Enchanted by Fermentation

>> Saturday, January 17

A few days after Christmas this year I decided it was time to clean out last year's junk. No, not from my apartment; I felt like I needed something to get my body back into a good, balanced state. After moving a few months ago, and traveling for most of the year before, it seems like the very idea of taking the time to develop good habits just hasn't had space to manifest. So, with the help of Oscar, a very nice juicer I borrowed from my friend, I began a 10-day juice fast to clear the slate for the new year.

As I neared the end of my fast, I felt like I had better start preparing some healthy things to consume for afterwards, or surely I would just go back to the cupboard exactly where I left off. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I have eaten in the past and reached the conclusion that although I ate pretty healthily by most standards, the way I ate just didn't cut it. I tended to have quick meals that didn't require a lot of foresight or preparation-or leave much room for enjoyment. One solution dawned on me as I found myself gazing wistfully at jars of sauerkraut and pickles-home fermentation is a perfect way to get more involved with your food.

What ensued was a frenzy of research and experimenting, which has resulted in the erection of a "Fermentation Corner" covered in bowls, jars, and bottles in the living room next to the heater and the posting of a 'Mission Log" for recording the starting dates and notes for projects (because wow did I get lost fast without a record!). It was suddenly obvious that having live, fermented foods around is a healthy and delicious part of a good diet. It also makes for a lot more interaction with your food. Processing each item is like throwing a new thread into the weave of your daily life, and as it become habitual to think about fermentation as a part of your life, the pattern becomes more and more interesting.

The health benefits of fermentation are undeniable: mass marketing alreayd tells us how wonderful yogurt is, and this is because of the presence of healthy bacteria, which help both to break down the hard-to-digest parts of foods in the fermentation process, and aid in digestion in our systems. A great example of how fermentation can enhance foods is seen in soy products. Studies have been done (it's worth noting, these are in western countries) to show that soy products are unhealthy. What others have shown (sources coming soon) is that the 'unhealthy' part of soy is actually due to conventional processing methods. In asian countries, where soy has been a crucial part of diet for centuries, the beans are almost always fermented in some way to help break down the parts that are difficult for us to digest.

Another point I think is worth noting is the history of breadmaking. There are so many theories about gluten allergies and how they have arisen so much in recent years. Many point to white flour as the culprit, and I think there's no way to deny that it is truly difficult for any person to digest white flour, much less get nutrients from it, regardless of a gluten allergy. But whole wheat and other gluten-containing grains also give celiacs and gluten-sensitive eaters some belly-rumbles. Why?

Traditionally, all cultures gathered yeast for bread making from the air around them. this is done through a fermentation process; ground grains and water are left to collect yeast and occasionally stirred to help spread yeast and introduce oxygen. Yeast also accumulates on fruit and other foods. The process involves different types of bacteria entering the flour-water mixture and changing it in small ways which make it more hospitable to new bacteria, which finally make it a comfortable home for yeast. During this process, the grains are essentially pre-digested by the bacteria, including the parts which normally impede digestion by humans...like gluten!

Then the 'starter' is added to more flour to make dough, and the fermentation continues. Depending on the type of bread, it can be for days, and the bacteria continue to digest the grains (meanwhile creating that delicious sour flavor). So even though ancient people ate a lot of wheat, it was in a much more easily-digested form than we usually have today. How long do you think commercial bread ferments before it's baked?...yeah...

Sourdough bread and fermented soy-products are some of the better known fermentations. there are many simpler, equally nourishing and delicious dishes, which basically require no extra work on your part. Soaking grains before cooking (for anywhere from 24 hours to weeks) also allows these good bacteria to enter and start munching. It's like sending your teeth in a day early, and the result is less work for your digestive system. Or how about sauerkraut, or sauer-anything? Amazingly easy!

My point? Well, I'm not really interested in telling you what you shouldn't eat; you can figure that out by listening to your own body's responses. But for a lot of us westerners, fermentation just hasn't been a part of our lives, or not in a major way. I'd like to point out that it's really easy, healthy, and yummy (and so satisfying) to make your own live-culture foods. I never made a fermented product growing up; I never even preserved jam! So maybe I am a little over-excited by the prospect of making my own tempeh and sourdough pancakes from wild yeast, but I sure am enjoying the learning experience.

That being said, there are a lot of knots to work out too. Some things seem to work magically well, like yogurt, soured beets, kvass, and seed milks. But others (pumpkin-seed milk kefir, for example) I just haven't managed to perfect...none-the-less, you can expect a lot of fermentation recipes in the near future as I brine my way along!

You can find some great links for home fermentation in my "Fermentation Links" list; check them out, you will amaze yourself with how easy it is.


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