A Fermentation Primer

Posted on Tuesday, April 10, 2012 | By Nicole Easterday |
 Fermentation is an age-old practice that may date back to as many as 12,000 years ago during the Paleolithic period. That said, it's a practice that holds as much value today as it did thousands of years ago.  Not only is fermentation a time-honored way to preserve the harvest or create a mind-altering beverage, it's also a healthful and natural way to boost the nutritional value of the food. History: According to Sandor Katz the author of "Wild Fermentation", early methods of fermentation may date back to as early at the Paleolithic era, 12,000 years ago based upon evidence found in cave paintings.  Historians tend to agree that tea has been fermented in China for at least 3,000 years, possibly longer.  Ancient Mayas fermented honey and used it as an enema and cacao beans have been fermented in South America as long as 2,600 years ago. It's clear fermentation has been popular cross-culturally for thousands of years but it wasn't until the mid-1800's when Louis Pasteur identified bacteria that scientists really began to understand what was happening during fermentation.  During Roman times, Pliny the Elder attempted to explain fermentation as spontaneous generation, or something that just "magically" appeared under the right circumstances, much like (sorry for this analogy) maggots in meat or rats in grain.  Despite their lack of understanding for how it worked, over thousands of years, societies discovered the immense nutritional benefits of fermentation.  In 1770, Captain James Cook was actually recognized for preventing scurvy over the spam of a 27-month trip at sea by feeding 60 barrels of kraut to his men!  It was the perfect at-sea sustenance, healthful and well-preserved, though I have no doubts that the last serving of kraut was probably a bit funky! Thanks to Pasteur, we now know that fermentation is the action of micro-organisms on plant or animal matter.  Many food items from everyday goods to luxury items are fermented.  Here is a partial list of common fermented foods, some of which may surprise you: Chocolate Cheese Bread Coffee Wine Beer Miso, soy sauce Kimchi, pickles & sauerkraut of course Culture: Many cultures are known for their own specific fermentations and palatability is not necessarily agreed upon across cultures.  For example, sauerkraut is very common in Germany, while Kimchi is the spicy Korean version of fermented cabbage.  In Sweden fish is treated with lye then fermented for several weeks to create the traditional lutfisk, a delicacy many Americans would simply rather do without.  The slimy Japanese fermentation natto is just beginning to gain traction in the San Francisco Bay Area, thanks to some local natto small-scale producers and restaurants.  The French could do without natto but rather salivate over their own bizarre fermentation in the form of gym-sock-scented cheese.  And anyone whose ever walked a night market in Taiwan is familiar with the pervasive, sickening smell of stinky tofu, a delicacy to be enjoyed by only the most trained palate.  Fermented fish sauce may date back to the 7th Century B.C and even catsup started out as a fermented food according to this Smithsonian article. In some ways, I think it's refreshing to know that in this globalized world there are still things done in some cultures that totally gross out other cultures.  According the Katz' book, Annie Hubert, the former director of France’s National Scientific Research Center was quoted in Slow Food International's periodical as saying,  “The concept of ‘rottenness’ belongs to the cultural rather than the biological sphere."  She added, “The term defines a point where a food becomes unsuitable for consumption according to criteria associated with taste, presentation, and the concept of hygiene in different human societies.”  The memory of a little Taiwanese lady gobbling down stinky tofu with relish while I gagged into my sleeve has me convinced she's onto something. Nutrition: While some fermentations are only a stage in the process before cooking the item such as is the case with chocolate and bread, other ferments are best served raw in their most alive and nutritious stage, such as miso, yogurt and sauerkraut.  Though these items are frequently pasteurized commercially, making them at home can be a cost-effective way to enjoy them while retaining their nutritive qualities. Here are several of the many benefits of consuming unpasteurized fermented foods: Micro-organisms in fermented foods help pre-digest our food into a form of nutrients our bodies can absorb.  For example, soybeans are fairly indigestible in their raw form though fermentation renders them much more easily digestible.  Similarly, many people lack the enzymes in the their body to digest the lactose in milk, though after transforming into lactic acid by making yogurt renders it digestible. Increased nutrition – fermentation creates new nutrients like B vitamins like B12, otherwise unavailable from plant sources and very important to nutrition, especially for vegans and vegetarians Human bodies host 100 trillion bacteria.  Because microorganisms present in live, fermented foods colonize our intestines with digestion-friendly bacteria, the introduction of a more dangerous strain of bacteria becomes less dangerous.  The 'friendly' bacteria stake their claim in your body and are fairly unfriendly to anything else that attempts to take over.  Dangerous bacteria are generally attacked and destroyed before they have an opportunity to do much harm.  In this way, our immune systems are constantly trained and primed to fight unfriendly invaders. Food Preservation: As alluded to above, fermentation has been used as a common method of food preservation cross-culturally for a very long time.  The process of fermentation may produce either alcohol (in the case of wine), lactic acid (in the case of sauerkraut) or acetic acid (in the case of vinegar), all of which are natural preservatives, allowing food to be stored for a longer period of time before refrigeration became common. Are you convinced yet that fermentation is the secret to a delicious scurvy-free life?  So how hard is it to start fermenting at home? SO EASY!  Here's the gist, and i don't mean to be cute, but it really is this simple: cut up food and add salt.  Wait a week.  Eat.  Seriously.  That is all (mostly).  Just in case you don't believe me, though, you can find a recipe for simple sauerkraut here.