This post is featured on Sustainable Table as this month’s Adventure in Fermentation.
As promised, this month’s Adventures in Fermentation has us discussing the basics. What is fermentation, specifically in food. To start the conversation, let’s clarify that I truly mean the basics. I am no expert on the subject, just a food loving individual that has been fervently fermenting away for about 1 year now. My mind cannot hold down the chemical makeup, compounds and gases part of the process, so this is a primer with further reading listed at bottom.
In short, fermentation is the process of turning sugars (carbohydrates) into alcohol (think wine) or acid (think vinegar). The final result depends on the bacteria present.
Something I find fascinating is that some bacterias are specific to a region. For instance, the beloved sourdough bread of San Francisco is specific to the lovely city, which is why sourdough bread in other regions rarely has that same tangy flavor as San Francisco sourdough. It’s so specific it is named after the city: Lactobacillus sanfrancisco. You can even purchase this bacteria online to inoculate your own starter with the culture. If you live in San Francisco you are lucky enough to simply leave a bread starter in your windowsill and Lactobacillus sanfrancisco will likely join the party.
Here’s another example: Ever wandered into a strawberry patch a few days after heavy rains and the field smells ever so slightly of wine? The fruit has begun the natural process of fermentation.
Many items you don’t think of as fermented foods are in fact, fermented. They come to us from an ancient tradition of fermentation, most often for food storage (when people are involved). Today, instead of relying on fermentation, we tend to rely on nuking all bacteria out of our food to create a dead zone, then refrigerate to keep growth away as long as possible. Most of us know wine and beer is fermented, even if we don’t know the process. Yogurt, cheese, miso, sourdough bread, kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, soy sauce, salami, kombucha and more also arrive on our plate after fermentation has occurred.
In fact, without fermentation, it’s safe to say we probably wouldn’t be here today– or at least habitation in a large part of the world would have occurred after the invention of the refrigerator in the early 1900’s. That’s all well and good, you say, but you mention bacteria and that’s bad!
Oh sweet bacteria! Whether you like it or not, bacteria is present in our everyday lives. We breathe it, we walk on it, we touch it, we live it. In fact, without bacteria, digestion in our bodies would not be possible. It’s up to you to choose to fight it with the use of modern anti-bacterial soaps, scrubs, chemicals and pills, or live in harmony with it, making both you and the planet stronger.
I choose to live with bacteria. I’m not saying I walk around New York City licking subway poles, or if I get cut I don’t clean out the wound, but I might not wash my hands before I eat something. Since I made this decision, putting food that is alive and rich in bacteria into my body, I am sick less often, feel more awake, I digest food better, and in general feel healthier. In other words, I have created a thriving colony of bacteria in my stomach that are able to fight off infection more readily. Bad bacteria enters my system, good bacteria, already present in excess, attacks.
The following is summed from the great fermentor Sandor Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation.
Fermentation can produce alcohol (as in wine), lactic acid (cheese/yogurt), and acetic acid (vinegar). Fermentation preserves high amounts of nutrients in foods. It also begins breaking food down, making it not only easier to digest, but nutrients easier to absorb. Fermentation also transforms the food, producing new nutrients and removing toxins from foods (which is why some believe fermented soy is the only way this legume should be consumed).
Milk, especially when we pasteurize it, is indigestible for many people. By turning lactose into lactic acid, dairy products are not only easier to digest, they’re delicious and highly nutritious (which is why some producers are making big bucks selling “probiotic” filled products. Guess what– those probiotics, as in positive (or good) bacteria, should already be in the product if it is in fact real yogurt, not pasteurized after cultures were added!).
As we realize more and more, just like mono-cultures in our agriculture system are bad, mono-cultures in our eating habits are bad. By eating a diversity of foods helps a body receive a large range of nutrients. The same goes for fermented foods, and exposing your body to a wide range of microorganisms (bacteria).
Live bacteria are where these nutrients lie. Unfortunately, we bake bread before we eat it, and we pasteurize many products (like wine) killing any live bacteria that could help us. You can get your live bacteria rush by seeking out items that mention they are “unpasteurized,” “raw,” or contain “live cultures.” Or, you can ferment food yourself. The benefit of fermenting your own foods is that you harness your local bacteria, raising your resistance to allergies and bad bacteria in your own home or neighborhood.
Last month we discussed how to make our own yogurt. Next month we’ll explore another fermented food- any suggestions?