Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fermentation vs. Pickling

For those of us with digestive issues, and even for those of us without digestive issues, fermented foods can be an important aid in maintaining the delicate balance of our gut flora.

But what is fermentation?

Fermentation goes way back in our history. At some point, humans figured out a process to ensure that foods could be easily preserved (before refrigeration) and could be made easier to digest. The diets of every traditional society have included some kind of lacto-fermented food so news of this process must have gotten around somehow. Europeans consume lacto-fermented dairy, sauerkraut, grape leaves, herbs and root vegetables. The Alaskan Inuit ferment fish and sea mammals. Asia is known for pickled vegetables, sauces and kimchi in particular. Farming societies in central Africa are known to make porridges from soured grains.

But what exactly are fermented foods and how is fermentation different from pickling? 

The dictionary defines fermentation as metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, gases, and/or alcohol. It occurs in yeast and bacteria, but also in oxygen-starved muscle cells, as in the case of lactic acid fermentation. Fermentation is also used more broadly to refer to the bulk growth of microorganisms on a growth medium, often with the goal of producing a specific chemical product. Salt is typically used to create a brine, in which foods are allowed to “ferment” for 3-7 days or even longer. 

While most people think about beer or wine when they hear the term fermentation, it is the bacteria that are responsible for lacto-fermentation. The “Lacto” portion of the term refers to a specific species of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus. Various strains of these bacteria are present on the surface of all plants, especially those growing close to the ground, and are also common to the gastrointestinal tracts and mouths of humans and other animal species.

Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. Beyond preservation advantages, lacto-fermentation also increases or preserves the vitamin and enzyme levels, as well as digestibility, of the food. So before science showed this to be true, traditional societies already knew this. 

Pickling is defined as the process of preserving, even expanding, the lifespan of food by either anaerobic fermentation also in brine but typically by immersion in vinegar. The resulting food is called a pickle or "pickled [insert word here]”. Pickles and relishes are a part of the American food tradition. Since the advent of industrialization, most pickling is done with vinegar, which offer more predictable results, but no lactic acid.

So really fermentation and pickling are nearly identical, as they are both methods of preserving food and contain a salt brine, although pickling includes the use of vinegar. But fermented foods offer distinct advantages for the digestive system over pickled ones because of the lactic acid.

I had read that digestion could be improved by eating a few spoons of fermented foods at the start of each meal. This would entail having a jar of the stuff around at all times. But before investing the time to making some at home, I decided to look for an example at my health food store. I had sticker shock. A 16 oz. mason jar of it cost $11.00! I did get it, in the name of research, and it was tasty, but I am not about to shell out $11.00 every time I want some, so the next step was to make it myself. And it’s a good thing - it’s ridiculously easy to do.

First on the list to try is Curried Cauliflower. It sounded zippy and a little spicy and interesting. Here’s all you need to make it.

1 small head of cauliflower (about 3 cups of small florets)
2 1/2 Tbsp. curry powder of choice (you can go spicy or mild here, up to you)
4 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled
3 Tbsp. sea salt
1 quart of water

1. Make a brine by heating up the water, adding the salt, and allowing it to dissolve. Allow to cool to room temperature.

2. Cut the cauliflower into small florets.

3. Place the garlic cloves in the bottom of a mason jar. 

Add the curry powder followed by the cauliflower. Pour the brine over the vegetables until they are covered, leaving 1-1/2 inches of headspace. Place a lid on and shake well to dissolve the curry.

4. Place cover on jar and allow to sit out at room temperature for 3 to 7 days until fermented. You may have to burp the jar for the first few days to release pent-up gases. To do this simply open the jar until any pressure is released and immediately retighten.

Once you are satisfied that your cauliflower is fermented (it has a little tang), you can move it to cold storage.

Stay tuned - we’ll see what it tastes like later in the week!

Ok, so what’s the word on the cauliflower? I let it ferment on my countertop for 5 days since that was a happy medium between the 3-7 that was recommended. Any less and I didn’t think it would have the same zippiness. And it was surprisingly good! The cauliflower retained its crunch while having a nice little tangy curried flavor. I usually eat it as a snack when I get home from work, before I go for my walk. I take it to work and eat it alongside whatever leftovers I’m bringing. It would be a good side for a sandwich. My sister-in-law folded it into an omelet she made with spinach and kale. I might also add it to a salad or have it as a side to a bunch of Indian dishes. If you made it, what have you done with it? 

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