There’s something brewing in kitchens across America. People are dabbling with microbes, playing with pickling and creating all sorts of foods through the process of fermentation — an ancient form of preservation that has taken on a new fervor in this country. There are even fermentation festivals where you can learn how to make your own kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut (pictured above by blogger I Believe I Can Fry), kimchi and other fermented foods and beverages.
Fermentation has been fueled by raw food enthusiasts and folks like Sandor Katz, who is the author of “Wild Fermentation” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved.” A self-described “fermentation fetishist,” Katz is profiled in this article in The New Yorker that explores the once underground fermentation food movement that’s gaining mainstream status. One fermented food that has created a frenzy lately is kimchi, a spicy-hot fermented cabbage that is riding high with the intense popularity of Korean food. Even California Pizza Kitchen has gotten in on the Korean craze with Korean BBQ Steak Tacos, which seem to be inspired by the kimchi concept. (Kimchi photo from Maangchi on flickr.)
Pickles are more popular than ever, and we’re not just talking cucumbers. All sorts of vegetables take to the pickling concept (flickr user Kattart).
Kombucha, the fermented drink that is now widely sold in bottles next to other flavored teas and juice drinks (with a few bold claims on the label), has become one of the lead horses in the fermentation movement. People are passionate about brewing their own, which is characterized by the gelatinous “mushroom” of bacteria that grows on top. (Photo: Kombucha brewing by flickr user lyrebirdcreate.)
Yogurt is a flagship fermented food, produced by the bacterial fermentation of milk. Making your own yogurt and kefir is becoming increasingly popular. (Kefir photo by flickr user concretewatter).
Other ingredients that are created through fermentation include soy sauce, rice vinegar, miso, tempeh and black garlic. When raw garlic is subjected to a month-long fermentation process, the result is black garlic — which becomes sweet and syrupy with balsamic, molasses, tamarind and raisin notes. A South Korean export, black garlic appears to be more concentrated in the beneficial compounds found in garlic. I recently wrote about black garlic and the black food trend. (photo credit by flickr user FoodBev Photos).
Fermentation does appear to offer health benefits — primarily digestive health through the beneficial microorganisms (or probiotics) that are created through the process. However, I think some of the claims are getting ahead of the science. This is an enthusiast bunch — these home fermenters. And I can appreciate their passion, but some of the “living food” conversation is riddled with half-truths.
I’m more fascinated by fermentation for the flavor and for the appreciation of an ancient technique. That’s great if there’s a nutritional bonus (although some of these fermented foods are hefty suppliers of sodium). And making your own — or buying authentically fermented foods — ensures that you’re getting the beneficial bacteria. Some products like sauerkraut are processed in ways that mimic fermentation, but you won’t find the good bugs due to heat treating.
Maybe the fermented products I’m most enthused about: beer, wine and sausage.