I believe that as a society, we've lost the ability to trust our senses. We rely only on what is measurable and observable, what we are able to measure and observe at this moment. And we've lost the ability to observe with our other senses. We've lost the ability to intuitively know what is right and what is wrong. Now that I've said that, I'll say that I think the word intuitive is greatly overused. Intuitive is defined as "perceiving by intuition, as a person or the mind" and intuition is "direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process", "a fact, truth, etc., perceived in this way", "a keen and quick insight", "pure, untaught, noninferential knowledge" (from Webster's Encyclopedic Unabridged Dicrtionary of the English Language; Deluxe Edition 2001; p. 1002) It really is the innate ability to determine something true. When I first started fermenting, I had no experienced family or community members to lean upon. I had to trust the scientific knowledge I had regarding the gut, microflora and dysbiosis first. But to take that first bite, I had to trust my real gut ~ my instinct, my intuition. Since my professional training taught me otherwise, I had to believe that eating it would not kill me! I had to know that this was not bad, despite all my healthcare training that "it wasn't pasteurized, it would severely harm me, possibly kill me...it wasn't controlled by man, so beware".
So, what is fermentation? Fermentation is a biological process which converts the sugars that are present in food into cellular energy and lactate (a metabolic byproduct). It is a living process that makes the food "more alive". The process is essentially simple ~ you prepare your food (slicing, spicing, etc), then you make sure it is submerged beneath the brine it has created from the water in it or under a prepared brine you have created. When you keep the food away from the air (submerged under the brine of the vegetables), you initiate anaerobic conditions and, rather than rotting, the food ferments. When a food ferments, it creates energy. Vitamins are more readily available. And beneficial bacteria, probiotic bacteria, proliferate. These bacteria are wonderful for your gut. As you know (or may not know if you haven't heard me talk or read further on this site), we have 10 times more bacteria in our bodies than we have cells in our bodies. That, to me, is just amazing! And it speaks volumes to the importance of the proper balance of bacteria in our outer world and our inner world that create such a delicate, yet resilient, balance.
Back to food fermentation. There are many real foodies who have come to believe that we can only ferment in completely controlled conditions by using specialized jars which will allow the fermenting gases to escape while completely preventing contact from the outside air. One of the arguments is that in the past traditional cultures that fermented would bury their vats of fermented food and the vats were left there until use. Therefore, they were completely removed from air contact. My problem with this is that not every culture buried their vats. The Koreans did with their kimchi, but what about the Czechs and other eastern European countries that used vats with weighted plates to keep the ferment submerged under the brine? I remember stories of my stoic, dutiful Czechoslovakian grandfather and his brother sneaking into the root cellar, grabbing handfuls of sauerkraut in the winter and getting a dishtowel snapped at them by my great grandmother. So the tales of the buried, perfectly anaerobic vats of ferments in years past are a bit washed away in the reality of life......kids sneaking in with dirty hands opening the containers and sampling, forgetting to reweight the ferment after using it (didn't have a story for this one, but I can't be the first in history to have forgotten to put the lid on something!). And for those buried in the ground, what would happen if animals broke them open? Would the family discard the rest of the food, maybe the only food they had left, and not eat it? Or would they scrape the top off and rebury it somewhere else? Could that last scenario happen? I don't know, but I am sure there are many other cases of "real life" that we can't fathom or imagine unless we are able to experience similar life circumstances. It is hard to imagine what it would be like for your supply of food (your ONLY supply of food in many areas, other than what they were able to hunt) to vanish when we can just go to the store and buy some more. Our biggest issue today is that we pay more money for food that is grown out of our season and shipped to us.
So, my final thoughts? Well, if you have a serious health issue and the nature of your dysbiosis (imbalance of beneficial and bad bacteria in the gut) is severe, you many need specific cultures to be included or excluded in your ferments. If this is the case, then you should ferment in a completely controlled environment with starter cultures specifically for your situation. But many of us will be missing out on the wonderful gut benefits that probiotic, fermented foods have for us if we don't do it unless it is perfectly controlled by us.
The very nature of fermentation, as I said, is both an art and a science. This duality is present in all of life. For me, I am an artist. a scientist, a writer, a thinker, a being, a do-er, a mom, a daughter, an aunt, a niece. You see.....we can't separate the one from the other. So art and science are intertwined eternally. It was meant to be that way.
Now, go eat your sauerkraut....