Fermentation is more than just a food processing technique. Sandor Katz, today’s “godfather of fermentation,” expounds on the metaphorical significance of fermentation in his new book “Fermentation as Metaphor.”
“Fermentation is such a fascinating lens through which to look at the world and the incredible practicality of traditional cultural wisdom,” says Katz, fermentation author and educator, during a webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association. “In the English language, there’s a long tradition of describing things as fermenting that are not foods and beverages. We talk about a period of great musical fermentation, artistic fermentation, political fermentation, culture fermentation, we’ve applied it very widely. This book is really an exploration of that and a reflection of that.”
Katz spoke with his friend Mara King, chef and food professional, and they shared thoughts on how fermentation can be an unstoppable force for change.
“Fermentation is really teaching the world to embrace weird and funky things,” King says. “Take natural wines as an example. There’s a big movement in the world of wine making for using older techniques, using less chemical filtration and clarification methods. What you’re left with is a product that changes year to year and a product that has subtle notes of animal or leather, things you wouldn’t find before. We’re realizing a little bit of horrible is quite wonderful.”
Until the 19th Century, all wine was natural, Katz points out. Winemakers relied on organisms on the skins of the grapes for the flavor. Beer used to be a similarly natural product, but that’s changed as brewers today add yeast strains.
“It’s so much more interesting and complex of a flavor than the mass-produced beer where just a single organism is introduced. Fermentation really encourages people to expand their palates,” Katz says. “Funk is good. Funk makes things interesting. Funk is complexity. What I’ve learned by working with fermented tofu in food, working with natto in food, working with sumbala, the West African condiments that are natto-like, working with fish sauce, is [these ingredients on their own] might taste awful to you, but a little bit can introduce this je ne sais quoi into the flavor of a dish. Complexity is good and even flavors on their own that people might find scary or intimidating.”
The photography featured in “Fermentation as Metaphor” is unique — magnified microbes used in the creation of fermented food and drink. The images, captured with a scanning electron microscope, show the complexity of these microorganisms. Each structure is supported by a smaller structure, with membranes that are highly permeable.
“There continues to be a magic to fermentation, maybe in some ways even more so as fewer people have direct contact with their food. As there’s less wine making, cheese making, [or] baking in our lives that people actually see, these processes become more and more mysterious. [Mystery] has always been an aspect of fermentation because, until very recent times, there was never a clear, rational scientific understanding of what is going on. They were always seen as divine processes with lots of ceremony and ritual attached to them,” Katz adds. “Fermentation takes this neutral, plain food and gives it this really discernable, compelling flavor.”
Katz is already working on his next book, a fermentation travelogue book highlighting what he’s learning about fermentation in his worldwide travels. Katz and King previously filmed a series “The People’s Republic of Fermentation,” sharing the fermentation traditions of southwest China. They were supposed to travel to Taiwan and eastern China earlier this year, but the trip was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Next on Katz’s “to do” list — exploring the fermented cuisine of West Africa.
There are thousands of molecules in the food we eat, but most have yet to be identified. This is especially true in the world of fermentation.
“Lactic acid is not the only byproduct of lactic acid fermentation,” says Suzanne Johanningsmeier, a research food technologist with USDA-ARS. During a TFA webinar, Johanningsmeier presented her research into health-promoting pickled vegetables. “There could be hundreds or thousands of byproducts of this lactic fermentation. As an analytical chemist and someone who is very interested in the composition of foods, I find that fascinating and exciting and a world to explore.”
Johanningsmeier, a leading expert on the chemical and sensory properties of fermented food and veggies, notes that fermentation is a trending food technique. Consumers today want food that is plant-based, enhances gut health, introduces new flavors, made with simple labels and returns to tradition.
“All these things have aligned and intersected for a fermented foods megatrend. It’s exciting to see so much momentum in the Americas rolling for fermented foods,” she says. “All of these trends are based on the belief that these are health promoting foods for consumption.”
The USDA-ARS office in North Carolina State University is staffed by five research scientists, and there are an additional 2,000 more affiliated scientists across the country. Their mission is to deliver scientific solutions to national and global agricultural challenges.
“My long-term goal is to develop science-based technologies that enable the sustainable preservation of fruits and vegetables for production of high-quality, health-promoting consumer products,” Johanningsmeier says.
The most recent USDA-ARS study explored the potential health benefits of fermented cucumbers. Cucumbers are one of the top five vegetables preserved in the U.S. but the only one that’s not canned or frozen. The USDA-ARS found that fermented and pickled cucumbers include many beneficial by-products, including proline, bioactive peptides and GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, which works as a neurotransmitter in the brain).
“Food processing has a negative connotation. But, actually, fermentation is processing and, as you can see, processing can be good. Processing can add things and certainly make food available to people year round,” Johanningsmeier says. “I think the idea here is how do we preserve [food] so we retain or enhance those inherent, health-promoting properties? The abilities we have now to more comprehensively look at composition are going to help us understand that in the future.”
Maria Marco, professor of food science and technology at University of California, Davis (and TFA Advisory Board member), moderated the discussion. Marco praised Johanningsmeier’s use of analytical techniques to implement fermentation technologies.
“These are exciting compounds, and we know that they have neuroreactive properties or antihypertensive properties,” Marco says.
During a year of dramatically changing consumer grocery-shopping patterns, kombucha sales are continuing to grow, but at a slower pace. U.S. retail sales of kombucha sales grew 2.4% over the twelve months though mid-July 2020, to $703.2 million. But this growth rate compares to 9.8% in the prior 12-month period.
Distribution remains strong in conventional stores (up 5.1%), but is decreasing in kombucha’s core, natural stores (down 6.1%).
“This is a piece that’s one to watch and one to manage because it’s one of the better indicators of category health,” says Perteet Spencer, vice president of Strategic Solutions for SPINS (retail data provider). Spencer shared the stats at KombuchaKon 2020. The natural channel, Spencer explained, is where consumer shopping trends emerge.
As grab-and-go shopping and restaurant dining declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, so did kombucha sales. “COVID has hurt,” says Spencer, “but I expect this category will certainly rebound.”
