Lacto-Fermentation–Enlisting Trillions of Microscopic Allies in Your Fight for Survival, by Gospel Guy

In a world with no power from the electrical grid how can perishable foods be stored? Drying and canning are common solutions but are not suitable for all foods. Canning in particular is troublesome due to its dependence on access to industrial supply chains for new lids or seals, the need for precise control of temperature and time, and its consumption of large amounts of energy. The easiest, cheapest and most overlooked method of food preservation is by lacto-fermentation which has the advantages of making the food more digestible and neither precise measurements nor exacting temperature controls are necessary. Lacto-fermentation is the intentional culture of lactic acid loving bacteria to preserve and flavor food. Lacto-fermentation is not an alcohol producing process. Rather it creates an acidic environment which is not favorable to the growth of spoilage causing organisms. Lacto-fermented foods contain large amounts of enzymes and beneficial bacterial, preserve temperature sensitive vitamins, and have a delightful tangy taste. Many people with digestive problems find that eating lacto-fermented foods frequently will provide relief. A further benefit of lacto-fermented vegetables is that when eaten on a regular basis they help to prevent diarrhea. Using lacto-fermentation yogurt, cheese, pickles, fermented vegetables and sauerkraut can all be made from materials readily available on the homestead. Foods produced by lacto-fermentation will keep for extended periods of time in a cave, root cellar, spring house, evaporative cooler or, if one is available, in the refrigerator.

The best way to begin enjoying the benefits of lacto-fermentation is by placing raw milk in a clean covered container and setting it in a warm place with a temperature in the upper 70’s or 80’s. Let the milk sit until it sours and then gets thick like yogurt, this will require from two to four days depending on the temperature and bacteria count in the milk. At this point several options present themselves:

1. Simply cool the clabbered milk and eat it with your morning oatmeal.
2. To make a very soft cream cheese similar to Neufchatel pour the clabbered milk into a cheesecloth-lined colander and drain the whey. Save the whey to use as starter for future batches of cheese, yogurt or lacto-fermented vegetables.
3. To make hard cheese heat the clabbered milk gently in a double boiler, near the chimney of the wood cook stove or other hot location until it separates into soft curds and whey. Once it begins to separate gently cut the curds into pieces using a clean knife without removing the curds from the whey. Then slowly raise the temperature until the curds and whey boil. The hotter and longer it is heated the harder the cheese will be. Pour the curds and whey into a cheese cloth-lined colander, basket or other container which will allow the whey to escape and when most of the whey has drained away salt the curds according to taste. Higher levels of salt promote better storage but many people prefer the flavor of lower salt cheeses. Set a clean rock on a plate on top of the curds wrapped in cheesecloth to compress the curds and force out the rest of the whey. The heavier the weight used to press the cheese the harder and dryer the cheese will be. The cheese can then be aged according your preference. Air drying in a screened, fly-proof, cool, breezy area to form a rind is recommended and should be followed by waxing and storage in a cool place. Variation in the technique outlined above will produce an endless variety of cheeses. The whey from the hard cheese making can be used in cooking and baking, to make drinks, or as animal feed. Chickens, pigs, dogs, and cats all love whey. Whey from hard cheese cannot be used as a starter because the beneficial bacteria were killed when the whey was heated.

Whey from the soft cheese can be used as a starter for any lacto-fermentation process. The advantage to using the whey as a starter for yogurt, cheese and lacto-fermented vegetables is that it often results in a much milder tasting and smelling product. The initial souring of the milk can occasionally result in strong odors and tastes that, while perfectly harmless, are offensive to the unaccustomed palate.

To make yogurt, place a small quantity of whey from the soft cheese into a clean jar. A couple tablespoons of whey are about right for a quart but precise measurement is not required. In the future when you have a particularly tasty batch of yogurt a small portion of that yogurt can be used as starter in place of the whey, this will increase your chances of getting another batch like the one you liked. Thoroughly mix the starter with enough raw milk to nearly fill the jar and place in a warm draft free location which is about body temperature. It is very important that the milk which you have cultured with the whey not be disturbed and that the temperature remains constant, otherwise it will separate into curds and whey. The yogurt will be ready to cool and eat in 4 to 8 hours depending on the conditions. The yogurt may be carefully checked to see if it has thickened but be careful not to disturb it too much. Cooling the yogurt before serving will reduce its tendency to separate into to curds and whey. Commercial yogurt often has products added to stabilize it and reduce separation. If the yogurt comes out with a strong flavor the most likely cause was keeping the yogurt warm for too long. Try making another batch and either reduce the temperature at which the yogurt is fermented or reduce amount of time the yogurt is kept warm. Strong flavored yogurt, if it was cause by high temp or overlong fermentation, can be used as starter for a new batch and the strong flavor will not be passed on to the new batch. However if the yogurt smells yeasty it is fine to eat or make cheese from it but it should not be used as starter unless the object is to make more yeasty yogurt

Traditionally cabbage is the vegetable most commonly preserved by lacto-fermentation. Today, however, most sauerkraut is preserved by pickling in vinegar rather than by lacto-fermentation. The flavor of pickled sauerkraut is far more acidic and harsh than that of sauerkraut produced by lacto-fermentation and has much lower levels of vitamins and enzymes. The following recipe presents a method of producing traditional sauerkraut which leaves the vitamins and enzymes intact.

The following materials are needed to make sauerkraut. If no whey is available double the salt; however not using whey increases the chances of spoilage.
1 medium Cabbage
4 tablespoons whey from soft cheese or yogurt
1 tablespoon Non-iodized salt such as Real Salt TM, sea salt, or canning salt
Thoroughly cleaned jars or crocks.

Shred the cabbage using a sharp knife or grater.

Mix all ingredients in a bowl and pound with a wooden masher or meat hammer until the cabbage releases juice. This usually requires 10 to 15 minutes of pounding depending on how much cabbage is being processed and who is doing it.

Pack the mixture TIGHTLY into the clean glass jars and mash it down until the juice covers it completely. In some cases it may be necessary to use a weight to hold the cabbage under the surface of the liquid. If there is not enough juice add additional whey. Cover the jars to keep out insects, mice and dust. Canning jars and lids work well but any jar or crock will do.

Store the sauerkraut at room temperature for several days and then move to a cool place. The sauerkraut will keep well for six months or longer and the flavor will improve with age. Many people like to add additional ingredients, such as caraway seed, shredded carrots, onions, chili peppers or what ever strikes their fancy. The same process, omitting the pounding, can be used with cucumbers, beets and turnips as well as many other vegetables in place of cabbage. In the event that the lacto-fermented vegetables spoil the odor will be so vile that nobody would be willing to taste them. Spoilage in lacto-fermented foods is very obvious unlike canned foods where the food can be fatally contaminated by botulism yet show no obvious sign of spoilage.

Lacto-fermentation as a method of food preparation and preservation is a useful addition to the skill set of anyone who wishes to preserve food safely and does not have access to the power grid and modern supply chains. Lacto-fermentation used in conjunction with drying, potting, salting and smoking allows the preservation of virtually any food produced on the homestead with out relying on outside inputs other than salt.

Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary G. Ph.D. Nourishing Traditions, Washington, DC: NewTrends Publishing, 2001.

JWR Adds: Be sure to follow the necessary safety guidelines for lacto-fermentation. If you suspect that a batch has gone “off” then discard it. Anyone with a sensitive stomach should show great caution when considering adding fermented foods to their diet.