You may have heard about fermented food and it’s benefits but are wondering: just what is fermentation?
Many have grown up in a culture full of fermented food while others (like myself), have not. Once our food culture started heading towards packaging and preserving with chemicals, we left this process of fermentation behind.
But it is so important!
So What is Fermentation Exactly?
When it comes to food, it is essentially a way to preserve food by providing an environment for good bacteria to thrive and produce lactic acid.
This good bacteria alters the food into somewhat slightly different and often better for us.
Fermentation can increase the amount vitamins and minerals in your food. Cabbage is an excellent example of this.
Getting More Technical Here:
Fermentation is essentially the process of sugars being consumed because oxygen is unavailable. The result or products of this are acids, gases or alcohol. This process occurs in both yeast and bacteria.
When you make sauerkraut, you chop up cabbage to ferment. This cabbage is kept under a liquid, starving it of oxygen. Bacteria eat the sugars in the cabbage resulting in lactic acid. This cabbage becomes tangy and sour in taste.
People Have Been Fermenting for a Good Long Time
People have fermented both food and drinks for thousands of years – since the Neolithic age. If you’re wondering if it’s safe, it is.
Fermentation is a traditional way to preserve food.
Although food has been preserved through fermentation for thousands of years, it can be relatively new to people of the modern era. When we went to get a food license for our fermented food business, we had a lengthy process to go through as we were dealing with bureaucracy unfamiliar with the age-old process.
Everyday Vs. Scientific Definition of Fermentation
For everyday people, a good definition of fermentation is:
The preservation methods for food via microorganisms.
What is fermentation to a scientist?
Any metabolic process that releases energy from a sugar or other organic molecule, does not require oxygen or an electron transport system, and uses an organic molecule as the final electron acceptor.
There are Many Examples of Fermentation
I have not met a more passionate group of fermented food proponents than the Korean people. They love their kimchi!
(I’ve actually been on the receiving end of a 30 minute lecture on the benefits of kimchi and why I should eat it.)
Kimchi is spicy fermented cabbage with a number a different ingredients like green onion, fish sauce, radish and chili.
You can make pickles without sugar and vinegar and with more than cucumbers.
We love pickled cauliflower and turmeric.
Sauerkraut is another very well known example of fermentation. It is basically made from cabbage and salt.
But it doesn’t have to be just cabbage and salt!
There are many delicious variations of sauerkraut recipes. My favourite is cortido (from El Salvador).
Kefir and Yogurt
Milk can be fermented turning it into products like yogurt and kefir.
If you’re unfamiliar with kefir, it is generally runnier than yogurt, has more beneficial bacteria and can be quite tangy.
Kombucha is fermented sweet tea and can be flavoured with a variety of things to make it extra delicious.
How Do You Actually Ferment Things?
For fermentation to happen and really work well, something is generally added to kick off the process. This is not always the way but it is often more successful.
When you are talking veggies, salt is often used – especially in sauerkraut – to get things fermenting.
The general rule of thumb is to weigh your chopped vegetables and add 2% salt.
You can also use a salt brine to pickle vegetables.
A Starter Culture
Starter cultures come in all shapes and sizes. Here are some examples:
- wild yeast sourdough starter
- whey (from fermented milk)
- a commercial starter culture – often a powder
- leftover liquid from another batch of fermented food
- a “grain’ (like with kefir)
Some fermented foods and drink require a specific jelly-like blob to ferment. It’s called a SCOBY or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts.
Scoby’s are used in both kombucha and apple cider vinegar.
Fermentation Can Happen A Number of Ways and In Different Places
One place where fermentation can happen, and you may be surprised to learn this, is in your stomach (and that of animals).
Yeasts and bacteria ferment things a bit differently.
Yeast: changes sugar into alcohol.
Examples: wine, mead, kombucha, water kefir
Bacteria: changes the sugars into lactic acid in food.
Examples: pickles, sauerkraut.
Q. Why Ferment?
A. There are a number of reasons people ferment.
- To give food a distinctive flavour.
- For the health benefits from the probiotics that result from fermentation.
- To preserve foods over long periods.
- Makes food easier to digest.
- Increases the availability of vitamins.
- Fermented food promotes the growth of healthy gut flora (balance of good and bad bacteria) throughout the digestive tract.
Q. What’s the Difference Between Fermentation and Culturing?
A. Cultured food is really another way of referring to fermented food. If it is cultured, it has been fermented.
It may contain a live bacteria culture (a good thing) and so it is cultured food or drink.
Q. What is Lacto-Fermentation?
A. Lacto-fermentation is the process of fermentation that produces lactic acid. This is the kind of fermentation associated with vegetables.
Q. Is it Difficult to Ferment Food?
A. Some fermented foods are more complicated than others but fermented essentially is following a recipe.
Things can (and do) go wrong with fermenting, even for experienced fermenters. If that happens to you, don’t get discouraged. Try again.
Q. What Type of Fermentation Should I Start With?
A. I’d recommend starting with a simple sauerkraut. All they require is salt and cabbage. Keep in mind though that it is not the most delicious.
Some recipes with call for whey and you get this from yogurt or kefir. If you want to avoid dairy, you can use a starter (Body Ecology has one) that contains no animal products.
A. You can start with something as simple as a glass jar with a lid. That’s how I started.
If you’d like to get into fermenting more seriously, check out the crock I recommend here. We’ve found that larger batches tend to be much more successful and using a crock is the ideal way to ferment.
What Is Fermentation – Summary
Fermentation is essentially allowing bacteria and/or yeast to eat the sugars in food without giving them access to oxygen. This results in acid, alcohol or gas.
Examples of fermentation are the following.
Alcoholic drinks like:
Fermented foods like:
Fermented beverages like:
Eating fermented foods can be beneficial for your health as they provide probiotics and support a healthy bacterial balance in the gut.
If you haven’t tried fermenting yet, give it a try!