Season of Fermentation


She said it with an absolute certainty, as though it was an order - get yourself some sauerkraut! It was said kindly, but as though I should have figured this out already for myself.

And she was right. The woman sitting next to me on the bench outside my synagogue was a Russian woman of late middle age, the mother of five sons, the survivor of all most of what was thrown at the Russian Jews. She knew things, and wasn't shy about telling me, although her English and my poor Russian made the conversations challenging at times.

I was pale, greenish and pasty from the epic morning sickness that accompanied me through the first five months of each pregnancy. Although I didn't think she'd actually seen me throwing up in the bushes around the corner of the synagogue (after a similar and extremely dramatic demonstration in the shul bathroom, while a number of elderly women outside the stall milled worriedly around enquiring whether I needed help), but it wasn't exactly rocket science to figure it out. She sat down next to me, put her arm around my shoulders and ordered me to go and get myself some sauerkraut. And she was right.

At the risk of turning everyone off from the subject of food altogether, I have to say my passion for fermented foods is entirely tied up in the fact that they were one of the few things I could actually eat during my early pregnancies - I love their tastes but most of all, I feel they saved me. It may seem strange that my affection for them stems so deeply from a time I don't remember at all fondly, but it is true. All of my pregnancies were basically the same - I began throwing up 10-20 times per day, occasionally even before the lines on the stick showed a pregnancy and didn't stop until 5 months. I lost 25lbs each first trimester, and none of the treatments others suggests did the least bit of good - not the ginger or sea bands, and really not the medications prescribed by my midwives after I inevitably ended up being rehydrated with an IV.

The number of foods I could actually eat would dwindle, sometimes into the single digits. But I had to eat - because the nausea was made vastly worse on an empty stomach - indeed, that's how I would end up being rehydrated by IV - not eating made me more nauseous which eventually meant I couldn't keep anything down, and off we'd go. Everywhere I went I would travel with the few things on my dietary list - watermelon, blueberries and miso soup in one pregnancy, almond biscotti, apricot juice and tangerines another. These did not a well balanced diet make, but I didn't care - I just had to eat something or it was back to the ER. My midwives and the OBs they consulted with had very little to offer me - a stream of medications that didn't help. They advised me just to eat anything I could and do the best I could. By the third and fourth times 'round, I had accepted that there wasn't anything anyone could do, and dispensed with the meds.

The one universal, through every pregnancy, was that I could eat sour and spicy fermented foods. I ate kimchi by the pound - a korean friend of mine joked that I was trying to rival her entire family's annual consumption (above 300lbs annually). I could eat sauerkraut, cornichon and chinese pickled mustard greens. Sometimes these were the only things I could eat, and wonder of wonders, occasionally their inclusion in a meal meant I could eat the rest of the meal as well - kimchi could be made into kimchi tofu soup, or stir fried with beef and mochi noodles, and wow, I actually ate a meal. It felt so good to be able to eat - not just to have a little protein now and again, but also to sit with other people through a meal and be part of the social world that is the sharing of food.

For me, these foods will always come with a basic, essential sense of gratitude - I don't think it is easy to explain to someone who has never been unable to eat how miserable that experience is, and how grateful you can be for the simple, ordinary pleasure of enjoying a meal. Not only were the foods themselves nutritious, but they were comforting in some basic way. Not everyone would consider fiery kimchi or deeply sour pickles to be comforting, but for me they were magic - and I'm not the only one. There's a reason for the myth of pickles and ice cream for pregnant women. The whole experience of morning sickness was desperately depressing and miserable for me - it is hard to articulate how happy I was just to be able to sit down with other people and eat a meal.

