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3.03.2011

Fermentation: its not a bad word

Some of the fermenting going on right now in my kitchen: (L to R) Kombucha, whey from making yogurt, buttermilk, creme fraiche, and (front) sourdough starter.
I have mentioned fermentation and it's various products on and off in the past, but I don't believe I've talked much about the process or the benefits of fermented foods.

Most people's idea of fermentation is limited to either the science experiments in the back of their refrigerator (the unintentional ones) and beer. There is so much more to it than that. For thousands of years fermentation has been used to store and improve the palatability of various foods, long before refrigeration was available. Foods that don't keep fresh for more than a few weeks (cucumbers, tomatoes, etc) can been kept for months without refrigeration when fermented.

But we don't need to preserve our food any more, at least not for the immediate future, barring any disaster (although emergency preparedness would be yet another reason to "put up" your own food, and fermenting is one great way to do that). We have refrigerators and deep freezes and grocery stores brimming with fresh and canned foods ready for us to purchase them. So why ferment food?

There are a number of health benefits to fermented and cultured foods- they boost the level of beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract, which does a number of things.  Probiotics form a shield that protects your intestine from harmful bacteria. They create a balance that makes it more difficult for yeasts and "bad" bacteria to become established. They boost overall immunity. Vitamins are made more available for your body when foods are fermented. They become easier for your body to digest. Fermentation preserves many of the enzymes found in foods that are destroyed by heat and that are beneficial to various processes in your body. I could go on.  And while some of the products you can buy at any grocery store maintain these health benefits (yogurt for example) many "fermented" products are heat processed, which kills the beneficial bacteria and enzymes- for example, most sauerkraut an pickles you can buy at grocery stores have been heat treated.  And when you can find "live" versions, they are expensive.  One brand of raw sauerkraut I used to buy was well over $5 a jar.

But frankly that is only a tiny bit of why I ferment some foods. I do it because it is frugal- many of the things I love to grow can easily be fermented so I can enjoy the bounty of my harvest through the winter. I do it because I systematically reject the idea that I need to pay some large corporation to produce something that I can easily produce at home (that would be the rebel in me talking). And I do it because it tastes good.

You may be cringing or in some other way reacting negatively to the idea of "growing" bacteria intentionally- and on your food! But Think about it- odds are good that you regularly enjoy at least one of the following foods: yogurt, sour pickles, sour cream, buttermilk, sauerkraut, ketchup, soy sauce, miso, kefir, sourdough bread, or even maybe kombucha. All of those, with the exception of ketchup, are commercially cultured in a way that can easily be replicated at home. Ketchup, while historically a fermented product, is now loaded with sugar and processed ingredients- even more of a reason to ferment your own. By doing it at home you are also able to control exactly what goes into these products. Yogurt, for example, is usually loaded with sugar when you buy it commercially.

And I can't stress how easy it is to get started. Pick one fermented food that you know you like and try it. I'll give a quick overview of exactly how simple some of these processes are (skip to the one you are interested in if you are easily overwhelmed).

  • Yogurt- heat milk (temp depends on exactly whose instructions you follow...), add starter culture (plain yogurt), then maintain temp for 8-12 hours in a variety of ways- oven with the light on, cooler with hot water bottles, even a yogurt maker.
  • Sauerkraut- shred cabbage, toss liberally with non-iodized salt, and press down into a non reactive vessel (canning jar, crock, whatever). Press down until enough liquid has come out of the cabbage to cover it, then weight it down (this takes some imagination...). Wait a few weeks.
  • Kefir- buy kefir grains. Put in milk and keep at room temp for 24 hours (or otherwise follow directions that come with grains).
  • Buttermilk- buy commercial buttermilk and mix at a 1:4 ratio with milk of choice. Allow to stand at room temp for 24 hours.
  • Creme Fraiche (one of my faves)- Mix 3 Tablespoons of commercial buttermilk with 2 cups of cream in a glass jar. Cover and allow to stand at room temperature for 24- 48 hours.
  • Sour pickles- mix a brine (usually just a mixture of salt and water), add cucumbers, and weight down (as with sauerkraut). Wait a few weeks.

Seriously. It's that easy. There are a few nuances that are helpful to know- in the case of sauerkraut and sour pickles you need to skim the liquid every few days. I wouldn't make any of these items based only on the directions I give here. I am simply trying to illustrate how easy they are.

But I know that the hang up with most people isn't the extra work- it's the "leave at room temperature for ___ days" part. I know- we have all been conditioned to handle perishable foods with care and NEVER leave them at room temperature. And with good reason. Food borne illness is serious stuff. But in the case of fermented foods (even the dairy), the culture medium (the starter, brine, or whatever) makes the environment uninhabitable for bad bacteria. And, of course, you should start with fresh high quality foods and follow all the particulars of the recipe- never alter proportions or ingredients unless you know what you're doing.  But in the past two years I have made yogurt (lots and lots), kefir, creme fraiche, pickles, sauerkraut, kombucha, and clabbered milk. I have fermented rice and sourdough starters for days on the counter. I have soaked grains for up to 24 hours at room temperature. And I have never had anything go sour, get moldy, or in any way get my family sick. I even left a crock of yogurt in the oven once when we went on vacation (I wanted to use the milk we had to make yogurt, because while the milk would turn while we were gone, the yogurt would still be good). My husband came home before the rest of us did (after being gone 1 week...). I finally remembered the yogurt and called him to dump it out, and he said it didn't even smell bad. Not that I would eat the yogurt after that long, but you get my point.

So I dare you- ferment something this weekend. If you want a recommendation for a good recipe to start with, leave me a message and I can point you in the right direction.

By the way, if you're 100% sold on fermenting and want to jump in with both feet, or if you already do a little fermenting and want to learn more, The Nourishing Kitchen (adding link soon!) is doing a 13 week online class called Get Cultured! It dives into everything you could possibly want to ferment (except beer... although she does have mead on the schedule!), and after hemming and hawing for weeks I just signed up. The class starts tomorrow so sign up soon if you're interested! Why would I sign up when I already ferment?  She's going to be covering a number of things that I don't already do and that the books I own don't really cover, like fermenting meat.  I had considered purchasing individual classes, but once I looked through the schedule I realized there was something I need/want to know in almost every class, so paying for the entire class was a better investment.  Plus I can't wait to get in on the discussion and q and a during the conference call (what can I say- I'm starved for adult attention!).

ETA- Oh!  I forgot to mention there is a "bonus" free class at the Get Cultured! site (above).  It contains videos and recipes for making fermented ketchup and french fries, as well as a great list of reasons why to ferment foods.

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