We cannot write-off pasteurized ferments as the dead, less healthy cousin to its unpasteurized, live relative. All fermented foods provide health benefits, pasteurized or not. We also need to avoid getting caught up in superfluous health claims around fermentation’s benefits. Instead, we should focus on including fermentation as part of a regular diet.

David Zilber explored how the microbial transformation of food intersects with our gut microbes during Stanford University’s Center for Human Microbiome Studies Fermentation & Health Speaker Series. With growing scientific interest in fermentation – and increasing interest from consumers – the health benefits become cloudy in marketing claims.  

“If you eat regularly foods full of life, life that lives regularly in the foods you consume but also inside of you, then you can be said to be a ranger taking care of a healthy forest,” Zilber said. “The health benefits of fermented foods should equally be viewed as being meaningful when they turn into a regimen, like exercise.”

Health Claims

A 2021 study by Stanford researchers published in the journal Cell found regularly eating fermented foods boost microbiome diversity, improves immune response and decreases inflammation. But marketing of fermented products is often shrouded in hearsay.

“As far as health claims go…(there are) sometimes outlandish claims made by Westerners about cure-all superfoods that disproportionately, and I quote from one study I found, ‘Seemed to benefit the individuals that sell them the most,’” Zilber said.

Take kombucha, for example. He rattled off a list of health problems kombucha founders have claimed the fermented tea has cured, from AIDS to cancer to constipation.

“The problem is that all these claims seem to come, in one form or another, from anecdotes of people who drink kombucha and have lived a life,” he added. They’re not researched in reputable cohort studies. “This is why it’s sometimes hard to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to fermentation. The people who want to believe the benefits only decry its Praises when a positive correlation is made but they also tend to speak the loudest.”

Zilber pointed out that consuming fermented foods, whether or not it’s a product with proven health benefits, is certainly still beneficial. Eating fermented foods regularly means “you’re also omitting a whole slew of other foods” prevalent in a Western diet, like highly-processed and chemically-preserved foods.

“If you put kimchi on your plate at dinner, you leave off mashed potatoes. If you use water kefir as your drink with it, you aren’t drinking Coke,” he said. “And that’s an important link we also can’t forget, when it comes to thinking about the health benefits of fermented foods, they are in many means inherently healthy.”

Many cultures have fermented for thousands of years to preserve food. In Tibet, yak herders rely on cultural wisdom passed down from generations to ferment yak’s milk for milk and butter. 

“We’ve evolved alongside our microbes both evolutionarily and culturally,” Zilber added. “To Tibetans their folk knowledge of what leads them to Long lives and health is intrinsically tied to the practices of preservation that have allowed them to thrive in some of the most rarified air on Earth.”

Pasteurized vs. Unpasteurized

What about purchasing pasteurized vs. unpasteurized ferments? Unpasteurized ferments include live microbes, but that doesn’t mean pasteurized ferments aren’t healthy.

“Sometimes in cooking, if you’re looking to achieve a great flavor, sometimes you have to kill microbes because you have to pasteurize them for whatever number of reasons,” Zilber added. But it doesn’t mean that the food is somehow not worth eating, it just means that it’s not live, but it still contains lots of benefits. … There is a benefit to consuming something that microbes have lived through, even if it’s not pasteurized.”

Elisa Caffrey, the speaker series host and a Stanford PhD candidate, agrees. The benefits of unpasteurized ferments have not been studied. During fermentation, Caffrey notes, the microbes are producing metabolites still present during pasteurization. A complete study would characterize the metabolites over the course of the fermentation process, identify chemical compounds and then analyze the compounds for their benefits. 

“That landscape we don’t understand at all and it’s a very, very interesting world to start exploring,” she said. “Until we start understanding all the different components of these foods and the way that they interact with not only the microbes in fermented foods with each other but also with the body, it’s really hard to then make these very generalized health claims.”
Caffrey, Zilber and Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford, host the Fermentation & Health Speaker Series. The series will explore the topic over the next few months with different speakers ranging from a scientist, food researcher and pickle producer. Registration is free.

Noma – the New Nordic restaurant that inspired the restaurant fermentation movement – announced it will be closing in 2024, reopening as a food lab. This reiteration (owner René Redzepi calls it Noma 3.0) will focus on developing new dishes and products for Noma Projects, Noma’s e-commerce, CPG operation. 

Within days of the news, Noma announced the hire of Arielle Johnson, PhD, as Noma Projects’ Science Director. Johnson, a flavor scientist, food chemist and gastronomy researcher, co-founded the Noma Fermentation Lab in 2014.

Since first opening two decades ago, Noma has been named one of the world’s best restaurants. The announcement shocked the restaurant industry as Noma is seemingly at the top of their game. Noma redefined fine dining – meals at Noma were largely local, Nordic ingredients turned into artistically beautiful and culinarily unique dishes.  

“The style of fine dining that Noma helped create and promote around the globe — wildly innovative, labor-intensive and vastly expensive — may be undergoing a sustainability crisis,” writes the New York Times. 

Redzepi himself says the long hours and fair compensation for the large team “is not workable.” Noma came under fire for their stagiaire program, the term for unpaid restaurant interns. Noma started paying their interns in October 2022.

“We have to completely rethink the industry,” he told the Times. “This is simply too hard, and we have to work in a different way.”

“Fine dining is at a crossroads, and there have to be huge changes,” he said. “The whole industry realizes that, but they do not know how it’s going to come out.”