And thus it was that from the tribe of other women who have endured difficult pregnancies came the chorus of suggestions for fermented foods that might help. Other women waited until they passed the critical three month mark in their pregnancies to reveal themselves - everyone always knew I was pregnant pretty much from the get-go - there is no way to conceal morning sickness on the scale I experienced it. My students knew, as I went racing out of classrooms in the middle of sentences about Renaissance history. My neighbors knew when, during a playdate at the park I begged them to watch my two boys while I found the nearest bush. Total strangers knew, for example, when during my first pregnancy, I visited an open air fish market to purchase fish for my father's 50th birthday party, and was so overcome by the smell of fish and rotting trash that a kind elderly chinese woman had to lead me, blind and heaving, away from the garbage can I was huddled over, into her shop and let me sit for a while, desperately inhaling the spices and herbs she sold. Once or twice I heard someone wonder if I was drunk, usually in the bathrooms of various public transport stations, where drunken vomiting is probably more common than the pregnant kind, but for the most part every woman of childbearing age or older who saw me instantly intuited my status, and many of them would press their favorite fermented things upon me. People I know on chemo have also told me that some fermented foods were edible to them when almost nothing else was - a friend of ours lived through months on lemon sorbet and pickles.

It became quite expensive to keep me in kimchi, cornichons and really good sauerkraut - add in the other minor fermented constituents of my diet - I fell in love with a middle eastern style fermented carrots sold in a Syrian grocer across town, and Eric went on pilgrimages to fetch them - and it turned out that quite a lot of our budget was going to fermented foods. So it became necessary to learn to make them.

I have done every conceivable thing (so to speak) to ensure that I will never get pregnant again, so I don't anticipate *needing* to eat lactofermented foods again anytime soon. But I can't imagine a week without them appearing in my diet simply because they are so very delicious - or to imagine eating them without a flash of affection and gratitude.

It is a little early to get seriously into the season of lactofermentation, but the time is coming soon - while I make summer pickles and kimchi all year round, the serious work of cool fermentation has to wait until the cool weather. Everything tastes best when fermented at cool, but not cold temperatures, and come autumn, we make tons of kraut, late pickles and kimchi, as well as smaller quantities of pickled carrots, fermented corn relish pickled mustard greens, rice fermented greens and other delicacies. These keep in a fridge or a coldish place for many months, and we dig into them with delight, a slightly altered but utterly delicious taste of summer in winter.

Every year we try old-fashioned fermentation of more produce, and are astonished at the range of wonderful flavors and textures we achieve. And every year I find myself throwing my memory back to the Russian woman who calmly ordered to get myself some sauerkraut - it was after her order that I first began to make it for myself and discovered that not only could I eat it, but I didn't really want to stop. If you have only ever eaten store-versions of most of these foods, you will be astonished at the malleability and quality that you can achieve.

For those of you who have never lactofermented, here's some basic know-how - the great Sandor Katz on lactofermentation of vegetables:

If you'd like to learn more about it, I'll be teaching an online class beginning next week on all aspects of food preservation, including lactofermentation. Email me at for more details.


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I have one teeny patch of experimental carrots in my garden this year, which seemed kind of pointless with the DH buying store carrots by the sackful. I think I'll pickle them now for a special treat!

I recently entered the brave new world of fermented vegetables and now am only wondering what took me so long! I made cabbabe kimchi, sour pickles and a crock of various vegetables mixed in a base of cabbage and dill. After the success (even in the summer when they very quickly fermented and needed the coolness of the fridge), I felt an odd sense of relief when I got to the table, a jar of feremented veggies in one hand, because I now know we could live well in the winter months in Minnesota without the need for canning if we had to.

I just made my first batch of sauerkraut this summer. It's phenomenal!

My book didn't tell me the top layer would turn to mush, so at first I assumed I had ruined it. I discovered that an inch or so down was ok only when I had gone to throw it out. Luckily I noticed and reconsidered when I still had most of the 3 gallon crock.

I'm intending to make some more after I buy cabbage at the farmer's market this weekend. Maybe I will try kimchi someday, I know there's an astounding variety of recipes, but I've never encountered any I like at restaurants.

Lactofermentation is definitely next on the list of preserving techniques for me to learn... But, as a dedicated craft brewer and occasional wine-maker, it's always the season of fermentation!

