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 offeringsfrom frozen to shelf-stableuse 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 standardizedto minimize waste and broaden their appealthat 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."
A walk-through tour of Columbus reveals long rows of salami covered in white mold slowly fermenting for a planned 90-day period. Columbus recognizes that consumers are now more interested in the fermentation process than ever before. The company educates its customers with a salami tasting and pairing guide, and their product lineup includes an artisan collection of gourmet salami varieties that replicate similar styles and flavors still found in Italy today. The Crespone is seasoned with pepper, garlic and wine, while the Finocchiona is seasoned with wild fennel seeds. The Hot Sopressata from Columbus is made with chile de arbol peppers, fennel and sherry.
European sauerkraut and Korean kimchi both derive from fermented fresh cabbage (generally napa for kimchi and standard green for sauerkraut), but thats where their similarities end. Both are made when the cabbage ferments in its own microflora, while the addition of salt inhibits the growth of gram-negative bacteria and allows the lactic acid cocci and rods to grow.
Kimchi, a spicy food with chile pepper and other seasonings added to it, is the most-popular condiment in Korea. In the United States, it has made its way out of niche Asian markets and Korean restaurants and is now being sold widely. Kimchi is available at San Franciscos trendy gourmet markets under fun labels such as Mother-in-Laws kimchi (a traditionally spicy variety) and Happy Girl Kitchen Co., whose organically grown kimchi and pink krauts have a colorful, California-fresh look and taste.
At Farm House Culture in Santa Cruz, CA, founder Kathryn Lukas was inspired by the cultural diversity that defines California cuisine. She created a line of re-imagined" krauts and kimchis, with flavors like apple-fennel and smoked jalapeño that artfully combine authentic German kraut characteristics with preferred California flavors. The companys farmers market booth sells kraut shots for a dollar, and health seekers who love sharp tangy flavors are buying them up to drink alongside their organic coffee.
At the restaurant level, Nick Balla, executive chef, Bar Tartine, San Francisco, pays homage to his Hungarian heritage with an in-house pickling program. He serves house-cured vegetables such as dill-seasoned turnips, cultures his own sauerkraut, and even serves cultured white coffee cream for dessert.
Soybeans, soybeans, soybeans
Natto, tempeh and miso are all fermented products made from raw soybeans. Miso, made by grinding cooked soybeans with koji (mold) and salt, is fermented for 4 to 12 months. The longer the fermentation period, the stronger and richer the final flavor. Miso paste can be added in small amounts to soups or stocks, and it works as a savory flavor enhancer or condiment. Natto, known in Japan as rotten beans," is comprised of soybeans fermented with Bacillus subtilis. Both miso and natto contain nutritious protein and minerals, but are not yet widely accepted because their strong flavors could be off-putting to Americans when delivered at full strength. Mainstream manufacturers should slowly introduce miso to the masses by using small amounts to enhance soups, sauces (including tomato-based) and/or dressings. Options also exist in the dessert category. Chef Alexander Ong, partner and executive chef, Betelnut, San Francisco, uses miso to flavor a peach ice cream paired with chocolate lava cake served with an almond-sesame cookie.
Tempeh is more widely available because its high protein content makes it a great meat substitute. However, it must be made with care because, unlike fermentation processes for other foods, the pH of tempeh increases from 5.0 to 7.5, allowing it to support pathogen growth. Therefore, tempeh should be treated like a meat product, as it carries the same microbiological risks and, in contrast with other fermented-soybean products, is not protected by low pH levels or salt. It should be kept refrigerated at all times.
Miso, the flavorful paste made via Aspergillus fermentation of soybeans, is mostly known by Americans in connection to brothy miso soup, with bits of tofu, served in Japanese restaurants. Lately, restaurants and manufacturers have been incorporating miso into other products. Miso salad dressings are gaining popularity in the gluten-free aisle because, unlike some other flavoring agentslike wheat-containing soy saucemiso contains no gluten. Miso is still slowly working its way into the mainstream U.S. food supply, but chefs like Kevin Hickey, executive chef, Allium, Chicago, are experimenting with sweet-savory combinations like miso milkshakes. This idea is not far removed from what chains like Jack-in-the-Box have done with bacon milkshakes and sundaes, and the novelty could play well in some creative foodservice venues.
Dont let the opportunity ferment!
Fermentation serves the dual purpose of preserving the food and its flavor. The preservation process was once crucial to immigrants who brought their sauerkraut and sausages from Europe and Asia. In the era of refrigeration, fermentation has become more of a craft, and very few fermented products have hit mainstream supermarkets and foodservice operations. Therein lies the opportunity!
Chefs who see these old techniques as novel are reviving the art of fermentation. Larger manufacturers and retailers are taking notice and recognizing that although their products may be mass-produced, they still have the same fermentation methodsand bacteriaat their disposal. Right under their noses are the scientific means of introducing authentic flavors from the Old World to a new generation of culinary and consumer enthusiasts. Its the traditional and the cutting-edge all rolled into one.
Rachel Zemser, CCS, is an independent industry consultant and author of The Intrepid Culinologist blog on foodproductdesign.com. She has a B.S. and M.S. in Food Science, a Culinary Arts degree, and 15 years of industry experience. She is a member of the Research Chefs Association. For more information, visit theintrepidculinologist.com.