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Fermentation—An Old Process Made New


By Rachel Zemser, CCS, Contributing Editor

A combination of curiosity and microbiological intrigue is what inspired me to buy a $1 shot of kimchi juice at my local farmers’ market. Fermented foods are good for us, and many consumers now understand that mainstream products like yogurt and kefir populate our guts with the “good guys," such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Streptococcus thermophilus, while crowding out the bad bugs and improving overall stomach health. Fermented dairy products are old news, and many supermarket offerings—from frozen to shelf-stable—use “yogurt" (with live cultures or not) as a selling point.

But what about the forgotten fermented tastes that our forebears brought over from Russia, Italy, Germany, Korea, Japan, South Asia and elsewhere? In Northern California, these ancient artisan methods are already being revived and sold to foodies who seek extreme sour flavors, courtesy of acid-producing bacteria. From Happy Girl Kimchi to the tableside Hungarian pickled beets at Bar Tartine, fermented foods are back just in time for Gen X, Y and the millennials to discover and enjoy.

Harnessing the power of microbiology

Fermentation is a broadly defined term that includes, but is not limited to, the breakdown of carbohydrates by microorganisms and enzymes. Lactic acid bacteria such as Lactobacillus, Streptococcus and Leuconostoc spp. are some of the traditional genera responsible for converting sugars into acid and gas. Fermentation can happen with or without oxygen, and the final aroma and flavor profiles derive directly from the original carbohydrate materials. Numerous shelf-stable meat and vegetable products owe their stability and sensory characteristics to the activities of microorganisms. The shelf life of preserved foods such as sausages, sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh and miso all are considerably longer than that of the raw materials from which they are made.

Fermentation occurs naturally, of course, as air, teeming with microbes, comes into contact with food. Now that we have a better understanding of microbial activity, our fermentation processors have become more efficient at producing consistent products by controlling the salt, water activity, temperature and pH levels. That limits spoilage, optimizes the desirable flavors and product yields, and ensures safety by preventing the growth of pathogenic bacteria.

Art and science

Cheese, beer and wine are common mainstays in the fermented-product category, but the time is ripe for cutting-edge chefs and artisan retail manufacturers to reintroduce other fermented foods from the Old World. Fermentation was always a means of preserving food at ambient temperatures, before refrigeration made it less of a need and more of a niche. The fermented products that did make it to mass production, like pickles and supermarket-variety salami, were so standardized—to minimize waste and broaden their appeal—that their unique flavor profiles disappeared.

Increasing demand for specialized flavors and consumers’ desire to connect their food to a time and place have paved the way for a reintroduction of specialty fermented foods in the market, both retail and foodservice. High-volume manufacturers are either reformulating foods (to bring back that special flavor) or simply reminding their customers of the traditional processes used to create their products, despite the mass volumes they achieve.

Meet fermented meats

Boccalone, a San Francisco sausage company, focuses on hand-butchering, small batches, personal attention and cold-curing. Their meats are available only in San Francisco or online, and they select their resellers carefully for fear their products will not be handled properly, subsequently diminishing their quality.

In contrast, Columbus, a San Francisco salami company founded in 1917, makes deli meat and salami in high volumes. With an annual yield of 40 million pounds a year, the company still relies on taste and texture to ensure final-product quality. Vernon Lee, technical services manager, says, “We use Old World techniques and modern technology to put out a consistent, high-quality product, but we still need human beings to touch, feel and taste it to ensure it has the final authentic, gourmet taste that our customers have come to love."

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