KKon 2020, organized by Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), was a virtual event this year after KBI’s annual in-person KKon in April was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Hundreds of kombucha professionals from all over the world joined digitally for the two-day conference.
Six months into the coronavirus outbreak and more consumers are purchasing health products. Hannah Crum, KBI president, says education in the kombucha industry is more important than ever as consumers seek health drink options.
“I think this is a really vital opportunity for us as fermentationists,” says Crum. “This is teaching us that health is paramount…this is where kombucha’s opportunity thrives.”
The conference marks the first time industry leaders have met since KBI announced their new kombucha Code of Practice, the first set of safety and quality standards for the industry.
Kombucha has infiltrated mainstream retail, with 83% of stores selling kombucha in some form — a statistic Spencer said is especially impressive. “Rarely do we see full saturation of categories,” she adds. “Certainly there’s room to expand there.”
The retail category SPINS tracks represents sales of refrigerated kombucha and fermented beverages. Kombucha is competing with other adjacent fermented drinks, like cider, functional juices, teas, kvass, vinegar drinks and coffee/cold brew. Kombucha still dominates, representing nearly 90% of the category sales.
The entire beverage industry is a $122 billion market, comprising 16 categories, with soda and carbonated beverages the largest portion ($30.3 billion). Categories with the highest growth rates include plant-based milk (13.4%), creams and creamers (11.1%) and performance beverages (8.9%).
“As you can see, it’s incredibly crowded,” Spencer says. “We’re seeing beverages are playing a lot of different roles. This is important because the consumer data would suggest that consumers are not buying one beverage type.” For example, she says a consumer may want a protein drink in the morning, a yerba mate in the mid-day for a boost, then a kombucha at the end of the day.
“We are seeing the rise of new digestive health benefits and formats really gaining traction, as kombucha and its derivatives scale mainstream,” Spencer says.
Consumers are looking for diverse, nutrient-rich ingredients and flavors. Wellness-focused brands with clean ingredients and holistic ideals are “the engine of growth for the natural products industry…the future is bright for these spaces.” Spencer notes “90% of kombucha brands live and shine in this space.”
The top-selling kombucha flavors in the natural channel include mixed fruit, pineapple and coconut. In the conventional channel, top flavors are ginger, berry and mixed fruit. Top-selling brands are: GT Kombucha, Kevita, Health Ade, Brew Dr. and Humm.
Hard kombucha brands also thrived in the past year. Prime examples are: Boochcraft ($8.6 million in sales, 72.6% growth), June Shine ($6.1 million, 211.2%) and Flying Embers ($3.5 million, 1,398.1%).
Spencer says another major opportunity for kombucha brands is selling larger-size growlers. The 48-ounce size growler is the second-fastest-growing kombucha size. Shoppers are shifting to purchasing larger sizes as they stock up during the pandemic.
“This is such a resilient industry,” Spencer says. “What an incredible opportunity to move with your consumers as they embrace the fundamentals of what kombucha delivers, but also experience it in slightly different ways. People are looking for new experiences and a sense of escape, and so I think (kombucha) brands are uniquely positioned to enter that conversation.”
Koji — the mold-innoculated grains — has become one of the superstars of the American fermentation scene, thanks to chefs experimenting with it in unique ways. Dubbed “Japan’s mold,” koji has been a cooking staple in Asian countries since the 1800s. In a webinar with Chelsea Green Books titled “Breaking the Mold: A Conversation with Fermentation Fanatics,” Sandor Katz, Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky discussed how koji can be used for fermenting foods.
“I think one of the fascinating things is to see these microbial sets start to be viewed through different cultural lenses across geographic locations,” says Umansky, co-author of the book “Koji Alchemy” with Shih. “We’re honestly starting to see food the world has never seen before. It’s a really exciting time to be fermenting, to be growing koji and making the foods that are being made from it.”
Applying ancient fermentation techniques in new ways is a “game changer” to a dish, Shih added.
“You don’t need a lot to make it really mind blowing,” Shih says. “When I started thinking about how little of these umami-blasted product I added to make it delicious.”
“I think one of the coolest things that I discovered about working with koji is it’s just that little bit of breakdown that creates that umami that really brings the product to life. You need such a small amount of protein to make a big difference,” Shih adds.
Mold has a bad reputation as the fuzzy invader that grows on old food. But, Shih points out, everyone has tried mold. Koji mold is a driver for soy sauce, one of the most popular condiments worldwide.
“When people start, they have a perception of what mold is and this perception that it’s not good for you, it’s bad, and it should not be part of food,” Shih says. “Mold is a wonderful thing and it creates all these wonderful condiments and drinks that allowed us to be here today, to survive those times when it was tough and preservation was necessary.”
Katz, who is releasing a new book on fermentation “Fermentation as a Metaphor,” joined Umansky and Shih for their conversation (TFA is hosting a webinar with Katz and Mara King on October 7.). A fermentation author and educator, Katz has taught hundreds of workshops on demystifying fermentation.
“All three of us would say: experiment. You can grow koji on virtually anything,” Katz advises.
Today, there are powder koji starter cultures available to purchase for cooks to create koji dishes. Until the 20th century, there were no koji starter cultures, Katz points out, as cooks used mold spores in the air.
“We can order cultures to make this happen today. It’s very very much in our reach,” he says. Addressing Umansky and Shih: “You guys figured it out just by playing in your kitchen. None of this is that hard.”
However, Katz says koji is not a first fermentation project. Koji requires a controlled temperature environment and humidity. Vegetable fermentation is a beginner-friendly fermentation project because it merely involves vegetables and salt.
“There is a small, minute risk that something may go wrong,” Shih says. “We always encourage people when they’re first starting and thinking about growing koji in this fashion is to grow it in the most controlled way possible to be successful.”
Umansky encourages those ready to start fermenting with koji to buy a starter from a reputable producer. Especially important is purchasing spores from a location in the geographic area where the kojis were domesticated. In researching the book, Umansky found there is only one of seven companies left in Japan that still produces koji spores, Higuchi Matsunosuke Shoten Co., Ltd. Owner Koichi Higuchi is the head of the 7th generation company. Higuchi has a vault with hundreds of variations and specialties of different koji species.
