Vegetable Fermentation Further Simplified

Excerpted from The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved

A head of cabbage forgotten on an obscure shelf of your pantry will not spontaneously transform itself into sauerkraut. Vegetables left exposed to air start to grow molds, and if left long enough, those molds can reduce a head of cabbage to a puddle of slime, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to crunchy, delicious, and aromatic sauerkraut.

The simple key to successful vegetable fermentation is to make sure your vegetables are submerged in liquid. That’s it, the big secret. Usually the liquid is salty water, also known as brine, but fermentation can be done without salt, or with other liquids, such as wine or whey. Typically, when fresh vegetables are chopped or grated in preparation for fermentation—which creates greater surface area—salting pulls out the vegetable juices via osmosis, and pounding or tamping the vegetables breaks down cell walls to further release juices, so no additional water is required. However, if the vegetables have lost moisture during long storage, occasionally some water is needed; if brine hasn’t risen to submerge the weighted vegetables by the following day, add a little water. In the case of vegetables left whole (cabbage heads, cucumbers, green tomatoes, string beans, okra, zucchini, eggplant, peppers—try anything), the vegetables should be submerged in brine.

The huge variety of vegetable ferments you can create all exist along the spectrum from shredded and salted to whole and submerged in a brine. Sometimes you use elements of each style, as in kimchi recipes that call for soaking vegetables in a brine to soften them and leach out bitter flavors, then pouring off excess brine and mixing in spices. In some cases the liquid is what we’re after, flavored by the vegetables and fermentation.

Pretty much any vegetable can be fermented. Use what is abundantly available and be bold in your experimentation. Seaweeds are a wonderful addition to ferments, as are fruits, though mostly fruit ferments go through their process very quickly. I’ve even made delicious sauerkraut with mashed potatoes layered in with the salted cabbage, as well as kimchi with sticky rice layers. The sharp fermented starches are delicious. The spicing of vegetable ferments is quite varied, too. Kimchi typically includes red chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and scallions. Sauerkraut might include caraway seeds (my favorite), juniper berries, apples, or cranberries. New York–style sour pickles are spiced with dill, garlic, and sometimes hot peppers. To keep cucumbers crunchy, add to the brine some grape leaves or leaves of horseradish, oak, currant, or cherry.

How much salt do you use? Traditionally vegetables have been fermented with lots of salt. In addition to pulling water from the vegetables, salt hardens pectins in the vegetables, rendering them crunchier, and discourages the growth of bacteria other than lactobacilli. By inhibiting competing bacteria, salt enables the vegetables to ferment and to be stored for longer periods of time. Since preservation has historically been one of the important motivations for fermentation, ferments have tended to be quite salty. But for health-conscious people interested primarily in flavor and nutrition, less salt can be better. Salt lightly, to taste. It is easier to add salt than to take it away, but if you oversalt, you can dilute by adding water and/or more vegetables. There is no magic proportion of salt the process requires—it’s just personal preference. As a starting point, try 3 tablespoons of salt per 5 pound of vegetables. More salt will slow the fermentation process; less (or none) will speed it up. Ferments with less salt may be more prone to surface molds. You can leave out the salt or use various mineral-rich substitutes such as celery juice (my favorite salt-free variation) or seaweed. Just be sure the vegetables are submerged in the liquid.

Some people promote the idea that salt-free sauerkrauts contain more beneficial organisms than salted krauts. I don’t believe that. The most specific beneficial bacteria we’re after, Lactobacillus, is salt-tolerant and abundantly present even in salty krauts; arguably, salt-free ferments are more biodiverse, but this diversity often results in mushy textures. Though it is possible to ferment vegetables without salt, a little salt results in far superior flavor and texture—and just as much beneficial bacteria. So again, salt to taste.

What kind of vessel should you use to hold your ferment? Avoid metal, as salt and the acids created by fermentation will corrode it. Heavy ceramic cylindrical crocks are the ideal fermentation vessels, though they can be hard to find and expensive. Glass containers work well, especially those with a cylindrical shape or with a wide mouth, and so do nesting bowls. Crock pots with ceramic interiors make effective fermentation vessels and can often be found in thrift stores. In a pinch, you can use plastic, but even food-grade plastics leach toxic chemicals.

The reason a cylindrical shape is desirable is for ease of weighting down the fermenting vegetables to keep them submerged rather than floating to the top. I generally use a plate that just fits inside the vessel, weighted down by a full jug of water, and I drape a cloth over the top of the vessel to protect against flies. I call this the “open-crock” method. Containers in other shapes can work with improvisation, or you can manually press the vegetables to submerge them in the liquid.

