Put your bacteria to work
For most people, especially here in Tennessee Whiskey country, the term “fermentation” suggests alcohol.
Alcohol is certainly the product of fermentation; yeast consume carbohydrates from grains or fruit juices and produce alcohol as a byproduct. But the term “fermentation” is much broader than that, and includes any use of microorganisms — yeast, bacteria, mold — to transform food or beverages.
Coffee beans are allowed to ferment after harvesting but before roasting, and the exact nature of this fermentation can be tinkered with to affect the flavor of the coffee. Yogurt and cheese and buttermilk are fermented dairy products. Yeast breads are considered fermented products. Soy sauce is made by using a special kind of mold to ferment soybeans and grains. Even the pepperoni on your pizza is a product of fermentation.
In the past few years, as a result of wanting to make my own hot sauce, I’ve been learning about, and experimenting with lactofermentation of vegetables. I’ve written several times about specific projects — my hot sauce, for example, or sauerkraut. But I’ve imagined myself giving a talk about lactofermentation in general, and one day I decided I needed to just write it down. In the first place, no one is lining up to ask me to give a talk. In the second place, if someone ever does ask, writing an essay might provide a useful structure that I can use as an outline later on.
A brief history
For thousands of years, lactofermentation was a primary means of preserving vegetables. Before there was refrigeration, or rapid transportation, you had to eat the foods that grew naturally in your climate. In many parts of the world, veggies are only available for a certain period of the year. Pickling them allowed them to be stored away for a few extra months of nutrition. Ancient peoples, of course, did not understand the science behind this; they only knew, from trial and error, that it worked.
Pickling a vegetable preserves it by raising the acidity (lowering the pH) to a level that most dangerous bacteria find inhospitable. Today, most manufacturers, and most home cooks, pickle things by soaking them in vinegar. But that’s not how it was…