Read more (New York Times)

Fermenting Wild Foods

Wild food expert Pascal Baudar says the fact that we can buy tomatoes in the store year round “is freaky.” We should be eating food in season, and we’re ignoring the plethora of sustainable cuisine available in nature, edible food hikers overlook and cities destroy.

“One of the things I started realizing doing foraging is it’s really about food preservation techniques,” says Baudar, author of four books on traditional food preservation. “As a forager, plants go through different phases, but I have to find a way to preserve it so I can still eat my plants in the winter.”

Baudar and Sandor Katz, author of multiple books on fermentation, shared an intimate stage at cookbook store Now Serving LA in Los Angeles to promote Baudar’s latest book, Wildcrafted Vinegars. The two rockstars of fermentation encouraged the crowd to connect with the resources around them. 

The Foraging Craft

Baudar learned foraging as a child from his grandmother. He grew up in Belgium, France in a rural town of just 1,000 people. “I really enjoyed this connection with the environment and the forest,” he says. He wanted to study it more – but, at the time, the only books on the subject of foraging wild plants and living with the environment were about witchcraft. He studied fine art instead, eventually becoming a graphic designer.

Nervous about the much hyped Y2K scare, he began foraging again in 1999. But this time he decided he wanted to really live it. In just a few years, he took hundreds of classes from native people, botanists and survivalists, learning about native plants and how to find and eat them. 

Today, Baudar lives in the Angeles National Forest in San Bernardino County. He teaches classes on subjects like eco-friendly foraging and plant identification. He admits he had no desire to get into fermentation when he began foraging. But eating wild plants meant he had to master food preservation techniques to eat the food year round, which he covers in his books (like Wildcrafted Fermentation). He learned there are three bacteria types that can be foraged locally – lactic acid, acetic acid and yeasts – their transformative microbial power harnessed through fermentation.

“My main job is to rediscover what people did in the old days,” Baudar says. “I’m not a crusader, I’m a teacher more than anything else.”

Biodiversity of Fermenting

Katz, meanwhile, was drawn to fermentation from gardening. Raised in New York’s Upper West Side, Katz eventually moved to a rural, off-the-grid community in Tennessee as a young adult. He planted a garden and learned to live a slower lifestyle.

“I was such a naïve city kid, I didn’t realize all the cabbage would be ready at the same time,” Katz says of his first garden. He learned to ferment sauerkraut first – garnering the nickname “Sandor Kraut” – and become a self-described “fermentation fetishist” from there.

“My interest in fermentation stems from my desire to get closer to where my food comes from. A lot of people have a craving to be more connected to their food,” says Katz. “Learning about common, wild plants and accessing them is a great way to do that. You get to know your environment better.”

Katz is known worldwide as a fermentation revivalist, bringing a renewed interest in the ancient food craft, especially in the U.S. He always preaches on fermentation’s safety.

“Fermentation is above all else a strategy for safety,” he says. “In the realm of raw fruits or vegetables, there are no cases of food poisoning from fermentation.”

Immersing vegetables into salt and water allows the lactic acid bacteria on the vegetables to thrive. If there were salmonella on a vegetable, for example, fermenting it creates an acidic environment where salmonella can’t survive. 

“Acidification and alcohol are really strategies for safety because they make it impossible for the pathogens to grow,” he adds. “Everything we eat raw has incredible biodiversity on it that we don’t even recognize. The question of which of those organisms are going to become dominant for the fermentation, that’s what it’s all about, really. Manipulating the environmental conditions to encourage the ones we want and discourage the ones we don’t want.”

Hunting for Wild Plants

There’s an element to safety in foraging, too, “you really have to know what you’re doing,” Baudar cautions. “There are some plants that will definitely kill you. You have to go with certainty.”

Baudar will not forage in the city, though, especially along major roadways. The pollution in major metropolitan areas gets in the plants – he hunts in more pristine environments. 

“You have to know where to forage,” he says. Still, people have healthy urban gardens. “Modern agriculture in my opinion is way worse than whatever you can forwage, with the amount of chemicals they put on there”

Baudar currently lives in an RV on property over 130 miles away from the city of Los Angeles. He moved from the city during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“One of the things I learned doing this is Los Angeles is really the capital of wild food,” he says. “Los Angeles is incredible in terms of wild, edible plants. What is fascinating is 90% of the wild, edible plants around Los Angeles are actually native and invasive.” 

He points to the foothills and mountainsides surrounding Los Angeles and Southern California. In the spring, they’re a bright yellow color, covered with roughly 12 different types of wild mustard. Mustard could easily be preserved and put in the food stream – Baudar says other countries do this with wild mustard – but in California, the mustard is sprayed with Round Up and ripped out.

“The biggest food waste in Los Angeles is wild plants,” he adds. “But no one ever looks at wild food as food waste.”

Noma restaurant in Denmark is an excellent example of foraging. There was no Nordic cuisine based in native native plants until Noma revived it. “They practically rediscovered cuisine from scratch in the early 2000s,” he says.

Think of California cuisine and a modge podge of food from other cultures comes to mind – Mexican or Vietnamese food. California doesn’t have an identity with their native food. Baudar says every state could have their own sustainable cuisine based on edible, wild food.

“If you cook California cuisine in 2023, cuisine that is actually good for the environment by cooking those non-native and native plants, cuisine that’s sustainable because you’re replanting the plants, that’s native cuisine. And you do it without cultural appropriation because it’s native plants,” he says. “And it tastes really, really good. But foraging is not part of the big picture (for governments).”

