Fermentation 101: The Very Basics on Fermenting Food
by Carly Daley
If you're not already excited about fermentation, then you will be soon! My insatiable desire to educate myself on the subject has allowed me to become fairly conﬁdent in many areas of fermentation, and now I'd like to share that knowledge with you! There is just something so incredibly satisfying about being able to preserve your own food without, well, preservatives, while simultaneously making them healthier.
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation takes place in the absence of oxygen (an anaerobic environment), and in the presence of beneﬁcial microorganisms (yeasts, molds and bacteria) which obtain their energy through fermentation. During the fermentation process, these beneﬁcial microorganisms break down sugars and starches into alcohols and acids (lactic and acetic.) What you're left with is a food that has been transformed into a more nutritious version of itself, and which can be stored for much longer without spoiling. Fermented food goes far beyond sauerkraut--you can actually ferment almost every food group. You didn't even know it, but you likely consumed some sort of fermented food today!
• Fermenting grains gives you sourdough bread and beer
• Fermenting meat gives you salami
• Fermenting dairy gives you yogurt and cheese
• Fermenting veggies gives you pickles and sauerkraut
• Fermenting fruit can give you cider and wine
A Brief History
Humans have been practising fermentation in various cultures all around the world for thousands of years. The earliest evidence of an alcoholic drink, made from fruit, rice, and honey, dates from 7000 to 6600 BC, in the Neolithic Chinese village of Jiahu.
It's said that many fermentation methods were perhaps ﬁrst discovered by accident. Stories of the ﬁrst cheeses usually include a traveling nomad using a primitive canteen made from re-purposed animal stomachs, which naturally contain an enzyme called renin, known to coagulate milk. It's possible that once the nomad reached their destination, they discovered that the milk had curdled, turning into cheese. Upon tasting the cheese and discovering that it was palatable, people soon learned how to repeat the process.
As you move around the globe, similar fermenting practices are used, but the foods fermented are quite unique. In Asia, common fermented foods include miso, tempeh, soy sauce, natto and kimchi. In the Americas, you'll ﬁnd sourdough bread, kombucha, chichi, fermented vegetables like pickles, yogurt, wine and tabasco, while in Europe, there's sauerkraut, salami, prosciutto, mead, cultured milk products like keﬁr, crème fraiche, and quark.
Types of Fermentation
There are three basic types of fermentation:
1. Lactic acid fermentation
2. Ethyl alcohol fermentation
3. Acetic acid fermentation
Lactic acid fermentation, also known as lacto-fermentation, occurs when yeasts and bacteria convert starches and sugars into lactic acid. Lacto-fermentation is said to be one of the healthiest forms of fermentation because lactic acid aids with blood circulation, prevents constipation, balances digestive acids, aids in pre-digestion and encourages good pancreatic function.
Ethyl alcohol fermentation occurs when beneﬁcial microorganisms convert carbohydrates into alcohol. Traditionally, alcohol was more nutritious and contained beneﬁcial organisms. Today, the manufacturing process of making alcoholic beverages destroys the nutrients, and contains high amounts of sugar.
Acetic fermentation takes place when alcohol is exposed to air and is converted into acetic acid, commonly known as vinegar! Yes, your apple cider vinegar was once good ol’ apple cider.
The Health Beneﬁts of Fermented Food
The health beneﬁts of fermented food are incredible. When you ferment food, not only are you helping to preserve it, but you're also transforming it into a healthier version of itself – even healthier than a vegetable in its raw state!
Here are some ways fermentation is making your food healthier:
1. Fermentation increases vitamins and minerals in food or makes them more available for absorption. Fermentation increases B and C vitamins immensely. Vitamins enhanced during this process are folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin. The probiotics, enzymes and lactic acid in fermented foods allow these vitamins and minerals to be more easily absorbed into the body.
2. Fermented foods provide enzymes necessary for digestion (digestive enzymes). Did you know that we are born with a ﬁnite number of enzymes that decrease with age, and that fermented foods contain the enzymes that are required to break down that particular food the best? So, the best thing we can do to slow down the depletion of our enzymes, is to eat food already high in enzymes. Cooked food has no enzymes, raw food has some, and fermented food is abundant!
3. Fermentation aids in pre-digestion. During the fermentation process, the microorganisms feed on sugars and starches, essentially digesting and breaking down the food before you even eat it. In grains, gluten is predigested. In dairy, lactose (milksugar) is predigested (which is why lactose intolerant people can eat fermented food) and in all other starchy foods such as beans, fruits and vegetables, your ﬁnal product will contain much less sugar.
