Cultivating the tiny

I’m giving fermentation another go.

I’ve tried fermentation before, with zero success. The red cabbage, apple and capsicum mixture that should have been tangy and tasty… wasn’t. It went nowhere. I could not achieve a bubbly result, despite following instructions to the letter, using filtered water and special non-iodised sea salt. Zilch. I moved on.

Six months ago, I got an infection of helicobacter pylori, the bug that lives in your stomach, gives you stomach ulcers and can, if not treated, lead long term to stomach cancer. It wasn’t nice, but the treatment was worse: brutally efficient, effectively wiping out most of my colony of useful gut bacteria. Since then, I’ve struggled a bit with my internal economy, and finally, I decided it was time to repopulate.

The other day, I acquired a dried kefir starter culture. I like yoghurt a lot, and kefir has a similar flavour profile, but about a million times more good bacteria if home made. (Commercial types tend to be pasteurised, which destroys most of the bugs you want.) Having made and enjoyed my kefir, I let a small second batch over-ferment so it started to separate into curds and whey. I tipped the whey off, and this was my starter for fermented vegies. You use one tablespoon of live whey per 500ml of filtered water, and this is the liquid in which you submerge your chopped, sliced or shredded vegies. I’m not a huge salt fan, and salt fermentation produces a result I find too strongly flavoured – sauerkraut being a case in point. The mild tang of whey fermentation is much more palatable and enjoyable, in my opinion. While the salt does keep the vegies crisper, it’s a benefit I’m willing to sacrifice for a flavour I prefer.

This is my setup: a large 2 litre glass spring-top jar, filled in this case with shredded red cabbage, small cauliflower florets and thinly sliced carrot batons. I tried the old folded cabbage leaf on the top trick to hold things under water, but the mixture was too lively, and when I came downstairs in the morning, the jar was sitting in a large puddle of pink liquid and the leaf was high and dry. So now I have a small glass jar filled with water as a weight. It’s just slightly less in diameter than the mouth of the big jar, so it will let the fermentation gases escape around the outside, but it’s heavy enough to keep everything down under water so nothing nasty can start growing. As the mixture ferments and air bubbles are released, the weight slowly sinks and liquid escapes. Once it reaches the flavour I like, I shall cap the jar and keep it refrigerated to slow everything right down. The liquid from the jar can be used as a starter for the next brew, or I can start fresh with whey from my kefir.

I’m happy to report that my insides seem to be enjoying the new regime now that my biome is being restored.

Amazing what a difference such tiny creatures can make.



50 thoughts on “Cultivating the tiny

  1. Donnalee says:

    I am glad you are finding a setup that works for you. It amazes me that we are only recently understanding in the modern world how crucial certain bacteria are, while still using antibiotics! I think the fact that yoghurt and kefir and kimchi and sour dough bread and all have been around for millenia indicates that our ancestors were smarter than we are in some ways. Thank goodness for probiotics and all sorts of ways to get enough good bacteria now–

    • katechiconi says:

      Cultured foods tend to be more work than putting things in the fridge! My own ancestors used fermentation to preserve food, it’s much more of a northern European thing, so I guess I have a family tradition to look back on. The flavours can be an acquired taste for those not used to it, but certainly the food is much more digestible after fermentation processes have been at work. Having said that, I’m still grateful we have antibiotics, I wasn’t keen to live with a stomach ulcer…

  2. Sara says:

    I don’t know why doctors don’t recommend probiotics DURING courses of antibiotics. They can be taken to maintain a balance in the gut and prevent totally wiping out the biome so you don’t have to struggle so much after antibiotic use. Probiotics can also slow yeast growth which is a problem with antibiotics. Glad you’ve found fermented food and are on the way back to regaining your health!

    • katechiconi says:

      For me, antibiotic use was the least of the problems. There have been ongoing digestive issues for many months. I must say that since starting to drink kefir daily the improvement has been very marked. To do him credit, my doctor is quite open to other therapies, so I’ll be letting him know how I’ve started to fix the problem.

  3. dayphoto says:

    Terry has been having stomach troubles for about a week now…he won’t go to the Dr. so I am giving this a go. Thank you! I’ve copied and printed and am now heading to the health food store!

  4. anne54 says:

    Three cheers for the little guys! Glad to hear that your insides AND your taste buds are enjoying the new food.

  5. I think this is beyond me but I know I need to add good bacteria back into my gut. I consume too much sugar and that probably destroys everything good. I keep trying though. I will have to try something a bit less involved.

    • katechiconi says:

      Kefir is pretty easy, if you can access some kefir ‘grains’ at a health food store. Put some in a container, add milk, leave in a warmish place, covered with a piece of paper towel and an elastic band. It’ll take about 12 – 24 hours, depending on temperature, till you see the milk setting up a bit. Use a coarse plastic strainer to strain the set milk from the kefir grains, which are firm granules. Put the grains in another jar, add more milk and off you go again. The strained stuff you can drink as is, or add chopped fruit and blend. The shorter the time you leave it, the milder the tart flavour. If you see it start to separate into curd and whey, it’ll be strong.

  6. I’ve gotten to be a huge fan of fermentation. We have constant ongoing batches of kefir, kombucha, sourdough starter, raw vinegar, and lacto-fermented onions along with more occasional things like sauerkraut. I think it has made a difference in our health. I am convinced there’s a secret, however. I am revealing it for the first time….. I name the culture. Our kombucha is named Eme, our sourdough is named Vern, our kefir is named Myrna, and so on. They’re little living beasts, so I figure they deserve names. We haven’t had a batch fail in the last few years — ever since they had names.