“These are people that are really, really driving the preservation of kojis worldwide,” Umansky says. “Supporting them drives the preservation of this…they’re working really hard to protect the biodiversity that’s important for their individual cultural identities.”
There’s a void in scientific knowledge of fermented and pickled vegetables, and scientists are just starting to scratch the surface.
“We have a wealth of chemical compositions that we still don’t fully understand,” says Dr. Ilenyz Pérez-Díaz, PhD, a microbiologist with the USDA-ARS. Perez-Diaz presented on “Development of Pickling Technologies & Products” during a webinar hosted by TFA. “I honestly think there is still a lot to do in regards to the richness of the biological functions that are present in these systems. Every vegetable is different. … It will be fantastic to be able to comprehensively understand what’s really there and how we can use it for the benefit of not only processing but also for the benefit of human health.”
The purpose of the USDA-ARS is to find solutions for agricultural challenges, domestically and globally. In 2019, the 8,000 employees of the USDA-ARS researched 660 agricultural projects, filed 85 new patents, issued 65 new patents, received 51 new licenses and wrote 3,816 peer-reviewed journal articles.
Pérez-Díaz is assigned to the food science and market quality and handling research unit. There the team develops state-of-the-art, science-backed methods that improve the post-harvest processes, food preservation, food quality and safety and, ultimately, introducing nutritious products into the food system.
“What I love about the research that she’s doing is that pickling and fermentation are these ancient, traditional technologies that people have been using for hundreds and hundreds of years, and she’s really thinking about ways that we can advance those technologies using all the amazing sequencing and all the microbiology we have today,” says Ben Wolfe, PhD, associate professor of biology at Tufts University, and the TFA Advisory Board member who moderated the webinar.
Pérez-Díaz shared the USDA’s latest technologies to reduce food waste, lessen environmental impacts, improve water/energy demand and add more health value to preserved vegetables. Here are highlights from the research presented, focused on addressing two key problems:
Eliminate Salt in Cucumber Fermentation
PROBLEM: Sodium chloride is essential to fermentation, but the salt-rich (and sometimes preservative-filled) brine shipped from overseas producers can get into local freshwater supplies. There are no growers of small cucumbers (gherkins) in the U.S., so food projects that require small cucumbers must use overseas produce. But, in order for the cucumbers to be transported, they must be fermented or pickled. High amounts of salt, acid and sometimes preservatives are added, and these potentially can damage the water supply.
SOLUTION: USDA-ARS tested fermenting pickles using three popular spices: dill, cinnamon and mustard seed. But, though salt was reduced or eliminated, “the indigenious microbiota is always there,” Pérez-Díaz explains. “The salt is modulating the activity within this population. It tends to favor the lactic acid bacteria. But what I’ve learned is it is not the main factor modulating that microbiota. The ph and the production of that lactic acid and or acetic acid is really the factor in excluding the non desirable microorganisms and favoring the fermentative microbiota.”
Reduce Food Waste by Creating Foods
PROBLEM: In the U.S., between 30-70% of fresh vegetable produce is wasted. “Those are alarming numbers,” says Pérez-Díaz. “Even though they are estimates, it is necessary to look at ways to resolve the impact of such waste.”
SOLUTION: The USDA developed small-scale fermentation systems for use in restaurants, farmer’s markets and grocery stores. These vessels make fermenting excess food more manageable by allowing easy fermentation of smaller batches.
“We can convert what was waste or surplus or defective vegetables into a value-added product,” Pérez-Díaz says. “It will be a probiotic product, it will be fermented vegetables auxiliaries that can be used as sources of flavor, colors, ingredients in a number of recipes or even dehydrated for different applications.” [This project was near completion before the pandemic and is expected to pick-up soon.]
Fermentation, she emphasized, is needed to sustain a modern food system.
“These fermentations, if applied properly, they are very powerful eliminating the organisms that are not desirable or the organisms that are not of health significance,” Pérez-Díaz says. “I think fermentation will truly be an important component as we move forward to that new era.”
How should an artisanal, fermented food or drink brand spend their time and energy: making the product or selling it?
Both, say John Gray, owner of Bubbies pickles and TFA Advisory Board member, and Steve Rustad, his marketing partner. The two spoke at a TFA webinar “The Bubbies Pickles Story: Food Marketing Fundamentals.”
“You have two jobs if you’re a small businessman. One is making it, the other is selling it,” says Rustad, owner of Rustad Marketing. “If you’re prioritizing making it and putting selling in the back seat, you are not looking at one of the most important parts of your business.”
Marketing should never be considered a distraction — promoting the product needs to be as fundamental to a business plan as making it.
“I’ve seen very few people who can do marketing and making successfully. It is a different world. It takes two people,” Rustad adds.
Sharing Your Brand’s Story
How did Bubbies grow from a small, struggling brand to a financially successful category leader? Good marketing.
Gray, who has a background in finance, decided to purchase the Bubbies brand with his wife, Kathy, in the late 80s. A lawyer friend had recently taken the brand through bankruptcy, and John said he knew that helping the brand survive would “take every last dime we’ve got. And it did.”
His first step was partnering with Rustad and recreating the label. The original one featured Bubbies written in a bubble font script. It was difficult to read, and people confused “Bubbies” with “Bubbles.” And the image on the label of vegetables wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Gray and Rustad wanted to maintain the old-fashioned look, but in a way that would resonate with customers.
A picture of Kathy’s Jewish grandma Bubbe (Bubbe is the Yiddish word for grandmother) became the inspiration for the label image. She became the mascot, a Bubbe that stands for valuable cooking principles — keeping the kitchen the center of the home, the worth of a home cooked meal and, most important, creating great flavor.
Once the new label was introduced,, sales grew 40% the first three months.
“That’s the power (of a good label),” Gray says. “Your label is your face to the world. And you need to spend the right kind of money until it hurts to get it right because it’s probably the most important money you’ll ever spend.”
