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Embracing the Deliciousness of Fermented Foods Means Calling Truce in Our War on Bacteria

Letting food sit at room temp and become colonized by airborne microorganisms runs counter to everything we know about food safety.

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Kraut-chi is a word I made up, a hybrid of sauerkraut and kimchi, the German and Korean words for fermented vegetables that we have adopted into the English language. The English language does not have its own word for fermented vegetables. It would not be inaccurate to describe fermented vegetables as “pickled,” but pickling covers much ground beyond fermentation.  Pickles are anything preserved by acidity. Most contemporary pickles are not fermented at all; instead they rely upon highly acidic vinegar (a product of fermentation), usually heated in order to sterilize vegetables, preserving them by destroying rather than cultivating microorganisms. “For pickles, fermentation was the primary means of preservation until the 1940s, when direct acidification and pasteurization of cucumber pickles was introduced,” writes Fred Breidt of the USDA.

My vegetable ferments are usually concoctions that do not fit any homogeneous traditional ideal of either German sauerkraut or Korean kimchi. But of course, everything I’ve learned about sauerkraut and kimchi reveal that neither of them constitutes a homogeneous tradition. They are highly varied, from regional specialties to family secrets. Nonetheless, certain techniques underlie both (and many other related) traditions, and my practice is a rather free-form application of these basic techniques rather than an attempt to reproduce any particular notion of authenticity.

In a nutshell, the steps I typically follow when I ferment vegetables are:

1  Chop or grate vegetables.

2  Lightly salt the chopped veggies (add more as necessary to taste), and  pound or squeeze until moist; alternatively, soak the veggies in a brine  solution for a few hours.

3  Pack the vegetables into a jar or other vessel, tightly, so that they are  forced below the liquid. Add water, if necessary.

4  Wait, taste frequently, and enjoy!

Of course there is more information and nuance, which the rest of this chapter explores, but really, “Chop, Salt, Pack, Wait” is what most of it amounts to.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.