February Fermentations

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Fermentations_sauerkraut-suppliesHaving your probiotic and eating it, too

by Patty Unruh

Back by popular demand, the CSU Extension presented “February Fermentations,” a class on making high-altitude-friendly sourdough bread and probiotic-rich sauerkraut. About 20 folks gathered at the Gilpin Community Center on Saturday, February 27, to learn how to prepare these good tasting, good-for-you fermented foods. Participants tried samples and departed with recipes, tips, and even a zip lock bag of sourdough starter.

Fermented foods are foods that have gone through a chemical breakdown process by certain bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms. Aside from sauerkraut and sourdough bread, some other commonly known fermented foods are wine, cheese, yogurt, and kimchi. Not only are these foods tasty, but they are considered good for digestive health due to the beneficial live cultures they contain.

Extension Agent Irene Shonle explained the benefits of long, slow fermentation. Besides the digestive advantages, fermenting brings out more complex flavors. These foods can be made at home with only minimal tools and supplies, so it’s not very expensive. And, for those of us who are always busy, actual preparation time is short.

Sourdough Bread

Even though prep time is simple, you don’t make this bread on the spur of the moment — it takes several hours for the dough to rise. Shonle reminded the group that back in the olden days, this was standard bread-making practice.

“Only with the ‘rise’ of instant yeast do we have quick breads!” she quipped, adding that there is no need to knead this bread. For those who use kneading as a way to work out their frustrations, homemade sauerkraut can provide that needed outlet.

The preparation of sourdough begins with a “starter” made of flour and water and a colony of microorganisms that include wild yeast and lactobacilli. Starter produces a vigorous leaven and develops the flavor of the bread. Exact measurements are not really necessary, and experimentation is encouraged. Shonle noted, though, that Gilpin sourdough would not be as tangy as San Francisco-style sourdough, due to the type of wild yeast in our air.

She recommended storing the starter in the refrigerator in a non-airtight container. “Feed it with equal weights of flour and water after using the amount called for in the recipe, before returning it to the fridge. Leave headroom for expansion after feeding. If you don’t bake often, you may notice grayish water on top of the starter. It’s okay, just pour if off, feed, stir, and replace in the fridge,” she said.

Shonle had prepared her dough the day before, using whole wheat flour, white unbleached bread flour, non-iodized salt, water, and starter. She mixed all ingredients in a large bowl, covered with plastic, and let rise for 15-24 hours. Next, she had shaped the dough into a ball and transferred it to a parchment-paper lined bowl known as a proofing bowl. During the class, she let the dough rise again while she preheated the oven and a lidded cast iron container. Some type of lidded container is key to maintaining moisture, improving oven spring, and making a great crust.

After the second rise, she scored the dough, sprayed it with water, and transferred it to the preheated container. Then, into the oven it went to bake and emit a tantalizing aroma.


Lactic acid fermentation transforms salt and cabbage, and the bacteria already present on the cabbage, into sauerkraut. Fermentation requires an absence of free oxygen; otherwise, fermented foods can be contaminated by stray microbes.

Sauerkraut is great as is, in salad, or with sausage or pork roast. And, just three tablespoons per day can serve as a beneficial probiotic. To make it, you need a knife, a cutting board, and either a fermentation crock with a weight or a sterilized jar with a lid. An optional inexpensive airlock lid may be purchased on-line. It allows gases to escape but doesn’t let air back in, with its potential contaminants. Everything you work with should be clean, including your hands.

Shonle demonstrated the making of sauerkraut with two medium heads of green cabbage, about five pounds total, cored and finely chopped. She tossed the chopped cabbage with three tablespoons of non-iodized sea salt, which is necessary to keep contaminants out while the probiotic lactobacillus cultures are forming. Then she squeezed the cabbage and salt together with her hands, kneading it thoroughly to break up the cabbage’s cellular structure (and to relieve stress!)

When the cabbage was limp and released juice, she filled a zip lock bag with the juice, or brine, and transferred the cabbage to a sterilized jar, packing it in tightly to eliminate air bubbles. She weighted it down with the bag of brine.

Patience is required, as the cabbage must sit at room temperature for two to six weeks. It should be checked every couple of days to make sure that gas bubbles are forming and to skim off any yeast or mold. The sauerkraut is done when the bubbling has stopped and it has a pleasantly tangy smell and taste. Thankfully, Shonle had some already made for the folks to try.

Reviews and Future Plans

Participants praised the sourdough’s thick, chewy crust and mildly tangy flavor. They enjoyed the sauerkraut’s crispness and noted, “It’s almost sweet – a lot different than the canned stuff!” Many had seconds and were eager to try making the foods at home.

In fact, several decided to form a group to share information and taste each other’s efforts. Anyone who is interested may contact CSU Extension Agent Irene Shonle at Irene.Shonle@ColoState.EDU.

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