    • katechiconi says:

      My sourdough starter is called Corinna, after a lady baker/detective in a book called Earthly Delights by Australian author Kerry Greenwood, and my Kefir/whey starter is call Effie (she’s effervescent!). I’m not a great user of vinegar and detest onions uncooked, plus I don’t much care for salt-fermented products like sauerkraut, but I just had a nibble of that red cabbage whey-ferment and it’s yummy!

  7. kathyreeves says:

    We are great believers in pickling at my house, beets, cucumbers, and green beans. We have not yet tried kefir, but sour dough is on the to do list, since yeast prices have gone sky high this month. Thinking about your slaw mix there, some pickle recipes call for a tiny bit of alum to keep the pickles crisp. Have you ever heard of it? Not sure if it would work in your recipe, but thought I would pass it on.

    • katechiconi says:

      Too much vinegar upsets my already dodgy internal balance, so I don’t get on with pickles much, but so far the kefir has been nothing but good, and the whey fermentation for the red cabbage is bubbling away in a lively fashion so I’ll have to can it soon or it’ll get too sour for my taste. I’m not really too concerned about lack of crispness, as I don’t ferment for days and days, and I don’t think I really want to introduce anything that nature didn’t intend, so I probably won’t try the alum. But thanks for the suggestion! I have a dried sourdough starter I want to wake up and get bubbling soon, so once I have a sufficient ‘mother’ going, I can dry some for you and send it along, if you’re interested? The starter has a long and illustrious lineage, beginning with the grand dame of starters, ‘Priscilla’, born and raised in Sydney by Celia of Fig Jam & Lime Cordial fame (

      • kathyreeves says:

        I can only imagine how difficult it is to reset one’s gut. We spent a crazy amount of time concocting things to help the baby calves that got really sick when I was young. As for the alum, I know one grandma used it, but when I looked it up, it is some sort of mineral compound, it probably was discovered when testing someone’s water. Their water tasted bad, but they had crisp pickles, or some such nonsense!! I had no idea you could dry sourdough starter! If it it works out and you think of it at the proper time, I’d love to try some! I hope I don’t kill it! That would be terrible!

  8. Lynda says:

    I’m glad you are feeling better. I think I need to investigate this method in my kitchen.

    • katechiconi says:

      I have to say, drinking kefir seems to have stopped several uncomfortable and painful issues dead. What’s not to love? It’s a little like keeping a zoo of tiny creatures, you have to be careful not to mix up the sourdough starter with the kefir starter or the yoghurt starter, but once you’ve done it a few times, it does seem to get easier.

  9. How very interesting. Philip has been making his own sauerkraut for a few weeks, it’s the most wonderful stuff (but I can understand not everyone likes it). He nurtures it quite carefully and enjoys the gentle prodding required every morning! Me?- lazy, and just happy to eat it 🙂
    By the way, with my gum surgery last year, I ended up on three courses of antibiotics in a row. Both GP and periodontist insisted I take probiotics at the same time. 🙂 I think it helped me a lot.

  10. tialys says:

    When I’m not doing ‘dry January’ I consume a fair amount of fermented grapes – does that count? 😉

  11. Chilli and pineapple fermented salsa sounds good. I’m not a big fan of fermented vegetables, but that I could go for I think. I make my own yoghurt and eat it most days, and I’m sure that this small input each day helps my digestive system enormously.

  12. Well done for coming up with a treatment that suits you and works. In addition to baking sourdough bread and making yoghurt, I’ve been vinegar pickling veges… so handy for summer salads, so I can see kefir and whey fermenting being a future extension to that.

    • katechiconi says:

      I’ve just tried some of the cabbage on a wrap with some cold pork and apple sauce, and I have to say, it took the whole thing to a new level. The richness of the pork and the sweetness of the apple balanced with the tang and crunch of the cabbage… bliss! I also think kefir would lend itself to more savoury flavours too, maybe something like ginger, turmeric and chilli or roasted pumpkin and onion blended through it.

  13. My guess is your original experiment wasn’t warm enough? Yeast needs a comfy enviro to flourish. Glad you gave it a second shot and are enjoying the results! Keep up the good work!

    • katechiconi says:

      I’m afraid that’s not the answer. We live in the tropics, and the jar was out on the counter, so it never dropped below 24°C/75°F. But I seem to have achieved a version I prefer with the whey fermentation anyway, which is very responsive and rapid in this climate.

  14. My first batch of sauerkraut was a tiny jar left on the windowsill for a couple of months in the heat of Texas summer. When I went to throw it out for the chickens, to my shock the moldy layer on top popped right off and left behind a fresh-smelling and flavorful kraut. Who would have thought?! That experience was really encouraging. I have had several successes then (though a few failures :P) and I am now seriously addicted. My favorite, hands down, was simple cucumber pickles — little whole cucumbers from Aldi that sat in dilled, garlicky brine for several days. They reminded me of Klausen refrigerated pickles, my favorite, but the flavor was more complex. *drooling now

    I recently found a book that has helped a TON with my understanding of making yummy ferments of all kinds – Traditionally Fermented Foods by Shannon Stonger. Highly recommend.

    • katechiconi says:

      I thought I wouldn’t like fermented food much; I don’t like pickles at all because my stomach doesn’t get on with vinegar. But what I like about fermentation is that you can totally control the strength of flavour. And I’m a whey-fermentation convert – lactobacillus is obviously my thing!

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