Monday, February 15, 2010

The Joy of Fermentation

By Nicole Sugerman

This is an article I have been itching to write from the start. I thought this week was a good time since we have cabbage, which was my first ferment and is particularly delicious when fermented. Perhaps by now, a few of you have noticed my penchant for recipes involving fermentation (although I have been trying to limit myself). A very old form of food preservation, fermenting foods is a process close to both my heart and my stomach.

Fermentation is a process by which specific microorganisms enter and break down a food, producing alcohol, lactic acid and acetic acid, which prevent foods from spoiling while retaining nutrients. Commonly known fermented foods include yogurt, sour dill pickles, and sauerkraut, but endless numbers of foods can be fermented using a great variety of different fermentation techniques. Fermentation is one of my favorite methods of preservation. Not only does it preserve the nutritional value of the food being preserved, unlike canning, but it actually breaks down nutrients into forms that are easier to digest. It also creates B vitamins, removes toxins from certain foods, restores important intestinal bacteria lost to antibiotics, and can create antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.

A staple of traditional diets worldwide, fermentation fell out of favor in the U.S. with the onset of industrialization and the subsequent mass production and long-distance transport of food. Because fermentation uses local microorganisms, a ferment done identically in two different places will taste subtly different. Pasteurization, the process of heating a food quickly to a very high heat, kills the local microorganisms present in the food, allowing for the introduction of a controlled, standardized culture. Although pasteurization destroys many of the nutrients present in the food, it allows for a uniform, predictable product. Home fermentation is a process of reclaiming the unique tastes specific to your locality.

Fermentation is so interesting and delicious, it can become something of an obsession. One winter, I had so many fermenting projects going that I had to add an extra half-hour to my nightly routine to tend my various ferments, between draining the sprouts, feeding new tea to the kombucha, racking the beer, pressing down the kimchi, and taste-testing the pickles. I often feel like part of an illicit underground when I stumble upon fellow fermentation afficianados, speaking in hushed, excited tones about obscure rarities: “Hey, I’ll trade you a sourdough starter for a ginger bug,” or, “Who hooked you up with your kefir grains? Do you think they have any more?” Fermenting my food adds variety, pungent and exciting tastes, and health to my diet. Sandor Katz, author of the fantastic text "Wild Fermentation" and source of much of the information in this article, describes the appeal of fermentation best. “By fermenting foods and drinks with wild microorganisms present in your home environment, you become more interconnected with the life forces of the world around you. Your environment becomes you, as you invite the microbial populations you share the Earth with to enter your diet and your intestinal ecology.”

Look for more fermentation recipes throughout the season!

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