As a fermenter with a doctorate in library and information studies, Julia Skinner finds the intersection between fermented foods and history fascinating. That crossroads is where humans evolved with food preservation techniques and created community around fermentation’s flavor.

“I realized there was so much overlap with the ways other cultures were using fermented foods,” Skinner says. “Every culture in the world ferments, so it’s not surprising that we all have come to the same ways to utilize them in our diets over the years. In my research with food history, food is a tool for humans to connect.”

But, in the growing amount of available literature on fermentation, Skinner noticed a hole. Missing was a comprehensive historical overview of fermentation around the globe. She spent years researching and writing on the subject for her new book “Our Fermented Lives.” The 384-page book provides a holistic overview on fermented foods in international cultures. 

Skinner’s journey into fermentation began over two decades ago. With an overabundance of produce from her home garden, she turned to fermentation to use her extra fresh vegetables. After leaving a job as a rare book curator in 2018, Skinner “dreamed of working with food” rather than just keeping it a home hobby. It was a roller coaster period of life for Skinner. Within a few months into her job hunt, her mother and grandmother passed away. Unsure of the best career path, her mother’s last words to Skinner encouraged her passion: “Tell people about the food.” Skinner’s business was born, Root Kitchens “a fermentation and food history company that bridges the gap between modern people and historic food.”

Skinner is now a food history consultant and offers fermentation courses and fermentation planners (that she illustrates). A graduate of a fermentation residency program at Sandor Katz’ Tennessee home, Katz encouraged Skinner to add fermentation classes to the Root Kitchens repertoire. Katz wrote the foreword to Skinner’s book. 

“I love doing fermentation and incorporating it into my larger food history work,” Skinner says. “The fermentation classes I teach end up being my most popular ones, people are so interested in fermentation.”

Below is a Q&A with Skinner, who spoke with The Fermentation Association about her new book.

The Fermentation Association: In your research for the book, was there any overlap between how different countries ferment that surprised you? 

Julia Skinner: One thing I found really interesting, in the chapter on health, I looked into how traditional medical systems use ferments. Each one kind of had different ways that they accounted for fermented foods in our diets because, in a lot of traditional medical systems of course, food is the basis of a lot of treatments and health recommendations, and so a lot of them recommended sourness and the flavor of sourness as a balance for other flavors. When you think about, for example, traditional food pairings like lemon and fish or mustard and pork, those are actually based in humoral theory because the sourness and the heat of the mustard and the lemon balance what was considered the cold, phlegmy properties of the pork and the fish. So you would have a dish that was balanced and wouldn’t go too far one way or the other. You see that with vinegar in dishes too, it’s used in the same way. 

In traditional Chinese medicine, there’s also a use of sour foods in the spring as a way to balance your bodies after a winter of richer foods. That surprised me.

TFA: What ferments do you think had the greatest impact on civilization?

JS: I think the best way to think about it is not so much a specific ferment but instead to think about the processes. Alcohol production was a big one, one of the big reasons being that it helped us with water safety. But also in alcohol production, people would take their stale bread and could brew it into something. People could also take their grapes or peaches that were about to go bad and brew them. It helped with food waste, it provided them nutrients and vitamins. 

But also bread baking. Both bread and alcohol, when we think about the history of fermentation, are very tied with agriculture. When we have a steady supply of grains – and when we are in one place so we can make things because we’re not moving around all the time – we are able to ferment more food. 

And then of course lacto-fermentation, too. It’s how people preserved their vegetables for the winter. 

Thinking about all these different ways that we have preserved food and promoted our health and cut down on food waste, fermentation is a good place to think about the specific impacts it had on civilization. 

TFA: Humans have been fermenting for centuries. Do you think society has lost some recipes?

JS: Absolutely. The last chapter of the book is called “The Future” because I want us to recognize ourselves as part of a living tradition. I talk about our work in fermentation as being a bridge between these traditions our ancestors had and this knowledge they had, and we now can carry that on to the future and we can add to it. We can be a part of this very living thing which I think is especially appropriate with fermentation since we’re working with living organisms. 

One of the things I talk a lot about in that chapter is how documentation of fermentation, fermented foods, has not always been common. It’s just not been widely documented. One of the reasons for that is that these foods were at one point in time very, very common. Fermented food is still very common, all of us eat ferments all the time. But I think home fermentation practices used to be much more common, and so people didn’t think to write down the way their mom versus their grandma versus their aunt made this food because everybody was making it, it was so ubiquitous. Well you jump forward a few generations and then nobody’s making it and now we don’t know how people are making it. 

And then there’s the other issue of the fact that the people who were preparing and sharing the knowledge of these traditional foods were often people whose knowledge wasn’t considered worth preserving by the people who had literacy. So women, people who were enslaved, people who were colonized and did not have access to writing and the transmission of knowledge. If your country has been colonized and you don’t speak English or you don’t have access to a printing press, how can you widely communicate in the ways that are accepted by the larger world? That speaks to the importance of doing research and talking to people who are actually in the community rather than just relying on English language resources. 

But it also is a reminder that we have a responsibility to document stuff today, please write this stuff down, please share and record what you know and make sure you’re talking with your community members, especially the ones who are unlikely to write these things down so that we actually have a record for the future.

TFA: Any surprising ferment you had not heard of before?

JS: Gundruk, it’s a fermented mustard greens and similar sorts of thick Brassica greens that are salt packed and fermented. It’s a Nepalese ferment.

