Pickles, sauerkraut, miso, olives, soy sauce, kimchi, and soda…what do these have in common? Once traditionally fermented over extended periods of time, these time-honored foods have all fallen victim to the industrialization process. Increased demand for globally-inspired condiments have incentivized corporations to commodify foods once carefully prepared and slowly fermented.
Let’s take a look at a few:
Then: Wheat and soybeans were inoculated with the molds, Aspergillus oryzae or Aspergillus soyae. Further fermentation for 1 to 2 years with Lactobacillus and yeast strains breaks the proteins down into a number of amino acids, which contribute to the umami and complexity of flavor of the soy sauce.
Now: Soybeans are boiled in hydrochloric acid for 15-20 hours to break down the proteins into amino acids. Many secondary reactions release compounds such as furfural, dimethyl sulfide, hydrogen sulfide, levulinic acid, and formic acid, that contribute off odors to the soy sauce. The resulting liquid is neutralized with sodium bicarbonate and purified. Artificial colors, corn syrup, and preservatives can be added to adjust flavors. Total production time? 3 days.
Then: Freshly harvested cucumbers were placed in a brine of salt and spices and allowed to ferment for weeks to over a month.
Now: Ever wondered why pickles seem to stay unspoiled on supermarket shelves for so long unrefrigerated? To increase shelf-life, the cucumbers are pasteurized—they are heated to a high temperature for extended periods of time to kill all ambient bacteria. These sterilized cucumbers are then placed in a concoction of vinegar, salt, sugar, “natural flavors,” preservatives like sodium benzoate and polysorbate 80, and food coloring.
Then: Olives, picked from the tree, contain oleuropein, a very bitter compound, and were thus soaked in a salt-water brine and inoculated with active bacterial and yeast cultures to ferment for 3 to 9 months.
Now: Olives are soaked in a very alkaline lye solution for 24 hours to draw out the oleuropein. This process removes the bitterness and many nutrients with it, and also changes the olives’ color and texture. Fun fact: those ubiquitous canned black olives that come on pizzas were green off the tree but turn black in the lye bath, then ferrous gluconate is added to them to make sure they stay black. Almost all nutrition is removed during the processing.
Then: Soaked and rinsed grains are inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae and allowed to proliferate in the grain for several days to form koji, which is then mixed with mashed beans and salt and allowed to ferment for a month to several years in wooden casks at ambient environment temperatures.
Now: Typically GMO soybeans are mixed with koji in large plastic or stainless steel vats at high temperatures to accelerate the fermentation process, which happens for a small fraction of the time. The miso is then pasteurized, and artificial colors and flavors, preservatives, and MSG can be added.
Then: Wild yeasts found on grains were cultivated to form a sourdough starter, an active culture which was then added to the dough and allowed to ferment for 8 hours to more than a day.
Now: Regular commercially yeasted bread has acetic acid, malic acid, or fumaric acid added to it to simulate the sourness that is a natural byproduct of fermenting with a real sourdough starter.
Then: Sassafras root, vanilla, wintergreen, cherry tree bark, licorice root, sarsaparilla root, dandelion root, nutmeg, acacia, anise, molasses, and/or cinnamon were fermented for about one week to make a delicious, naturally bubbly drink with medicinal properties.
Now: A syrup made from high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, artificial flavors, and preservatives is added to chlorinated and carbonated water.
Ok, you get the idea.
Naturally fermented foods are delicious, flavor-rich foods that are the result of bacteria and yeast cultures given the time to break down larger molecules into a plethora of smaller molecules that tickle the taste buds. So many new flavor compounds are produced in the fermentation process. (Just think of the depth of flavor in some of your favorite fermented foods: cheese, wine, chocolate…) These fermented foods are not only delicious but almost universally more nutritious, more easily digested, and teeming with beneficial microbes that are vital for good health.
Consumer demand for these flavorful foods at low prices has all but eradicated the time-honored traditions that created them. Once fermented foods given the time and opportunity to develop flavor are now subject to profit-maximizing, industrial and chemical processing, resulting in an insipid product that requires further chemical augmentation to mimic the color and flavor of its authentic counterpart. Even if fermentation is a part of the process, the product is often pasteurized to make it shelf stable, making it devoid of any salubrious probiotic microorganisms.
Fortunately, many of our local food producers are bringing these traditions back, and you may find them at some local grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Or…try doing it yourself!
Learn more about the whys and how-tos of traditional fermentation in two upcoming fermentation classes!
Sign up for Fermentation is Easy! on Saturday, March 7, 5-8 pm at Berkeley Kitchens. You’ll learn about vegetable and dairy fermentation: how to make your own sauerkraut, kimchi, preserved lemons, yogurt, kefir, cultured butter…that’s just the beginning!
Sign up for Soaking, Sprouting, Sourdough, and Fermented Beverages on Saturday, March 14, 5-8 pm at Berkeley Kitchens, in which you’ll learn how to make your very own sourdough starter as well as your favorite naturally bubbly fermented beverages, such as kombucha and kefir sodas.
GIVE IT A TRY!
Cabbage and Apple Sauerkraut
1 head cabbage
1 apple, cored and sliced
Peel any bruised or discolored outer leaves on the cabbage and discard. Cut the cabbage into quarters through the core. Cut the core out of each quarter, and slice the cabbage thinly. Place the shredded cabbage in a large bowl, add some salt (about 1 ½-2 tsp per pound), and massage the cabbage, squeezing to soften the cabbage and coax the water out. Mix the apples in.
Pack the cabbage and apples very tightly into a jar (a medium head of cabbage fits pretty neatly into a quart mason jar) or a container, pushing the vegetables down and making sure the liquid comes above the level of the vegetables.
Leave covered with a cloth, at room temperature for at least one week and up to a month, tasting all the while. The final product should be pleasantly tart and crunchy. Refrigerate and enjoy!