Fermentation is everywhere

Welcome to this introduction class! Fermenthings is an organisation that wants to promote everything related to fermentation and inspire people to start themselves or use it as much in your daily life. But don’t worry, already now fermentation is a part of your daily routine because it’s in Beer, Wine, Coffee, Chocolate, Tea, Bread, Cheese and much more. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Products like Kimchi, sauerkraut, Miso, Kombucha are as fascinating and bring an interesting touch to your food.

Today we will give an overview of some of the ferments, knowing that we are just scratching the surface!


Why Ferment?

Before becoming a ferment aficionado it’s best to get to know all the benefits of fermentation. They are multiple approaches on why it has a positive impact on your food routine.

– Benefit for the gut health

One of the major benefits you will hear all the time is the goodness it brings to your metabolism. While not all scientific papers are yet written about it, and there is much to discuss you can argue that fermentation helps digestion and a healthier gut environment. In fact, like in nature, you need biodiversity for your body to be optimal. Fermentation brings a great number and diversity of “good” bacteria to your insides.

– Conservation

Secondly, fermentation is a perfect technique for conservation when there is a surplus of certain raw materials. Most of the fermentations come in fact of this logic. Brewing beer, wine is a way to conserve a certain raw material.

Then when people had to go on long trips, they also used fermentation to keep food with them in any condition. We see it in the diaries of James Cook when going to Hawaii, or in the rituals of the Polynesians when traveling large distances with their Poï.

When you extrapolate it into the modern era, you see through the lens of fermentation techniques a perfect way to go zero waste, to re-use products (bread -> kvass, pineapple peal -> tepache)

– Taste (Noma, Ora, San,…)

And Finally the reason why I entered the fermentation world is because of taste. Fermentation brings so much interesting flavours to the food game that are unique and strong that the possibilities are endless. Going from regular ketchup to fermented ketchup is a one-way street. Having high quality Miso or Shiro will change completely a dish.

That’s why you see more and more high-end restaurants working with fermentation. Noma in Copenhagen was one of precursors and is now in the top 5 restaurants of the world with more then 10 fermentation chambers. Ora, a one star restaurant in Helsinki uses more then 200 pots of fermentation to bridge the short growing season of 3 months in Finland. Sang-Hoon from the Belgian restaurant L’air Du Temps mixes his Korean heritage with a certain way to look at food and brings a lot of fermentation in his menu’s.


What’s happening

Before we dive into tasting ourselves different fermentations, we have to know what is happening with those microorganisms and why shouldn’t you be afraid of them!

The best explanation I saw about fermentation was in the Dutch book “over rot” by Meneer Wateetons. He said Fermentation is like war between good and bad bacteria, and you are a general deciding over the right conditions to win the battle. Those conditions are mostly the following: Air, Temperature and the chosen fuel.

While some ferments need air (building up a scoby for kombucha for example), other will work within an anaerobic environment. Temperature will give other outcomes. Miso for example is best suited in a 30 degrees environment. While lactofermentation of sauerkraut will be better in a cellar at 15 degrees. When working with meat you will have to bring it upwards to 75 degrees to kill the bad bacteria.  Finally choosing the right amount of salt, acidity, sugar, starter bacteria (tempeh, koji) will also influence the fermentation.

But aren’t bacteria dangerous? Well, in the west we were trained to clean everything profoundly, especially concerning food but that doesn’t mean it’s good. When Louis Pasteur created the bases of microorganism research, he never intended that we needed to live aseptic lives. To quote him: Ce sont les microbe qui auront le dernier mot! (microbes will have the last word / final say)

We need to try to live in harmony with the bacteria and to bring back our common sense inside the kitchen. That’s why I always explain that the best way to see if a ferment is good is to do a three-step check using your senses:

  1. Use your eyes to see if anything gets you off. When there are green and blue fungi on top of the ferment, probably it’s safer to throw away. (there are exceptions) But when nothing looks off, you can go to step 2
  2. Smell it. Thrust your nose on this one, he will say when something is offputting. After a time your nose will be trained to find more subtle smells and will now the difference with a good strong smell (a herve cheese for example) and a bad off smell (when the sauerkraut smells like Dettol)
  3. Finally, if you’re still not sure, but it passed both first and second test, just taste it. A small piece of ferment will not kill you, and you will immediately know if it was good or not.

Other info can be found here


On the Menu Today

Today we will go through the four types of ferment. These are the families in which you can divide fermentation.

– Vinegar: or also seen as acetic fermentation explains itselves as changing into vinegar type of ferments. Often you create a scoby ( syntrophic mixed culture of yeast and bacteria) that you will use to start the fermentation.

– Lacto: lactic fermentation creates also a sour taste but is different in the process. The salt is used to select good bacterias, and a bit of the sugar within the aliment helps creating an acid environment.