To market a product, you need to have a story, Rustad adds. The dream to always ferment vegetables is not a story. “What makes your product unique?”
Bubbies used their quirkiness as a selling point, a strategy Rustad recommends for new, artisanal brands. Don’t look to major consumer packaged good brands for guidance on how to market a maker business. “Your quirkiness is your advantage when you’re a maker,” he says.
Marketing Fermented Products
But how do you market a fermented food or drink, with its own unique qualities?
First, Gray advises, do not become an authority on health food.
“We don’t talk about probiotics at all,” he says. “We make no health claims, we’re very careful about it. One of the reasons I got involved with and wanted to get The Fermentation Association started is because the FDA refuses to deal with what natural is and what it means.”
“If you’re going to talk about your probiotics, you better be legally sure that what the consumer is getting when they crack open the jar is what you are promising them, not just what you made originally,” Gray adds. “As a result, we completely stay away from any claims about health, probiotics or anything else because you can’t prove it.”
Though Bubbies includes all-natural ingredients (cucumber, artesian well water and spices) without sugar or preservatives, Bubbies doesn’t put “natural” on the label, either. Rustad notes, when you try to put “natural” on a product label, it becomes contentious, turning your product into “a magnet for people to sue you.”
The health food is a regulated industry. “As soon as you make any health claims, you’re in bed with the Food and Drug Administration. You really don’t want to do that. So when you talk about your food attributes, you need to be careful that you’re not talking about medicine. Your customers may say your food cures cancer, but you can’t say that.”
Some uninformed customers still consider fermented goods dangerous. Don’t waste time marketing to the uninformed.“It’s very expensive when you have to educate,” Gray advises.
Bubbies in the early years ran into a related problem. Because their pickles and sauerkraut are naturally fermented, the brine is cloudy – a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. Bubbies was unsure how to educate those that thought this cloudiness was a problem. So they made it an attribute of the product, a positive, and, printed “Shake Until Cloudy” on all jars.
Focus on the taste. “If something tastes good, people will put up with a lot of appearance issues,” Rustad says. And taste better than the competition. Bubbies pickles re-launched at a time when big food brands were switching from naturally fermented pickles to processed, shelf-stable varieties.
“By having a naturally fermented pickle, we had a product that was very basic, had no additives other than the spices and was perceived as healthful,” says Rustad . “And tasted delicious.”
Fermented food and drink are difficult to scale, labor intensive and have unique production processes with different liabilities. But people are willing to pay a higher price for an artisanal, fermented product.
“Your market for this product is conditioned to pay a premium for what they perceive to be a superior product. People expect to pay more, ” Rustad says, comparing it to the organic food industry.
Focus on Customers
“Part of that premium should be used for marketing,” he continues. “You need to invest in marketing. And marketing is an investment because you’re buying awareness, you’re buying the tool to establish relevance and hopefully your marketing is provoking trial, action, relationship, social media engagement.”
Bubbies — a certified kosher product — advertised their product in the Jewish press in Los Angeles County in the early days. They knew it was their target audience, and they couldn’t afford advertising in a mass market publication.
Customer rapport has been vital to Bubbies success. Over the years, retailers have replaced Bubbies with different private labels — twice at Safeway and, more recently, at Sprouts. Customers are the first to call and complain to the store’s buyers.
“That happens because of the relationship you have with your customer. Outreach is key. We respond to every single outreach from any customer, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, email,” Gray says. “How do you relate? People want real stuff. They want real, authentic food, ingredients they can pronounce, that they know what they are.”
In the second piece to our two-part Q&A with fermentation guru Johnny Drain, he details some of his recent fermentation consulting projects, as well as how (and why) more chefs need to use fermentation to create a sustainable global food ecosystem.
Drain works as a consultant for restaurants around the world, like Akoko Restaurant in London. Pictured, Drain poses with the team at Akoko. Akoko serves West African cuisine like dawadawa (fermented African locust beans) with ogiri egosi (melon seeds), a dish that shares similarities to natto.
TFA: The Cub Cave, where you’re currently working for Cub restaurant, tell me about it.
JD: That’s my “perma-lance.” But unfortunately, last week, we announced the Cub restaurant won’t be reopening after COVID, post lockdown.
The Cub restaurant is part of the Mr Lyan Group. So Mr Lyan (Ryan Chetiyawardana), he’s sort of this brilliant guy who typically operates in this world of cocktails and drinks, but also had this restaurant at the inception of food and drink. And Cub was really made to examine the inception of food and drink. The menu there was really this free-flowing journey through food and drink. So sometimes you’d have just a drink as a course, sometimes a food and a drink. It was really trying to break down this idea of why, even in the very best restaurants, have a food menu and a drink menu and they’re very separated. It was examining that intersection but also examining this intersection between luxury and sustainability. Why do you have to typically sacrifice sustainability when you have luxury and why do you have to sacrifice luxury when you have sustainability? So part of my time there, I set up the Cub Cave which was this R and D space literally below the restaurant in the basement, and I worked with chefs and the bartenders to essentially use that food waste, one, and in a deeper way examine ways that if there was an ingredient the chefs and bartenders wanted to use but perhaps they knew there would be a lot of trim or a lot of waste from it, I would go in and use my science smarts and find a way to use that trim. Basically to maximize the flavor that we extract from that produce we bring it.
There’s a famous American scientist of the 20th century, Richard Feynman, and when he was talking about nanotechnology, things at the nanoscale which are things that are atomically slightly subatomic which was my focus when I was a chemist and physicist, he famously coined this term “There’s plenty of room at the bottom,” meaning that there were plenty more technological applications in chemistry and physics.I like to say “There’s plenty of room in the bottom when we look in our bins.” Often what we throw away, pardon my French, there’s still shitloads of flavor in much of the food that we throw away. And it’s such a crying shame. My real role working with people like Cub in the Cub Cave and a restaurant called SILO, which is the UK’s first zero waste restaurant, is to look at what we’re throwing away and see what flavors are left. Then, use science and fermentation techniques to extract all that delicious flavor. When we’re talking about flavor, we’re talking about all the hard work, passion and dedication that some farmer has put in, or with animal products, the life some animal has given up to provide this product. The shame is that, often in most restaurants and bars, we would throw away much of it. There is still lots of flavor in there and how do we extract that flavor? Typically using fermentation.