TFA: You mentioned your fermentation classes at Root Kitchens are your most popular. Why do you find people want to take fermentation classes?

JS: A couple of reasons. One, I think we just see a lot more people that are interested in reconnecting with these traditional methods. People often feel like they’re reliant on store-bought foods and don’t know how to do traditional preparation methods or feel like they’re inaccessible. One of the big tenets behind when I teach something is I try to teach it as low-tech and accessible as possible. Instead of me being like “Go buy all these airlocks,” I teach “Here’s a jar, here’s some vegetables, here’s some salt, we’ll just use that and if you want to use other equipment later, you can.” 

I think another part of the reason people like the classes is because they realize how simple and accessible it is. I focus a lot on those traditional methods and that accessibility, but then I also focus on food waste reduction and thinking of how we’re using our scraps. For example, when I make fire cider or any other infused vinegar, I strain out the vinegar when it’s ready and then I save all those scraps and I dehydrate them and I make them into seasoning blends so that I’m not just throwing them in the compost. 

TFA: What do you find to be the greatest challenges and opportunities in fermentation education?

JS: Frankly one of the challenges is figuring out how to balance your desire to share knowledge with people with your desire to pay your bills. I think all of us know we love this community, we love sharing, but figuring out how to balance that sharing with the fact that I am working and I need to be paid for that work. One of the ways I’ve done that is I offer scholarships to my classes so that I’m able to bring that knowledge to people who maybe won’t have an opportunity to get it otherwise. 

I find it very fun and I find, if somebody’s signing up for a fermentation class, they’re already interested, you don’t really have to get buy-in from people. Even if I’m just talking with people and they learn I’m a fermentation educator, they get really excited about it. It’s clearly something that captures a lot of people’s imaginations. 

TFA: You’ve been fermenting for 20 years. Have you seen more interest in fermentation from the general public?

JS: Yes. I remember when I started fermenting food, people knew what fermented foods were. At the time I lived in Iowa and there was a lot of sauerkraut because there is a large German population there. But a lot of people were no longer making it at home or maybe their grandparents did and they were just like “Oh yeah, grandma makes sauerkraut but then like the whole kitchen smells bad for a month.” It’s more popular because of the proliferation of educational opportunities, because of where we’re at culturally and then the proliferation of products, the fermentation product market is just burgeoning, you guys (TFA) points out the data all the time. It’s great because I think it means that fermentation has become a lot less scary to people than it was, which I love to see.

TFA: What do you see as the future of fermentation?

JS: I think we’re in a really interesting period right now because we are at the confluence of this interest in these very traditional methods, like the kind of stuff I teach, and then also at a point where we have more ways in which to do very scientific and precise fermentation and to document and record and share the knowledge we have. We’re at this place where we have these traditional ferments on one hand and then we have folks who are in a lab growing specialty yeast on the other hand. We’ve never been in a historical moment where we’ve had those both happening to this degree. In both cases, now we have network technologies, all of these different ways to record and share what we know. I think the future of fermentation, it’s going to continue to become popular, more popular than it is right now, people are very interested in it.

I think what we’re seeing is that there’s a space in the fermentation world for everybody to fit in. That’s going to be a lot clearer. If you want to just do a home practice like what I do, there’s space for that. If you want to kind of go more into the biotech side, there’s space for that. Or if you want to do something in a restaurant, there’s space for that. There’s a lot of room for people to really find where their niche is within the fermentation community. 

The modern consumer is not disconnected with fermented foods, they’re disconnected with the fermentation process. In a discussion between fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz and well-renowned epidemiologist Tim Spector, the two experts agree that, if gut health is going to improve, humans need to eat a diet rich in fermented foods. 

“The thing that has disappeared from most people’s lives is familiarity with the process of fermentation. And because it has largely disappeared into factories, we imagine that it must require sterile conditions, require a microscope or a knowledge of microbiology,” says Katz,  fermentation author and educator. “We project all of our anxiety about the idea of cultivating bacteria onto the process of fermentation, when in fact fermentation is a strategy for safety and people have been doing it with the simplest of facilities without any knowledge of microbiology for literally thousands of years.”

Katz and Spector, professor at King’s College London and author of the book “The Diet Myth,” discussed fermented foods on an episode of the ZOE Science & Nutrition Podcast. Listener questions revolved around safety. Consumers understand fermented foods are good for them, but are still leery about eating live bacteria.

“Fermentation is the hot craze in fancy restaurants across the western world. But these foods make us uneasy,” said Jonathan Wolf, podcast host and CEO of Zoe. “The idea of letting food rot and then eating it goes against everything our parents taught us. …Five years ago, when I started Zoe, I really had no idea what fermentation was. To be honest, fermented foods sounded like something I would have to throw in the trash.” 

Wolf asked Katz why even talk about fermentation if it’s a niche. Katz, credited with revitalizing fermentation in the U.S. and Europe, disagreed.

“Every person in every part of the world eats and drinks products of fermentation almost every day. I’m not sure how you could call that a niche type of food,” Katz said, listing off popular fermented foods: bread, cheese, cured meats, condiments, olives, pickles, coffee, chocolate, vanilla, wine and beer. “Foods that are really everyday foods are products of fermentation.”

Most of today’s consumers are victims of what Katz calls the “war on bacteria…the indoctrination that bacteria are our enemies.” Fermentation, though, is an integral part of foodways all over the world. He adds: “Fermentation is an essential part of how people everywhere have been able to make effective use of whatever kinds of food resources are available to them.”

