By Lindsay Suto
The Green Corn Moon is named after the annual Native American ceremony held at the beginning of the yearly corn harvest. The green corn ceremony consisted of dancing, feasting, and a fruit ritual where the first of the corn crop was sacrificed in order to ensure success with the rest of the crop.
Locally, this is the time of the year when gardens are producing bumper crops and gardeners seek out forms of preservation to ensure their hard work doesn’t go to waste. One of the simplest and most nutritious ways to preserve foods is through lacto-fermentation.
Lacto-fermentation is one of the ancient methods of food preservation, dating back to 6000 B.C. Since then nearly every culture around the globe has included fermented foods as a part of their culinary traditions. Examples from around the world include kimchi in Korea, spiced chutneys in India, sauerkraut in Germany, natto in Japan, cortido in South America, kvass in Russia, and the more ubiquitous foods we are familiar with such as yogurt, pickled vegetables, sourdough and relishes.
Many cultures have relied on fermentation not just as a preservation technique, but also for it’s role in food safety. For instance, in West African countries, cassava is an important food source, but if not prepared properly, the natural cyanides it contains can be toxic. Once fermented, it becomes a safe and regular part of the diet. Other countries with poor sanitation use fermentation to protect against food borne illness.
There are many other benefits to fermented foods that are causing them to gain popularity amongst the “food as medicine” movement. In fact, people have been connecting health to fermented foods since as far back as the ancient civilizations in Rome, Greece, and China. The process of fermentation makes foods easier to digest and increases vitamin levels, sometimes even creating new nutrients, as is the case with B-vitamins. Some people have even noticed that fermented foods help cut their cravings for sweets and processed foods. Since you only need a small, condiment sized serving, it is easy to add these healthy foods into any diet.
Researchers have discovered the importance of a healthy and balanced gut micro biome, and the disastrous effects caused by our society’s heavy reliance on antibiotics, disinfectants, and pasteurization, which wipe out the “good bacteria” in our food, and thus our intestinal tracts. The solution? Fermented foods! The lactic acid present in fermented foods promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine, bringing the micro biome back into balance, which supports the immune system and reduces inflammation.
Lactic acid fermentation is an anaerobic process where lactobacilli present in the starches and sugars of many fruits and vegetables are converted into lactic acid. When fermenting vegetables, salt is usually added to the mixture, which prevents the growth of pathogenic bacteria until enough lactic acid is created to act as a preservative. Whey can also be added to the solution, and usually produces more consistent results due to it’s high lactic acid content. After sitting for a few days at room temperature, most fermented foods are then moved to cold storage, where they will safely last for several months.
The terms pickling and fermenting have been used interchangeably. Even though it is possible to get sauerkraut and pickles at the supermarket, these commercialized products are made through a process that diminishes the many health benefits of proper fermentation. Because lacto-fermentation is an artisanal craft with unpredictable results, it does not easily lend itself to mass production. When the process of pickling foods became industrialized, the whole process was altered in order to ensure a more consistent and marketable result. This involved adding vinegar to the brine and pasteurizing the product which destroys the beneficial lactic-acid producing bacteria. For that reason, it is better to ferment the foods yourself or seek out a reputable source of small batch ferments.
Many people are intimidated by the lacto-fermentation process, but it is actually quite simple! Come to this month’s Seasonal Kitchen cooking class to learn how to get started on this ancient culinary craft.