TFA: Tell me more about SILO. What are some of the sustainability goals there?
JD: SILO was founded by this incredible guy called Douglas McMaster. He won British Master Chef Jr. when he was like 20, worked in a few restaurants around the world, then he had this epiphany when he was out in Melbourne working with this guy Joost Bakker, this zero waste pioneer. Doug had this mad idea of setting up this restaurant that had no bin. Which is kind of haughty if you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know how critical the bin is in a functioning restaurant or bar. The bin gets used several times a day. But Doug’s idea was to have a restaurant without a bin.
He set up a pop-up in Melbourne, then set up a brick and mortar restaurant in London called SILO. Really, Doug’s goal there is to be completely zero waste. A lot of that revolves around setting up relationships with the suppliers so that, when they drop off food or wine, either they drop off some type of pallet that goes back to get refilled or they drop it off in containers that can somehow be upcycled into some other product.
My goal in the SILO ecosystem is, if they do ever have trim, food trim usually goes to a composter, which is a viable and valuable use of food waste. But it’s a degrading, devaluing of the product. My role is to go in before the food has to go to compost, compost should be the last resort, and basically ferment it.
So we take things like dairy buttermilk when the guys make butter and we make this buttermilk garum, which is this incredible, golden-colored umami balm of a liquid, tastes of like blue cheese and toasted nuts, a little bit of caramel notes in there. We make this buttermilk garum and that goes on. Essentially buttermilk is a product that doesn’t have that great of value. But by fermenting it, the buttermilk garum has much greater value pound for pound than even the cream that started that process of making the butter. So we’re adding value back to the food chain and creating this phenomenal flavor profile that guests at the restaurants, even most chefs, no one has ever tasted because it’s a product no one else is making. The buttermilk, it went onto this slow cooked, aged dairy cow dish, and it also went onto this dish with brined tomato with sheep’s curd garnished with smoked grape seed oil, buttermilk garum and flowers. So we’re creating these incredible flavor profiles that blow people’s mind with this buttermilk garum which was born out of this necessity. How do we, if we’re going to make garum butter, which Doug wanted to do, we’re going to have lots of buttermilk. For every kilo of butter you make, you end up with about a kilo of buttermilk. It was born out of necessity and out of necessity, we’re creating this phenomenal, incredible, mind-blowing tasting ingredient.
TFA: Research shows that by 2050, when the global population is expected to reach 10 billion, we won’t have enough food to feed the growing population. How is our modern food system going to need to adapt to sustain our growing population?
JD: I think the first thing to point out is it will have to adapt. The course the industrial agricultural complex is heading, it’s completely not sustainable. It’s been based on this model of artificially-synthesized chemical inputs and fertilizers. Post World War II that was a necessity. It was innovative and smart and produced incredible yields, but it’s created a situation where the quality of the soil globally has degraded rapidly because of this, and we need to find different ways to nurture soil and produce or yield curves will just drop off.
We need to find ways to nourish soils, nourish ecosystems and create more resilient ecosystems and move away from this modern agriculture. But modern agriculture has been the prevailing paradigm for the last 30, 40 years. Sustainability has to be one of those cornerstones of the way we move forward. Sustainability has to be a tenant in all parts of the food system. We’re talking about from seeds, to how we grow food to the restaurant side, how can we take the foods we use and process it in a more sustainable way. That comes down to consumers being more savvy. They need to ask “I’ve got some cabbages in my fridge that look a bit funky and are starting to smell a bit, how can I use those?” Fermentation is one of those ways.
This is why fermentation popped up in the history of mankind. It’s a way of preserving the glut of food you had in summer and early autumn over the winters. Or it was a way of preserving, let’s say, dairy milk products. Milk sours off in 3-4 days, pre-refrigeration times, how do you preserve the very valuable nutrition that’s present in dairy milk for longer than that? So people started making butter, they started making cheese.
We’re going to harness some of those fermentation techniques as a way to extend the shelf life of those products that we have access to.
TFA: MOLD magazine, tell me how that came about.
JD: MOLD magazine, the name is potentially a bit of misnomer because it’s not just focused on mold. Although the first edition was focused on the human microbiome. But MOLD started off as a website which was started by a woman, LinYee Yuan. She’s a native of Texas, but now lives in New York and she’s an industrial designer by background. LinYee set up MOLD as a website to explore basically that intersection of food and design and where those meet. Some people might think that’s a bit of a weird marriage. What does food have to do with design? But in terms of everything we eat and all the utensils that we use to eat and the spaces we eat from restaurants to cafes, how our food is grown and processed and how it makes its way from farm to table, there have been design decisions made in all of those things. This interaction between food and design is very rich. And there’s a very deep, profound overlap between those two.
LinYee wants to explore that. She set up the website and we were set up between a mutual friend at a seminar a few years ago. She was looking for someone to create a print version of the work she’d been doing with the website. We came up with the idea of MOLD magazine.
We basically had this idea we’d do six issues of MOLD magazine, we worked with this incredible designer, Matt Sam and Erica Ko, who are based in North America as well. It basically explores one theme every issue. We’ve explored seeds, the human microbiome, food waste. We really go deep and we explore it from all aspects of the food side, the design side. The visual language we use in MOLD is very rich, it’s led by these brilliant designers we work with. It’s created as this print magazine in this world where most media we consume is online and we really wanted to create an object that you would sit down and get to grips with and immerse yourself in the experience of reading. It’s a limited print run, approximately 3,000 of each issue. But we’ve won lots of pleasing claudettes for the work. We were mentioned in the New York Times as one to watch. And we’ve worked with lots of great people. Massami Batora and Dan Barber wrote an article for us, all these great chefs. The response in the food world and the design world and the food tech world has been very positive to the work we’re doing and the ideas we’re sharing.
