COVID-19 lockdowns last year produced a wide variety of wacky, do-it-yourself food trends, such as sourdough bread, feta pasta and whipped coffee. Some people tried out a process that takes a little bit longer: fermentation. This process is when yeasta or bacteria breaks down components of food without oxygen (i.e. in sealed jars) into simpler parts. Foods like sauerkraut, tempeh and kimchi are the result of this preservation method.
“More people had time to experiment with it,” says Susan Mills-Gray, MU professor emeritus and fermentation expert with MU Extension. “It was a combination of growing interest (in) probiotics, and people having more time on their hands during the pandemic.”
Mills-Gray says that in the early 2010s, health experts began pointing to the importance of probiotic foods and healthy bacteria for gut health, and magazines and social media propelled the public interest. People began consuming more foods such as yogurt, pickles and soy sauce — all foods that have been fermented.
“Fermented foods are deemed as a probiotic food by the FDA because they contain these bacterial cultures that improve the good bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract,” Mills-Gray says. “That plays into an improved immune function.”
Not only are ferments good for your body, but they’re pretty delicious, too. Anikó Zala, a local folk herbalist who sells products including mineral soaks through her business, Wild Origins, told Vox in an email that fermentation creates an “extra funkiness of flavor” that can’t be replicated without the time and care that goes into this process.
If you’re looking to try fermenting yourself, Zala recommends looking up a recipe for the specific type of food you’re fermenting. To get you started, here is a general guide to fermentation with essential steps to follow.
The food you want to ferment will be the main ingredient, but you might also need a bacterial culture. Mills-Gray says some foods such as cabbage already contain the necessary bacteria, but others require added cultures. Kombucha needs a SCOBY, a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, as well as sugar. Salt is needed for sauerkraut. Glass canning jars, or food-safe containers with an airtight seal, are the best containers to ferment food in.
According to MU Extension’s “Safely Fermenting Food at Home” fact sheet, it’s essential to wash all surfaces the food will come in contact with and use clean, food-grade containers. For recipes with brine, slice the produce, and combine it with the brine or liquid and add any specific bacteria cultures. Ensure all food is covered with the brine or liquid, then cover the jar with a cloth. Foods should sit for three days to three months at room temperature, depending on the desired flavor. Fermented items can be refrigerated to slow the fermentation process so the food doesn’t get too sour or soft. Letting food ferment for longer will strengthen the sour taste, so you can make ferments taste just how you like.