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Fermentation: A wild way to make food come to life

By Kristen Hinman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; 10:14 AM

Friendly bacteria might not be an easy notion to wrap your brain around in the context of food these days.

Monica Corrado says bring 'em on. And she's not the only one.

Pack raw food into a jar, then seal it to keep out air, says the Takoma Park teacher of lactofermentation. Leave at room temperature and let feisty, naturally occurring microbes go to town for several days or even weeks. Open. Taste. Feast.

To see Corrado lick her lips after lapping up some of her "live" homemade ketchup, to watch her eyes dance as she opens a jar of her bubbling salsa and, yes, to taste her hissing peach chutney, redolent with crushed red pepper, is to concede that she might be on to something.

Part science, part art, lactofermentation is an ancient method of food preservation using live bacterial cultures. Anathema though it may seem to a generation of antibacterial hand-gel obsessives, the technique is increasingly being embraced by DIY aficionados and whole-food advocates who like the idea of low-tech preservation and also believe that unpasteurized foods aid digestion and boost immunity.

As Corrado puts it, "We're live people. We're not meant to eat only dead food!"

A former caterer of organic cuisine, Corrado became intrigued with lactofermentation a decade ago after meeting Sally Fallon, author of "Nourishing Traditions" (NewTrends, 1999). The nearly-700-page tome on nutrition is considered essential background reading by fermentation fetishists, but Corrado found it lacking in practical advice. Five years ago, she began teaching classes at farmers markets, food co-ops and private residences in the Washington area. The first thing she instructs students? Get over the fear of bacteria.

For every salmonella or E. coli - "the bad guys," as Corrado calls them - there are many more "good guys," such as lactobacilli. Healthful bacteria outnumber the body's other cells 10-1; trillions of them populate the intestinal tract alone.

Lactobacilli in particular flourish when food is submerged in liquid in an anaerobic (or oxygen-free) environment. The bacteria feed on the sugars and multiply in such great numbers that they overwhelm any contaminants trying to muscle their way in. "The lactobacilli can number a billion per gram of tissue at the height of fermentation; it's amazing," says Roger McFeeters, a USDA scientist who oversees the agency's fermentation laboratory in Raleigh, N.C. "The bad bacteria can't compete."

According to McFeeters, lactofermentation has caused no known food-borne illness. The Food and Drug Administration places no specific regulations on vendors of live ferments. "As far as we know, it's been going on for thousands of years," says the scientist. "It's perfectly safe."

Anthropologists say the practice of alcoholic fermentation, involving yeast, is more than 8,000 years old, while lactofermentation is thought to have developed later, alongside agriculture and long before refrigeration, as farmers sought ways to prevent food from spoiling after harvest. Historians credit lactoferments with at least one achievement: British sea captain James Cook's completion of an around-the-world sail without losing a single man to scurvy, thanks to the 60 barrels of sauerkraut he packed for the 18th-century adventure.

The practice has endured in many countries but fell out of favor in American kitchens with the advent of the processed-food industry. Although many edibles and beverages are subject to fermentation at some stage of industrial production, the live cultures usually are killed through cooking or pasteurization before the products go to market. (Most yogurts advertised as containing live cultures are pasteurized before the cultures are added.)

"I would say 99.999 percent of people in the United States eat fermented foods every single day," says Sandor Ellix Katz, author of "Wild Fermentation" (Chelsea Green, 2003). "Bread, cheese, yogurt, sour cream, coffee, tea, chocolate, salami: Many everyday foods are produced by microorganisms and fermentation. Even though it mostly takes place behind factory doors, where nobody has to think about the fact that it's the cultivation of bacteria that are enabling these foods to grace our table, there they are, everywhere."

Some scientific evidence suggests that certain lactobacillus strains, often labeled probiotics, can promote regularity, treat irritable bowel syndrome and prevent urinary tract infections. Research into the potential health benefits of live lactoferments is in the early stages.

Since Katz's user-friendly recipe book was published, a subculture of ferm fans has surfaced. Katz (who calls himself Sandorkraut) has traveled the world to teach workshops and says he has answered more than 3,500 e-mails on the topic. Fermentation clubs have formed on college campuses. Sauerkraut wrestling matches and kimchi contests have gone down at food fairs. Regional processors are vending lactofermented foodstuffs at farmers markets and co-ops.

Here in the District, government lawyer Mike Henry organized the second annual Backyard Fermentation Festival, held in Takoma Park on Sept. 4. Henry got the bug in 2008 when faced with an overstock of vegetables from his community-supported-agriculture supplier. After online investigation and a lesson from a friend, he acquired a Slovenian cabbage slicer, a steel glove and a German 10-liter crock, then set his first sauerkraut to ferment on the kitchen countertop.

"You hear these high-pitched bubbles coming from the air lock early on, and it's pretty exciting," Henry says, describing his initial attempt. "But then it's kind of quiet for a while, and you're wondering what's happening in there. When the top came off, it was pretty satisfying knowing it worked, because there's so much faith involved."

Although a big batch of kraut can require some investment in equipment, most candidates for lactofermentation - condiments, tonic beverages, dairy products, numerous fruits and vegetables - require nothing more than Mason jars and patience.

Depending on your time and temperament, there are three ways to go about it. Sealing the food in a simple saltwater brine is the most traditional method; the wait for the finished product is usually several weeks. Jump-starting the process with whey from a dairy product, or liquid from any live ferment, can produce the desired result within several days. Powdered starters also do the trick.

The art is in the remaining ingredients. Monica Corrado favors Celtic sea salt from France, for instance, while Brooks Miller, co-owner of North Mountain Pastures in Newport, Pa., swears by Himalayan pink salt.

Miller and his wife have fermented food for their own consumption for at least five years. This past spring, a friend suggested they add it to the provisions they sell at the Bloomingdale and Takoma Park farmers markets. "We thought it'd be a nice little supplement to our meat, but it's becoming a best-selling item," Miller says.

He says customers stumble upon their Stinky Beans or Kick in the Pickle and stick around for talks about process and debates about flavor. "Everyone's got their opinion, like, 'Oh, this isn't done,' while the next person is, like, 'Ugh, it's too sour.' Meanwhile, they're talking about the exact same jar of fermented turnips."

And what if something goes wrong? Lacto-fermenters say it's rare. Long-forgotten ferments could eventually attract maggots, but the most common mishap usually involves a thin layer of mold developing atop a ferment that has been exposed to air. Just scrape off the mold; the ferment beneath generally is edible.

In troubleshooting, practitioners say, go with your gut. "Let me tell you, you will never wonder, 'Did this ferment or not?' " says Scott Grzybek, owner of Zukay Live Foods, a Pennsylvania producer of lacto-fermented salad dressings, salsas and drinks. "If it smells a pleasant sour, you won. If it's rotten, it is so disgusting, so foul, that you would never even put it on a farmer's field."

Recipes

Fermented Mayonnaise

Fermented Peach Chutney

Fermented Sour Beets

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