– Alcohol: When you give certain yeast and time to sugar it will change into alcohol. A good way to preserve. Know that above 16% it’s not anymore a fermentation but a distillation.

– Fungi: Finally you can add spores from the fungi family to create other kind of ferments like tempeh or koji.


– Kombucha

Our first taster is Kombucha, a sparkling drink that derives from a scoby. Mixing sugary tea and a starter will create on time a fermented and sparkling drink. Quite complex when you start adding flavour and having two fermentations, but rewarding when you get to know it.

– Kefir

Another soft drink you can make using bacteria. This time it are little grains that will multiply over time. You can drink it plain and add a bit taste from a lemon and some ginger or you can start adding fruits in a second fermentation to make it much more interesting. Easier to master then Kombucha, but over time less exciting.

– Lacto Fermented vegetables (click here for the basics)

We all know the sauerkraut, but we lost the knowledge to make it ourselves. Like other lacto fermentations, once you get your hands on the basic principle the possibilities are endless. You just need some good un-iodized salt, a scale, a cutting knife and some good vegetables. My golden ratio is 2,5% salt on the weight of the total content with water. Very important to keep the vegetables underwater.

– Kimchi (click here for the basics)

The grandfather of our sauerkraut is Kimchi. While we link it mostly to a spicy, red looking cabbage, the word kimchi oversees everything that is fermented and dates from a 3000-year-old tradition. The paste that is full of garlic, ginger, salt, sweets, brine, … can be used to ferment almost anything. I recommend everybody to start with this because once you get the basics you have a hole play garden.

– Giardiniera (more info)

Speaking of gardens, the giardiniera finds it origins in Italia and was used to mix all late spring or summer vegetables together. It creates a rich aroma that then is covered under a touch of oil to keep when food is low. Later it was brought to New Orleans and is now one of the main ingredients in their pork sub sandwiches. It has a divine taste of summer and can be done with almost any ingredients.

– Cider (more info)

Cider is a craft on its own, while it still has a strong tradition in South of England, North of Spain and France it’s not at all popular in Belgian or the Netherlands. It’s not that we don’t have good apple trees (I’m looking at you Limburg), but the main reason is because we lost the tradition out of economical reasons. In the 17th century you had three types of beverages:

Beer for the poor, Cider for the middle class and Wine for the elite. But through industrial revolution the Netherlands (including part of Belgium) saw the invention of grain distillation and became master in the craft of ‘jenever’. This high alcohol drink could be transported to north of Europe even through high colds (the Russian monarchy was found of it) and it became part of the reason the Netherlands got their golden age. The middle class lost their interest in producing cider and so a tradition was lost.

– Vinegar

Having some home made alive vinegar is a must have for any fermentation fanatic. You can help start any process, give it the right number of bacteria and use it to flavour a bit of anything. But follow one rule to make any vinegar really closely: with bad materials you will never be able to make a good vinegar.

– Pickled Cucumber

One of the exemples of using vinegar in a ferment is with manu’s pickles. He mixes a certain amount of vinegar with a salt mixture to create crunchy pickled cucumbers. Now that there is a difference between pickling and fermenting. When you pickle your main goal is to preserve the vegetable or fruit while not altering the taste within it. When you ferment you transform the taste and texture of the fruit and vegetable within. But it’s often a gray zone in between and you shouldn’t be to strict on these denominations.

– Koji

Or also named Aspergillus oryzae is a fungi that is used in different kind of Asian ferments. You can find it to make Soy Sauce, Miso and Sake. It’s best to compare it to Brettanomyces, a yeast type you find in certain beer (like Orval) that is at the same time really sensitive and omnipresent when you have it. The koji ritual in for example sake breweries is an art form and a strict process due to it’s nature. Today you are going to taste some tests I made using the Mead (fermented honey wine) process but adding koji instead of wine yeasts. This makes it a short process sparkling drink that needs to become more balanced.

– Umeboshi

Another wonderful taste bombe from Japan is Umeboshi. This lactofermentation of a specific kind of plume called Ume, creates a rich sour, salty, sweet taste that is close to an umami experience. Don’t take to much of it because it will take over the complete taste of any meal.

– Miso

Last but not least. My favorite ferment at the moment: Miso. This technique is created by mixing koji rice, salt, a grain/bean type (commonly it’s soy beans) and let it ferment for minimum 8 weeks till 3 years. It’s such a good condiment to have laying around and to play with. From classic miso soup use, to bake cookies with, to flavour popcorn or use in curry. Note that cooking them will break down all the good probiotics, that’s why you put miso into your soup and not boil water with miso already in it!

EXTRA: The pumpkin recipe

A beginning library of the hobby fermentista

Art Of Fermentation (ENG) – Fermentation Naturelle (FR)

Over Rot (NL)

Ni Cru Ni Cuit (FR)

At an higher level

– Noma Guide to fermentation (ENG/FR/NL)

And other books linked to fermentation