For those of us who are developing or returning to our ancestral health through traditional and indigenous nutritional practices, few food preparation skills are as valuable to possess as lacto-fermentation. Imagine for a moment living without a fossil fuel driven infrastructure to deliver us our "fresh" veggies in January and an electrically powered refrigerator to store them in, and its importance and relevance becomes clear. Storing vegetables for the winter is a critical skill, and lacto-fermentation has some advantages that are hard to beat.
For instance, Lacto-Fermentaion actually increases the amount of nutrition that was present in the vegetable alone (by converting sugars into protein rich bacterial bodies, B vitamins, and omega 3 fatty acids), increase the bio-availability of the existing nutrition (by breaking down cell walls by predigesting the vegetables cellulose, and removing anti-nutrients) and all the while preserving the inherent nutrition better than freezing, canning, or drying!
Lacto-fermentation, the kind of vegetable fermentation that produces foods like sauerkraut (as well as kimchee and brined pickles), preserves our food in lactic acid, and was one of the dominant preservation techniques used by our ancestors before sugar and preservatives became the norm. The primary fermentative organism present in these kinds of preserves is lactobacillus acidophilus (who's name means "acid loving milk bacteria") one of our bodies primary microbial symbionts.
Not only does lactobacillus acidophilus allow us to preserve and even increase the amount of nutrition in our vegetables, but it also aids in digestion and increases our immunity too! Lactobacillus takes up residence in our small intestine, creating a kind of probiotic bio-shield in the gut, where it aggressively out-competes other dys-biotic organisms that can cause us to fall ill.
Ok, so forgive me here, but I am going to interject a few definitions and a quick mathmatical formula. Trust me, it will help.
Prebiotic + Probiotic = Synbiotic. Easy right? Here is what it means.
The thing we intend to ferment is known as a "prebiotic" (I am using this term loosely, don't tell the scientists), this is the food source (sugars) for the organisms that will be converting the food into a fermented-food (in our case cabbage). We add to that the "probiotic" organism (these are healthy, symbiotic micro-organisms) that will be performing the fermentation (here it will be lactobacillus). Ok, a little caveat, we might not actually add the probiotic, but rather let it colonize itself, in what is called a "wild fermentation", as is the case here with sauerkraut. Organisms native to the area where you are fermenting, or - as is the case with cabbage - are indigenous to the food itself. Through the alchemy of the fermentative process something new will be created, and that new thing is known as the "synbiotic". I want to emphasize, the synbiotic is a new food, not the sum of the original parts, this is why sauerkraut is not "cabbage", and wine is not "grape juice".
Synbiotics like sauerkraut have long been used by those before us to fortify their immune systems, assist in digestion (their acidity helps to lower the pH of the stomach increasing the effectiveness of our hydrochloric acid), and to maintain healthy levels of the probiotic organisms that colonize our digestive lumen. While many people use probiotic supplements in an attempt to achieve these ends, most often lacto-fermented foods perform these tasks better, can be made at home from whole, fresh, local foods, are inexpensive, and add a considerable amount of quality nutrition in the form of highly absorbable predigested, living food. Oh, and they taste great too!
For me, lacto-ferments like sauerkraut are one of my primary ways of preserving and consuming local vegetables through out the long Maine winters. Aside from the occasional Whole Foods splurge, I don't suspect I will be eating very many fresh green vegetables until the wild spring shoots emerge after the thaw. Aside from the vegetables that keep in my cellar (onions, squashes, garlic) and the vegetables I have frozen (wild fiddle heads, japanese knotweed) lacto-ferments are my main source of "living" vegetation.
If you have never made a fermentation like this at home, take heart! It is easy to do, and requires very little work or know how. Simply follow the steps in the video below, and in a couple of weeks you will have your first batch ready to eat!
For those who would like a deeper look into the biological processes that take place in the fermentation of cabbage into sauerkraut, check out this link!
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