“I just want everyone to understand the depths of Indian cookery,” says Usha Prabakaran, author of the 20-year-old cookbook “Usha’s Pickle Digest.” The New York Times published the fascinating story behind the woman known as India’s Pickle Queen. Her self published book is a cult classic today, highlighting India’s rich history with pickling and fermenting. “ India’s pickle culture goes back thousands of years to when cucumbers and other vegetables were simply preserved in salt. Modern Indian pickles are more complex and probably more delicious, too — hot and tangy, deeply perfumed with aromatics and ground spices.” 

Read more (The New York Times

You’ll never find Jon Bertolone, chef of Nourish in Oregon, serving an Impossible Burger. He says there are other ways to be inventive with a savory, plant-based patty. “Umami is something that has sort of driven my culinary journey,” Bertolone says. He’s been experimenting with goram (fermented fish sauce) to capture beef flavor, too. Fermentation, Bertolone says, is “the key to bridging cultures, because every culture has them.”

Read more (The Register-Guard

“Science is here to explain why fermenting vegetables is not only perfectly safe but also surprisingly easy and rewarding. Spoiler: Microbes do most of the work.

In our hyper-Pasteurian, expiration date-driven era, it might be difficult to relinquish control over our food to these mysterious forces. But a small measure of understanding yields rich rewards: crisp classic sauerkraut, warmly tart beets, bright preserved lemons and just about anything else you can dream up.” Katherine Harmon Courage writes in her article for the Washington Post “Eat Voraciously” section that fermentation adds a depth to fruits and vegetables. Harmon Courage, author of the book Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome

Read more (Washington Post)

Civil Eats declares: “Tempeh, the ‘OG of Fermented Foods,’ Is Having a Moment.” More artisanal tempeh producers are selling around the country, and restaurants are beginning to sell tempeh-based dishes. The founder of Tofurky (Seth Tibbott) says tempeh is one of the company’s fastest-growing product lines, increasing 17% from 2017 to 2018. Pictured is Tibbot in front of his first tempeh incubator, in 1980.

Read more (Civil Eats)

Americans with German and Eastern European descent make sauerkraut part of their Thanksgiving tradition. The Baltimore Sun highlights Baltimore-based Hex Ferments that produces a few tons of sauerkraut a month, in multiple varieties. Sales are going so well (Hex Ferments makes kombucha and kimchi, too) that they’ll be expanding to a bigger production facility in 2020. Hex Ferments cofounder Meaghan Carpenter said: “I think sauerkraut can save the world.”

Read more (The Baltimore Sun)

“Fermenting foods requires attention to detail and knowledge that not everyone has,” reads an article in the Greenfield Recorder in New England. The newspaper featured Jim Wallace, recipe developer at New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. Wallace says, to be a fermenter, “You have to be a bit of a mad scientist. (As) a mad scientist, you need to be answering questions.” In his home fermentation cellar, Wallace ferments wine, cheese, beer, kombucha and vegetables. He also teaches workshops, classes that have become more popular as more people tap into fermentation “a global food phenomenon — renewed interest in resurrecting forgotten food tradition.”

Read more (Greenfield Recorder)

Fermentation opens a culinary Pandora’s Box says David Zilber, head of fermentation at Noma restaurant in Denmark. Instead of just pureeing or heating a berry, the berry can be juiced for alcohol, transformed into vinegar, preserved for a fish sauce, pickled or dehydrated.  

“Fermentation was a discovery of possibility,” said Zilber. “You see the recommitorial power that comes from fermentation. It’s not just a subset of cuisine in gastronomy, it’s honest to goodness as large or it not larger than the world of gastronomy itself.”

Experimenting with ingredients that lead to tasteful outcomes is why “fermentation is so thrilling to explore” Zilber told Harvard students at Harvard University’s Science and Cooking Lecture Series. Zilber lectured with former Noma colleague Jason White, head of research and development at the Kudzu Complex in Tennessee.

Experimenting in the Noma Kitchen

Their topic: “Exploring Flavor Space: Innovation through Tradition in Noma’s Fermentation Lab.” The two shared fascinating insight into Noma, the two-Michelin-star restaurant regarded as one of the best in the world. But how do cooks toy with fermentation when the Michelin guide historically values consistency? Thousands of experiments and variations. Only 5% of what the chefs in Noma’s fermentation lab creates make it onto a plate.