If the vegetables float to the top and remain exposed to air, they are likely to develop mold. Sometimes, especially in hot weather, your ferment may develop a film of white mold on its surface. This is very common and will not hurt you or the kraut. Scrape off the mold as best you can, don’t worry about particles that mix into the vegetables, and enjoy the delicious ferment beneath. Specially designed Harsch crocks eliminate this problem by creating an oxygen-free airspace around the ferment. These German crocks are elegant but expensive. Another way to avoid mold is by weighting the ferment in the vessel with water contained in a double layer of plastic bags. The water will spread to cover the entire surface, protecting it from aerobic surface molds. The downside of this method, of course, is that your food comes into prolonged contact with plastic, which leaches chemicals into the food. I prefer to use the open-crock method and remove mold as necessary.

Whatever type of vessel you use, pack the vegetables into it with some force (unless they are whole), in order to break down cell walls and release juices. I use a blunt wooden tamping tool. You can improvise with a piece of wood or your fist, or you can manually massage and squeeze the vegetables, as described in the recipe for massaged kale (see page 185). Once the vegetables are weighted down, the salt will continue to pull moisture from the vegetables for many hours yet. If, by the following day, the vegetables are not submerged, add a little water.

How long do you ferment the vegetables? I wish I had an easy answer to this question. “Ferment until ripe,” many recipes advise, but ultimately you will have to decide when it is ripe. Sour flavor—from lactic acid—develops over time. Longer fermentation translates to tangier flavor. This happens more quickly in warm temperatures than in cool ones. If you start your ferment at harvest time, in the autumn, as temperatures are dropping, it can ferment for six months or longer. This is how people survived before refrigeration and globalized food. Many people, however, prefer the flavor of a mild ferment to that of a strongly acidic one. When you are first experimenting, taste your ferments early and often. Serve some after three days, then three days later, and again three days after that. Familiarize yourself with the spectrum of flavors that fermentation can create and see what you like.

Making Sour Pickles

Excerpted from Wild Fermentation

Growing up in New York City, experiencing my Jewish heritage largely through food, I developed a taste for sour pickles. Most of what is sold in stores as pickles, and even what home canners pickle, are preserved in vinegar. My idea of a pickle is one fermented in a brine solution. Pickle-making requires close attention. My first attempt at brine pickle-making resulted in soft, unappealing pickles that fell apart, because I abandoned it for a few days, and perhaps because the brine was not salty enough, and because of the heat of the Tennessee summer. And and and. “Our perfection lies in our imperfection.” There are, inevitably, fermentation failures. We are dealing with fickle life forces, after all.

I persevered though, compelled by a craving deep inside of me for the yummy garlic-dill sour pickles of Guss’s pickle stall on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Zabar’s on the Upper West Side and Bubbie’s in upscale health food stores elsewhere. As it turns out, brine pickles are easy. You just need to give them regular attention in the summer heat, when cucumbers are most abundant.

One quality prized in a good pickle is crunchiness. Fresh tannin-rich grape leaves placed in the crock are effective at keeping pickles crunchy. I recommend using them if you have access to grape vines. I’ve also seen references in various brine pickle recipes to using sour cherry leaves, oak leaves, and horseradish leaves to keep pickles crunchy.

The biggest variables in pickle-making are brine strength, temperature, and cucumber size. I prefer pickles from small and medium cucumbers; pickles from really big ones can be tough and sometimes hollow in the middle. I don’t worry about uniformity of size; I just eat the smaller ones first, figuring the larger ones will take longer to ferment.

The strength of brine varies widely in different traditions and recipe books. Brine strength is most often expressed as weight of salt as a percentage of weight of solution, though sometimes as weight of salt as a percentage of volume of solution. Since in most home kitchens we are generally dealing with volumes rather than weights, the following guideline can help readers gauge brine strength: Added to 1 quart of water, each tablespoon of sea salt (weighing about .6 ounce) adds 1.8% brine. So 2 tablespoons of salt in 1 quart of water yields a 3.6% brine, 3 tablespoons yields 5.4%, and so on. In the metric system, each 15 milliliters of salt (weighing 17 grams) added to 1 liter of water yields 1.8% brine.

Some old-time recipes call for brines with enough salt to float an egg. This translates to about a 10% salt solution. This is enough salt to preserve pickles for quite some time, but they are too salty to consume without a long desalinating soak in fresh water first. Low-salt pickles, around 3.5% brine, are “half-sours” in delicatessen lingo. This recipe is for sour, fairly salty pickles, using around 5.4% brine. Experiment with brine strength. A general rule of thumb to consider in salting your ferments: more salt to slow microorganism action in summer heat; less salt in winter when microbial action slows.

