By Vanessa Barrington
One can barely walk down the street these days without tripping over a DIY sauerkrauter, cheesemaker, home brewer, or pickler. Fermented foods are all the rage, but they're cool for more reasons than fashion. Fermentation is good for the gut, and increases the digestibility of foods; it's a reliable preservation technique; and research shows that it increases the nutrient content in certain foods. The best reason to eat fermented foods though is flavor. The process of fermenting adds layers upon layers of complexity to foods. As an illustration, think about the difference in flavor between milk and cheese, or cabbage and sauerkraut, or grape juice and wine.
Coffee Coffee beans are surrounded by a stubbornly sticky pulp. After picking, they are crushed to loosen the pulp, then fermented. The length and technique of the fermentation process, along with roasting, determines the final flavor of the coffee.
Chocolate is a crucial step in chocolate production, removing bitter tannins and imparting complexity.
Tea The differences among teas can largely be explained by the method of processing, as most teas come from very similar plants. All teas are oxidized, but some teas, such as pu-erh undergo a second fermentation that imparts a unique flavor
Sourdough Bread Sourdough bread is fermented with the help of wild yeasts that are unique to a region, climate, or even kitchen. Mixing wild yeast culture into flour and water to make bread will create bubbles that cause the bread to rise, and give the bread a characteristic sour taste.
Cheese Cheese is really milk gone bad (in a controlled way) All cheese consists of milk, culture, and sometimes coagulant. Different cheeses began with different cheese cultures, some of which have been handed down for generations.
Cultured Butter Cultured butter is butter made from soured (again in a controlled way) cream that is then whipped or churned to separate the whey from the butterfat. This extra step is what makes cultured butter more expensive than regular butter.
Crème fraîche One of the most versatile dairy products around, crème fraîche is soured cream, the precursor of cultured butter, and one of the easiest and most foolproof cultured dairy products to make at home.
Yogurt Yogurt is milk that has been cultured with two very specific strains of bacteria: streptoccus thermophilus and lactobacillus bulgaricus. Most yogurts in the grocery store are filled with artificial additives, colors, and sweeteners. When shopping, look for plain yogurt containing nothing but cultures and milk. Or make your own.
Kefir Also known as drinkable yogurt, kefir is a cultured dairy product similar to yogurt, but it contains more strains of friendly bacteria than yogurt.
Salami Salami and other cured meats made the traditional (slow) way are actually fermented. The meat is mixed with salt and spices, inoculated with a special culture, and then allowed to cure naturally, without additives. That's why, when you bite into a really fine artisanal salami, you can usually detect a slight tang. That's the fermentation.
Wine To make wine, the grapes are mixed with yeast and allowed to ferment before aging.
Beer Beer is made from fermented mashed grains like hops and wheat. Differences in flavor and body come from manipulating the ratio of ingredients and adding other flavors.
Sauerkraut Sauerkraut is another very simple home fermenting project. You can ferment cabbage easily with just salt, or you can use a lacto-fermentation method by adding a little yogurt whey. Try it here.
Pickles Traditionally, dill pickles were made through fermentation. Now they are most often made with vinegar. The traditional types are making a resurgence, however, and can be found in specialty stores carrying local products. Or you can make them yourself.
Kimchi There are more varieties of kimchi than cars, but all have a delicious funk in common, and that funk comes from fermentation. Kimchi is made like sauerkraut but may contain different types of vegetables and seasonings, sugar, and often some type of dried or fermented fish product.
Kombucha This popular drink, like yogurt, and unlike wild fermented items like sauerkraut, is the product of a very specific culture. The culture is a spongy, slightly slimy disc that is sometimes called mother and sometimes called a skoby. The culture ferments a mixture of black tea and sugar into a tart, slighty fizzy drink that some people insist is a cure-all for many ailments
Fish Sauce Where does the dipping sauce in Thai and Vietnamese restaurants get its pungency? From the fish sauce, which is made of mashed up whole fish, packed in salt and fermented. But beware. Not all fish sauce is created equally. Some brands are produced through a chemical process, not a natural fermentation process.
Vinegar Vinegar is made by fermenting wine with a "mother," which is a stringy mass of bacteria found in unpasteurized vinegar. It's easy to make vinegar at home from leftover wine and culture, either purchased or obtained from another vinegar.
Miso The salty paste used in Japanese cooking is made with a special koji culture, rice or barley, and soybeans. Many people think it's the key to Japanese longevity.
Tempeh This meaty tasting soybean cake, popular in Indonesian cuisine is a product of fermenting cooked soybeans with a special mold. If the tempeh sometimes appears moldy, that's because it is. But rest assured, it's like the mold in blue cheese and ok to eat. Here's a great recipe for pan-fried tempeh You might be surprised by how many common, beloved foods are fermented. But, there are dozens more less common ones such as injera, the tangy, spongy bread made of teff that is used to sop up the juices of Ethiopian and Eritrean stews; many of the shrimp and fish pastes used in Korean and other Asian cuisines; Norwegian rakfisk; and Icelandic hákarl, one of the more challenging fermented foods.
ALSO CHECK OUT:
Healthy and Fun Cocktails Made with Kombucha
20 Unusual Uses for Wine
Home Fermenting Resources
Images: Teo, Victoria Chan, Gianfranco Cardongna, Yo Ames, Vanessa Barrington
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