Lacto-Fermentation as a Method of Food Preservation
Have you ever stopped and asked yourself how people kept food for more than a few days before freezers, refrigerators, and canning? All three of these things are fairly new to mankind and yet these are the primary ways that we now keep food.
But for generations society has needed to preserve food in one way or another. They were able to do this through salting, smoking, curing, and the age-old practice of lacto-fermentation.
Lacto-fermentation, in one form or another, has existed in just about every society and culture that we have record of. From sauerkraut in Germany to kimchi in Korea, lacto-fermented foods are prevalent in pre-industrial societies.
The reason for this is simple: The process of fermentation allows foods to stay edible longer. While a cabbage might rot within a couple of weeks at room temperature, sauerkraut can be kept for months, and in some cases years.
How Fermentation Preserves Food
The main factors that cause food to spoil cannot exist in the presence of an anaerobic, acidic environment. Anaerobic means that there is no oxygen present in the environment.
By chopping a cabbage, adding a small quantity of salt, and keeping it under the cover of a brine at a cool temperature, you are encouraging the bacteria naturally present within the vegetable to proliferate. Microorganisms such as lactic acid and other friendly bacteria and yeast begin to populate the cabbage.
The brine naturally present when cabbage is salted and pounded or the brine you make with water and salt creates an anaerobic environment. That is why many lacto-fermented recipes emphasize keeping the food below the level of the brine. By creating an anaerobic environment you keep out any “bad guys” who can only exist within an aerobic environment.
In addition, the lactic acid created during the fermentation process creates an acidic environment. This acidity is another method of creating an environment in which the “bad guys” are not allowed to proliferate.
Finally, by keeping the fermented food at a reasonable temperature (not too hot or too cold) you are able to control the rate of the fermentation. In this way you ensure that the fermentation happens slowly, which will create a pleasant-tasting, naturally preserved food that you can eat for months.
The Benefits of Lacto-fermentation
There are some advantages of lacto-fermentation over other methods of food preservation.
The end product has more nutrients. In the canning and freezing process you can lose some or all of the nutrients present in the freshly picked food. With lacto-fermentation you actually increase the nutritive value of the food in most cases, and there are many enzymes and probiotics naturally present in fermented foods that are killed off when you can something using heat.
The process is easier. Canning food is a lot of work. You must sterilize and pack jars, carefully seal them, can them in a heat-creating canner (usually in the middle of summer), then allow them to cool. Lacto-fermentation is as simple as chopping up some vegetables, mixing them with a bit of salt and maybe water, and allowing them to ferment. That’s it!
It is sustainable. Where freezing and canning require a lot of energy in the form of gas or electricity, lacto-fermentation can be done easily with neither of these things. If you are looking to be self-sufficient or less dependent on fuels in general, then lacto-fermentation is definitely the way to go.
Lacto-fermentation is easy, healthy, and economical. You can keep gallons of lacto-fermented vegetables in cold storage for months and have enzyme-rich foods available during the darkest periods of the year when fresh produce is scarce.