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Fermented foods have their own unique flavors and characteristics. Their tangy and slightly acidic tastes can add complex flavors, making them a great compliment to sweet and savory foods. Aside from being delicious, fermented foods have a few health benefits too.
A variety of fermented side dishes, pickles, desserts and drinks can be created at home with just a few simple ingredients, plus a salt water solution or starter culture. The fermentation process can make nutrients in the food more available by partially breaking them down before we eat them. The bacteria involved in the process also create vitamins B and C, which increase the nutritional value of the foods.
How fermentation works
In order to control the fermentation process, it must take place in an environment without oxygen, such as a sealed jar or container. This is necessary to keep out unwanted bacteria. If oxygen were allowed into the container, the food would rapidly spoil and begin to decay.
In this oxygen-free environment, microorganisms convert the carbohydrates from foods into alcohol or acid. This process is called anaerobic fermentation. This acid or alcohol solution does not only stop the food from spoiling, but it also breaks the food down that makes it easier to digest.
Perhaps the easiest method of fermentation is dry salting, which simply requires sprinkling salt on to vegetables and packing them into a clean air tight container. In western cultures, sauerkraut is probably the most common example of what can be created using dry salting.
Salt draws out the liquid from the vegetables which then combines with the salt to form a brine solution. This creates an environment that is less hospitable to outside bacteria and molds that could spoil the food.
The Lactobacillus bacteria that is already present on the vegetables begin to feed on the carbohydrates in the vegetables, producing lactic acid which preserves the vegetables.
This technique is similar to curing, but fermentation uses much less salt. Cured foods rely on high levels of salt to prevent the growth of all bacteria. Foods fermented with salt seek to control the growth of bacteria while making the most of their benefits.
Dry salting is ideal for finely sliced vegetables which are mostly water, such as cabbage.
A simple ratio for dry salting is to weigh the prepared vegetables then add 1.5% to 2% of their weight in salt. Start with the lower amount and, if the fermentation occurs very fast or begins to turn mushy, add the extra 0.5% salt.
Brining is similar to dry salting except you make a brine solution from water and salt to ferment the vegetables in.
Brining is a more suitable method for fermenting large vegetables such as carrots, peppers or gherkins, as extracting their moisture with salt would take too long.
Unlike dry salting where the vegetable is weighed to determine the percentage of salt, brining uses the weight of the water that you will add to determine the amount of salt.
Other types of fermentation require a starter culture to provide them with the right kinds of bacteria to begin the fermentation process. The starter culture can greatly affect the characteristics of fermented products. It is also used to create the specific flavor and texture of different varieties of cheese.
It was common for bakers in the past to hold back a piece of dough to use as a starter culture for the next day's bread. Before the invention of commercial yeasts, most bread was leavened by a process of fermentation. We call this type of bread sourdough today because the lactic acids produced during fermentation can give the bread a slightly sour flavor.
What you can ferment
Sauerkraut is the all-time easiest thing to make. If you're new to the world of fermenting, it’s a good starting point. Finely chop a head of cabbage, removing the tough center stem, and then weigh it. Add salt with a measurement of 1.5% of the total weight of cabbage.
Add a half teaspoon of caraway seeds and a few juniper berries, and pack the mixture into clean jars. Weigh the mixture down to keep it submerged beneath the water and stop the cabbage from spoiling. Store it in a warm place for up to a week then move to the fridge to halt the fermentation process.
Pickling is a great way to preserve vegetables and make tasty condiments that you can add to burgers or salads. Pack vegetables into clean jars with a few dried herbs and spices, and top up with a brine solution. Caraway, mustard and black pepper seeds are spices that are commonly added to pickle recipes. Avoid fresh leafy herbs, as they will turn mushy quickly.
For firmer vegetables such as cauliflower, carrots and garlic, use a brine solution that is 2% of the water used. For softer vegetables such as peppers and cucumbers, use 3.5% to 5% brine solution. The higher salt content will help the softer vegetables retain their crispness.
You can use a little bit of yogurt from a store-bought pot as a starter. When added to pasteurized milk, you can produce unlimited quantities of yogurt at home.
Make sure the yogurt you buy is live yogurt and not pasteurized, as this will have no living bacteria to start the fermentation process. Probiotic capsules or drinks can also be used as a starter in the absence of yogurt.
Kombucha is very easy to make at home and requires just black tea, sugar and a starter SCOBY. It is an acronym of symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, and it looks like a sort of small jellyfish.
You can obtain a scoby by purchasing a bottle of unpasteurized kombucha. Take a look in the bottom of the bottle for any small floating pieces. These are the kombucha starter cultures. Grow the small scoby pieces in sweet black tea for a few weeks and then use them to make your own kombucha.
What else can be fermented
It is possible to ferment various meats and fish, but you should thoroughly research this before undertaking. Because the fermentation process relies on microorganisms, there are times when harmful bacteria can take over.
The dangers of eating spoiled meat are usually much more serious than spoiled vegetables, so take precaution. That being said, many cultures around the world consume fermented fish and meat products daily so if done correctly it is perfectly safe.