Sauerkraut, an acid fermentation of vegetables

Acid Cabbage

Sauerkraut is one example of an acid fermentation of vegetables. The name sauerkraut literally translates as acid cabbage. The ‘sauerkraut process’ can be applied to any other suitable type of vegetable product. Because of the importance of this product in the German diet, the process has received substantial research in order to commercialise and standardise production. As a result, the process and the contributing micro-organisms are known intimately. Other less well known fermented fruits and vegetables have received less research attention, therefore little is known of the exact process. It is safe to assume however that the acid fermentation of vegetables is based on this process.

Dry salted, brined and non-salted

Lactic acid fermentations are carried out under three basic types of condition:– dry salted, brined and non-salted. Salting provides a suitable environment for lactic acid bacteria to grow which impart the acid flavour to the vegetable.

Salt for Pickling

Salt for pickling.
For pickling any variety of common salt is suitable as long as it is pure. Impurities or additives can cause problems. Salt with chemicals to reduce caking should not be used as they make the brine cloudy. Salt with lime impurities can reduce the acidity of the final product and reduce the shelf life of the product. Salt with iron impurities can result in the blackening of the vegetables. Magnesium impurities impart a bitter taste. Carbonates can result in pickles with a soft texture (Lal, Siddappa and Tandon, 1986).

Dry salted fermented vegetables

With dry salting, the vegetable is treated with dry salt. The salt extracts the juice from the vegetable and creates the brine. The vegetable is prepared, washed in potable cold water and drained. For every 100 kg of vegetables 3 kg of salt is needed. The vegetables are placed in a layer of about 2.5cm depth in the fermenting container (a barrel or keg). Salt is sprinkled over the vegetables. Another layer of vegetables is added and more salt added. This is repeated until the container is three quarters full. A cloth is placed above the vegetables and a weight added to compress the vegetables and assist the formation of a brine which takes about 24 hours. As soon as the brine is formed, fermentation starts and bubbles of carbon dioxide begin to appear. Fermentation takes between one and four weeks depending on the ambient temperature. Fermentation is complete when no more bubbles appear, after which time the pickle can be packaged in a variety of mixtures. These can be vinegar and spices or oil and spices (Lal et al, 1986).

The ‘sauerkraut’ process

Lactic acid bacteria are the primary group of organisms involved in sauerkraut fermentation. They can be divided into three groups according to their types and end products:

Leuconostoc mesenteroides                an acid and gas producing coccus

Lactobacillus plantarum and              bacilli that produce acid and a small amount of gas

L. Cucumeris

Lactobacillus pentoaceticus               acid and gas producing bacilli
(L. Brevis)

In addition to the desirable bacteria there are a range of undesirable micro-organisms present on cabbage (and other vegetable material) which can interfere with the sauerkraut process if allowed to multiply unchecked. The quality of the final product depends largely on how well the undesirable organisms are controlled during the fermentation process. Some of the typical spoilage organisms utilise the protein as an energy source, producing unpleasant odours and flavours.

The fermentation process

Shredded cabbage or other suitable vegetables are placed in a jar and salt is added. Mechanical pressure is applied to the cabbage to expel the juice, which contains fermentable sugars and other nutrients suitable for microbial activity. The first micro-organisms to start acting are the gas-producing cocci (L. Mesenteroides). These microbes produce acids. When the acidity reaches 0.25 to 0.3% (calculated as lactic acid), these bacteria slow down and begin to die off, although their enzymes continue to function. The activity initiated by the L. mesenteroides is continued by the lactobacilli (L. plantarum and L. Cucumeris) until an acidity level of 1.5 to 2% is attained. The high salt concentration and low temperature inhibit these bacteria to some extent. Finally, L. pentoaceticus continues the fermentation, bringing the acidity to 2 to 2.5% thus completing the fermentation.

The end products of a normal kraut fermentation are lactic acid along with smaller amounts of acetic and propionic acids, a mixture of gases of which carbon dioxide is the principal gas, small amounts of alcohol and a mixture of aromatic esters. The acids, in combination with alcohol form esters, which contribute to the characteristic flavour of sauerkraut. The acidity helps to control the growth of spoilage and putrefactive organisms and contributes to the extended shelf life of the product. Changes in the sequence of desirable bacteria, or indeed the presence of undesirable bacteria, alter the taste and quality of the product.

Effects of temperature on sauerkraut process

The optimum temperature for sauerkraut fermentation is around 21ºC. A variation of just a few degrees from this temperature alters the activity of the microbial process and affects the quality of the final product. Therefore, temperature control is one of the most important factors in the sauerkraut process. A temperature of 18º to 22º C is most desirable for initiating fermentation since this is the optimum temperature range for the growth and metabolism of L. mesenteroides. Temperatures above 22ºC favour the growth of Lactobacillus species.