“If you’re not trying to keep things traditional, you’re free to do whatever you want. And that’s the beauty of fermentation for us,” Zilber said. “When Noma employs fermentation, we do it knowing that we can change things. That we can seek out flavors by looking to old techniques, by turning to tradition, breaking down processes via reduction, pulling them apart, saying what enzymes are at play? What molecules are in the mix? What byproducts can be produced?”

Zilber showed the huge shared file between Noma employees of recipe trials. Things like moose snout, moldy vegetables, roasted pinecone, egg picked in elderberry juice and pig meat fermenting in its own pancreas enzyme. One of Noma’s early successes was adding a few drops of a fish sauce to a dish. A few drops of a potent fish sauce iteration goes a long way when flavoring a meal. The cooks began creating fish sauce equivalents, like a fish sauce from squirrel, sea cucumber, beaver, sea star, reindeer, wild boar, razor clam, bear (“That was the worst thing we’ve ever tasted,” Zilber said, “that did not go right.”).

“These were huge discoveries for us at Noma because, all of sudden, you could have a primarily vegetarian cuisine that had all the flavor and impact of like a full plate of food with meat and starch and vegetables just by using seasonings,” Zilber said. “And kind of flipping the role of meat and vegetables on its head. Suddenly vegetables didn’t have to be the accoutrement that just served to kind of temper what you were chewing in your mouth and act as the texture. They were actually the starring role, but you were as satisfied as eating a full plate of sliced sirloin because you could have this taste of meat permeating through your samphire mixed with watercress emulsion.”

Fermentation is the most useful tool for the restaurant, Zilber said. Noma has what he calls a “DIY or die” attitude.

When Noma chef and co-owner Rene Redzepi opened the restaurant in 2003, he wanted to create a fine-dining experience concentrating on the food of the Nordic region. Fine dining in Denmark, Sweden and Norway was primarily French food because the cold, coastal Scandinavian countries have such a short growing season. Redzepi and the cooks dove into cultural recipes. They contacted local foragers, then experimenting preserving the ingredients they’d find. They started a Noma Food Lab to catalog the different ingredients.

“When you taste all the products of fermentation, you understand it is delicious because it is that heightened level of food. All life is transformation – creation and destruction are just two sides of the same coin. Building things up in a certain way is just half of the picture if you understand you have to break them down first. And when your body understands that something has been broken down for it in a friendly manner by something that isn’t harmful in any way, alarm bells go off and you understand these things to be delicious.”

“That search for that flavor…is how Rene and the team back in the test kitchen in those early days learned to use the very paltry pantry that sat at Noma’s disposal with all these Scandinavian ingredients and multiple them many times over w the dimensionality of flavor that fermentation could provide. If at first, they only had in a season 250 ingredients to work with, they could turn to fermentation and all the different processes at their disposal to turn those 250 into 1,000.”

During the Harvard lecture, White made a koji and miso for the students to sample. He detailed creating miso from unconventional protein-rich foods, like seeds, roots, parsnip, corn, fava beans, byproducts from oil extracted from nuts.

Transformation through Fermentation

“A field is a field and a plant is a plant. It’s only a weed if you choose to pull it out. But it’s a crop if you put it there and want to harvest it at the end. That’s exactly how you have to think about fermentation,” said Zilber.

Zilber said the technical, chemical definition for fermentation is the anaerobic, enzymatic pathway that yeast uses to metabolize glucose and transform that into alcohol in the absence of oxygen. Simply put, it is the transformation of one food into another by a microbe. But those definitions don’t go far enough to describe fermentation’s complexity.

“If you want to get really into it, you do have to talk about human intent,” he says. “And humans have a big part to play in fermentation because, without the human willing the fermentation into existence, you just have a free-for-all.”

Zilber uses the analogy that a fermenter is like a bouncer at a night club. The fermenter has to decide between the troublemakers and the enjoyable customers. Who is going to come in and start a bar fight and who is going to come in and order drinks and mingle with other customers?

“The club is all the food you’re looking to ferment, the ingredients you’re looking to transform, and which microbes to keep out,” he said. “The key to cooking with microbes is cooking with life. You need to keep these creatures alive so they do the cooking for you.”