One of our core principles is that we want to use MOLD to give a voice to people that often in these conversations don’t have a voice. We are passionate about giving a voice to people who are underrepresented, people of color, women, basically using MOLD as a vehicle to give underrepresented voices a voice within these very important conversations around the world of food.
TFA: You spent time at Noma, working in the Nordic Food Lab. Your focus was exploring whether you can age butter like you age cheese. What was your conclusion?
JD: How I ended up there was completely bonkers. I had just finished my PhD. At that point I had no kitchen experience. I started working in the restaurants starging, which is basically, in the chef world, a French word which is to go and work for free for a week or two. I had started emailing people at these high-falutin restaurants that had these R and D facilities. One of which was this thing called the Nordic Food Lab which, to a degree, has been airbrushed from the history of Noma because of various politics. It started off, it was on this beautiful, big, Dutch barge in front of the old restaurant, Noma 1.0, which you could sort of see from the dining room. It started off as this food lab and test kitchen, and it became this food lab, this not-for-profit thing. Its mission was to kind of research Nordic cuisine and really elevate and amplify the work that Noma had been doing and find ingredients that could then go back into its menu. Eventually they kind of separated, the point where I was working there, the food lab was still on the Dutch barge outside the restaurant. (The Nordic Food Lab is now part of Copenhagen University.)
It was this incredible opportunity to work at the food lab, at a time when Noma was No. 1, on the world’s 50 best restaurant list, two Michelin stars, seen widely for various reasons as the world’s best restaurant, doing incredible things. As this guy who had worked mostly in sciences labs, which are very different from kitchens, to then suddenly be thrust into this environment of a world’s best restaurant, anyone who hasn’t been lucky enough to go to Noma, it functions in this very eclectic, choreographed way. It’s kind of this cross between this sort of military operation and a beautiful ballet where everything works kind of seamlessly. It’s a very beautiful spectacle to see a restaurant working at such a high level. To witness that, to be a tiny cog of this body working side by side with the restaurant, was an incredible experience and very inspiring.
I think the food lab really was responsible for a number of really important things within restaurant culture in the last 5 or 10 years. Rene Redzepi, who has done wonderful things for not just Nordic food but the whole food industry, I saw him speak in person a few times and he’s this very inspiring guy, he has this very powerful way of leading people and an incredible vision.
To cut to the question “Can you age butter?” Yes, you can. Basically, you end up with something that tastes like blue cheese. So you have these fermentation processes, this breakdown of these lipids, these fat molecules, into what we call free fatty acids. They are basically what gives flavor to a 36-month aged parmesan, which we all know and love. If you do that to butter, if you age butter, you get some of those same flavor compounds, and they’re present in parmesan, in aged comte. If you do it at just the right level, you get these kind of aged, spicy notes of a blue cheese or a delicious aged parmesan.
Unfortunately, aged butter hasn’t taken off in a way I thought it might, but certainly people are aging butters in a way they were 10 years ago. Hopefully, my work has encouraged people to investigate that in some small way.
Johnny Drain is the guru for helping chefs around the world innovate flavorful dishes. A chemist with a PhD from Oxford and a passion for cooking, Drain found fermentation was the optimal intersection of food and science.
“Fermentation was this focus of this venn diagram that incorporated food with some necessity to understand biology but also chemistry,” Drain says. “Fermentation was this sweet spot where I could apply my background in science with this passion and knowledge and aptitude for cooking, flavor and taste. I realized if I wanted to apply this rich educational history that I was fortunate to have access to, fermentation was this ideal sphere where I could do that.”
This cross-section is where Drain finds his diverse career — as an in-demand food research and development consultant. He’s currently advising chefs in renowned restaurants all over the globe and serving as co-editor of MOLD magazine.
The Fermentation Association spoke with Drain, who is based in London. Below is the first of our two-part Q&A with Drain. Part 1 focuses on his interest in fermentation, and how he sees fermentation transforming the culinary world. Part 2 features some of Drain’s recent fermentation consulting projects and his drive to use fermentation to create a sustainable global food system.
The Fermentation Association (TFA): What got you first interested in fermentation.
Johnny Drain (JD): I am a scientist by background. I did chemistry as an undergraduate, then I worked for a company in finance, which I don’t really talk about. It was on the cusp of the financial crash, 2006-2008, so it was quite an interesting time to be working in that sector. During my lunch breaks, I was reading recipe books and reading restaurant reviews and looking at the world of science. I was thinking about doing a PhD, and I ended up quitting finance because I realized this was not how I wanted to spend my life, for 12 hours every day. I went back and did a PhD in something called material science, which is a cross between chemistry and physics. Still nothing actually to do with food, I was looking at how atoms interact in types of steel, and building computer models of how to understand that and how to apply that to making car chassis. So still, it was very far away from the world of making food, but always I had this dream of becoming a chef or maybe having a restaurant at one point in my life.
At the end of my PhD, I was fortunate to study in Oxford in this very beautiful place in the heart of England in this very rich academic history surrounded by all these very clever people and beautiful buildings. I realized, instead of becoming an Oxford don with maybe a tweed suit and patches on my elbows, I would sack that all in, having climbed up a few rungs of that ladder, and basically start staging (unpaid restaurant internship) and working in kitchens for free. I even worked as a pot washer in one kitchen in London. I really jumped back in at the deep end and pursued this dream of becoming a cook or a chef.
I did that for a little while and realized first, becoming a chef is a young person’s game. And second, I’m 6’2’’ and have a bad back and, as a chef, you’re standing on your feet all day and that was not going to be a physically viable way for me to make a living. I had to combine my scientific nouse (intellect) with my passion for food.
For me, the interesting thing is I never see these things as mutual exclusive, they’re all related and interconnected. I ended up doing what I do now, which is helping restaurants and bars and food brands, consulting and teaching restaurants and chefs how to understand these things. As I see it, I’m unlocking their artistry and storytelling ability through this understanding of science. All of these things are interconnected. And fermentation is this particularly excellent example. It has to do with flavor and food, but it also has to do with people and tradition and culture, it has to do with artistry and storytelling, you can’t really do one without the other. Science, that biology and chemistry, is really integral to unlocking the creative, artsy-fartsy elements to these types of food.