Effects of salt on the sauerkraut process

Salt plays an important role in initiating the sauerkraut process and affects the quality of the final product. The addition of too much salt may inhibit the desirable bacteria, although it may contribute to the firmness of the kraut. The principle function of salt is to withdraw juice from the cabbage (or other vegetable), thus making a more favourable environment for development of the desired bacteria.

Generally, salt is added to a final concentration of 2.0 to 2.5%. At this concentration, lactobacilli are slightly inhibited, but cocci are not affected. Unfortunately, this concentration of salt has a greater inhibitory effect against the desirable organisms than against those responsible for spoilage. The spoilage organisms can tolerate salt concentrations up to between 5 and 7%, therefore it is the acidic environment created by the lactobacilli that keep the spoilage bacteria at bay, rather than the addition of salt.

In the manufacture of sauerkraut, dry salt is added at the rate if 1 to 1.5 kg per 50kg cabbage (2 to 3%). The use of salt brines is not recommended in sauerkraut making, but is common in vegetables that have a low water content. It is essential to use pure salt since salts with added alkali may neutralise the acid.

Use of starter cultures

In order to produce sauerkraut of consistent quality, starter cultures (similar to those used in the dairy industry) have been recommended. Not only do starter cultures ensure consistency between batches, they speed up the fermentation process as there is no time lag while the relevant microflora colonise the sample. Because the starter cultures used are acidic, they also inhibit the undesirable micro-organisms. It is possible to add starters traditionally used for milk fermentation, such asStreptococcus lactis, without adverse effect on final quality. Because these organisms only survive for a short time (long enough to initiate the acidification process) in the kraut medium, they do not disturb the natural sequence of micro-organisms. On the other hand, if Leuconostoc mesenteroides is added in the early stages, it gives a good flavour to the final product, but alters the sequence of subsequent bacterial growth and results in a product that is incompletely fermented. If gas producing rods (for example L pentoaceticus) are added to the sauerkraut, this disturbs the balance between acetic and lactic acids – more acetic acid and less lactic acid are produced than normal – and the fermentation never reaches completion. If lactic acid, non-gas producing rods (L. Cucumeris) are used as a starter, again the kraut is not completely fermented and the resulting product is bitter and more susceptible to spoilage by yeasts.

It is possible to use the juice from a previous kraut fermentation as a starter culture for subsequent fermentations. The efficacy of using old juice depends largely on the types of organisms present in the juice and its acidity. If the starter juice has an acidity of 0.3% or more, it results in a poor quality kraut. This is because the cocci which would normally initiate fermentation are suppressed by the high acidity, leaving the bacilli with sole responsibility for fermentation. If the starter juice has an acidity of 0.25% or less, the kraut produced is normal, but there do not appear to be any beneficial effects of adding this juice. Often, the use of old juice produces a sauerkraut which has a softer texture than normal.

Spoilage and defects in the sauerkraut process

The majority of spoilage in sauerkraut is due to aerobic soil micro-organisms which break down the protein and produce undesirable flavour and texture changes. The growth of these aerobes can easily be inhibited by a normal fermentation.

Soft kraut can result from many conditions such as large amounts of air, poor salting procedure and varying temperatures. Whenever the normal sequence of bacterial growth is altered or disturbed, it usually results in a soft product. It is the lactobacilli, which seem to have a greater ability than the cocci to break down cabbage tissues, which are responsible for the softening. High temperatures and a reduced salt content favour the growth of lactobacilli, which are sensitive to higher concentrations of salt. The usual concentration of salt used in sauerkraut production slightly inhibits the lactobacilli, but has no effect on the cocci. If the salt content is too low initially, the lactobacilli grow too rapidly at the beginning and upset the normal sequence of fermentation.

Another problem encountered is the production of dark coloured sauerkraut. This is caused by spoilage organisms during the fermentation process. Several conditions favour the growth of spoilage organisms. For example, an uneven distribution of salt tends to inhibit the desirable organisms while at the same time allowing the undesirable salt tolerant organisms to flourish. An insufficient level of juice to cover the kraut during the fermentation allows undesirable aerobic bacteria and yeasts to grow on the surface of the kraut, causing off flavours and discoloration. If the fermentation temperature is too high, this also encourages the growth of undesirable microflora, which results in a darkened colour.

Pink kraut is a spoilage problem. It is caused by a group of yeasts which produce an intense red pigment in the juice and on the surface of the cabbage. It is caused by an uneven distribution of or an excessive concentration of salt, both of which allow the yeast to multiply. If conditions are optimal for normal fermentation, these spoilage yeasts are suppressed.