Control points are key to a fermentation. Lactic acid – the metabolic process that converts sugar and glucose into energy – has five basic needs. Access to oxygen, salt concentration, pH levels, nutrient sources and temperature. Every control point and process will lead to a different fermentation outcome.

“You’re trying to build an environment for that microbe to survive,” Zilber added.

Harmful pathogens won’t grow in a controlled fermentation environment. Mold can’t live without oxygen. And botulism has a higher water activity level than lactobacillus, and water activity level drops once salt is added in fermentation.

“You’re cutting off at the pass any malevolent microbes that you think might grow,” he said.

Humans, he said, have domesticated the lactobacillus bacteria.

Use Tradition to Apply Fermentation Processes

Zilber knows fermentation is a trendy topic today, but he notes it’s been around since the dawn of man.

“The first real food technology we had for safe food preservation before the USDA was a thing was fermentation,” he said. “And it makes sense that we do it until this day and we have all these traditional recipes on our counter tops because these are things that have kept civilization alive for a very, very long time. And we have grown up to actually love the taste of them and understand them as part of our cultural history.”

Before recipes were shared through the internet, cultures passed recipes through families. Fermentation was mastered because because a grandparent taught it to a grandchild. This is why towns in Italy have a sausage (Genoa, Calabrese) and towns in Japan have a Miso variety (Hatcho, Saikyo).

Cooking your own fermented product “is about crafting those environments that your microbes need to thrive.” Making a koji is recreating the ancestral field in humid China.

Noma is revolutionizing fermentation by using using traditional processes, then creating their own techniques. Noma uses biological and mechanical technology in their food to push the boundaries of cuisine.

“Noma applies the basic concepts of fermentation, of preservation, of making something last in a season where it normally wouldn’t be available, but taking it to the nth degree,” Zilber said. “No, it’s not always about combining flavors and seeing which is the best. Sometimes it’s combining technologies and seeing what produces the best flavor. We try all different sorts of extraction, sonication, vacuum filtration, the (supercritical fluid extraction systems) unit.”

Partnering with local Denmark bio-tech firms, Noma uses scientific technology to explore different fermentation projects.

If just 10% of the population chooses to eat fermented foods, could the food industry be disrupted? Fermentation guru Sally Fallon says: absolutely.

“With fermented foods, you could get rid of all this huge medical industry selling you antacids and digestive aids, and this huge industry that’s grown up around IBS and celiac disease. We can destroy that industry by eating the right foods, and that means eating fermented foods,” Fallon says. The author of cookbook and nutrition guide “Nourishing Traditions” is often credited with bringing ancestral diet methods back into vogue.

Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, founder of A Campaign for Real Milk and author of the new book “Nourishing Diets,” discussed fermentation during The Fermentation Summit. Below, selected highlights from Fallon’s interview with Paul Seelhorst, host of the summit.

Seelhorst: Tell us more about yourself and how you got into the fermentation topic.

Fallon: Well, when I was writing “Nourishing Traditions,” I wanted to make sure I was really describing traditional diets and not something people just think they are. I was very fortunate to find a book in French about fermented foods. I had never read about these before, lacto-fermented foods.

Recipes were very complicated – keep them at certain temperature for this many hours, then switch temperature for another few hours.

I kind of took this principle and worked out a way that was easy and fool-proof, using glass jars, we use way of innocuous so they don’t go bad while they’re starting to ferment.

Tried all these recipes, experiments, made children try – kids have funny stories about trying all these

The neat thing about fermentation is that it is a practice that’s traditional. When you ask traditional people why they do this, they wouldn’t know what to say or how to answer you, they just do it. But it totally accords to modern science. We have seen a complete paradigm shift in the last 20 years. In the past, bacteria were evil and they attacked us and made us sick. Now we realize that bacteria are our best friends, and we need at least 6 pounds of bacteria lining our guts in order to be healthy.

The way traditional people made sure that they had plenty of this good bacteria restocking everyday was to eat these raw fermented foods full of this healthy bacteria. They ate them in small amounts with the rest of their meals. This is how they did it, they had really healthy guts. We know when you have a healthy gut, everything goes better in life. You feel better, you digest better, you have more energy.

