Have you ever asked the question “how does fermentation preserve food?” No shame in asking this question, as we have all been there. I love fermenting foods so much that I decided it was time to look more into this and break it down for you.
Let’s start from the beginning: what is fermentation?
Fermentation is the process of producing acid or alcohol in food through the use of bacteria or fungi. The production of alcohol or acid is what preserves the food and gives it a unique flavor. In the fermentation process, there is no oxygen present, so most of the microorganisms involved thrive in an anaerobic environment.
In some cases, fermentation can happen when you leave food out for too long. For example, if you leave a piece of cheese out from the day before, you may find the flavor to be weird. In this situation, the naturally occurring microbes are starting to break down your cheese.
However, when I talk about fermenting at home, I am referring to the process of controlled fermentation, which is what most bakers or beer-makers use as well.
Are you still not sure about fermentation? No need to worry, these are some of the benefits of fermentation for you to look at:
- Preservation: first and foremost, fermentation is a great way to preserve your foods. This can be done in various meats, fruits, and vegetables, so you can save money and time.
- Safety: unlike other preservation processes, fermentation is very straightforward, which means it is also safe to use at home.
- Flavor: as I mentioned before, fermentation also adds flavor to food. For example, beer and champagne get their taste from this process, as does wine.
- Texture: many do not think about the addition of texture to foods, but you can make foods taste better by adding carbonation.
Not all fermentation is the same!
There are various ways to ferment food, which means that the process in itself is different depending on the type of microorganism that you use.
On one hand, there is yeast, which is a single-cell fungus. Yeast is essential in making bread, wine, beer, vinegar, cocoa, and even coffee. This microorganism can survive in harsh environments, making it very useful in the production of alcoholic beverages.
Lactic acid bacteria use lactose, the sugar in milk, and produces lactic acid. This produces the yogurt that we all know and love. Other types of bacteria also produce acetic acid, which comes from fermenting alcohol. This process produces flavor in vinegar.
Even though you may never encounter this type of fermentation, molds are also part of these processes. Molds are very resilient and adapt quickly. Molds are used in fermentation because they produce enzymes that break down carbohydrates and protein. Common foods made through mold fermentation are soy sauce, blue cheese, Brie, and Camembert.
What does this mean for preservation?
As you may have deduced by now, fermentation increases the shelf life of food by creating more acid or alcohol content. During this process, the water content also decreases, making the food less prone to decomposition.
Because many microorganisms thrive in environments with high pH, low alcohol content, and low sodium, fermentation is a great way to prevent them from growing. When you ferment food, you are also decreasing pH levels, increasing alcohol levels, and increasing salinity.
In some cases, I also add sugar or salt, depending on the food I am preserving and whether it has low pH, has more water content, or low salinity.
Should I ferment at home?
I get this question all the time, and my answer will always be, why not? Try it once and see if it is for you. I love making pickles, yogurt, sauerkraut, and even kimchi. Not only is this a great hobby, but you are also adding probiotics to your food, which are microorganisms that preserve your gut flora and may even increase your immunity.
Another reason to ferment at home is that you can keep these foods for months at a time, saving time and money when you want to prepare a meal, or have a surprise visit at home.
Get your tools ready!
Before you get started, you will want to have your vegetables, fruit, or meat ready. You will also need your glass jars, as these are essential to prevent exposure to chemicals, and they can withstand harsh temperatures. Remember that you will also need a pressure cooker any time you plan on fermenting meat.
Don’t be scared to try fermenting your foods at home. Just make sure you follow directions and always allow your food to expand properly by leaving enough headspace. Get started with some pickled vegetables, a preserve, or maybe some kombucha. Truly, the options are endless once you begin the journey into fermentation!
Now that you know how fermentation preserves your food, why not try out an amazing fermented dish, like this one here: Fermented Sauerkraut For Your Summer BBQ.