Brine salted fermented vegetables

Brine is used for vegetables which inherently contain less moisture. A brine solution is prepared by dissolving salt in water (a 15 to 20% salt solution). Fermentation takes place well in a brine of about 20 salometer. As a general guide, a fresh egg floats in a 10% brine solution (Kordylas, 1990). Properly brined vegetables will keep well in vinegar for a long time. The duration of brining is important for the overall keeping qualities. The vegetable is immersed in the brine and allowed to ferment. The strong brine solution draws sugar and water out of the vegetable, which decreases the salt concentration. It is crucial that the salt concentration does not fall below 12%, otherwise conditions do not allow for fermentation. To achieve this, extra salt is added periodically to the brine mixture.

Once the vegetables have been brined and the container sealed, there is a rapid development of micro-organisms in the brine. The natural controls which affect the microbial populations of the fermenting vegetables include the concentration of salt and temperature of the brine, the availability of fermentable materials and the numbers and types of micro-organisms present at the start of fermentation. The rapidity of the fermentation is correlated with the concentration of salt in the brine and its temperature.

Most vegetables can be fermented at 12.5o to 20o salometer salt. If so, the microbial sequence of lactic acid bacteria generally follows the classical sauerkraut fermentation described by Pederson (1979). At higher salt levels of up to about 40o salometer, the sequence is skewed towards the development of a homofermentation, dominated by Lactobacillus plantarum. At the highest concentrations of salt (about 60o salometer) the lactic fermentation ceases to function and if any acid is detected during brine storage it is acetic acid, presumably produced by acid-forming yeasts which are still active at this concentration of salt (Vaughn, 1985).

Brine salted fermentation of vegetables (Pickles)

Pickled cucumbers are another fermented product that has been studied in detail and the process is known. The fermentation process is very similar to the sauerkraut process, only brine is used instead of dry salt. The washed cucumbers are placed in large tanks and salt brine (15 to 20%) is added. The cucumbers are submerged in the brine, ensuring that none float on the surface – this is essential to prevent spoilage. The strong brine draws the sugar and water out of the cucumbers, which simultaneously reduces the salinity of the solution. In order to maintain a salt solution so that fermentation can take place, more salt has to be added to the brine solution. If the concentration of salt falls below 12%, it will result in spoilage of the pickles through putrefaction and softening.

A few days after the cucumbers have been placed in the brine, the fermentation process begins. The process generates heat which causes the brine to boil rapidly. Acids are also produced as a result of the fermentation.

During fermentation, visible changes take place which are important in judging the progress of the process. The colour of the cucumber surface changes from bright green to a dark olive green as acids interact with the chlorophyll. The interior of the cucumber changes from white to a waxy translucent shade as air is forced out of the cells. The specific gravity of the cucumbers also increases as a result of the gradual absorption of salt and they begin to sink in the brine rather than floating on the surface.

Microbes involved in the fermentation process

As with the sauerkraut process, the gram positive coccus – Leuconostoc mesenteroides predominates in the first stages of pickle fermentation. This species is more resistant to temperature changes and tolerates higher salt concentration than the subsequent species. As fermentation proceeds and the acidity increases, lactobacilli start to take over from the cocci. The active stage of fermentation continues for between 10 to 30 days, depending upon the temperature of the fermentation. The optimum temperature for L. Cucumeris is 29 to 32ºC. During the fermentative period, the acidity increases to about 2% and the strong acid producing types of bacteria reach their maximum growth. If sugar or acetic acid is added to the fermenting mixture during this time it increases the production of acid.

Problems in pickles

The production of excessive amounts of acid during the fermentation, results in shrivelling of the pickles, possibly due to over-activity of the L. mesenteroidesspecies. If the brine is stirred, it may introduce air, which makes conditions more favourable for the growth of spoilage bacteria. In general, if the pickles are well covered with brine, the salt concentration is maintained and the temperature is at an optimum, it should be quite simple to produce good quality pickles.

Non salted, lactic acid fermented vegetables

Some vegetables are fermented by lactic acid bacteria, without the prior addition of salt or brine. Examples of non-salted products include gundruk (consumed in Nepal), sinki and other wilted fermented leaves. The detoxification of cassava through fermentation includes an acid fermentation, during which time the cyanogenic glycosides are hydrolysed to liberate the toxic cyanide gas.

The fermentation process relies on the rapid colonisation of the food by lactic acid producing bacteria, which lower the pH and make the environment unsuitable for the growth of spoilage organisms. Oxygen is also excluded as the Lactobacilli favour an anaerobic atmosphere. Restriction of oxygen ensures that yeasts do not grow.

For the production of sinki, fresh radish roots are harvested, washed and wilted by sun-drying for one to two days. They are then shredded, re-washed and packed tightly into an earthenware or glass jar, which is sealed and left to ferment. The optimum fermentation time is twelve days at 30ºC. Sinki fermentation is initiated byL. fermentum and L. brevis, followed by L. plantarum. During fermentation the pH drops from 6.7 to 3.3. After fermentation, the radish substrate is sun-dried to a moisture level of about 21%. For consumption, sinki is rinsed in water for two minutes, squeezed to remove the excess water and fried with salt, tomato, onion and green chilli. The fried mixture is then boiled in rice water and served hot as soup along with the main meal (Steinkraus, 1996).

