Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's in a pickle?

To pickle is to preserve in liquid.  Most commercial pickles are quick-pickles--preserved in one fell swoop in vinegar.  The pickles I love the best happen more slowly.  A slice of a sour cucumber pickle, or a dollop of kraut, can dress up any meal.  These are vegetables fermented in brine.  Fermentation may sound like an unlikely means to a delicacy, yet this natural process spans human history and geography.  It is not hard to identify the strong and distinctive flavors of fermented foods. To experience the transformative power of microscopic bacteria and fungi,  look no further than a glass of wine, a slice of sourdough bread, or a hunk of smelly, aged cheese.  Still, the benefits of these foods are not limited to complex flavors.

Sandor Katz is the author of Wild Fermentation, a book that has become a cult classic of sorts among those of the do-it-yourself persuasion.  Living with AIDS, nutrition is extremely important to Katz.  He attributes his relative health, in no small part, to his regular consumption of fermented foods.  For this reason, on his rural Tennessee homestead, he has spent years “developing a symbiotic rhythm with…tiny fermenting organisms.”  In his book, Katz illustrates for readers how we must nourish these organisms so that they nourish us.

How are fermented foods nourishing?  While a homemade batch of sauerkraut lacks a nutrition label, the health benefits are tangible.  Fermentation preserves nutrients while breaking them down into more easily digestible forms.  Take milk, for example.  Lactose intolerance refers to the human difficulty in digesting the milk sugar known as lactose.  Fermented dairy products such as yogurt take on lactobacilli, a bacterium that transforms lactose into easier-to-digest lactic acid.  At the same time, these bacteria create omega-3 fatty acids, boosting cell membrane and immune system function.  When you eat yogurt, you are also eating these living micro-organisms:  live-cultures.  We can now make sense of why yogurt winds up on almost every short list of beneficial foods.

Like milk, fermented vegetables are easier to digest than unfermented vegetables.  Salt is the essential ingredient in a brine, and makes the difference between a fermenting vegetable and a rotting vegetable.  When fermenting cabbage into kraut, salt is used to draw water out of the vegetables.  In this process, the brine is simply salt dissolved into the cabbage juices.  With cucumber pickles, a brine solution of salt and water is poured over the vegetables.  In both techniques, the brine fends off microorganisms that cause spoil while inviting the growth of lactobacilli and other beneficial bacteria.  This is lacto-fermentation.  

It is easy to sing the praises of lacto-fermented vegetables.  Katz cites a study that points to the cancer-preventing properties of sauerkraut.  Cabbage is part of the Brassicaceae family--a grouping a plants that includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale, collards and more.  Raw, these vegetables are rich in anti-carcinogenic nutrients.  Finnish research has found that fermentation breaks down the glucosinolates in cabbage into isothiocyanates, compounds known to fight cancer.  And so, in this realm, fermented cabbage appears healthier than its raw or cooked alter egos.  Good thing I have found sauerkraut to be an   exceedingly versatile condiment.

Pickling can bring new life to vegetables!  The mission of Dana's Pickles is to help you introduce more live-cultures into your diet.

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