December 19, 2008
This might sound like a strange question, but Jordan Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen Company says it’s one that comes up a lot when you’re fermenting your own food ― making sauerkraut or kimchi for instance ― for the first time. And learning the difference between good mold and bad or how to spot and encourage beneficial bacteria is the key to this popular revivalist food preservation practice.
Champagne and her husband Todd preserve local food for a living (you may have seen their mason jars of tomatoes and pickles at the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market); she's also a skilled fermenter doing her part to usher in a fermentation renaissance. And she’s definitely not alone. Raw kimchis, sauerkrauts and sour pickles are showing up in more and more grocery aisles and farmers markets while kombucha, the fermented sweetened tea, grows in popularity. Now, foodies and locavores everywhere are learning how to ferment at home. Case in point: when Sandor Katz ― the self-proclaimed “fermentation revivalist” ― taught one of his now-famous workshops at this year’s Slow Food Nation in San Francisco, it was one of the first events to sell out.
Fermentation occurs when raw fruits and vegetables are set aside in anaerobic conditions until their sugars and starches turn into lactic acid. This process naturally inhibites disease-causing forms of bacteria while encouraging beneficial bacteria or “microflora” to grow. Fermentation not only adds complexity to the flavors of food (think beer, sourdough bread, and cheese), the good bacteria it creates also supports digestion and is said to help our bodies effectively absorb the nutrients available in food. Like canning and dehydration, fermentation also preserves fresh food, allowing for locally grown variety even in the sparsest months of the harvest calendar.
Champagne says she understands why the method has lost popularity in recent decades. “Fermented foods take time to make,” she says, “but I don’t think it was impatience that stopped people from making them; I think it was germophobia. We’ve been taught to believe that all micro-organisms are bad for us. Americans don’t even like to think about their cheeses having molds on them,” she adds.
Meanwhile, elsewhere around the world, fermented foods have continued to play a central role in popular cuisine ― take miso in Japan or injera bread in Ethiopia, for example. And many Americans have family traditions that revolve around some other form of home fermentation, says Champagne. In that sense, the fermentation "craze" may be more of a homecoming. "Fermentation has been tested and true throughout time. Now, I think a lot of people here are just returning to it," she says.
Many beginning fermenters consult books, such as Katz’ Wild Fermentation. For those worried about how to tell the good mold from the bad, however, Happy Girl Kitchen is offering several fermenting workshops this winter that will cover sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha. Participants will go home with their own starter batches they can tend as they begin to explore the variables of temperature and pressure, exercise patience (sauerkraut takes between one and four weeks to ferment, for instance), and do their own trouble-shooting. But, most importantly, Champagne hopes the workshops will demystify fermenting.
“It’s really just about getting comfortable,” she says, “so you’re free to experiment and make the process your own.”