October 7, 2009

Get Your Ferment On. ~ via Aliza Ess

Alcohol, Bread, and Cheese. Oh My!

Each month, I meet with my local Baltimore Food-makers group for a potluck and informal discussion about food-making, gardening, and other related topics. Our October potluck is coming up this weekend, and the topic is Fermentation & Pickling.

I’m already salivating! I might bring a jar of pickled red and green cabbage or pickled watermelon rind. On the other hand, I’ve been experimenting with bread-baking, which is another interesting fermentation process, so I might bring a loaf of bread. Fellow food-makers have even brought some of their own sourdough starter in the past to share.

I’ve mainly been a pickle-maker, not so much a fermenter. Which means that I bottle my fruits and veggies in vinegar instead of using salt (and often some whey) to ferment foods for preservation. I choose the vinegar method because I feel more comfortable that vinegar and the water-bath canning process will kill any pathogens, and I’m kind of new at food-making and preservation.

However, most fermenters would disagree with my process, since fermenting with salt and whey promotes beneficial bacteria that help with the digestive process. Basically, the bacteria create a process called lacto-fermentation, which means that they help the food break down so your belly doesn’t have to do as much work. Those bacteria are not able to grow in vinegar, and are killed in the water-bath canning process (along with any possible bad bacteria).

The good bacteria also prevent the food from being taken over by bad bacteria that will rot your food. (It’s kind of like Lord of the Rings going on inside your food, or Star Wars, or any other epic battle of good vs. evil. At least, that’s how I imagine it.)

I do like fermented foods, although they are often pungent and take some getting used to. I’ve made a fermented sauerkraut before and will probably try it again soon. In the meantime, I’ll keep drinking my homebrewed kombucha as a lovely digestive drink.

You’ll definitely feel bad-ass eating this stuff. There’s nothing like a rough loaf of homemade bread, a glass of pickled beet juice, and a hunk of cheese in the depth of winter to make you feel super hardy. As we try to cut back on energy use, it’s going to be important to remember these food preservation methods instead of relying so much on the refrigerator and freezer.

So, choose your own method of food preservation, or experiment with many of the different methods out there. There are all sorts of foods you might not even have realized are made with fermentation! Here’s a quote about fermented foods from the website, Wild Fermentation.

“Many of your favorite foods and drinks are probably fermented. For instance: Bread, Cheese, Wine, Beer, Mead, Cider, Chocolate, Coffee, Tea, Pickles, Sauerkraut, Kimchi, Miso, Tempeh, Soy Sauce, Vinegar, Yogurt, Kefir, Kombucha.”

I’m not quite sure how fermentation is used to prepare chocolate, coffee, and tea, but am curious to learn more. In any case, it’s clear that fermented and pickled foods are an essential part of any food culture. Get it? Culture.

What would French food be without bread, cheese, and wine? What would Korean food be without kimchi? Or Japanese food without miso and soy sauce? What if there was no beer? Or alcohol? Oh, the humanity!

Fermentation is likely one of the most overlooked food processes. It’s also one of the most magical; the alcohol making, the pickling, the cheese and yogurt curdling, and bread baking. Forget turning rocks into gold, these are serious alchemical processes going on, and they’re one of the most valuable human creations out there.

Can’t wait to learn more this weekend!

If you’re looking for more information about hardcore food fermentation, the Weston A. Price Foundation and Wild Fermentation are two of the most well-known resources on this subject.

Aliza Sollins is an urban homesteader in Baltimore City, MD. Her adventures in vermicomposting, canning, container gardening, knitting and other sustainability projects can be found at her website.

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