How can one not be fascinated by fermentation?  

Defined by Oxford as “the chemical breakdown of substances by bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms, typically involving effervesces and the giving off of heat,” fermentation is not modern magic. The process has been taken advantage of throughout history and continues to enchant those of us who employ and enjoy its applications today. 

Before refrigeration, people could use naturally-present microbes to create fermented foods that would provide winter provisions, able to keep for months and deliver health and wellness to the folks that ate them.  

It is sauerkraut that has bubbled up my interest in this type of food. As I considered the heads of Island cabbage that had been accumulating in my refrigerator thanks to the farmers at Island Grown Initiative, I ruminated over how to use them and not let a leaf go to waste. 

Sauerkraut was the solution and it was lovely lactobacillus that made it all possible. These bacteria make this type of lacto-fermentation possible. Miraculously, only two ingredients are required — cabbage and salt — to engage those naturally-occurring airborne bacteria already on the cabbage leaves to create my desired fermented food.  

The science of sauerkraut occurs in three phases of fermentation. First, shred the cabbage, add salt and then massage the vegetable to get the bacteria worked up. After the mix has been covered, the first-phase anaerobic bacteria create an acidic environment that favors other bacteria. As the acid level increases, only the acid-loving bacteria remain active. When the acidity increases to about a pH of three, fermentation can occur. It takes anywhere from three to five weeks or more, depending on temperature and other conditions. Errors can occur and range from soft or slimy sauerkraut because of improper temperatures to the growth of harmful molds or fungi.  

If you get it right, the rewards are, well, rewarding, as well as delicious. I add fennel seed or star anise for taste, though there are endless recipes and options to personalize your fermented food.  

It is not only food that is created in the process. Author Michael Pollan well-articulated other aspects of sauerkraut production, describing the process thus: “An act as quotidian and practical as making your own sauerkraut represents nothing less than a way of engaging with the world. Or rather, with several different worlds, each nested inside the other: the invisible world of fungi and bacteria; the community in which you live; and the industrial food system that is undermining the health of our bodies and the land.”  

Michael and I are not the only ones to appreciate sauerkraut, even if I am alone in my consumption of it at our household. Though he is usually the one that prepares it, my husband can only curl up his face in repulsion at eating it.

Others appreciate the food as much as I do. Food historian and journalist Mark Kurlansky notes that sauerkraut was valued more than caviar in 19th century Russia. The American Civil War General Robert E. Lee supposedly demanded “twenty-five barrels of Saur-Kraut” for his army when he took possession of the town of Chambersburg on his way to Gettysburg. And for its ability to prevent scurvy, Captain James Cook brought it with him on sea voyages.  

Perhaps Julien Freund, former director of the Institute of Sociology in Strasbourg, should have the last word on this freaky and fantastic fermented food: 

“It forms a marvelous combination with numerous spices, odors, or spirits: juniper berries, coriander seeds, peppercorns, cranberries, Reinette apples, stock and wine; it even welcomes flakes of yeast or leftover Gruyere since it accepts being prepared au gratin. Its flavor sustains various potato dishes: boiled in the skins, crisps, braised, sautéed, grilled, or simply cooked in water. It adopts many sorts of fat, including lard, butter, goose fat, or roast dripping. The variety of meats to which it consents in infinite: sausages of all kinds, such as knackwurst, white sausage, Lorraine, Montbeliard, chipolata, black pudding, hams, smoked or salted bacon, quenelles, pickled and smoked pork, goose, pheasant, etc. It makes excuses for red wine, although it has a weakness for beer and lets itself be spoilt by white wine. Each stomach may find its own happiness in it.” 

Suzan Bellincampi is islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.