I recently wrote this book called “Nourishing Diets” which is about diets all over the world and what really struck me was the fermented foods. Every single culture in the world without exception eats fermented foods. Now some of these foods are pretty weird – like fermented seal flippers. Africa is the land of fermented foods. Almost everything they eat in traditional culture is fermented in Africa. They’ll kill an animals and ferment every part of the animal — the blood, the bones, the hoofs, the skin, the organ meats, the fat, the urine. Everything is fermented when they kill an animal.

Seelhorst: That’s pretty easy because its warm?

Fallon: Its warm, the bacteria like it. They have a saying – a rich man needs 10 animals to feed the wedding feast because he feeds everything fresh, but a poor man can feed the same feast with one animals because he ferments everything

Seelhorst: Do you know what they make out of urine, like a probiotic lemonade?

Fallon: I don’t know, they didn’t say. There’s two wonderful books  on fermented foods – one is the “Handbook on Indigenous Fermented Foods” by Keith Steinkraus. He was at Cornell and is retired now. I fortunately talked to him while I was working on “Nourishing Traditions” and what he shows, he has a bunch of students from all over the world, especially Africa, and they do studies on the food. For example they take a food like cabbage and they’d measure the Vitamin c and the amino acids then they’d ferment it and measure it again. The vitamins goes way up – some 10-fold increase – and the amino acid increase.”

The other thing fermentation does with grains and meats, it releasees the minerals so they’re easily available.

There’s another wonderful book called “The Indigenous Fermented Foods of the Sudan: A Study in African Food and Nutrition.”  The author was a student of Dr. Steinkraus. He reminds me a lot of Weston Price – he’s going to these traditional people not to, you know, lord over them and tell them how superior Western culture is. He goes with hat in hand saying “You guys have the secret here. You know how to eat; you know how to prepare food. Not only that, these foods can be done at the homestead, they can be taken to the market and sold, they are a good income for millions of people.” So he’s not pushing the industrial system, he’s pushing artisan food.” I just thought what a wonderful man, how humble. That’s how we need to come to these traditions – not how to make millions of dollars on them, but how to make a decent living for thousands of people and provide a healthy food for millions of people.”

Seelhorst: What I also like about fermentation is the sustainability aspect. People can make food sustainability and do not need fridges to keep the food good and not get it moldy.

Fallon: Foods like grains are impossible for humans to digest unless they are fermented. So many people can’t do grains, they’re sensitive to gluten. But when you ferment, as in the case of a sourdough bread or soaking your oats or pressed cakes all over the Southeast and Africa, these are fermented grains pressed into biscuits, this takes a food where most of the nutrients are unavailable to us and makes it readily available.

Seelhorst: Nowadays, people have fancy equipment to ferment food. How did people ferment food back in the day?

Fallon: Usually they did it in large terracotta pots. And the culture was sort of in the holes of the pots, they didn’t have to add a culture, it was just hanging out there. When I started this in the late 1990s, this book I read in French was talking about these big pots. You couldn’t get these pots in the states when I was writing this book. I thought this isn’t going to work, the pots are heavy they’re expensive and they make a very large quantity which you may not be able to use. I thought we need a different method for the modern house wife or modern father. I thought “Let’s try to do this in Mason jars, the big quart jars with the wide top. Instead of having the culture hanging out in the holes, we didn’t have that. You had to add something in your culture, so that’s where we came up with adding whey. You have your cabbage or pickle or carrots or whatever it is you want to ferment, you put them in a bowl, you toss them with salt and a little bit of whey. You toss them, pound them a little bit, push them in the jar, push down heavily so the liquid comes and covers the top, this is an anerobic fermentation. Leave it at room temperature for a few days and its done.

Seelhorst: Where do people get the whey from?

Fallon: We teach people how to make it. You start with yogurt or with raw milk or something fermented like yogurt or kefir and you poor it through a fine cloth and the whey will drip out. From a quart of yogurt, you get about two and a half cups of whey. You’re only using a little bit at a time – a tablespoon or two – so that will keep a long time in the fridge. That’s your culture. There are other cultures, too. People are selling powders in culture. The only thing I would warn you is don’t try to do this without salt. Because the only time I heard about someone getting sick from fermented foods is when they didn’t use salt.

Seelhorst: Simply put – what happens during fermentation.

