Fermenting at Home

Fred Casten retired in May 2013, and by October he and his wife, Kate, began a new venture: making sauerkraut in their Windsor home.

They make it the old-fashioned German way, carrying on the family tradition by fermenting thinly sliced cabbage in ceramic crocks and canning the results.

“Our grandparents harvested cabbage in the fall and canned it 30 days later,” Fred says. “It got them through the winter, spring and summer.”

When the Castens first tried the ancient art of fermenting vegetables at home, they bought 100 pounds of cabbage at Hungenberg Produce in Greeley and sliced it themselves. They’ve since switched to buying shredded cabbage from Shamrock Foods because there’s less waste.

Kate started inviting friends to join in on the process, and before long, sauerkraut making became an event at their home every October. The Castens bring friends and family together, and Kate serves pork, sauerkraut from previous years and other German dishes as they prep the fresh batch of cabbage to ferment.

Everyone, including the Castens’ two-year-old grandson, takes turns “stomping” the cabbage, salt and red pepper flakes with wood newel posts in large metal pots to release the juices.

Stomped cabbage fermenting on the third day in a ceramic crock. The plate and bricks maintain the right juice level. Photos courtesy of Fred Casten.

“It takes 250 stomps per person to get it good, sloppy and juicy,” Fred says. “That’s 5,000 stomps for a 10-pound batch.”

The cabbage and juices are transferred to ceramic crocks and covered with a cabbage leaf to submerge the ingredients and keep flies at bay. It is then weighed down with a plate, topped with a lid and left to ferment at room temperature for 30 days. The art, Kate says, comes into play when the cabbage juices release during the first week of fermentation.

“You take out some juice so it doesn’t overflow,” she says. “Refrigerate [the liquid] and return it to the crocks slowly, keeping the liquid an inch above the sauerkraut.”

The Castens can 120 pints of sauerkraut from each annual gathering, which they share with participants. The shelf life is up to three years, and after opening, the cans last for a month in the refrigerator.

A pair of wooden “stompers,” also known as newel posts.

Civilization’s oldest preservation method

There are many other types of fermented foods, including yogurt, wine, beer, cider, miso, tempeh and kimchi. Sourdough bread is also produced by fermenting yeast, and though it has recently become trendy, the process is ancient.

According to a Frontiers for Young Minds article, humans have practiced fermentation since 10,000 B.C.E., when people in the fertile crescent (countries defining the Middle East today) discovered the natural chemical process that occurs when edible substances are combined with water and salt in an anaerobic environment. The result is a biological reaction that breaks down sugars in food as well as the microorganisms that live on it, like yeast and bacteria.

Fermenting food also lengthens its shelf life, removes toxins and makes some unpalatable foods taste better, according to Healthline. For example, olives taste bitter when they are picked from a tree, whereas curing and fermenting them reduces the bitterness and creates lactic acid, a natural preservative.

Homegrown health food

The fermentation process also works with many vegetables grown in your home garden. Cabbage, beets, radishes, carrots and garlic are easy to ferment and can be used in a variety of ways.

Loveland resident Linda Omundson ferments vegetables at home every four to six months. She buys fresh vegetables from the Loveland Farmers Market when they are in season and at Sprouts during the off-season. She uses one head of cabbage to make sauerkraut in small batches, which are usually ready after five days of sitting in a sealed canning jar on the counter. The longer they sit, the softer they get.

Omundson also ferments individual garlic cloves (this takes four to six weeks) and eats several cloves daily in the winter for immune system support.

“It’s not as crunchy as when it’s raw, but not soft like when you roast it. The flavor isn’t as breathtaking, but it helps get me through the cold and flu season,” she says.

She also ferments beets with pure spring water and sea salt to make an anti-inflammatory drink called “kvass,” which is a red, earthy-tasting juice. She slices fresh beets in quarters and places them in a covered jar, then leaves it at room temperature for about a month. As the bacteria grows, she pours off two tablespoons of juice to drink daily.

“It’s a grassroots approach to health care,” she says. “It helps replenish good, natural gut bacteria—the natural flora you have in your gastrointestinal system—to help foods absorb better.”

Omundson first became interested in fermenting vegetables after her youngest daughter was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a chronic illness causing intestinal cramping, diarrhea and bloating due to the body’s inability to properly digest food.

She says fermenting breaks foods down naturally so your intestines don’t have to work as hard: “It’s breaking it down for your body if your body can’t do it for you.”

Fermenting with koji

Miso paste, sake and soy sauce are familiar to many, but you may not know that they’re produced by fermenting koji, grains that are inoculated with a mold called Aspergillus oryzae.

When combined with water and salt, koji makes what Tomoko Creed says is her “miracle condiment:” a living culture called shio koji that she uses in marinades, stir fry, salad dressing and to tenderize meat.

“It tastes salty but not as sharp,” she says. “It’s healthier because fermented food is better for you, and you can use it in place of salt.”

Having grown up in Japan, Creed had easy access to shio koji sold in stores, but now, a resident of Greeley, she makes it herself.

Creed buys the dry rice mold from Amazon or Pacific Mercantile Company, a Japanese market in Denver, and mixes it with water and salt in a lidded glass container. She partially closes the lid and leaves it on the kitchen counter for a week, stirring daily with a clean hand or non-metal spatula. If your kitchen is cold, she says the process takes longer.

“It starts smelling like a ripe banana—a little sweet from the fermentation,” Creed says. “There should be darker liquid on the surface. You can tell it’s living. The result has a granular, porridge consistency you can spread on salmon cooked in foil and topped with a lemon slice and butter or rub on meat to marinate before roasting or grilling.”