Pit fermentations

South Pacific pit fermentations are an ancient method of preserving starchy vegetables without the addition of salt. The raw materials undergo an acid fermentation within the pit, to produce a paste with good keeping qualities. Pit fermentations are also used in other parts of the world – for example in Ethiopia, where the false banana (Ensete ventricosum) is fermented in a pit to produce a pulp known as kocho. Foods preserved in pits can last for years without deterioration, therefore pits provide a good, reliable cheap means of storage.

Root crops and bananas are peeled before being placed in the pit, while breadfruit are scraped and pierced. Food is left to ferment for three to six weeks, after which time it becomes soft, has a strong odour and a paste-like consistency. During fermentation, carbon dioxide builds up in the pit, creating an anaerobic atmosphere. As a result of bacterial activity, the temperature rises much higher than the ambient temperature. The pH of the fruit within the pit decreases from 6.7 to 3.7 within about four weeks. Inoculation of the fruit in the pit with lactic acid bacteria greatly speeds up the process. The fermented paste can be left in the pit and removed as required. Usually, it is removed and replaced with a second batch of fresh food to ferment. The fermented food is washed and fibrous material removed. It is then dried in the sun for several hours to remove the volatile odours, and pounded into a paste. Grated coconut or coconut cream and sugar may be added and the mixture is wrapped in banana leaves and either baked or boiled (Steinkraus, 1996).

Principles of Acetic Acid Fermentation

The main desirable fermentation carried out by acetic acid bacteria is the production of vinegar. Vinegar, literally translated as sour wine, is one of the oldest products of fermentation used by man. It can be made from almost any fermentable carbohydrate source, for example fruits, vegetables, syrups and wine. Whatever the raw material used, the fermentation process follows a definite sequence.

The basic requirement for vinegar production is a raw material that will undergo an alcoholic fermentation. Apples, pears, grapes, honey, syrups, cereals, hydrolysed starches, beer and wine are all ideal substrates for the production of vinegar. The best raw materials are cider and wine, which are widely used in Europe and the United States. To produce a high quality product it is essential that the raw material is mature, clean and in good condition.

Microbes involved in the vinegar process.

The production of vinegar depends on a mixed fermentation, which involves both yeasts and bacteria. The fermentation is usually initiated by yeasts which break down glucose into ethyl alcohol with the liberation of carbon dioxide gas. Following on from the yeasts, acetobacter oxidise the alcohol to acetic acid and water.

Yeast reaction

C6H12O6 2C2H5OH + 2CO2
Glucose yeast ethyl alcohol + carbon dioxide

Bacterial reaction

C2H5OH + O2 CH3COOH + H2O
Alcohol acetic acid water

The yeasts and bacteria exist together in a form known as commensalism. The acetobacter are dependent upon the yeasts to produce an easily oxidisable substance (ethyl alcohol). It is not possible to produce vinegar by the action of one type of micro-organism alone.

For a good fermentation, it is essential to have an alcohol concentration of 10 to 13%. If the alcohol content is much higher, the alcohol is incompletely oxidised to acetic acid. If it is lower than 13%, there is a loss of vinegar because the esters and acetic acid are oxidised. In addition to acetic acid, other organic acids are formed during the fermentation which become esterified and contribute to the characteristic odour, flavour and colour of the vinegar.

Acetaldehyde is an intermediate product in the transformation of the reducing sugar in fruit juice to acetic acid or vinegar. Oxygen is required for the conversion of acetaldehyde to acetic acid.

In general, the yield of acetic acid from glucose is approximately 60%. That is three parts of glucose yield two parts acetic acid.

Micro-organisms involved in the fermentation of vinegar

The organisms involved in vinegar production usually grow at the top of the substrate, forming a jelly like mass. This mass is known as ‘mother of vinegar’. The mother is composed of both acetobacter and yeasts, which work together. The principal bacteria are Acetobacter acetic A. Xylinum and A. Ascendens. The main yeasts are Saccharomyces ellipsoideus and S cerevisiae. It is important to maintain an acidic environment to suppress the growth of undesirable organisms and to encourage the presence of desirable acetic acid producing bacteria. It is common practice to add 10 to 25% by volume of strong vinegar to the alcoholic substrate in order to attain a desirable fermentation.

The alcoholic fermentation of sugars should be completed before the solution is acidified because any remaining sugar will not be converted to alcohol after the acetic acid is added. Incomplete fermentation of the juice results in a “weak” product. The acetic acid strength of good vinegar should be approximately 6%.

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