Fallon: What happens during fermentation is lactic acid is created by the fermentation. And in some foods, the lactic acid is already there. Like cabbage, cabbage juice is full of lactic acid. This makes whatever you’re fermenting get sour, it lowers the pH to under 4 and no pathogens can exist at a pH under 4. It makes the foods very safe and they don’t spoil after that. Lactic acid is a preservative just like alcohol is a preservative, but lactic acid doesn’t make you drunk. So, at the same time, these bacteria that are fermenting in there, they’re creating vitamins. Vitamin C, b vitamins. They’re breaking down what we call anti nutrients that block the simulation of minerals. They’re creating digestive enzymes that help you digest your food. The interesting thing is these bacteria and these enzymes do get through the stomach, they do get through and are passed into the small intestines where they are really useful. We’re not sure how that happens, they’re buffered in some way, but we do know these bacteria do get through

Seelhorst: How do you think fermented foods can fit into a modern diet.

Fallon: You can include them every day. One of my favorites foods is a fermented beet juice, I first noticed it in Germany, it’s called beet kvass. I have that every morning for breakfast. Sauerkraut is a really easy way, that’s the way most people do it, they just have sauerkraut with their meal. And then the fermented dairy foods like yogurt or kefir, those are wonderful fermented foods. You have a little bit with every meal.

Seelhorst: Are those the oldest fermented foods that we ate?

Fallon: In Europe, yes. We don’t have a tradition of eating fermented bones or fermented blood. But we definitely had fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, that dates to Roman times at least. And also fermented fish, the fish sauce, the universal seasoning, they found it in the ruins of Pompei where they were making it.

Seelhorst: What’s the difference between industrialized and self-made fermented food.

Fallon: once you industrialize something, they start to take shortcuts because they want to lower the cost. Typically, what they’ll do is eat something. So they’ll heat the sauerkraut and package it in plastic bags or something horrible or they’ll can it. So it will last forever and be shelf stable. Typically, the industry has not done genuine fermented foods because its not something that lends itself to an industrialized process. The things we consider true fermented foods in the united states, they’re being made by small companies.

Now the one exception to that might be yogurt. Yogurt is big business, it’s made by the big conglomerates. I would never even eat that yogurt because apparently the cultures are not even any good and the milk has been pasteurized.

Seelhorst: What’s your favorite fermented food.

Fallon: Kombucha. I make my own kombucha. I have a 30-day kombucha, I call it kombucha like fine champagne. It gets these tiny, tiny bubbles in it, it gets really, really sour and a little thick. I also make sauerkraut. It’s interesting – I’m a lot busier than I was when I wrote my book, I don’t have as much time as I used to have, but I still make my own fermented food. I do carrots and cabbage, I’m just about to pull some carrots and make some fermented cabbage.

I forgot to mention cheese. And cheese. Cheese is a fermented food. Here on our farm, we make cheese. I’d have to say cheese is my favorite fermented food. And also, traditionally made salami. A charcuterie is fermented. They hung these sausages up and fermented them. So they are fermented foods, they’re full of bacteria, good bacteria. They should be kind of sour, they’re very good for you.

Seelhorst: Do you want to add anything for people that just found the Fermentation Summit and may not know what fermentation is, they want to try it

Fallon: I will say this – you don’t have to make it yourself, there’s a lot available, in the states there’s now hundreds of artisan producers making sauerkraut. I love to see that – I love to seen an individual be able to start a little business without a big capital investment and make food that’s really good for people and make a decent living. Here on our farm, we have a store and we sell sauerkraut made by a Russian lady who has just made a wonderful living doing this. I love to see that. Just like artisan cheese. I love see small production of cheese; I love small production of fermented goods. Bread is another one, we now have a lot of artisan bread makers. This is the future of food – its sustainable food, its moral food, its food that makes you healthy, its good for the economy, it keeps the money in your community. I think people need to realize that every morsel of food they put in their mouth is a political act. It’s a decision they make. What are you going to support? Are you going to support Monsanto and Kraft and Unilever? These huge corporations who don’t care about you at all, all they care about is making a profit. Or are you going to support local artisan producers? People just like you making a decent living and providing a healthy food. And you’re also deciding whether you’re going to put something healthy or unhealthy in your body and in your children’s bodies. The traditional cultures, they had no choices in what they ate. They ate what was there, they ate according to their traditions. Today, we are not traditional people. We have left all that behind. We have to think what we eat, everything we eat is a choice. They didn’t have a choice, they just had healthy food. Now we always have this choice between healthy artisan food and unhealthy corporate food. So what kind of society do you want to live in?

