Tag Archives: Cultures for Health

Sideways and Sauerchi: Introduction to Living Foods

Contents

  1. Background:  Managing Expectations
  2. Inspiration: Maya from Sideways on Wine
  3. Why Wine? A Sideways-sauerchi comparison
  4. Live-culture labeling

Background:  Managing Expectations

I find increasingly that living foods seem to pose a lot of questions and confusion to many of us not used to interacting with them.   How do we start thinking effectively about living foods and our relationship to them?

The way we view our food factors hugely into what we expect of it.  For example, did you know that wineries only tend to clarify (remove tartrate sediment from) their lower-end, cheaper wines, and leave their higher-end wines cloudy?  Clarifying wines takes extra time and labor, and can even result in a lower-quality, less-complex wine.  So why go through the trouble of clarifying low-end wines?  It makes no sense, right?  Except consumers of low-end wines expect a clear wine.  To them, an unclarified wine has “gone bad.”  I don’t know how the expectation got started.  We’ve gotten ourselves stuck in an endless loop, and it seems no one has the courage to dare break the cycle!  Wineries fear losing their low-end market, and consumers fear drinking something “bad.”

On the flip-side, wine snobs will tend to reject “clarified wines” as overprocessed — like the difference between distilled grain vinegar and a fine oak-aged wine vinegar.  So, everyone wins if people can adjust their expectations accordingly:  wineries can save time and money, and low-end wine consumers can get a better product for their money!

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Inspiration:  Maya from Sideways on Wine

Maya explains to Miles, the main character in Sideways, why she likes wine.

Transcript

I like to think about the life of wine.  How it’s a living thing.  I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were grown:  How the sun was shining, the rain…I like to think about all the people who tended and picked the grapes, and — if it’s an old wine — how many of them must be dead by now.

I like how wine continues to evolve, like if I open a bottle of wine today, it will taste different than if I open it on any other day, because a bottle of wine is actually alive, and it’s constantly evolving and gaining complexity…that is, until it peaks.  And then it begins its steady and inevitable decline.

…And it tastes…So. F***ing. Good.

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Why Wine?  A Sideways-sauerchi comparison

Sauerchi shares many similarities with wine (and beer; and yogurt, and fermented live-culture food in general).  They also have many differences.

I find it useful to think about the similarities between wine and sauerchi because, as Maya explains, they are both /alive/.  However, wine has a more established place in our society.  We can make the transition from dead/canned/pasteurized foods to living foods by thinking about sauerchi in similar ways we think about wine, and adjust our expectations of our food to better nourish ourselves.

  • wine and sauerchi both represent ways to process perishable foods that enhance rather than diminish their value over time (have you ever tasted a 4-year-old sauerkraut?  Yes, they exist!  Sandor Katz, the author of Wild Fermentation, describes his experience with them as “sublime”)
  • they continue to change and evolve over time, gaining complexity
  • the rate and type of change depends on their storage conditions
  • they remain sensitive to oxygen, light and heat
  • they can “go bad” if not properly cared for before opened
  • their “going bad” has little to do with danger and mostly to do with expectations and aesthetics (e.g,. wine turns to vinegar; sauerchi can develop kahm yeast [read about it here and here]; when it develops a heavy kahm yeast, it tends to exhibit cheddar-like flavors and textures, and I call it “sauercheese” and enjoy its different properties in this manner, with adjusted expectations).
  • Wine gets fermented in a way to minimize the risk of vinegar bacteria development during its initial fermentation; but subtle and slow processes occur after bottling and during aging, opening and consumption that add to the wine’s complexity and aesthetics.  Similarly, sauerchi gets fermented in a way to minimize the risk of kahm yeast in its initial fermentation, but subtle and slow processes occur during aging, jarring, opening and consumption that add to the sauerchi’s complexity and aesthetics.
  • if left too long in warm or aerobic (“with oxygen”) conditions, wine and sauerchi both turn into different foods with different aesthetics and expectations and uses (wine turns to vinegar; sauerchi turns to sauercheese).