TFA: When you partner with these different chefs and kitchens, what expertise are they looking for from you?
JD: Especially these days, it’s different from five years ago when I first started doing this type of work. Five years ago when you’d go into a kitchen, people really wouldn’t know what fermentation was. And often they wouldn’t be interested in it, or they wouldn’t understand why might a scientist be able to help me make better, tastier food or drink. But now, most people I work with, they know that and they’ve already dibbled and dabbled a little bit with some of these ferments. Let’s say they’ve made some kimchi or sauerkraut or some kombucha. Really what they want now, especially the high end places, they’ve dibbled and dabbled and they want to make sure that, A, what they’re doing is safe and isn’t going to kill anyone, which is very sensible. But secondly, they want that kind of X factor, they want the ability to unlock that real deep magic. That’s when I go in.
I was just in Lithuania last week working with this really great restaurant called 1918. Michelin doesn’t cover Lithuania, give it two years I expect, and they’ll get at least 1 star, possibly 2. It’s really high end, great quality food. And they’re trying to play around with egg yolks and koji, which is basically this aspergillus, this war horse of Japanese food culture that’s also present in Chinese and Korean cultures as well. They want to be able to have that scientific rigor and have someone to come in “Pick that lock,” as I describe it, and be able to unleash their creativity so they can put this into action in their dishes. They’re wanting to tell these stories about Lithatian food culture and use this food they’re growing on this farm about 50 minutes outside the capital.
TFA: That sounds very rewarding, to help different restaurants create new dishes.
JD: It is. My role is this enabler, picking that lock, unleashing people’s creativity and helping these chefs. Really, fermentation is just a tool. In many ways, the way we see knife or a chopping board, it’s a tool. If you try and cook without those tools, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. You’re limiting what you can do, you’re limiting your creativity. Fermentation really is just another example of a type of tool. In five or 20 years, people will just see some of these fermentation techniques just as the way they see a knife. It’s just this tool. And by empowering these chefs with these tools, I’m helping to unleash that creativity. When you unleash people’s creativity they get very excited and very passionate.
TFA: Why do you think fermentation has become such a bigger interest among chefs?
JD: The funny thing about fermentation is we all eat fermented products, but we don’t realize it. You could read off a list that lasts five minutes. Bread, all booze, chocolate, coffee, vinegar, etc. It’s just that most of those products, we’ve become so used to them because there are these staples of everyday life that we don’t realize they’re fermented. Also partially because the way the food systems now work, that work of creating our own bread or beer or cider, it’s now been outsourced for most people in much of the world to some other party. So we’re not making these products at home where our grandmothers, our grandfathers, would have been. My grandmother would have understood that bread, wine, cider was a fermented product because she was making those or her grandmother was making those. Whereas I grew up in a household where we bought all of those things and somebody else made it. All those steps had already been performed.
First, there’s this awakening of realizing much of the food we know and love is fermented. And second, from a chef, foodie world, there’s been a renaissance in fermented food because they offer this exciting flavor profile that chefs always want. Chefs are looking for the new. Especially in the last 20 years, with that modernist cuisine movement, people reached science to kind of process foods. That’s where the novelness came. In the sort of last 10-15 years, we saw this move towards what new ingredients do we have on our doorsteps, foraging, this local-vore movement of people rediscovering what incredible food products are on their doorstep. Now people are asking “Where can we discover new flavors that are on our doorstep that are new, now that everyone has foraged everything. Where is the newness? Where can I reach out to access this incredible, novel flavor profile?” Fermentation is this toolkit that gives you access to these incredible new flavors. It’s the other frontier.
When you talk about what’s on our doorstep, we get into this idea of microbial territory.
What microbes are unique to Britain or unique to France or unique to Argentina? Actually, the microbes are as unique and defining of place and of the food culture in a place as the grapes that grow or the cheeses that we make or the strains of wheat varietals that might grow in a place. Microbes are sort of this hidden category of food that have shaped the food that we eat in the place that human beings live as much as any other kind of meat or dairy or fruit or vegetable.
TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation in the culinary world?
JD: So the focus now is very much on people within the food industry looking for what produce they have in their backyard or in their country or their culture and how do they ferment those? I think, currently, the sort of toolkit of fermentation is dominated by a couple of prevailing techniques or cultures, microbiological cultures.
I think there is so much to learn from slightly undiscovered fermentation food cultures in the world. Ones that really haven’t had a bright light shone on them — like the Japanese, fermentation has had quite a bright light shone on them. And that’s amazing because Japanese fermentation culture is amazing and incredibly rich, so lots of people around the world have learned a lot from it. I think the next frontier for me is going to be people looking at fermentation in Sub-Saharan Africa, fermentation in the Indian sub continents. And those fermentation cultures are currently not that well understood, certainly by people outside those cultures, and they’re not documented in clear and concise ways in much of the way now that that Japanese food culture and Western European fermentation food culture has been documented. I think people are realizing there’s all these incredible, beautiful, rich ferments that we just don’t know about and don’t understand in Sub-Saharan african and the Indian subcontinents. I’m currently working on projects with people who are from those countries and cooking the food of those cultures. There’s just so much for us to learn. People like Sandor Katz, he grew up somewhere in Africa, he obviously documents some of those techniques and ferments, but there’s so much for all of us to learn from people cooking the food from those cultures and the people living in those places.
TFA: What’s been the wackiest or funkiest food thing you’ve ever fermented?
JD: On the menu at one point at Cub (restaurant in London where Drain worked in research and development), we had a pest season where the head chef was trying to base the menu around things that are perceived as pests or invasive species.