Timeframe: 1-4 weeks

Special Equipment:

  • Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket
  • Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
  • 1-gallon/4-liter jug filled with water, or other weight
  • Cloth cover

Ingredients (for 1 gallon/4 liters):

  • 3 to 4 pounds/1.5 to 2 kilograms unwaxed
  • cucumbers (small to medium size)
  • 3⁄8 cup (6 tablespoons)/90 milliliters sea salt
  • 3 to 4 heads fresh flowering dill, or 3 to 4
  • tablespoons/45 to 60 milliliters of any form of
  • dill (fresh or dried leaf or seeds)
  • 2 to 3 heads garlic, peeled
  • 1 handful fresh grape, cherry, oak, and/or
  • horseradish leaves (if available)
  • 1 pinch black peppercorns

Process:

  1. Rinse cucumbers, taking care to not bruise them, and making sure their blossoms are removed. Scrape off any remains at the blossom end. If you’re using cucumbers that aren’t fresh off the vine that day, soak them for a couple of hours in very cold water to freshen them.
  2. Dissolve sea salt in ½gallon (2 liters) of water to create brine solution. Stir until salt is thoroughly dissolved.
  3. 3. Clean the crock, then place at the bottom of it dill, garlic, fresh grape leaves, and a pinch of black peppercorns.
  4. Place cucumbers in the crock.
  5. Pour brine over the cucumbers,place the (clean) plate over them, then weigh it down with a jug filled with water or a boiled rock. If the brine doesn’t cover the weighed-down plate, add more brine mixed at the same ratio of just under 1 tablespoon of salt to each cup of water.
  6. Cover the crock with a cloth to keep out dust and flies and store it in a cool place.
  7. Check the crock every day. Skim any mold from the surface, but don’t worry if you can’t get it all. If there’s mold, be sure to rinse the plate and weight. Taste the pickles after a few days.
  8. Enjoy the pickles as they continue to ferment. Continue to check the crock every day.
  9. Eventually, after one to four weeks (depending on the temperature), the pickles will be fully sour. Continue to enjoy them, moving them to the fridge to slow down fermentation.

Making Sauerkraut

Sandor Ellix Katz, the creator of this site, has earned the nickname “Sandorkraut” for his love of sauerkraut. This is Sandorkaut’s easy sauerkraut recipe from his book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods (Chelsea Green, 2003).

Timeframe: 1-4 weeks (or more)

Special Equipment:

  • Ceramic crock or food-grade plastic bucket, one-gallon capacity or greater
  • Plate that fits inside crock or bucket
  • One-gallon jug filled with water (or a scrubbed and boiled rock)
  • Cloth cover (like a pillowcase or towel)

Ingredients (for 1 gallon):

  • 5 pounds cabbage
  • 3 tablespoons sea salt

Process:

  1. Chop or grate cabbage, finely or coarsely, with or without hearts, however you like it. I love to mix green and red cabbage to end up with bright pink kraut. Place cabbage in a large bowl as you chop it.
  2. Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go. The salt pulls water out of the cabbage (through osmosis), and this creates the brine in which the cabbage can ferment and sour without rotting. The salt also has the effect of keeping the cabbage crunchy, by inhibiting organisms and enzymes that soften it. 3 tablespoons of salt is a rough guideline for 5 pounds of cabbage. I never measure the salt; I just shake some on after I chop up each cabbage. I use more salt in summer, less in winter.
  3. Add other vegetables. Grate carrots for a coleslaw-like kraut. Other vegetables I’ve added include onions, garlic, seaweed, greens, Brussels sprouts, small whole heads of cabbage, turnips, beets, and burdock roots. You can also add fruits (apples, whole or sliced, are classic), and herbs and spices (caraway seeds, dill seeds, celery seeds, and juniper berries are classic, but anything you like will work). Experiment.
  4. Mix ingredients together and pack into crock. Pack just a bit into the crock at a time and tamp it down hard using your fists or any (other) sturdy kitchen implement. The tamping packs the kraut tight in the crock and helps force water out of the cabbage.
  5. 5. Cover kraut with a plate or some other lid that fits snugly inside the crock. Place a clean weight (a glass jug filled with water) on the cover. This weight is to force water out of the cabbage and then keep the cabbage submerged under the brine. Cover the whole thing with a cloth to keep dust and flies out.
  6. Press down on the weight to add pressure to the cabbage and help force water out of it. Continue doing this periodically (as often as you think of it, every few hours), until the brine rises above the cover. This can take up to about 24 hours, as the salt draws water out of the cabbage slowly. Some cabbage, particularly if it is old, simply contains less water. 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 a teaspoon of salt to a cup of water and stir until it’s completely dissolved.
  7. Leave the crock to ferment. I generally store the crock in an unobtrusive corner of the kitchen where I won’t forget about it, but where it won’t be in anybody’s way. You could also store it in a cool basement if you want a slower fermentation that will preserve for longer.
  8. Check the kraut every day or two. The volume reduces as the fermentation proceeds. Sometimes mold appears on the surface. Many books refer to this mold as “scum,” but I prefer to think of it as a bloom. Skim what you can off of the surface; it will break up and you will probably not be able to remove all of it. Don’t worry about this. It’s just a surface phenomenon, a result of contact with the air. The kraut itself is under the anaerobic protection of the brine. Rinse off the plate and the weight. Taste the kraut. Generally it starts to be tangy after a few days, and the taste gets stronger as time passes. In the cool temperatures of a cellar in winter, kraut can keep improving for months and months. In the summer or in a heated room, its life cycle is more rapid. Eventually it becomes soft and the flavor turns less pleasant.
  9. Enjoy. I generally scoop out a bowl- or jarful at a time and keep it in the fridge. I start when the kraut is young and enjoy its evolving flavor over the course of a few weeks. Try the sauerkraut juice that will be left in the bowl after the kraut is eaten. Sauerkraut juice is a rare delicacy and unparalleled digestive tonic. Each time you scoop some kraut out of the crock, you have to repack it carefully. Make sure the kraut is packed tight in the crock, the surface is level, and the cover and weight are clean. Sometimes brine evaporates, so if the kraut is not submerged below brine just add salted water as necessary. Some people preserve kraut by canning and heat-processing it. This can be done; but so much of the power of sauerkraut is its aliveness that I wonder: Why kill it?
  10. Develop a rhythm. I try to start a new batch before the previous batch runs out. I remove the remaining kraut from the crock, repack it with fresh salted cabbage, then pour the old kraut and its juices over the new kraut. This gives the new batch a boost with an active culture starter.