Healing Foods

Fermented foods and beverages are experiencing a popularity boost in part because of the growing health and wellness trend. Ferments have a high amount of nutrients and live microbes, which improve gut health. While there are some cases of proven health benefits of consuming fermented foods, Spector points out fermented foods have not all been fully tested.

Still, there’s enough evidence to indicate we should be eating fermented foods. Korea, Spector says, has one of the healthiest westernized populations. They’re eating an average of 36 kilograms a year per person. That’s an extra probiotic supplement of 20 species, including yeasts and fungi, things you won’t find in a health food store, Spector says.

“It helps your gut microbes (because)…you’re getting the prebiotic and the probiotic. The fertilizer and the seeds both at the same time,” Spector says. “That’s what’s unique about those sorts of types of fermented vegetables  that we don’t often talk about. And that’s probably why they potentially have greater health benefits than just the pure microbes on their own. … It’s that double system of both feeding the original contents of your gut microbes, stimulating new ones to grow more of the good guys, and consuming these probiotic microbes that don’t live in humans. Just passing through has a beneficial effect.”

Spector compares those commensal microbes to a rich, American cruise ship passing through a poor, island community. They come in, spend loads of money to dispense through the local economy, then leave.

Live vs. Shelf Stable Products

Though products like bread and sauerkraut are fermented, that doesn’t mean all bread and sauerkraut are fermented. Highly processed, shelf-stable versions kill off the beneficial live microbes.

“There’s been an explosion in the UK of things like kefirs and kombuchas that you can buy in stores, and there’s a suspicion that many of them do not contain live microbes,” Spector says. Brands use ultra-fine filtration systems to get rid of microbes; they pasteurize products to ship it around the country; they add lots of sugars that inhibit the microbes; they make vinegars with such high acidification that it kills the microbes and the mother.

“It’s great to have these products, but I feel they could be exploited,” he adds.

Spector said there’s not a word for a true fermented food yet – he suggested using the term “live fermented food” – so consumers need to read labels at the grocery store. A kefir or kombucha can have between 10-30 varieties of microbes, but you may only be getting only one depending on what brand you buy. 

Live ferments will generally be in the refrigerated food section. Heat processed, shelf stable foods are usually on the grocery store shelf.

Katz encourages consumers to steer away from bigger, national brands when purchasing ferments and instead buy from smaller, regional brands who don’t need to process their ferments to ship. 

“The more educated you are, the more quality products you can find,” he says, advocating for people to research their food. 

He points out the trend of the “lightly fermented soft drinks” can fool consumers, too. These drinks often have a high sugar content with no real benefit to the microbiome, Katz says. Though they can be a great replacement for traditional, sugar-filled sodas, you’re still drinking a lot of sugar.

“Anything sugar-sweetened, you really want to exercise restraint and moderation,” he says.

Katz ended the podcast with his five tips for anyone wanting to try fermented products.

  1. Don’t be afraid to try it. Katz: “Do not project all of the anxiety you’ve ever had about bacteria onto the process of fermentation. Understand that these are ancient practices that have been tested over time and that they are extremely safe.”
  2. Understand the conditions. Fermentation is about manipulating the environment for optimal growing conditions. Understand what they are to support lactic acid bacteria and avoid spoilage organisms.
  3. Don’t overthink it. Accept the simplicity of the fermentation process. Don’t obsess over what could go wrong.
  4. Experiment. Katz points out there are unlimited variations of fermented food combinations. “Don’t be afrait to play around.”
  5. Be creative. There are many fermented foods to incorporate in the diet. The hard part for beginners is getting accustomed to them. Try combinations that work for you – kimchi on eggs or pickles in salad dressings, for example.

Serial Pickler’s Pickling Prowess

Israel scientific magazine ISRAEL21c got a tour of Noa Berman-Herzberg’s pickle paradise in her home kitchen. Berman-Herzberg, who uses the moniker Serial Pickler, has garnered a large following online (64,000 Instagram followers). 

Pickling first piqued her interest when her grandparents ran a Jewish deli in Philly. Today she is a fermentation education and screenwriter, producing the culinary storytelling project “Sour Food, Sour Stories” where her guests talk with Berman-Herzberg while eating her pickles. They must each tell a story about something they felt they missed out on life (the Heber word for pickle means “missed out on.”). 

Her unusual ferments and pickle pairings have attracted the attention of chefs from around the world. At any given time Berman-Herzberg has 100 different pickle varieties at home, from a fiery pineapple pickle to a pickle with a miso-coffee spread.

“To taste these fruits and vegetables is to feel you have landed the golden ticket to a Willy Wonka land of pickles. Flavors and textures are exciting and unexpected,” the article reads.

When Berman-Herzberg began, she says most people thought she was a “weirdo.” Today, she believes pickles have found their moment.

 “We need to rethink the way we prepare food,” she says. “Preservation is going to be especially important as we head into a future of food shortages and climate change.”

Read more (ISRAEL21c)

Cooking isn’t limited to only making the dishes of one’s ethnicity. The cultural identity of that food becomes murky when it gets transactional. Commercializing a food without respecting and honoring its history and tradition is inauthentic, damning to immigrant producers and threatens to erase traditional foods.