You can go a long way towards controlling your fermentation temperatures by wrapping your vessel in a cloth and keeping it damp. Even better if you can keep some airflow past it... Normally, a 5 (UK) gallon batch of beer in "high krausen" will be 2 to 3 degrees (Centigrade) above ambient temperature, but with a damp cloth and a fan, I can hold it around 2 degrees below ambient. That may not sound like much, but it's the difference between a good, steady fermentation and a "racing" fermentation with over-production of esters.

For me, I was never able to stay ~in the house~ when my father would heat up his canned, storebought sauerkraut. DFH loves it, though, so I got my hands on some homemade stuff and said I'd try it.

I loved it! And she gave me the recipe, too, so I may make this fall when the cabbage starts coming in again. Yum!

By Lorrieena (not verified) on 12 Aug 2010 #permalink

Used to make sauerkraut in a 10 gallon ceramic crock. Would shred the cabbage, layer it into the crock with salt, put a round dinner plate with a rock on it on top, and cover with a towel. So much tastier than canned store bought sauerkraut. Made pickles of various sorts too. Still have a jar of pickled peppers canned in circa 1977. They're still good, too, as my son & I ate all but that one last jar just a couple years ago. Used to have a whole set of crocks, from several two gallon, a five gallon and that 10 gallon. They went by the wayside as we moved around over the years. Wish I still had them. New ones are expensive!

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 12 Aug 2010 #permalink

I am wary of fermenting foods -- worries about food safety and fear that I won't like them much; I make the quick vinegar pickles, for my husband, but I'm not a huge pickle fan. Every time you write about them, though, I start thinking again that I should try that one of these days.
Ironically, at the moment, one of my worries is preserving too much; since signing up for the year-round CSA, lack of winter and spring food is not an issue; too much food is, and we keep eating less of the preserved stuff. My inner squirrel, however, likes to be prepared, and is constantly arguing with the inner frugal grump.

What a wonderful tribute to fermented foods. I also love them! I made my first successful batch of sour pickles this summer, using the guidelines in Wild Fermentation by Elix Katz. They turned out much better than the Nourishing Traditions recipe did for me last year, not sure why but I think Elix Katz explains things better and his salt to water ratio is better. Funny thing is, the pickles in the fancy Harsch crock were the only ones to get some mold on the top, but those in my gallon glass jars with a plate on top did not. Oh well, I guess that's a reason to stick with simple and not feel the need to get the latest spendy gadget if something else works just fine.

I do not care for pickles or strong foods. Do you know of people with that inclination that still enjoy fermented foods? I'm wary of making batches of food that seem likely to end up inedible to me. Plus I have no way of judging the quality if I then trade them! R and I made pickles last year, mostly used as gifts. People are too polite to give honest feedback, but I did get one suggestion to use alum to avoid a slimy texture!

I need to watch my salt consumption but would like to try kimchi and sauerkraut. Is there anyway to do this without so much salt (my question mark key is broken)

Margaret @ 11 re: salt: Get _Wild Fermentation_, mentioned above, by Sandor Ellix Katz. It covers a wide range of fermentation options, including low/no(?) salt options for sauerkraut (and probably others). I've only begun to try recipes, but his approach is very encouraging of experimentation, and he often suggests ways that recipes can be adapted to suit one's own tastes and available ingredients.

By Michael M (not verified) on 13 Aug 2010 #permalink

I've got a problem. I have a crock, I make sauerkraut, I make pickles, I love the taste of anything fermented. But my son and I seem to have a food intolerance for lactofermented food. Apparently it could be a histamine intolerance, since all fermented and aged foods contain high levels of histamine, and sauerkraut (and champagne, weirdly enough) contain WAY more than other foods.

All I know is, any time we have sauerkraut, we get, um, certain digestive problems that send us running to the bathroom over and over.

It's a real shame, cause I love making the stuff and have taught workshops on how to lactoferment in our community garden and for our CSA... And it's one of the only methods of food preservation that actually makes veggies MORE healthy... etc.

Sigh. I don't think I'll let it stop me. The world needs more sauerkraut, fer sher. :)