Economics of Fermentation

By Charles Eisenstein. Originally appeared in Wise Traditions Magazine.

My brother John and I share a hobby of brewing lacto-fermented sodas – root beers and ginger ales – which we share among family and friends and occasionally sell at health food conventions. Often we are asked, “Where can I buy this?” Our answer is “Nowhere.” Unless you are lucky enough to run into us at the Weston A. Price Conference, chances are you will never see lacto-fermented soda for sale anywhere.

Our personal reasons for not “expanding our operation” are deeply relevant to the conflict between craft and commerce in food production. Usually I make soda in 5-gallon batches. The process is fairly time-consuming, but it fits in well with other chores and there is no obligation to brew a certain amount at a certain time. Since I enjoy brewing several times a week, I produce a surplus – far more than our own family can drink. To expand to a commercial level, though, would mean changes in the way I brew, because as it stands I can only net about $20 per hour of labor. To be commercially viable, I would need to exploit efficiencies of scale by buying better equipment: a bottle-washing machine, bottler, larger fermentation vessels, etc. Then it is no longer a kitchen hobby; it is a business that must consider shipping, legal licensing, labeling laws, sanitation regulations, accounting, etc.

The Compromises of Commerce

So far so good. Some people are naturally inclined towards business. There are more and more small foodcrafting businesses these days, and I am happy to pay a premium for their products. But it is more than a matter of hobby vs. business – there are certain compromises one must make to bring production past a certain critical volume. The critical volume for fermented foods is especially low, because the product is alive and working. Lactofermented soda keeps fermenting in the bottle, for instance, leading to foaming and spraying when you open it, or even dangerous exploding bottles, if you leave them out long enough. There is a good reason that mass-marketed soft drinks are dead. In fact it is a necessity in the context of national brands, centralized production, and mass distribution. To change the way food is produced and processed inescapably demands changes in the way it is distributed and sold.

The compromises one would have to make to sell fermented soda on an economically viable scale are constant refrigeration and scary warning labels, or pasteurization, or plastic bottles. None are acceptable to us, for ecological and health reasons.

Similar compromises apply to most of the fermented foods that have survived the last century of food industrialization. Pickles and relish are no longer fermented at all, but preserved in vinegar and sterilized with heat in the canning process. Wine is treated with sodium metabisulfite before fermentation to destroy wild bacteria and yeasts that make the results less predictable. Beer is usually pasteurized or microfiltered to kill or remove living yeast. Yogurt survives, but it just isn’t as good after the first day; the same is true of bread. Sauerkraut is usually pasteurized. To be sure there are niche brands, available in health-food stores, which are still living foods, but then freezing or refrigeration is necessary. This is rather ironic, since a major motivation for fermenting foods in the first place was to preserve them, in the days before refrigeration.

To make our soda with pleasure and without compromise limits us to a production level of ten to twenty gallons a week. This is sufficient to supply perhaps five or ten households. From this realization, a new (or rather very old) economic model of food production suggests itself.

When Money Reigns Supreme

Anyone who has tried to incorporate all the principles of Nourishing Traditions into their diet will find that it is almost a full-time job. If you want to grind your own flour, bake your own bread, make your own yogurt, your own soaked-and-slow-dried nuts, your own relishes and chutneys, your own bone stock, your own sprouts, your own kombucha and ginger beer… this is more than the typical beleaguered house husband can handle. One wonders how they did it in the old days. The answer is, They didn’t! For one thing, before the age of the suburbs and the automobile, extended families lived together in the same house, and as often as not, next door from cousins and uncles. Four people cooking for 16 people is a lot easier than one person cooking for four. Moreover, communities were small and close-knit, and there was probably some degree of specialization and sharing among households.