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Live-culture labeling

After thinking through the above, and with feedback from many customers and advisors, it seems necessary to include three short statements that go a little way toward educating customers on the nature of living foods:

I’m a living, breathing food.  Please store me upright in a cool, dark location.  Enjoy my many phases of life!

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Saueressen on salt

Although many others discuss the matter of salt in ferments, and do a pretty good job, Saueressen has yet to find a more complete practical discussion of salt.  We attempt a more complete introduction to salt use, below, in two parts:  How much salt?  (the more popular question first) and Which salt?  Please comment if you have questions or more information / experience to share.

Table of Contents

  1. Why Salt?
  2. How much salt should I use?
    1. General Guidelines
    2. Ingredients Quality
    3. Self-brining?
    4. Remember Osmosis
    5. Salt for Security
  3. Which Salt?
  4. Final Note:  The Value of Salt

Why salt?

Salt performs several functions in a vegetable fermentation process.  Among other things, it

  • inhibits the growth of undesirable organisms,
  • inhibits the activity of pectic enzymes that threaten to turn your ferment to mush
  • slows down and regulates the fermentation process,
  • draws water from the vegetables to create an anaerobic brine,
  • helps select for anaerobic lactic-acid bacteria (LAB) that create the desired end product and
  • enhances and balances the flavor of the ferment (making it taste less acidic)

Salt has a place of importance in such ferments.  That said, people can and do ferment without them.  For example, some people ferment vegetables in wine.  In Nepal people mash kale leaves and ferment them unsalted in their own juices to create gundruk, a food of great national importance (emphasis mine):

The shredded leaves are tightly packed in an earthenware pot, and warm water (at about 30°C) is added to cover all the leaves.[2] The pot is then kept in a warm place.[2] After seven days, a mild acidic taste indicates the end of fermentation and the gundruk is removed and sun-dried.[2]This process is similar to sauerkraut production except that no salt is added to the shredded leaves before the start of gundruk fermentation.[2]

Gundruk has very different characteristics than sauerkraut (including the fact that it results in a sun-dried product).  Those differences stem from different processing techniques and expectations, and have little or nothing to do with the safety, quality and performance of the ferment itself.  In fact, what makes for good sauerkraut might make for bad gundruk, and vice-versa.  So much of what makes a “good ferment” boils down to expectations formed out of preference and acquired taste.

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How much salt should I use?

Short answer: salt to taste.

Not satisfied with that answer?  Same here.  Some further guidelines and points to consider, below.

General Guidelines (longer answer)

use more salt if:

  • your ferment involves physically-delicate ingredients
  • your fermentation enviornment tends to run hot (70-75 or higher *F)
  • you do not have a reliable airlock and way to keep your ferment submerged in the brine (e.g,. a weight or various mechanical systems — ask about those and I’ll write an overview)
  • you are doing a “plain jane” ferment without other protective ingredients (garlic, onion, herbs, spices)

use less salt if:

  • your ferment involves tougher vegetables you wouldn’t mind softening a little bit during fermentation
  • your fermentation environment tends to run cold (65-60 or lower)
  • you have a reliable airlock system (airlocked crocks, airlocked mason jars, or baile-top [fido-style] mason jars) and submersion method
  • you tend to ferment with other protective ingredients (garlic, onion, herbs, spices)

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Ingredient Quality

Different vegetables — and even the same vegetables across different farms or harvests — contain different salt/water/sugar balances.  Celery, for example, typically has a high salt content.  I’ve worked with both relatively dry, dense and savory and relatively heavy and sweet cabbages.  Technically the same cabbage, but grown and harvested at different times and places.  The carrots I get from one of my farm suppliers taste so juicy, crunchy and sweet, it almost feels like I’m eating a fruit or a piece of candy.  That difference in going into the ferment creates a noticeable difference in the outcome as well.