“Someone with more power or dominance, they can create their own kimchi – that doesn’t have any resonance to its tradition – and get it on the shelves of Wal-Mart and make it commercially successful. I don’t have that opportunity because I’m a woman, I’m Korean, I’m a minority and I’m just trying to tell the story about kimchi in my way,” says Lauryn Chun, founder and CEO of Mother-in-Laws kimchi. Chun’s kimchi comes from her mother’s recipe used in the family restaurant in California, Jang Mo Jip. “It’s my heritage of food that I enjoy sharing with Americans.”

Chun’s experience is similar to many BIPOC producers. It’s difficult for minority producers to compete with the white-owned brands that often have more money to launch a food company and receive preferential treatment by retailers for store placement. 

“When you turn it into a business and you’re profiting as a company, we need to be more sensitive and more deliberate in how we give credit to people,” adds Robert Danhi, chef and co-founder of Flavor360 Solutions (and a TFA Advisory Board member)

Speakers discussed the wide range of issues related to traditional foods in a panel during TFA’s conference FERMENTATION 2022 titled “Traditions of Fermentation, Cultural Appropriation and Diversity.” Panelists included Chun, Danhi, Beverly Kim (chef and owner of restaurants Parachute and Wherewithall in Chicago), Kheedim Oh (founder of Mama O’s Premium Kimchi and TFA Advisory Board member) and Ismail Samad (founder of Loiter and Wake Robin Foods). The discussion was moderated by Josephine Wee (assistant professor at Penn State University and a TFA Advisory Board member).

Do Cultures Own Their Foods?

“There’s appropriate appropriation,” says Oh, whose Brooklyn-based kimchi brand is also based off the recipe of Oh’s mother, a Korean American. “Some of these brands, is what they’re making even kimchi? Kimchi is such a popular buzzword now. But it’s an unfair advantage when you’re competing with me and Lauryn to get your kimchi on the shelf and it’s very loosely kimchi.”

Brands are coming to retail with condiments labeled kimchi that are far from the traditional Korean condiments. They’re skimping on ingredients, like not using traditional Napa cabbage and opting for cheaper produce varieties. Though there’s hundreds of versions of traditional kimchi, some brands are veering too far to gain sales (Oh joked about a raspberry cheesecake kimchi).

“We need to change the narrative from appropriate to appreciation, celebration and preservation,” Wee adds.

Should a culture own a fermented food? Like Koreans just selling kimchi? The panel didn’t agree with that notion. But Samad points out a culture’s food is taken away from them when it’s exploited. 

Through his nonprofit Loiter, Samad tackles the effects of systemic racial and economic injustice.  He’s helping the residents of East Cleveland by developing successful, community-owned businesses – like Wake Robin Foods, a fermented food brand Samad purchased. Wake Robin will create ferments using produce from local, urban farmers.

“It’s black owned by black farmers so we can get some black dollars circulating in our culinary economy so they can have some freaking version of reparations for what has happened,” Samad says. “For me this is straight financial, who gets the opportunity to scale up.”

Samad says there’s an entire food system of African fermented foods “not being appropriated or appreciated in the U.S.” He hopes to disrupt the market.

“There’s an opportunity to introduce products that are owned by own by us, and by us I mean the African Diaspora,” he says.

Nuances in International Dining

Many American diners, though, are “still even at the elementary level of understanding the differences between different cultures in a diaspora,” says Kim, a former Top Contestant. “Asian cuisine is not just one monolithic cuisine.”

Some pan-Asian restaurants sell sushi (Japan) alongside kimchi (Korea) and pad thai (Vietnam), a “mish mash” of foods from different Asian countries. “We have to “continuously dig deeper to show there are nuances between the cultures,” she says.

It can be a difficult concept for chefs, too, who are trained in primarily French cuisine at culinary school. When Kim went through culinary school, a short quarter was focused on  global foods, “the rest is basically Fresh cuisine.”

Ethnic food — especially Asian fare— the food is often stereotyped as cheap, “it’s a bamboo ceiling that you can’t charge high prices,” Kim says. Western diners often don’t take into account the differences in quality of ingredients or the creativity, care and time in cooking a dish. “We’ve been seen as cheaper because we’re Asian, so people question why our prices are so high.”

Chun, who grew up helping in the family’s Korean restaurant, began Mother-in-Law’s kimchi questioning why kimchi wasn’t in the ranks of specialty craft foods like fine cheese.

“From the perspective of western fermented foods, from cheeses to wines to craft beers, those are the only things people are willing to spend their money on,” Chun says. She adds she felt very proud to be the first kimchi in specialty grocery store chain Dean and Deluca. 

In retail, many international food brands get placed in the ethnic aisle. But why does a sauce from an international region get placed in the ethnic aisle while spaghetti is placed in the sauces aisle?

“I’m torn over the concept of that existing,” Oh says. “We’ve been subjugated to the ethnic aisle aka the global ghetto where there’s no reason for it except the fact that I’m Korean.”

Cultural Regulatory Bias

Are there conflicts between tradition and science? Panelists shared how some health regulators don’t understand cultural ferments, causing batches of fermented food to be deemed unsafe for human consumption and thrown out.

Kim attempted to start a wholesale kimchi brand during the brand. Studies prove kimchi is made safely at a pH range of 4.2-4.5, but the regulator from the health department was told Kim legally had to keep kimchi under pH levels 3.3 to keep it safe.

“There’s so much confusion around it, I had to reach out to food scientists to clarify it, and we don’t want to get in trouble,” Kim says. She ended up cancelling the brand because securing regulatory approval was so difficult. 