I don’t want to make ginger beer for hundreds of people, most of them strangers, but I would be delighted to make it for a handful of other families whom I know well. Maybe one of them would make fresh-ground slow-rise sourdough bread for me (I never could get that to work). Maybe another would supply me with chutney and fish sauce. Maybe another makes soy sauce. Another brews beer; another wine from their own grapes. Maybe another neighbor has a 30-gallon cauldron for making beef stock; another, a 30-gallon pickling crock. For most traditional foods, the optimum level of production is more than for the nuclear family, but less than what is considered economically viable in today’s money economy.

Money can facilitate exchange among friends and neighbors, but in essence money is an anonymous form of energy – almost by its definition as a universal medium of exchange. Among friends and neighbors, the usual laws of market economics do not apply. You don’t seek to maximize profit. You don’t raise your prices to the maximum just because you can. You are not doing it for the money; you are doing it for your family and for the neighbors. In an economy of reciprocation and social exchange; that is, in an economy that is not primarily a money economy, “economic efficiency” takes on a different meaning.

The more anonymous the customer, the more money stands as the sole motivating force. In today’s multi-level, automated, and standardized food production & distribution system, the consumer is almost totally anonymous to the farmer, the commodity buyer, the processing factory, and even the grocer. There is no reason to care about the wholesomeness of the product, except to the extent necessary to conform to whatever regulations are enforced, and whatever the public might find out about. No reason? Oh pardon me, I forgot about altruism. Yes of course, a company might make products better than they need to be out of a abstract altruism, but when the (very real) pressures of market competition come to bear, such altruism quickly degenerates into sloganeering and PR. Some version of “caring about the health of the consumer” surely appears in the mission statements of all the major food corporations, including the most egregious violators of the public trust. In other words, it is hard to genuinely care about someone you don’t even know. Compassion in the abstract is almost always a self-deception. Much more reliable is the goodwill and mutual sense of responsibility that exists among neighbors who are bound together into a community, their good intentions enforced by social pressure and the intimacy of long association.

In many areas of life, social mechanisms of enforcing responsible behavior have atrophied as communities have disintegrated. These have been replaced by legal mechanisms. The old mechanisms of gossip, ostracism, reputation, etc. have lost their power. No matter how much your neighbors dislike you, your money is still good at Wal-Mart. In today’s anonymous society, we are little dependent on our communities, which have become mere collections of buildings. More and more, we are connected to our neighbors by proximity only. The increasing legalism and litigiousness of America is a symptom of unraveling communities, weakening connections. On a most basic level, we no longer make food for each other. All phases of food production, from the farm to the kitchen, are increasingly the province of strangers who are paid to do it.

You cannot pay someone to care. You can pay someone to act as if they care; you can pay them to follow meticulous guidelines; but you can’t make them really care.

Wholesomeness of food is more than a matter of which methods and processes are used to bring it from soil to table. When caring is codified, the code loses much of its meaning, especially under the influence of powerful corporations. The letter persists while the spirit departs. Many of the best, most conscientious farmers I know eschew the organic certification, because they know that food produced according to the letter of the organic code need not be consonant with the spirit that gave birth to organic farming in the first place.

Toward a More Personal Food Economy

To genuinely return to our “wise traditions” in food, farming, and the healing arts, I believe we must begin to dissociate ourselves from the money economy and return to older models of reciprocity. As with anything, such an effort must start with you, personally, as an individual. For starters, price must not be your primary consideration in making a purchase. The consumer’s desire to find the cheapest price is a crucial link in the whole crazy chain. The supermarkets compete on price, their suppliers compete on price; the food processors are compelled to choose lower costs over healthier processes; the farmers are enslaved to commodity markets that compel them to cut raise productivity (measured in dollars) to the maximum just to survive. Commodity markets do not care about the farmer’s well-being. They operate according to price, and price alone. If that price means 16-hour days and bare survival for the farmer, so be it. If it means 16-hour days and bankruptcy for the farmer, so be it. The market, in which sentimentality is an obstacle to good business, does not care.

Compassion usually only extends as far as the eye can see. We live, most of us, oblivious to such things as world hunger, deforestation, and toxic waste – oblivious, that is, until it comes a’knocking. Our response to a starving person at the door is different from our response to a starving person in Africa, who we know exists, in theory, but who isn’t in our faces. How could we expect consumers, then, to really care about farmers, who are separated by layer after layer of distribution, processing, and packaging? And how could we expect farmers to really care about the wholesomeness and goodness of their food, when the beneficiaries are similarly remote, and when the tangible rewards hinge not on goodness but on cost efficiency?

Social connections, and human contact, are the ally of good intentions. It is easy to participate in an exploitative food system when you cannot see the victims. But it goes against human nature, and rational self-interest, to victimize someone with whom you have a continuing relationship of mutual dependency. In the arena of food, we put it this way: “Social connections and human contact are the ally of good food.”

