What Is Fermentation and Why Do I Go On About It So Much?

fermented vegetables

If you have read my blog at all, at some point, you may have had one of the following thoughts:

  1. Fermentation sounds revolting. Why does she keep going on about it?
  2. OMG. I love fermentation. I named my sourdough starter [insert name]. On [insert date] she turns [insert number] years old. We will throw her a party.
  3. I would like to try fermentation but I fear I will accidentally poison and kill my family.

I am convinced that many people who want to reduce their waste will eventually stumble onto fermentation. Few bulk stores carry vinegar after all. How will you get the stuff? (Click here for a recipe for scrap vinegar.) Thank fermentation for apple cider vinegar—and much, much more.

Fermented food tastes delicious

If for no other reason, eat fermented foods for the taste. When mixed together, flour and water will bubble into a yeasty starter for baking mouth-watering sourdough bread. Combine water with raw honey, tend to it minimally and it will transform into delicious mead with a decent alcohol content.

You have no doubt eaten plenty of fermented foods. All sorts of foods undergo the process at some point in their preparation: sourdough bread, kimchi, kombucha, real dill pickles, pickled peppers, preserved lemonssour cream, cheese, beer, ginger beer, wine, vinegar, coffee, tea, chocolate and on and on.

I find the process of fermentation fascinating. I’m obsessed with it and wish I had discovered it earlier in my adult life (better late than never). I can’t be too hard on myself though. Only within a few generations have we nearly abandoned our food-preparing skills, including this ancient method.

Other benefits of fermentation:

  • Preserves food
  • Prevents food waste
  • Offers many health benefits
  • Uses little to no energy
  • Requires only a few basic skills
  • Saves money

(Read more about the benefits of fermentation here and here.)

But what exactly is fermentation?

fermentation

noun     fer·men·ta·tion     \ˌfər-mən-ˈtā-shən, –ˌmen-\

“[The] process by which microbes consume sugars and produce acid, alcohol and gases.” — from The Good Gut

“The transformative action of microorganisms.” — from The Art of Fermentation

Controlled rot: fermentation predigests food, acting like an exterior stomach

Controlled rot, an exterior stomach, all this talk of bacteria and microbes… Anne Marie, you may be thinking, it sounds gross! You did catch the part about chocolate requiring fermentation for its production, right?

How does fermentation work?

Submerge some salted and chopped cabbage in liquid and after a few days, you have tangy sauerkraut. How does that transformation happen seemingly like magic?

Vegetables are covered in anaerobic, lactic-acid bacteria. When you submerge the chopped cabbage in liquid, these bacteria eat the sugars in the cabbage, reproduce and produce lactic acid, which ferments—and preserves—the food. These acids not only give sauerkraut its tangy, delicious flavor, they also inhibit the growth of bad bacteria in the sauerkraut. As a result, fermentation is very safe. Bad bacteria cannot survive in acidic fermented foods.

Where should I start?

Many fermentation enthusiasts consider sauerkraut the gateway ferment. Find the recipe for that here. Kimchi requires one more step, so you could try that next. The only real trick to making delicious kimchi is finding the spice—gochugaru. Maybe next, start a ginger bug or a sourdough starter—or both!

You can find many recipes for fermented foods in my recipe index. I would suggest starting with “Vegetables, fermented,” followed by “Fruit, fermented” and “Bread and sourdough.” I also have recipes for yogurt, sour cream and other cultured dairy under “Cheesemaking.”

Happy fermenting!

Kombucha, ginger beer and natural soda

12 Replies to “What Is Fermentation and Why Do I Go On About It So Much?”

  1. Thanks for this Anne Marie. I bought some watermelon radishes to ferment, a favorite is cauliflower with cumin, and I can’t wait to try my hand at making coconut yogurt. I’ll admit it took awhile for me to adapt to the taste, but I love it now. I know it’s just the right thing for my tummy too.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      My pleasure, Danielle! Mmmm, those all sound delicious. What starter will you use for the coconut yogurt? I’d love to try making some of that. ~ Anne Marie

  2. I love fermented foods!! Mmmmm pickles, sauerkraut, and sourdough are my favorite!

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      And your gut loves you for it 😉 Enjoy your goodies!

  3. I love making homemade kraut with red cabbage. It turns a beautiful fuschia color, and it feels like such an accomplishment when you have jar of homemade fermented veggies sitting on a shelf.

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      I also love the color of red cabbage. Fermented foods look like jewels on your shelf, they can be so colorful. I concur with the feeling of satisfaction. There are so many benefits to fermentation and that’s one of them! ~ Anne Marie

  4. This is really useful, thanks. Do you know if things like olives and sundried tomatoes count as fermented foods?

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thanks, Amy. I’m glad you found it useful. Some cured olives require fermentation. I’ve never tried it. I do have a friend with olive trees though… I have made sundried tomatoes in a solar food dryer. They aren’t fermented. However I did find this recipe just now for sundried tomato balls (different from sundried tomatoes) and now want to try making them 🙂 https://www.culturesforhealth.com/learn/recipe/lacto-fermentation-recipes/lacto-fermented-dried-tomato-balls/
      ~ Anne Marie

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you for the nomination 🙂

  5. Nice post! I’m similarly wild about fermentation. 😊

    1. The Zero-Waste Chef says: Reply

      Thank you! What’s not to like? 😉

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