Since I began experimenting with home fermentation I have been asked the same question over and over by my friends and family, generally with a tone of concern/confusion…“Why ferment?”
I start by explaining how fermentation promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria in foods… but that’s usually where people cut me off…
“Wait… Isn’t bacteria bad?”
The reality is that bacteria are all around us and covering everything. In our own bodies their are more bacterial cells then human cells. Dig this article if you really wanna get into the science.
The good news is… the majority of these bacterial cells are not dangerous, and many actually play a beneficial role in our health. The problem is that in the last century humankind has declared a war on all bacteria–good and bad–sanitizing and disinfecting everything from our homes to our foods. The problem with this is pointed out by “Fermentation Revivalist”, Sandor Katz…
“The problem with killing 99.9 percent of bacteria is that most of them protect us from the few that can make us sick.”
Still today many cultures prepare fermented foods on a daily basis, and even our culture consumes the products of fermentation daily (beer, cheese, bread), although for the most part we leave the actual fermenting to the professionals at the Wonder Bread and Bud Light factories.
“If there is a culture that does not practice some fermentation of food or drink, anthropologists have yet to discover it”
-Michael Pollen, Cooked
But the question remains. . .
“Why ferment at home?”
The basic idea is that when you ferment foods you are creating an environment that promotes the growth of certain “good” bacteria and fungi, and prevents the growth of other “bad” bacteria and fungi. By fermenting foods at home we are able to take advantage of the many awesome services that these “good” bacteria and fungi offer to us, such as:
- Developing distinct sour flavors that create tasty pickled veggies.
- Using yeast to produce carbon dioxide to create naturally carbonated drinks (like kombucha, and water kefir).
- The ability to meld the flavors of different foods and spices to develop unique mouth-watering salsas, sauces, and all other sorts of delicious awesomeness.
- The natural creation of lactic acid which preserves food’s flavors and nutrients, while preventing them from spoiling- Think how long pickles can last.
- The ability of yeast organisms to convert sugary liquids into alcohol- Check out Alcohol
- The transforming of regular foods into “live culture” foods, through the natural cultivation of pro-biotics bacteria. These “gut friendly bacteria” are the same stuff that is found in yogurt, and is believed to offer a wide range of benefits, from aiding in healthy digestion, to boosting our immune systems. –Science it.
- The ability to act as a sort of “pre-digestion” process, similar to cooking, that helps make grains, legumes, seeds, and nuts easier to digest, and potentially shifting their nutritional value– the process has even been show reduce gluten! (Science it)
Why not just buy fermented foods?
Note: When I originally wrote this article it was very difficult to find any live-culture foods at the grocery store. Since writing this, however, there has a been a huge rise in brands that now supply foods that likely provide similar benefits of home fermented foods.
When it comes to store-bought pickled veggies, look for ones that are refrigerated and don’t contain vinegar, when it comes to yogurt look for ones that boast “live-cultures”.
A lot of foods that you can find at your local grocery did undergo a process of fermentation at some point in their life, such as: cheese, alcohol, pickled veggies, and even yogurt. However, for several reasons, it is very rare that any of these foods still contain any of the aforementioned living bacteria.
This is because they either have either been pasteurized (cheese), sat out for to long (yogurt), or used a method–like vinegar–that never really required fermentation (most pickled veggies).
Now… I’m not saying their not delicious. I’m just saying they really don’t compare to home fermented foods
More importantly though, it isn’t just about the live cultures and pro-biotics, it’s about the opportunity that home fermentation gives you to get closer to your food and flex your inner creative culinary muscles!
Once you experience the satisfaction of sipping a glass of your own wild fermented honey wine, pickling your own unique flavor-combo of veggies and spices, or savoring a loaf of freshly soured bread you will know exactly what I am talking about!