Vast economies of scale are incompatible with personal relationships. What personal relationships can there be when you have 10,000 customers and 200 suppliers (or 10 suppliers employing 200 laborers)? At vast economies of scale, of necessity, standardized specifications replace relationships of trust.

Government regulations governing food quality, toxic ingredients, etc. can only go so far. When food is a primarily a commodity, powerful forces will always be at work to deceive the public for the sake of profit. Usually this deception won’t be intentional; it will be the sum total of the economic decisions, wishful thinking, unquestioned habits, and skewed scientific research priorities of food companies, farmers, consumers, and scientists. It is tempting to look for enemies, but the conspiracy we face is one without conspirators. The problem goes deeper than that, to the way we treat food. Certainly new regulations can be beneficial, but it is an uphill battle when food is a commodity.

An alternative path exists: food should not be primarily a commodity. Food is a gift of God’s Good Earth, for which all religious traditions teach gratitude. To subject it to the economic regime of the lowest bidder is to desecrate the gift and insult the Giver. For most of human history, the sharing of food was a significant social act, cementing ties between friends and kin, showing welcome to strangers. Today it has become an anonymous act of commerce.

Other people in other times would no doubt have thought it exceedingly strange, if not downright obscene, for total strangers to grow, process, and even cook nearly all one’s food.

The Proper Role of Money

That is not to say that food should never be bought. Money has its rightful role, even among friends, as an aid to fairness and a means of support. What I am saying, rather, is that the sharing of food should be part of a personal relationship. Money may be involved, but the profit motive should be secondary. In my economic relationships with the local farmers I know, I am happy to pay them a fair price, in hopes that they will be prosperous. My sentiment is partly selfish, because I know that if they are prosperous, they will continue to provide me with good food. But also I simply don’t feel good about eating food that came through the devaluing of another human being’s labor, especially when I know that human being personally. When a personal relationship exists between food supplier and food consumer, then bargaining becomes a process of each party coming to understand the other’s circumstances to find a mutually fair price, rather than a heartless and shameless exercise of getting the best possible price, which in economics is called “maximizing utility” and in commonsense language is called greed.

Let me also add that the difference between food produced by someone you know and shared through means that respects both producer and consumer, and food grown, processed, and sold by strangers working for faceless corporations, is a difference you can taste. The body responds differently. Food given in fair and respectful exchange by someone you know and trust is more nourishing. I doubt anyone will ever discover a shred of scientific proof for this, but I invite you to verify it for yourself.

In working with my bacterial soda culture, I sometimes get the feeling that the bacteria itself doesn’t want to be sold. Similarly, I feel that sauerkraut wants to live in a barrel in the basement. Before you dismiss this as a flight of fancy, consider the uncanny resistance of truly wholesome food to mass production and mass distribution. Most fresh foods, for example, have a limited shelf life, which can only be extended by killing the food through processing, or putting it in suspended animation by refrigeration or freezing. The former response diminishes its healthfulness; the latter has environmental costs. (Also I never have believed the freezing fully preserves the healthfulness of food. It tastes less vibrant, even if all the enzymes are supposedly intact.) Other preservation methods, namely dehydration and fermentation, might arguably work for mass production and distribution, but even here there are problems with storage and shelf life (food companies’ use of preservatives and pasteurization is not entirely gratuitous). Besides, such foods cannot account for the bulk of one’s year-round diet.

In production as well, true organic farming that builds the soil, doesn’t depend on large external inputs, doesn’t pollute the environment, and doesn’t exploit labor is again incompatible with large-scale production of crops or livestock. The compromises farmers make to achieve the economies of scale necessary for survival in the commodity economy are, again, not entirely gratuitous. No one builds a 5000-hog concrete hog barn out of aesthetic delight, devotion to animal husbandry, or desire to nourish one’s neighbors with good food. The connection between fresh, wholesome food and localism is not an incidental one.

When people ask if they can buy our soda in the future, we usually say, “No, but we’ll teach you how to make it.” We envision a society where every household has a speciality, be it soda or sauerkraut, soap or stock, bread or soy sauce, that they make in quantities sufficient for five or ten households – precisely the quantity that maximizes efficiency without compromising quality. (It is not much more work to make ten gallons of soda than it is to make one, but to make fifty gallons is an enterprise of an entirely different order.) We envision a society also where farmers are personally acquainted with the people who eat their produce, or perhaps, for certain products, linked through one degree of separation. This is workable, because almost as if by design, the ideal size for a sustainably operated mixed family farm is sufficient to meet the food needs of 20 or 30 families. Of course, farms might specialize to some degree, so each family might patronize three or four farms; even so, this calculates out to a manageable number of people per farm, few enough that the farmer can know each personally. Personally I believe that true sustainability requires even smaller farms, and more farmers. Maybe almost everyone not living in a city should be a part-time farmer, at least to the extent of tending a vegetable garden or keeping a few chickens.

