Bring on the Brine

DIY fermentation lets you tailor this flavorful food processing
method to suit your own tastes.

November/December 2017

By Lisa James

One way to enliven jaded taste buds is to get into the rich, complex zest of fermentation. This helps explain a renewed interest in foods such as kimchi and craft pickles; as David Sprinkle of Packaged Facts, a consumer goods market research firm, puts it, “Fermented foods have found a rising tide of popularity due to the convergence of a desire for spicier, bolder flavors and a growing focus on global foods that represent authentic preparations.”

Fermentation—in which microbes break down a food’s carbohydrates into either lactic acid or alcohol (think beer)—is as authentic as food prep gets. Your grandmother probably used it to stock her pantry, not because it was trendy but because that’s how everyone preserved food before everyone had a fridge. (Depending on the temperature at which they’re stored, fermented foods can keep from several weeks to several months.)

Renewed Interest

That’s why Shannon Stonger ferments on the off-grid Texas homestead she shares with her husband and five children. Stonger, author of Traditionally Fermented Foods: Innovative Recipes and Old-Fashioned Techniques for Sustainable Eating (Page Street), sees the return to home fermentation in terms of “looking back to how things used to be done. We’re starting to see some of the mistakes we’ve made over the last 50 to 100 years.”

One of those mistakes has been the loss of probiotics from the standard American diet. For example, unlike many store-bought pickles, which are simply steeped in vinegar and then pasteurized with high heat to kill microbes, fermented pickles supply the kinds of probiotic microorganisms that enhance both flavor and health.

“Great health begins in the gut; research shows that approximately 70% of our immune system is found there. Eating more fermented foods is the key to great gut health and therefore overall health,” says Michelle Schoffro Cook, author of The Cultured Cook: Delicious Fermented Foods with Probiotics to Knock Out Inflammation, Boost Gut Health, Lose Weight & Extend Your Life (New World Library).

Fermented foods have a taste quality known as umami, a basic fifth taste (along with sweet, sour, bitter and salty) that has been described as “brothy.” As Stonger puts it, umami “is a mouth sensation that seems so complex as to be unexplainable.”

As a result, unlike commercial vinegary pickles, traditionally made pickles and other ferments “have a better depth of flavor,” says Cook.

Another advantage that fermented foods provide lies in the microbes themselves. Oregon homesteader Kirsten Shockey says that during the switchover away from fermentation as a preservation method, “we lost a lot of the live aspect to our food. When I’ve let a ferment go too long, when the microbes have eaten all their food, you can really taste and feel the difference.”

Stonger adds that fermented foods provide enzymes, compounds that are found in raw foods but which are enhanced after those foods undergo fermentation. “You are taking what is already good for you and giving it wings, so to speak,” says Stonger.

Turning Up the Heat

Besides rediscovering a taste for such staples as pickles and sauerkraut, today’s foodies are also fans of fermentation that incorporates another (literally) hot trend of favoring foods that increase the flame factor.

Shockey, the author (with husband Christopher) of Fiery Ferments: 70 Stimulating Recipes for Hot Sauces, Spicy Chutneys, Kimchis with Kick, and Other Blazing Fermented Condiments (Storey), says that “when we have hot sauce it gives you the dopamine rush. I think people get addicted to that.”

Home fermentation plays into another popular idea—cutting food prep so dinner hits the table as quickly as possible after everyone has been out of the house all day. Shockey sees her ferments as “nutrient-dense convenience foods. I can take a really simple noodle bowl and add four ferments around the bowl, and all I did for that meal was boil noodles.”

Fermenting 101

While putting up a winter’s worth of food may have been a long, drawn-out process back in Grandma’s day, the modern fermenter has things relatively easy—especially someone who isn’t looking to fill shelf after shelf with jars.

“You don’t need to buy anything to get started,” says Cook. “If you have some salt and water, you can ferment almost any food.”

One stumbling block for many people is the idea of simply letting food sit out on the counter. Shockey says that if things go wrong, “you will know,” noting that “the smell is not funky or pickle-y or pungent, but bad.” The key: Keeping the food under its brine, so that it isn’t exposed to rot-inducing microbes in the open air.

Stonger recommends using organic produce, which tends to “ferment swiftly and acidify rapidly,” and encourages beginners to “start with things that are really simple, like kefir or sauerkraut or yogurt.” The biggest problem, she says, is that “a lot of people use way too much salt so you wind up with a really salty ferment that doesn’t allow the lactic acid to come out.”

Shockey’s rallying cry for would-be fermenters? “You’ve got this. Even if you don’t think you like ferments, you will.”

 

RECIPE

Traditional Vegan Yogurt

“Making your own yogurt may seem daunting, but it is actually simple,” says Michelle Schoffro Cook. She adds that the sweetener in this vegan version is needed to feed the yogurt-making microbes, so “very little sugar is left in the final yogurt.”

2 cups raw, unsalted cashews
3 cups filtered water
1 tsp pure maple syrup or agave nectar
2 probiotic capsules or 1/2 tsp probiotic powder

1. Blend the cashews, water and syrup or nectar until smooth. Pour into a medium saucepan and heat over low heat until warm but not hot. Once it is lukewarm, pour the cashew milk into a clean, nonmetallic container such as a glass bowl or ceramic crock. (Metal containers can inhibit the culturing process.)

2. Add the contents of the probiotic capsules (discarding the empty shells) or probiotic powder to the cashew milk. Stir the ingredients together until combined.

3. Cover the container and let it sit undisturbed in a warm setting for eight to ten hours, or more if you prefer a tangier yogurt. Scoop out the thickened yogurt; reserve the whey for another use.

Excerpted from The Cultured Cook: Delicious Fermented Foods with Probiotics to Knock Out Inflammation,
Boost Gut Health, Lose Weight & Extend Your Life.
Copyright © 2017 by Michelle Schoffro Cook.
Printed with permission from
New World Library (newworldlibrary.com)

Yield: 2 to 2½ cups

 

RECIPE

Hot Cinnamon Quince Ferment

Kirsten and Christopher Shockey describe the quince as looking pear-like but “tougher, a little misshapen and larger, with sunny, vibrant yellow skin that is often a bit blemished and sometimes slightly fuzzy.” The raw fruit isn’t particularly appetizing, so quinces are always cooked (or in this case, fermented).

2 lb quince, cored and chopped
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp salt
2 tsp grated fresh ginger
1¼ tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp chile flakes
½ tsp finely ground white pepper

1. Process the quince to pea-sized pieces in a food processor. Combine the quince with the lemon zest and juice, salt, ginger, cinnamon, chile flakes and white pepper in a bowl, and mix well.

2. Pack the mixture into a jar, pressing out any air pockets as you go. Press a ziplock bag against the surface of the ferment, fill the bag with water and zip it closed.

3. Place the jar in a corner of the kitchen to ferment. If you see air pockets, remove the bag, press the ferment back down with a clean utensil, rinse the bag and replace.

4. Allow to ferment for 14 to 21 days. It’s ready when you notice a pleasing acidic smell and the flavor becomes acidic in a lemony way, with a strong cinnamon flavor throughout. No need to wait for the quince to soften—it won’t. You can let it ferment longer for more sour and punch.

5. Screw on the lid and store in the fridge, where the ferment will keep for up to 12 months.

Excerpted from Fiery Ferments, © by Kirsten Shockey
and Christopher Shockey, photography by © Lara Ferroni, used with permission from Storey Publishing (storey.com)

Yield: about 1 quart



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