In the UK we have this animal called the Reeves’s muntjac. It came originally from India. This guy called Reeves visited India as this colonizing force and came back and had, as a rich guy, a bunch of these species of flora and fauna as pets and novelties, one of which was this Reeves’s muntjac. It’s a very small, muscular deer. It’s bigger than a bulldog, but as muscular, then with a head of a deer and these horns. You see them driving along British country lanes at night and they look very scary, they basically look like devil dogs. They look like the harbingers of the apocalypse, sort of like something very bad is going to happen as you’re driving down the fog down this dark, British country lane. They’re very weird, scary and other worldly. They’re a pest and they outcompete the native species. So they are hunted to control their numbers.
So we made a muntjac garum. Using this technique of garum, which is a Roman word for fish sauce, we created this umami-rich, meaty garum. And that got used to dress these various, wonderful, meaty dishes. We did deer faggots. A faggot in the culinary sense of a word is the the offal of meat wrapped in the coals, part of the intestines, and basically pan fried. It’s a very traditional British dish. We made these deer faggots and dressed it in this muntjac garum.
That was quite a weird but delicious example of that whole 360 idea of sustainability in not just the techniques that we use but the produce we’re using. How do we use invasive species?
Just because vegetables were fermented does not make them immune to harmful bacteria like E. coli. Though fermentation improves food safety, the quality of the raw vegetable before it’s fermented is extremely important.
“The issue of fermentation safety is one that comes up a lot. People are getting excited about the fermentation world these days, fermentation is increasing in popularity…(but) the wheels can fall off if you’re not careful,” says Fred Breidt, PhD, a USDA microbiologist. Breidt spoke during a recent webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association, “The Science Behind the Safety of Fermented Vegetables.” “The moral of the story: if the vegetables were safe to eat before you ferment them, they’re going to be safe to eat after you ferment them. If they’re not, you’ve got to ferment them for a long time to make sure they’re safe.”
An outbreak of dangerous bacteria in fermented vegetables, “it’s going to be pretty rare that that happens,” Breidt stresses. But, without proper sanitation protocol and vegetable quality control, pathogenic “bad guys” can flourish, like E. coli, salmonella and listeria. E. coli is more common in vegetables because it’s extremely acid resistant, and can survive for long periods of time at low pH levels and cold temperatures.
“Just washing the surface (of the vegetable) isn’t always going to do the trick,” Breidt says. “You don’t have to eat very much to get sick.”
An E. coli outbreak in kimchi made 230 Korean school children sick in 2013. The children, from seven different schools, all ate fermented kimchi made by the same manufacturer.
“If the folks had eaten the cabbage that this kimchi was made out of, they would have gotten sick as well,” Breidt says. “Was the cabbage improved in the sense of maybe it had fewer E. coli on it because of fermentation? Yes. But there was still enough when this was eaten to make a lot of people sick.”
“You can’t rely on salt for safety is the point,” he adds. “It does encourage the lactic acid bacteria and it helps them grow and it will increase overall the safety of your fermentation.”
David Ehreth, president and founder of Alexander Valley Gourmet, parent company of Sonoma Brinery, moderated the webinar. Ehreth first met Breidt when Sonoma Brinery made a few tons of sauerkraut that became infected with yeast. Ehreth says “I called Ghostbusters, and that’s Fred Breidt.” Though yeast is different from a pathogen like E. coli, Ehreth said Sonoma Brinery has managed to control yeast over the years by careful management of production techniques and improved sanitation methods.
What’s the difference between the fuzzy mold that grows on leftovers forgotten in the fridge and the mold koji that creates the umami-rich flavors soy sauce and miso? Controlled growth.
“That’s an important parallel,” says Rich Shih, the koji guru behind Our Cook Quest and co-author with Jeremy Umansky of the book “Koji Alchemy.” Shih spoke during a recent webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association, “Demystifying Fermentation — Learning to Love Mold.” “You create these very specific conditions where the components are food safe…they’re made in a fully controlled, clean environment…when you allow it to go through a fermentation process, it ends up being preserved in a way that is delicious and nutritious for us. That’s the key to fermentation in general. What’s nutritious and delicious to us is a result of these microbes that we persuade in this specific direction to create a circumstance that’s pleasing to us.”
Koji is also known by its scientific name, aspergillus oryzae. Incubating it, Shih says, creates a “blank slate” for the koji spores. He compares it to adding yeast to a bread or beer.
“We’re basically leveraging their ability to be able to do this work on an exponential basis to yield something for us because they’re trying to survive based on the food stuff we give them,” Shih says, explaining the koji fermentation process. “But we’re introducing them to this pool of wonderful, delicious things that they get to convert — and then we take the benefits.”
More chefs are experimenting with koji as a seasoning or marinade. It is empowering and easy to incorporate into dishes, Shih adds, noting: “Once people realize this, koji is really going to explode.” He recommends beginners start with a koji paste.
Alex Lewin, moderator of the webinar, author of fermentation books and TFA Advisory Board member, agrees. He compares koji to the medieval alchemy of the philosopher’s stone, which could transform lead into gold. Koji mold is transforming ingredients into flavorsome food.
“Where bacteria and yeast are very specific and narrow in focus, koji and mold in general have a much broader set of capabilities,” Lewin adds.
Shih shared one of his latest koji kitchen experiments: a cucumber sorbet. He added koji spores to the cucumber, then froze it for a texture similar to shaved ice. He stressed koji “can be a seasoning for any food, regardless of preparation, locale or cuisine. It’s easily translated.”
“Koji, basically it’s magic,” Shih says. “It really changes the game overnight in terms of the flavors you get out of it. It opens a whole world of possibilities.”
Most people are familiar with koji and don’t even know it, Shih says. Koji is an ingredient in soy sauce, a common condiment in home pantries. There’s a huge commercial industry for soy sauce. But Shih says people should learn to experiment with koji outside of a soy sauce bottle. He points to artisan cooks and chefs, who take control of their food by sourcing ingredients from local farms. By fermenting them, they create nutrient-dense food with a long shelf life.
“That’s the gap we fermenters are encouraging people to bridge. You have the power to create nutrition in a way that you enjoy ingredients in your locale,” Shih says. Follow some simple rules with koji and “it’s really hard not to make it taste good. If you know how to boil water and mix things, you can make something super delicious, and that’s empowering.”