In such a society, money alone would not guarantee good food. Moving into a new community, you would need to get to know people, build connections, find your niche. Moving to a new community would be a big deal, as indeed it was in yesterday’s small towns and neighborhoods, more demanding than simply finding where the supermarkets and superstores are located. There would be more sharing in life. We would be more dependent on our neighbors, less dependent on strangers living thousands of miles away, and less dependent on corporations governed by the profit motive. Food would recapture its ancient role of social bonding. This would, I believe, be a much happier society than our current one, with its alienation, loneliness, and rootlessness.

If this seems a fantasy, or the required transformation too daunting, remember that change only need happen one choice at a time. In fact, it happens no other way. If you are a commodity farmer, reconnection with the consumer can be gradual, guided one decision at a time by an intention or a vision. One farm family that I know and admire well provides a good example of this. Even as they continue to sell bulk milk to Organic Valley, they also sell raw dairy products from the farm and through a friend’s CSA. So far the bulk sales are what pay the bills, but the direct-to-consumer sales are growing, and promise one day to enable them to keep fewer cows, work not so hard, be prosperous, and have the pleasure of providing good food to people they know as real human beings. What, after all, is the purpose of life if not to do good work and do it well? To maximize one’s financial benefits is a dispiriting way of life.

Authentic Change is More than a Brand Switch

For the consumer, it is essential to realize that positive dietary change involves more than choosing product A over product B from the supermarket shelves, or supplement pill A over supplement pill B. If health may be defined as wholeness, then it is to be expected that a move toward healthier food will involve a move towards wholeness in other areas of life as well. Healthy eating is not so simple as a brand switch, because mass distribution and mass marketing generally rests on the same foundation of ill health, where money has exceeded its proper facilitative role to become an end in itself, supplanting other forms of human relationship. The pathological state of food economics inevitably expresses itself in the food. Checking ingredient lists in packaged foods is important, but it only goes so far. Seek instead to buy food from real people that you feel good about.

And yes, be prepared to pay a little more. Today’s ridiculously low food prices are an insult to the farmer and an insult to the food. Most of our food dollar today goes for the processing, packaging, shipping, advertising, etc., not for the raw ingredients. So even if you pay a premium for fresh foods direct from the farmer, the eventual effect will be to reduce your consumption of processed foods and restaurant food, and therefore your monetary expenditures. Don’t compare farm-bought free range eggs with store-bought eggs and conclude you can’t afford to pay triple the price. You must compare the entire lifestyle that goes along with it.

In an age where nearly every social function has entered the realm of money, it is no wonder that we are chronically fixated on getting the best price. Not too long ago, such things as food, shelter, and clothing were produced by one’s own family, and rarely bought and sold. In many places it was still true in the 20th century. Writing about the Ladakh of India, Helena Norbert-Hodge observes that before the road was built connecting them to the outside, money was used but rarely, for such things as jewelry. The necessities of life were shared or exchanged through other social mechanisms. Money was not important, because it bought nothing important. Today the opposite is true: everything costs money. Even such intimate functions as housecleaning, cooking, and child care are given over to paid outsiders. In today’s society, unlike ever before, without money one has nothing. One is completely dependent on money to live. Or so it appears. No wonder, then, the omnipresent dread of my students at Penn State that they will be unable to find a job and “make a living.” When I poll them about their main motivation to attend college – to get a good-paying job, or to learn things – about 90% acknowledge the former. Their major life decisions are determined by money. Their thralldom to it is nearly complete. And they are not to be blamed for this, in a world where money has usurped most other modes of economic relationship.

People complain they are unable to afford real food. Why is “fake food” so cheap? Because it has become subject to the economic efficiencies that govern any other commodity. But this is precisely the same reason – that it (and all other necessities) is a commodity – that it has become something we can afford or not afford. There is therefore a deep connection between the insecurity that compels people to choose the lowest price, and the fact that bad food is cheap. The system is self-reinforcing, a vicious circle. When life’s necessities become monetized, money becomes a life necessity.

If I make soda for you, usually it is because you are my friend, relative, neighbor, or guest. I might let you pay for it, especially if you are a friend, but just as likely it will be a gift. My soda contains something of my essence; it is too good, and too personal, to be sold for the sake of profit alone. To trade something personal for something anonymous is a disrespect to the giver, just as the perversion of the gift of food into just another commodity, is to disrespect the good earth from whence it comes. It is thus an insult to your own labor to sell its fruits for mere money alone. If you do that, the spirit will be dissatisfied. The beautiful soda is gone, and all I have is money for it? How common! That is why, along with the money, should come the joy of providing something good to others. For me, this only works when I can see and know these others.

Why even make soda in the first place? Why be a farmer? If it’s for the money, there are better professions. In such things, the proper role of money is to enable one to do Good Work.

