Monday, 6 August 2012

AlterNet / By Ari LeVaux Embracing the Deliciousness of Fermented Foods Means Calling Truce in Our War on Bacteria

At a Korean superstore in Las Vegas, I watched an employee whose sole job, it seemed, was organizing a vast array of kimchee. Her domain consisted of thousands of plastic tubs of fermented fish and vegetables in various combinations, usually spicy. She darted about the immense display cases and scrutinized the tubs' arrangement, rearranging their contents like beads on a giant abacus.

My feeling, observing her that day, roughly sums up how I feel about the process of fermentation generally: a mixture of awe and fear. The process is like some potent voodoo that could give you special powers or torture you to death.
Letting food sit at room temperature and become colonized by airborne microorganisms runs counter to everything we're taught about food safety. But without this guided decomposition that we call fermentation there would be no bread, cheese, tequila, or kimchee.
The Art of Fermentation , by Sandor Katz (Chelsea Green), is therapy for my split impulses regarding fermentation. It's a hefty book, with extensive citations, that exhaustively explores the world's fermentation traditions, including vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy, and other foodstuffs. It recounts much of the history of this ancient art, right up to contemporary times, and is rich in practical knowledge that you can start applying immediately.
The book has given me the confidence to play with the process, and the understanding to ferment fruits and vegetables from my garden. I hope to become proficient enough to put away significant quantities of the summer's harvest via fermentation. In other words, I'm into it -- the process and the book. And I'm not the only one. At last check, The Art of Fermentation sits at #14 on the New York Times bestseller list.
In the forward, Michael Pollan writes: "Katz's book is the main reason that my kitchen counters and basement floor have lately sprouted an assortment of mason jars, ceramic crocks, jelly jars, bottles, and carboys, the clear ones glowing with unearthly colors."
Anyone who reads this book might just find their own house similarly cluttered. My own fermentation-ware collection is rudimentary compared to Pollan's, but I've already caught myself looking at a beer growler in a new light, and I doubt it will be long till I spot a crock at a yard sale. In my three-week fermentation career I've already learned some important things, like how much more peaceful fermentation is than canning, and how easy it is to make booze that doesn't taste terrible. Too easy, really.
When Louis Pasteur demonstrated that many diseases are caused by living germs, the "war on bacteria," as Katz calls it, was officially on. Many lives were saved by the bacteria-killing process that became known as pasteurization and its many spawn: the countless methods that use heat, pressure, acid, and other means of preserving food by killing all the microorganisms in and around it. In short order, these methods widely replaced fermentation as the preservation method of choice.
While modern canning techniques work by killing, fermentation takes an opposite approach: promoting life. Specifically, the growth of bacteria and yeast that gradually create an alcoholic or acidic environment in which only certain microorganisms can live. "In this environment, Salmonella, E. Coli, Listeria, Costridium, and other food-borne pathogens cannot survive," Katz writes.
The playing field is tilted to favor either lactic acid bacteria like lactobacillus, or certain yeasts, like saccharomyces, to which we owe bread and booze. Katz quotes USDA vegetable fermentation specialist Fred Breidt as saying there's never been a documented case of food poisoning from fermented food. "Risky is not a