We've spent the last week as artists-in-residence at Have Company, a shop/residency/gallery/all-around-amazing-space in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. In addition to working on several personal projects, we were also able to engage with the community by teaching a workshop on basic vegetable fermentation.
Because of the positive response and excitement we experienced from the workshop we decided to write a guest blog post for Have Company that guides readers through the process of making pickles and kraut. In addition to the guest post over there, we've also made the notes from our workshop readily available here, for anyone interested in learning a little more about the history and process of fermentation.
WHAT IS FERMENTATION?
Fermentation is a process of change. In the context of food, it is the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeast, and/or other microorganisms. This process has been used, historically, as a means of food preservation, to produce alcohol, to remove toxins from raw food, to alter the flavor of food, and to improve flavor and nutritional content of foods.
Fermentation is one of the oldest methods of food preservation and people have been making and consuming fermented foods for thousands of years. Some anthropologists have even speculated that the production of alcohol motivated hunter-gatherer tribes to settle down and become agriculturalists!
It is interesting to note that before the invention of the microscope and the subsequent discovery of microscopic organisms, the mysterious and miraculous process of fermentation was attributed to various gods and deities. The Egyptians praised Osiris for brewing beer, the Greeks associated Bacchus with the fermentation of wine, and the Japanese placed shrines in their miso and shoyu breweries.
Every traditional society consumed some type of fermented food and different ferments can be found all over the world. Sauerkraut in Europe, kimchi in Korea, natto and miso in Japan, tempeh in Indonesia, kvass and kombucha in Russia, tepache in Mexico, cortido in Central America, poi in Hawaii, yogurt in India...the list goes on and on.
Before the invention of pasteurization and the proliferation of home-canning, fermentation was one of the primary means of preserving the harvest. Our fore-mothers would have large crocks of sauerkraut and pickles that fermented through the fall and allowed them to have vegetables all through the winter. When families started moving away from the farm and into cities they slowly lost touch with this traditional process and all the benefits that come along with it.
WHAT IS LACTO-FERMENTATION?
Lacto-fermentation is the microbial process that turns cucumbers into pickles. It is a form of controlled rot or putrefaction that creates favorable conditions for communities of so-called friendly bacteria. The term lacto-fermentation refers not to milk or whey, but to the kind of bacteria involved in the process – beneficial bacteria that produce lactic acid and thrive in an anaerobic environment, termed lactic acid bacteria.
Lactic acid bacteria are ubiquitous in the soil, on the surface of all plants, and are also found in our mouths, vaginas, and gastrointestinal tracts! During fermentation, these “friendly” bacteria feast on the sugar and starch present in the vegetables and convert them into lactic acid, which lowers the pH and makes the ferment inhospitable to other “bad” bacteria. In addition to preserving food for future use, lacto-fermentation also increases and stabilizes nutrients, makes the food more digestible, and encourages the growth of healthy bacteria in our intestinal tract.
Preserves food so you can enjoy it months after harvest!
Enhances the digestibility of vegetables by creating enzymes that help our bodies break them down and better absorb their nutrients.
Naturally fermented foods are probiotics and can positively affect gut flora, which in turn can have positive effects throughout your whole body.