Other ingredients have preservative qualities in the ferment, such as garlic, onion, antioxidant/anti-microbial herbs and spices (ginger, rosemary, tannic acids from grape or oak leaves, etc).  These “minor ingredients” help balance the finished flavor while providing additional protection for the ferment throughout its lifecycle (including in storage), potentially allowing more flexibility on salt use.  I’ve found adding such ingredients gives me much more flexibility and control over the finished flavor, quality and longevity of the ferment — so much so that it’s become a core part of the Saueressen Process and our concept of sauerchi.

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Self-brining?

Use enough salt to extract juice from shredded vegetables.  NOTE:  The more finely shredded the vegetable, the less salt needed to create the self-brine.  If the shredding is too coarse, you run the risk of oversalting to create the brine!  If you drain off some of the excess brine, it will leave the remaining vegetables much less salty.  Adding ingredients, such as an unsalted pesto, will also further reduce the salt content (which can rescue base ingredients that you accidentally oversalted).  You may also rinse over-salted vegetables, in a pinch.

Remember Osmosis

The perfect amount of salt will initially taste like too much salt, until it diffuses equally throughout the liquids and solids of the ferment over the course of about a week.  The same principle applies when adding salt to soup or sourdough bread, so if you’re used to seasoning soup, you should have an idea of what to expect when salting vegetables for a ferment.

Salt The Top for Security

A ferment will always most likely (and often does) become contaminated along its edges — especially the top.  Sprinkle additional salt over the top of the packed ferment to give the top of the brine or other surface more protection during the vulnerable, early stages of the ferment.  The salt will diffuse throughout the rest of the ferment over time.  Only take this opportunity if the ferment still needs additional salt!

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Ok, sheesh.  So, which salt?

Short answer: Use either unrefined mineral (mined) salt or unrefined sea (evaporated) salt in fine grain texture (e.g, not rock salt or flake or powder).

Both unrefined sea and mineral salts have all the good stuff the ferments need (trace minerals and nutrients, fantastic flavor) and none of the bad stuff (such as aluminum and other chemical additives).  Supposedly the iodide supplement in table salt can further inhibit or kill the micro-organisms responsible for fermentation, but I haven’t noticed a difference.  Even then, it could be useful to slow down overly-vigorous fermentations (e.g,. in a warm environment).

Consider the granularity of the salt — how coarse or fine the salt is.  Fine-grain sea salt tends to be cheap, ubiquitous and practical.  It stores compact, doesn’t require additional processing to use, is easy to measure and handle, and dissolves quickly into solution.  If you keep recipes and use different sizes of salt grains, remember to measure by weight and not volume!

Some people also consider salt a spice and pay a premium for different types of specialty or “finishing” salts to affect taste, texture and even color, such as black salt and smoked salt.  Whatever floats your boat, although such salts probably get lost in a ferment (if you’ve found specialty salts useful in ferments, please write in and let us know!).

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Final note:  the value of salt

Our bodies are self-contained sacks of salty brine.  We need salt to live.  If the concentration of salt in our bodies falls too low, our bodies stop functioning. Yet, we need freshwater, not salt water to help balance things on the other end.  Human (and probably most) life depends on a very delicate balance — a balance that requires our bodies to continually readjust.  Readjustment requires, at its core, salt and freshwater.

In light of this delicate balance, throwing something like a vegetable brine away feels to me like throwing away liquid gold.  Such a rich, nutritious and useful liquid, full of electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, sugars and other nutrients.

Instead of throwing out excess brine:

  • Reduce it down to a thick, syrupy brine.  It will store for a long time in a refrigerator.
  • Use it in recipes that call for both salt and liquid.
  • Use it as a soy sauce substitute — it provides much of the same rich, umami flavor.
  • Use it to deglaze/braze pan-cooked meals (such as veggies, meat, rice, quinoa, etc; just don’t add dry salt!)
  • Create marinades and dressings with it
  • Make a stock, broth, soup or stew out of it
  • Use it as brine in non-self-brining ferments

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