I must emphasize again that I don’t advocate abandoning money altogether, just keeping it in its proper place. Specialization is fine when it comes to the technical products of industrialized society, but in the intimate realms of life, specialization has run amok and stolen something of our humanity. Food is one such realm. Here we need less specialization and more sharing, more producers and fewer middlemen. An anonymous, commodity-based food system is inconsistent with fresh, living, wholesome food. Of necessity it impoverishes the farmer, sickens the consumer, and ruins the land. As a consumer, to begin withdrawing from this system will mean paying more, initially, for certain foodstuffs, and spending more time in the kitchen. The ultimate result, though, will be to enrich you. By withdrawing, partially, from the money economy in this one area of life; that is, by basing economic decisions on something other than the best price, you will quite naturally become richer in those things that money cannot buy. And, almost as if by magic, you will become materially more wealthy too – not because of your bank balance, but because you will feel more secure in the material world.

Bottling Alcoholic Beverages

Excerpted from Wild Fermentation

Wines to be aged or stored for any length of time need to be bottled. Even before bottling, once vigorous fermentation slows, wines are often siphoned from the initial fermentation vessel into a clean one, leaving the sediment, or “lees”, behind. This process is called “racking”. The siphoning agitates and aerates the wine to help complete fermentation, and the removal of the sediment prevents it from imparting any undesirable flavor to the wine.

The contemporary wine aesthetic values a clear product. Commercial wines are full of strange clarifying agents, including egg whites, milk caseins, gelatin, and isinglass, an extract from the bladder of sturgeon (you don’t read about these because alcoholic beverages are not required to be labeled with ingredients like other food and drinks). ³ I personally have come to love yeasty sediment and appreciate the lees’ vitamin-richness (especially B vitamins). But don’t let me discourage you from racking your wine; it is much more beautiful that way, and its flavors more delicate. (Try using some of the nutritious yeasty sediment in salad dressings or wine dregs soup, featured later in this chapter.)

Winemaking supply shops sell siphoning tools, which consist of flexible plastic tubing attached to a few feet of hard plastic tubing. This hard tube goes into the carboy, to a point above the sediment, and is much easier to control than flexible tubing. In the absence of this specific tool, any flexible plastic tubing will do.

Before siphoning, set your carboy on a table or counter, and let it sit undisturbed for a few hours so any sediment that dispersed when you moved it has a chance to settle. Place another clean fermentation vessel on the floor or a lower surface. For this to work, gravitationally, the vessel you are filling needs to stay lower than the point you are siphoning from. Be sure to have a glass nearby, so you can enjoy a taste of your wine. When you are ready, remove the airlock from the carboy, and place the hard tube end of the siphon into the carboy, with the end in the wine but higher than the level of the sediment.

Racking

Racking

Hold it (or better yet, have a second person hold it) at that level as you siphon. Place your mouth on the exposed end of the hose, and suck until you taste your wine. Then place a clean finger over the end of the hose to hold the liquid in the siphon, bring it to the mouth of the clean carboy or jug, release your finger, and fill.

Place an airlock in the new carboy and leave it to continue to ferment. In general, ferment wines for at least six months to a year before bottling. If you bottle them before fermentation is complete, you run the risk of having corks pop out. Even if there is no visible bubbling or release of air after a few weeks, slow fermentation continues for months.

Meanwhile, save bottles from (corked, not screw-top) commercial wines for your bottling, or collect them at a local recycling center. When you are ready to bottle, clean them thoroughly with soap and hot water, using a flexible bottle brush, if necessary, to remove crud from the upper part of the bottle where the glass narrows. Rinse the bottles thoroughly; you don’t want soap residue in your wine. Thorough cleaning is generally sufficient, but some meticulous winemakers sterilize by steaming the bottles standing upside down in a big pot, covered, for about 10 minutes.

Set your carboy on a table or counter, arrange clean bottles nearby, on the floor or a lower surface, and siphon into the first bottle. As each bottle fills (not to the rim, but to about 2 inches/5 centimeters below it), use your finger, or fold the tube on itself, to create a vacuum as you move the siphon to the next bottle. Somewhere in there, fill up a glass to enjoy. Fill bottles until you are about to reach the yeasty sediment.

Once your wine is in bottles, you need to cork them. Traditional corks come from trees native to the Mediterranean; some winemakers prefer synthetic corks. Both are available at winemaking suppliers. Corks are fatter than the necks of the bottles, so you will need a corking tool to force them into the bottles. There are a number of cleverly designed contraptions for this, some as cheap as five dollars. Steam corks for a few minutes to sterilize and soften them.

Aging mellows the harshness of wines. Store wine in a cool dark place (such as a cellar). With traditional corks, leave bottles upright for a week or so until the corks fully expand and seal, then store bottles on their sides, so the wine keeps the corks moist and expanded. (This is not necessary with synthetic corks.) Mark your wines clearly so you can distinguish different vintages.