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Fermentation Basics

Fermentation is one of the oldest practices for preserving food - humans have been taking advantage of fermentation for thousands of years, and it can easily be done with simple ingredients and tools. But what exactly is fermentation? At it's simplest, it is the microbial breakdown of foods. Does that mean that it’s food containing living microorganisms? You know that it is! Some of our favorite foods are only possible because of fermentation - sourdough bread, beer and wine, cheeses, yogurt, kefir, chocolate, vanilla, pickles, soy sauce and vinegars.

So why did so many people stop fermenting their food? Let's hear it for refrigeration! Having refrigeration means we can preserve our food without the time and skills needed to ferment it. With less daily need and changing lifestyles, the art and practice of fermentation isn't passed down as it once was. We're lucky then, that recently there has been a resurgence of interest in fermentation and there are plenty of resources available to assist us in our fermentation journey. One of the things I love most about fermented foods is the increased bioavailability of nutrients that can improve gut health (and immunity) as well as adding quite the flavor punch!

Now for the science! Microbes, including bacteria and fungi, break down complex carbohydrates during the fermentation process. There are three common types of fermentation: lactic acid, alcohol and acetic acid. Fermenting food produces by-products that make it impossible for harmful bacteria to thrive - and allows us to preserve the food much longer that we would otherwise. As an example, let's look at lactic acid fermentation and dairy. While milk has a short shelf life, just hours at room temp, lactic acid fermentation helps turn milk into sour cream, yogurt, creme fraiche and cheese - many of which can be preserved for months or even years (I'm looking at you aged gouda).  Fermenting fruits and vegetables keeps them from spoiling, and turns our fresh produce into delicious things like kimchi and sauerkraut.

During fermentation, the breakdown of complex carbohydrates makes nutrients more bioavailable, and eases digestion as well. By breaking complex carbohydrates into simpler sugars, such as in sourdough bread, the nutrients and proteins from heritage wheats are easier for our bodies to digest. Consuming fermented foods also provides our digestive system with prebiotics and probiotics, and has been linked to reducing inflammation and improving digestion disorders. And most importantly - the sugars, acids and amino acids give us FLAVOR! Grapes and barley are great foods on their own, but wine and beer are incredible. Soy sauce, made from fermented soy beans, gives us the umami flavors that salt or soy beans alone could never. And while we love all bread, commercial, yeast risen bread is incomparable to the rich flavors and aromas given to us by the bread made from sourdough levain (starter).

Fermentation is much too elaborate for just a simple blog, but hopefully I've provided some insight on just how incredible fermented foods can be. It’s definitely something we can appreciate next time we slice into the crust of our favorite bread, top it with some aged cheese and enjoy with sip of our favorite beer! To get you started on your fermentation journey - check our recipe for Lacto-Fermented Blueberries below! Cheers - Erick

Did you know that the root for fermentation comes from the Latin word fervēre, which means to boil? Even though most fermentation happens at room temp, both lactic acid and alcohol fermentation reactions can release carbon dioxide, and when those gasses accumulate, the bubbles they create seem to boil out of the fermented product. You can see this reaction with making your own batch of lacto-fermented blueberries at home once they come into season. Use them in your salad, with yogurt, your pancakes/waffles or anywhere you would regularly use fresh blueberries. 

Lacto-fermented Blueberries

2 Pints or 680 grams of Blueberries

1 1/3 cups or 320 grams of Water

3 1/4 teaspoons or 20 grams of Salt

  • Place the blueberries in a lidded container, like a mason jar. In a bowl, combine the salt with the water and mix until dissolved.

  • Pour the salt water over the blueberries, making sure all the blueberries are covered, and close the lid loosley. *Make sure not to close it too tightly in order to let the glasses escape!

  • Leave at room temp for 4-5 days. You'll begin to notice bubbles and a slight acidic - but still sweet - smell by day 2.

  • Taste your blueberries DAILY so you can get a better idea of how acidic they are getting. Once they are to your liking, place them in the fridge to slow the fermentation. *Note that refrigerating only slows the fermentation, and they will continue to acidify over time.

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