GETTING STARTED WITH FERMENTATION
New to Fermentation? You’re in the right place! The individual ferment pages here are meant to help you kickstart and troubleshoot your ferments. More of those will be added in the coming weeks.
WHAT IS FERMENTATION?
Food fermentation is food transformation. More specifically, it’s food transformed by microbes, such as bacteria and yeast. There are different types of fermentation and different processes and practices involved, but at its core, that’s it! Bacteria and yeast eating sugars (usually) and making them into things that are more delightful to eat than you could have imagined.
Yup! I said bacteria. If you are the type to put antibacterial soap on everything from your dishes to your jeans, you may want to sit down for a second. First, evidence is mounting that these soaps are actually harmful. Second, our bodies are made up of about 10 trillion human cells and 100 trillion bacterial cells! So you are more bacteria than you are human by a factor of 10! Hate bacteria, hate yourself. In other words, time to give up those antibacterial products and come to terms with your bacterial nature.
We make fermented foods is by giving microbes, bacteria, yeasts and molds the right conditions in which to grow. The main subject of this blog is how to do that! It’s actually pretty simple to do in most cases and it makes for impressive flavors and some serious DIY cred.
So now that we’ve got that out of the way, let me tell you why you should want to eat fermented foods.
1. Food Safety
Many fermented foods are actually safer to eat than their raw or cooked counterparts and fermented foods are very easy to make safely. You only need to understand the basic principles of a given ferment and then you can experiment to your hearts content. It’s always good to follow a proven recipe in order to get the hang of things, but once you get it, your imagination is the only limit!
There are no known cases of botulism (NONE!) in relationship to vegetable fermentation. (If you’re on this “Getting Started” page, I’m going to assume that you aren’t starting with fermented seal meat or sausage, both of which require more specialized knowledge and specific recipes). That means you can eat your krauts, kimchis and fermented, pickled vegetables to your heart’s content, just as humans have done for many thousands of years!
C. botulinum, the bacteria that causes botulism, doesn’t survive in acidic environments. So just allow at least a few days of fermentation before tasting and you’ll ensure that the bad guys haven’t survived. The longer they ferment, the more acidic they will be and the safer they will be to consume. So if you’re concerned about leaving your foods out at room temperature, know that by doing that, you’re actually making them safer. In our industrialized food system, it seems that not a week goes by without some report of contamination. Fermentation isn’t a magic bullet, but it certainly helps to reduce the risks of eating some types of foods.
Fermented foods are often delicacies when you buy them because they are time-intensive (not active time, but still sauerkraut takes longer to make than a salad when you count the time the microbes are putting in). It makes sense that businesses would have to charge a lot of money for these foods because they have to store them during fermentation and pay for that space and time. For you, generally, jar storage isn’t going to cost a whole lot. If you have space anywhere in your home for a jar, you can make sauerkraut with excellent ingredients for pennies! Not every ferment is more cost effective to make at home, but many are, especially when you consider that you can decide on the quality and type of ingredients when you do it yourself.
Many of our favorite fermented flavors are made through processes that take extremely little effort. Honestly, if you’ve never fermented a vegetable before, or made kefir or any number of set-and-forget ferments, you are going to be shocked at how easy it is! If fermentation timelines seem daunting, they won’t once you’ve made a couple batches. The active time for making pickles, for instance, is the time that it takes to chop vegetables and maybe stir brine. After that, it’s all up to the microbes and your taste preferences. After your first batch, you’ll be delighted with all you’ve learned. After your 100th, or even your 1000th, you’ll still be able to tweak, learn and perfect.
3. The Planet
There are several aspects of fermentation that speak to those of us who like to avoid waste. It is a great way to use up older veg you find in the back of the fridge that might otherwise end up in the compost pile (or much worse, the trash). Also, although not true for all types of fermentation, it is a preservation method that can encourage us to grow our gardens and save the harvest. Since foods that are fermented for preservation have a much longer shelf-life than their unfermented counterparts,
The health benefits of fermented foods are very difficult to write about in one small paragraph. We are kind of at the beginning of the era of scientific exploration of this topic, although certain things are already clinically proven about certain ferments. We know that lactofermented foods help with digestion. We know that fermented foods provide better bio-availability of minerals than their raw and cooked counterparts. We know that there are more vitamins in fermented foods than there are in the same foods before they were fermented. And this just scratches the surface. The fermentation process actually synthesizes different enzymes, which, in some cases, have been shown to offer extraordinary health benefits (nattokinase is one shining and fascinating example). There are so many others that have yet to be explored. We are truly at the beginning of this research. These relationships between the probiotic bacteria in our food and the existing microbial communities in our guts aren’t fully understood, but the next years of research should be very interesting and informative!
Fermented foods typically have strong flavors. Sometimes those flavors are iconic and strongly identified with the culture from which they hail. Think the cheeses and wines of France, the chorizos of Spain, the sakes of Japan, the kimchis of Korea or good, old-fashioned, German sauerkraut. Beyond their iconic flavors and status, fermented foods can be intensely complex. It makes sense that chefs dig fermented foods: there can be no substitute for the layers of flavor that come with the fermentation process!
SO GO HAVE FUN AND GET FERMENTING!
There are many different ways to ferment, but a few principles that remain true. You may very well do things a differently than the methods I describe here. I totally encourage you to keep doing what works for you and to try ways other than mine if you haven’t. I can promise you that the methods I describe work, because I’ve personally tested them. Things might work differently in your microclimate, or you may have different resources available to you. Go forth and experiment! It’s the true spirit of fermentation!
Thanks for reading,