Oh adds: “I think there’s a big cultural bias when it comes to fermented foods. In the U.S., it’s either the food is 100% clean scrubbed and pasteurized or it’s not – and the not is dangerous and dirty. Where fermented foods predates modern electricity and modern science, there’s a reason why it’s safe because it works out that it’s a very safe food because, through the lactic acid fermentation, it lowers the pH and that helps preserve the food.”

Upcycling & Zero Waste

Fermentation is a powerful culinary tool for upcycling. 

During the Upcycling and Zero Waste session at FERMENTATION 2022, six fermentationists with diverse backgrounds in the industry shared how they’re using fermentation to reduce food waste. 

“As a chef, we are constantly chasing these depths of flavors and things that you can’t get in regular cooking applications or techniques. Fermentation opened up a whole new world of flavor,” says Jessica Alonzo, a fermentation specialist and owner of small batch ferments company Native Ferments in Texas. “We were looking to enhance diner’s experience and fermentation did that.”

The panelists from all over the world included: Alonzo, Jeremy Kean (chef/owner of Brassica Kitchen), Mac Krol (CEO/founder of Mac Ferments), Richard Preiss (cofounder and brewing scientist at Escarpment Labs), Michelle Ruiz (CEO/co-founder of Hyfé Foods) and Ismail Samad (founder of Loiter and Wake Robin Foods).

Aiding farmers 

Alonzo consults with area restaurants to build unique larders. She helped create the fermentation and whole food utilization program at Petra and the Beast as the former sous chef. Fermenting the restaurant byproducts helped the restaurant eliminate food scraps, cut down on food cost and partner with farmers. 

Up to 40% of food grown in America is thrown away, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I got into zero waste and upcycling through relationships with farmers, seeing how much was wasted at the farm level,” says Samad, who also co-founded and was executive chef at The Gleanery in Vermont. “The Gleanery existed for the last 12 years to provide a very clear safety net for farmers not selling their stuff at the farmers market.

Samad admits he didn’t know much about fermentation when he first started, “We just knew we didn’t want to keep wasting food.” By fermenting the kitchen scraps, “we’re making sacrifices that big food won’t do.”

Exploring Science

At a scientific level, Preiss at Escarpment is looking at upcycling “through a microbiologist lens.” Preiss said he began upcycling when he realized the current food system is unsustainable in a linear economy.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for creating circular food economies to not only reduce waste but help every single stakeholder involved in this process make more money, pay people more, create jobs, be more profitable and ultimately stay open as part of the sustainability discussion,” he says. 

Restaurants are often leading upcycling and fermentation conversations – “many people know about fermentation because of restaurants.” But Preiss says the craft beer industry is becoming a leader in the upcycling movement because, today, they’re in many neighborhoods. “They have a really cool platform to communicate new ideas around food innovation.” 

Escarpment is exploring interesting ways to use spent grains from beer. Currently, they’ve created a way to make seasonings. Brewers use those seasonings in their menu dishes, a novelty that gets customers excited about pairing a beer with a dish seasoned with that craft brew’s spent grain.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in that grain, there’s still a lot of nutritional quality,” Preiss says. “Through fermentation, we unlock new possibilities.” 

Hyfé Foods is also utilizing waste. They’re taking the discarded sugar water (typically used in beverage production) and, through fermentation, repurposing it in mycelium flour. Mycelium is a type of mushroom. Hyfé’s proprietary biotechnology makes a protein-rich, low carb mycelium flour in a carbon-neutral, affordable process.

“Often when a manufacturer makes a product, the lifecycle being considered ends at the door. We’re often not measuring the greenhouse gas emission impact, the wasted sugar water – that goes down the drain,” says Ruiz. Food manufacturers pay a hefty fee to get rid of waste water. “We’re really excited about the position that upcycling puts us in, not only from a cost standpoint but also we’re creating a really nutritious, low cost food.”

Upcycling Barriers

Upcycling is not without its challenges. 

Kroll at Mac Ferments specializes in koji. He recently created shoyu made with used coffee grounds, koji, water and salt – an excellent choice, he says, for a restaurant that likely throws out pounds of coffee grounds at the end of the night. 

“It is obviously nice to create added volume from leftovers, it tightens the whole supply chain,” Kroll says. “But also there are risks of potentially overproducing just to create extra waste. You have to be careful what you’re doing because you’re dealing with enzymes – and we don’t see microbes.”

Fermentation, he says, should be utilized for quality, not quantity.

“If every dish has something fermented, a regular customer might come home starving,” Kroll adds.

Preiss sees collaboration as a major challenge because creating a circular, upcycled system involves multiple stakeholders sharing their waste products.

“Upcycling can’t be done in a silo, you need collaboration, and getting people that have the different pieces of the puzzle together to make it happen is the biggest challenge,” he says.

Samad, meanwhile, says scaling is a hurdle. “There are opportunities for investments around upcycling, but there’s a ceiling where this culture or ethos can be sustained.”

Educating customers, too, can be tricky. The public consuming the product or dish needs to understand what is upcycled. Servers, as the mouthpiece to diners, must taste and know a dish to communicate its elements. Chefs must detail to servers where ingredients were sourced, how long the food was aged and what was cross utilized, Alonzo says.

Panelists said the public is excited about the new taste experiences with upcycled food – but they’re also more curious about the science behind it.

“Folks come into Brassica for that fermentation program and are so interested and hungry for that knowledge from the science community,” Kean says. “And then theres folks that just want to eat and say ‘What the fuck was that?’ I think it’s a mixture between the two.”