4. Fermentation neutralizes anti-nutrients, in particular phytic acid, which is found in grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. The problem with phytic acid is that it can bind to minerals in the gut before they are absorbed, influence digestive enzymes, and can lead to mineral deﬁciencies. Phytates also reduce the digestibility of starches, proteins, and fats. This is one of the reasons that those on a Paleo diet avoid foods that are high in phytic acid. Thankfully, soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are ways to neutralize this anti-nutrient. To learn more about phytic acid (and even the possible beneﬁts) read this article: http:// www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-phytates-phytic-acid
5. Fermented foods are rich in probiotics. Probiotics are microorganisms consumed by the body for their beneﬁcial qualities, and are responsible for maintaining a healthy gut flora. A healthy gut is capable of pulling nutrients from the food you eat, fermented or not. 6. Eating fermented food helps maintain a healthy immune system, because a healthy gut, rich in probiotics, produces antibiotic, anti-tumor, anti-viral, and anti-fungal substances. Also, the acids in fermented food create an uncomfortably acidic environment for pathogens.
The Basics of Fermentation
In order for fermentation to take place, there are certain conditions required by the beneﬁcial organisms.
Their environment needs to be…
• Protected from spoiling organisms. You can protect the beneﬁcial bacteria by creating an uncomfortable environment for the bad buys. This can be done by creating a salty environment (using brine), adding a starter culture, eliminating oxygen or increasing acidity (adding vinegar.) It's also very important that the kitchen equipment and surfaces that you're working with are clean and sterilized in order to prevent bad bacteria from leaching in to your ferment.
• The right temperature (about room temperature for fermentation, and then in a cool environment for storage.)
• In presence of food containing sugars and starches.
In addition to the above, fermenting food needs time—days, weeks and even months in some cases.
In addition to the proper environment, kick-starting a ferment generally requires a brine (salt and water), or some kind of starter culture such as whey (derived from yogurt), a SCOBY (for kombucha), a “bug” (for homemade soda), or even liquid from a previous ferment. These starter cultures are already rich with beneﬁcial microorganisms, and when added to your desired food or beverage, they'll proliferate and kick-start the fermentation process.
The speciﬁc ingredients that you use are also vital to the success of your ferment – each and EVERY ingredient that you use will have an effect.
Organic: Opt for organic whenever possible. Aside from being environmentally irresponsible, pesticides and chemicals can affect the ﬁnal outcome of your ferment.
Water: It's very important to use nonchlorinated water, as chlorine can interfere with the fermentation process. Filtered or spring water are ideal, as they still contain trace minerals which aid in fermentation, but are chlorine and fluoride-free. If you're using tap water that you suspect may contain chlorine, you could boil the water to remove the chlorine, or alternatively, aerate it by leaving the water to stand for 24 hours, or blending it in a blender for 20 minutes.
Salt: Iodized salt contains additives and lacks the minerals needed to create a probiotic-rich ﬁnished product. Sea and mined salt (like Pink Himalayan Rock Salt) are ideal because they contain no additional additives and contain trace mineral which aid in the fermentation process. However, you may ﬁnd that it takes a little more work to dissolve in water.
Sugar: Not all sugar is created equal or ferments in the same way. The scientiﬁc name for reﬁned white sugar is sucrose, which is a disaccharide comprised of monosaccharides glucose (cane sugar) and fructose (usually beet sugar). Sucrose, glucose and fructose all ferment well. I've had best results with reﬁned white sugar or lightly reﬁned cane sugar (sucanat). I wouldn't recommend using honey because it's only about 75% glucose/fructose, and the rest is water and minerals. Also, honey has antibacterial properties so it could prevent fermentation by killing the “good guys”. I don't recommend using maple syrup, either, as it's also not as high in glucose/fructose (I've used it in the past and have had really poor results). Lactose (milk sugar) in non-fermentable.
The Decline of Fermented Food
Humans have been fermenting food for thousands of years, in all parts of the world, and although it's been around for centuries, fermentation is a lost “cooking” technique. Contributing to this decline was the introduction of the industrialized food market in the early nineteen hundreds, and there are a couple reasons for this. One, the fermentation process lets off gases, which leaves the risk of jars exploding on grocery store shelves, and two, fermenting food has variable results, which makes it difﬁcult to manufacture in large quantities. So, pickling and preservatives took the place of fermentation. However, pickled foods are far less nutritious, and food with added preservatives can be downright bad for you.
It saddens me that the art of fermenting food is lost from our regular cooking regime. For thousands of years people have been fermenting food for preservation and health, and now in less than one hundred years, it's hardly common practice. But I suppose cooking in general, and making food from scratch, has been on the decline for years, being pushed aside by quick and easy, oven and microwave-ready meals, which are low in nutrients and high in sugar and preservatives. It seems our society today would rather pop pills for their vitamin and mineral intake, rather than going through the effort of consuming them naturally. I could talk about the food industry all day (and the brainwashing that goes along with it), but for now I'll conclude by saying: I'm bringing fermented food back in my household, and I hope this Basic Guide on Fermented Food has inspired you to consider doing the same for you and your family. :)