Ever wonder why you crave umami, the savory food taste common in fermented foods? You were born with it.

“When you say taste, it’s actually just as much the nose because were actually using all the five senses when we say taste or taste experience,” says Ole Mouritsen, a professor of gastrophysics at Copenhagen University in Denmark. “Taste and particularly odor is very good to invoke memories, good memories and bad memories, because that’s the way its hardwired in the brain. These senders that store our memories are stored to the limbic center, and the processing center for taste and odor are in the same area. You can be brought back to your grandma’s kitchen in no time.”

The five basic tastes are: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory (umami).

He continues: “There are some basic tastes and odors that you prefer. We’re born to like sweet and umami, and we’re born to dislike bitterness and too much sourness. But our preferences change over time.”

Mouritsen and Adam James, founder of fermentation condiments company Rough Rice, spoke with Cooking with Science host Kevin Glidden on the topic of fermentation and taste. Glidden brings researchers and foodies together in an interactive interview for the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture.

Glidden asked why Mouritsen and James think fermented foods played such a big part in other culture’s diets, but not in the Western diet.

James travelled on a Churchill Fellowship-backed fermentation world tour to study ancient and modern fermentation techniques. He pointed out that fermentation has never been part of Western culture.

“If you look at what my biggest influences are – Japan, Korea, China – they eat fermented foods pretty much with every meal, in the form of a pickle or a soy sauce,” James said. “But again, I think that’s something that’s just been part of their culture. Families would sit down and make kimchi together.”

Mouritsen agreed, adding: “If we want to learn about making old-fashioned pickles, we will not ask our mothers, we’ll ask our grandmothers, because the knowledge is lost.”

In the segment, James made a brown rice congee with Tasmanian abalone and fermented condiments. Congee – an Asian rice porridge – dates back 4,700 years, 1,000 years before shoes were invented. James’ cooked his congee using untraditional methods. Congee is usually made using a chicken stock or duck stock as a base, but James made his congee with shitake mushrooms, fresh tomatoes and kelp. Though no meat was used, the result was an umami-tasting flavor.

A new Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute white paper titled “Umami: The Taste that Perplexes” details why umami is a vital food flavor. Umami’s functions and biological mechanisms are not very well understood. “…Unfortunately the way many people have learned about umami is through the stigma of monosodium glutamate (MSG), the prototypical stimulus of umami taste,” writes author Nancy Rawson, the associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

The umami flavor, though, extends well beyond MSG. It can be found in every day food, like mushrooms, tomatoes and aged cheese. Umami is popular in Asian cultures, where fermented food is high in the glutamate compound. Fermented fish and fish sauce are a common cooking item in South East Asia cuisine, creating “a more balanced taste.” Miso and soy bean paste are used in North Asia, where they flavor food with “a natural and longer lingering taste and mouthfeel.”

Mouritsen said umami is one of the ultimate dining experiences. He adds: “It gives you appetite, when you stick it in your mouth, the saliva starts running. It’s a very good way of getting appetite. We have receptors in the stomach, in the intestinal system, that signals back to the brain that those umami-rich food, and it will eventually tell you to stop. It’s knowledge one could use to make more healthy eating patterns for people.”

Josko Gravner of Gravner Wines ferments deeply — he ferments his wine in large amphora, clay vessels that he buries outdoors. Gravner, who helped pioneer the wave of orange wines, runs a family cellar in northeastern Italy. He became “disillusioned with modern enology’s techniques” of conventional wines — like steel tanks in the cellar and chemical fertilizers in the vineyards. Gravner Wines is now an organic farm and very low tech, using a 1950s-era hydraulic basket press and ancient fermenting techniques. The wine is not only buried, it’s made using whole-cluster fermentation with the stems. Gravner finds whole-cluster fermentation in amphorae keeps the grape skins naturally submerged while still aerating the wine without manual punch downs.

Read more (Wine Spectator