I don’t know about you guys, but I’ve (finally) started paging through my favorite seed catalogs, thinking about seeds, planting and the soil in which I grow my food. I live in South Philly, so the vast majority of my gardening is done in containers, and as my favorite gardening guru said (or perhaps wrote in one of her books), for all intents and purposes, the soil is the garden.
Beyond growing the living things that we, eventually, eat, soil is actually teeming with life that goes well beyond earthworms. Tons of bacteria, from C. botulinum to our lactic acid friends, make their homes there as well. Things that grow in the soil (aka plants) are covered in a wide variety of bacteria as a result. You can read more about how to help the good bacteria thrive after being plucked from the earth here.
Since those bacteria start in the soil, they are primarily present on the peels or skins of the vegetables. I took a big ol’ class with Sandor Katz last summer and one of the (many) things I asked in the class was whether or not it is true that the bacteria lived pretty much exclusively on the peels. Katz confirmed that it was, and made a fun analogy that has stuck with me. He compared the bacteria on the peels of vegetables to the bacteria on our skin and throughout our digestive tract (from mouth to intestines). Other than that, our bodies are generally free from bacterial life. Since vegetables don’t have a digestive tract, the bacteria with which they co-exist inhabit their skins, almost exclusively.
I’ve done side-by-side trials of vegetables with and without their peels. Vegetables without peels have either not fermented at all or have fermented excruciatingly slowly, which is generally not something that makes me want to grab my pickle fork and chow down. We want the lactic acid bacteria to be active and thriving, because they are precisely what makes these foods safe (not to mention gleek-inducing) to eat.
A few exceptions: for some reason, onions do absolutely fine without their peels. I suspect that it’s the way they grow in layers, and that some bacteria are present many layers deep, but I have no scientific knowledge to support or refute that. I also peel garlic, but garlic isn’t the most vigorous fermenter. It is most often used as a seasoning, mixed in with other fermented vegetables, so it’s not too surprising that it’s not an issue to always peel it.
I always leave the skins on beets, turnips, carrots, rutabaga and right down the line. I do peel hard, winter squashes with unappetizing or inedible peels, but I always include some of the peel in the ferment, and all is well. Most importantly, remove any bits you hate. I always trim the crowns and sometimes the root bits, but I keep most of the peel in tact.
So. Have you fermented vegetables without their peels? How did it go?