“The education around all this stuff is growing,” he adds. “I see the culinary world and science world getting closer and closer together and I think that’s the right direction.”

The gut microbiome and how fermented foods can nourish it topped the Washington Post headlines in September. The article shared highlights from the growing number of studies that suggest “these vast communities of microbes are the gateway to your health and well-being — and that one of the simplest and most powerful ways to shape and nurture them is through your diet.” Food (and environment and lifestyle behaviors) have a much larger impact on the gut microbiome than genetics.

The article by health reporter Anahad O’Conner says science proves diverse diets make diverse gut microbiomes. Lower rates of microbiome diversity is linked to chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. 

One way to increase that diversity is by eating fermented foods – the article points out yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir as excellent examples. 

“The microbes in fermented foods, known as probiotics, produce vitamins, hormones and other nutrients. When you consume them, they can increase your gut microbiome diversity and boost your immune health, said Maria Marco, a professor of food science and technology who studies microbes and gut health at the University of California, Davis.”

A study by researchers at Stanford – and published last year in the journal Cell – found people who eat fermented food regularly increase their gut microbial diversity and lower their levels of inflammation.

“While it’s clear that eating lots of fiber is good for your microbiome, research shows that eating the wrong foods can tip the balance in your gut in favor of disease-promoting microbes,” writes O’Connor. The “bad” microbes, according to research, are commonly found in highly processed foods “that are low in fiber and high in additives such as sugar, salt and artificial ingredients. This includes soft drinks, white bread and white pasta, processed meats and packaged snacks like cookies, candy bars and potato chips.

Tim Spector, professor of epidemiology at King’s College London and the founder of the British Gut Project, tells the Washington Post that eating a wide variety of plants, fiber and nutrient-dense foods is also beneficial for the gut. Spector encourages people to eat 30 different plant foods a week, which can include produce, nuts, herbs and spices.

Read more (The Washington Post)

Flavor is much more complex than just taste. Flavor can be collected, extracted, infused, created and transformed. And, in a billion-dollar flavor industry devoted to putting flavors into processed foods, fermentation is the oldest and most natural flavor creator, developing new flavors at a molecular level. 

“Fermentation as a flavor creation process in collaboration with microbes, there’s almost no limit to how you can apply it and use the ingredients around you and have a more flavorful palette to work from,” says Arielle Johnson, PhD, a flavor scientist, gastronomy and innovation researcher and co-founder of the Noma Fermentation Lab.

A food chemist dubbed the flavor whisperer, she works with restaurants on innovating dishes and cocktails. She researches how flavor is perceived and is writing a book on her studies, Flavorama. Her work comes together in “all things science and cuisine have to say to each other.” 

This week Johnson shared her insights into flavor and fermentation as a guest lecturer at Harvard University’s Science & Cooking series.

Taste & Smell Receptors 

Flavor can be quite complex – Johnson calls it a black box.

There are five primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, umami and bitter. Each taste evolved to ensure humans get basic nutrition. We use sweet foods for the energy in sugar, sour ones for vitamin C from fruit and fermented foods. Salty foods provide the essential mineral sodium. We seek umami foods for the taste of glutamine, an amino acid in proteins and fermented foods. 

But bitter, Johnson points out, doesn’t sense one thing. It senses multiple molecules that are potential toxins for us. This is why bitter is called an acquired taste.

Smell is Johnson’s favorite part of the flavor profile. In order to taste, we must smell, too. Molecules land in the olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity and help activate taste. This is why food is tasteless if you plug your nose while eating. But the back of the throat is also connected to the nasal cavity, so the throat becomes “the secret backdoor” for sensing flavor. 

While there are five major tastes and four receptor areas on the tongue, there are 40 billion smellable molecules and 400 receptors for smell.

Supertasters vs. Nontasters

Taste and smell, she detailed, help us understand how fermentation works.

The population can be divided into supertasters or nontasters. During her presentation, Johnson had the audience put a strip of filter paper on their tongue. The paper included a harmless bitter molecule phenylthiourea (PTC), but only roughly half the class could taste it. This group are supertasters – the group who could not taste the PTC are nontasters.

She explained everyone has different density of their taste buds. Supertasters have more taste buds, so more taste receptors signals are sent to their brains. This has culinary implications. Because their sense of taste is more sensitive, flavors are intense and supertasters have a less adventurous palette. Meanwhile nontasters have dulled senses, so it takes a lot of flavor to activate taste.

“The good news for supertasters is that fermentation is usually salty and sour and often umami – all of which counteract bitterness,” Johnson says. “Fermentation is a way to create new flavors but also transform ingredients.”

Fermentation as Flavor

Though “microbes are opportunistic” and pop up in foods whether planned or not, fermentation can’t be forced, Johnson says. When making a sauerkraut, for example, microbes don’t need to be added. Fermentation works with what’s on the surface of the cabbage and on the producer’s hands.

Salt is key in fermentation as a flavor additive, a preservation element and a safety measure. Salt filters out bad molds and avoids letting a ferment spoil. Other factors “dial in the flavors in this molecular flavor creation process,” she says, like the correct ingredients, temperature control and humidity.

“We’re really excited about microbes and fermentation,” Johnson says. “In this process of this exponential growth that microbes do, they’re eating things, they’re getting energy, but they’re also running their regulator metabolism. So there’s all these waste products that are not very significant to the microbes, but that can create a lot of interesting flavor complexity.”