the globe use lacto fermentation to preserve vegetables — and often the humble cabbage becomes the shining star: Think of sauerkraut from Europe, kimchi from Korea, or curtido from Central America. 

I tapped into my vast Hyattsville networks to find someone who shared my passion for home lacto fermentation, and I was lucky. I met fellow fermentista Shelli Widmer at Vigilante in January and questioned her about her fermenting endeavors. 

Widmer, who spent her childhood summers with her grandparents in Mexico, has lived in Hyattsville for 10 years; her interest in gut health led her to lacto fermentation. After listening to an interview with microbiologist Kaitlynn Fenley on the podcast “Homegrown,” Widmer started making her own ferments last summer, and has experimented with smaller and larger batches of different varieties of sauerkraut, including one with roasted jalapeños. She said that she was surprised by how easy lacto fermentation is; however, Widmer described how, once, when opening the jar to let the gasses out, she realized she’d waited a little too long — and the content spattered all over her. (Find Fenley’s easy-to-follow recipes at cultured.guru.)

If you don’t feel inclined to make your own, there are several options for buying Maryland-made lacto-fermented vegetables. DC Dills (dcdills.com), based in Sykesville, offers vinegar-brined pickles, as well as lacto-fermented cucumbers and krauts made from local ingredients. Their products can be found at several D.C. and Maryland farmers markets year-round and shipped to Prince George’s County. 

Oksana Bocharova from Oksana’s Produce (oksanasproduce.com), in Chestertown, makes a variety of fermented veggies grown on her organic farm or on neighboring farms. She also ferments mushrooms obtained from King Mushrooms (kingmushroomfarm.com) in Marydel. Bocharova ships to Prince George’s County — plus, she offers fermentation and cooking classes.

Finally, the Baltimore-based, award-winning company HEX Ferments (hexferments.com) makes traditional krauts and kimchi, as well as kombucha. You can find their products at several area grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Mom’s Organic Market, or order directly from their website.

Simple Sauerkraut (makes 1 quart)

This is a basic recipe for making lacto-fermented vegetables at home, and it’s surprisingly easy. All you need is a wide-mouth, quart-size Mason jar and a pounder to pound the cabbage. The variations are endless. You could add carrots, onions, garlic and oregano for a simple version of curtido — or use red cabbage for more color. I’ve also had success adding a finely chopped apple or a finely shredded fennel bulb.

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium cabbage (preferably organic), cored and shredded
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt

Directions:

In a large bowl, mix cabbage with caraway seeds and sea salt. Pound with a wooden pounder or meat tenderizer for about 10 minutes to release juices. (You can then use your hands to further squeeze out the juices.) Pour all contents in a wide-mount, quart-size Mason jar, and press down firmly with the pounder until juices come to top of the cabbage. The top of the cabbage should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar. You can add a glass weight, or dunker, to keep the cabbage submerged. Cover tightly, and keep at room temperature for about three days before transferring to the refrigerator. The sauerkraut may be eaten immediately afterwards, but it improves with age.

Recipe adapted from Sally Fallon and Mary Enig’s Nourishing Traditions, 1999.

 

Imke Ahlf-Wien is a nutrition educator with a passion for fresh, locally procured foods.