At the end of 2012, The New York Times made predictions about the 10 food trends for 2013. One of the predicted trends is fermentation. I don’t know anything about fermentation, but fortunately, I have a friend who does.

On her blog Phickle, Amanda Feifer O'Brien writes about her adventures in ferments. She also teaches the basics of fermentation to packed classes, giving credence to the New York Times trend prediction. 

I asked Amanda to answer some questions about fermentation so that I can get a handle on what it is and why I might want to try it myself. Here’s what she told me.

MNN: For those of us who know little or nothing about fermentation, tell us what it is.

Amanda Feifer O'Brien: The oversimplified technical definition as it relates to food is that fermentation is the process by which the sugars in an organic substance are broken down and converted into alcohol and acid. But the truth is, it’s so much more than that. Fermentation is a method of food preservation that predates written human history. It is a process that will occur in nature in the right conditions, but which we can harness and control to make amazing things. It is the process of naturally introducing healthy bacteria (sometimes known as probiotics) and sometimes adding vitamins and minerals into our food all while preserving it.

Although it seems foreign to many Americans today, so many of our favorite foods are fermented at some point in their production. Bread, vinegar, chocolate, beer, wine, yogurt, cheese and so many other delicious foods we love are on the list of ferments.

How did you get involved with fermentation?

I have been making my own yogurt for many years. I worked in the food industry for a long time. Through my extra-curricular, work-related reading, I realized that there was almost no benefit to eating most of the yogurt brands available at grocery stores. I realized how easy it was to make, that I could use the quality of milk I wanted, and make fun flavors with whatever fruit was on hand. It also would be much healthier and sometimes much cheaper than getting store-bought stuff. I’d also been given a sourdough starter by a baker friend and I kept that going most of the time, but I didn’t really think of these things as fermentation.

I had Sandor Ellix Katz’ excellent book “Wild Fermentation,” and I had used it to dabble a bit. When I quit my corporate food job a couple of years ago, I started to go nuts with it. When my ferment habit became a regular one, I started to notice improvement in a few gut issues that hadn’t seemed like anything until they disappeared. Now I have seven-12 ferments going in my house at any given time, always including kimchi and kefir.

Some of the names of fermented foods aren’t found in most people’s vocabulary. Can you define the following?

  • Kimchi: The national dish of Korea and a delicious condiment. There have been 187 officially recognized versions of kimchi through the ages, so there is some diversity here, but today the most typical version we see in the U.S. consists of napa cabbage, daikon radish and maybe a couple of other veggies fermented for a short period of time in a paste of rice flour, ginger, onions and Korean red pepper powder.
  • Kombucha: A delicious beverage made when sweetened tea is fermented by a culture called a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). Once fermented it has a refreshing, vinegary taste and compounds that have been proven to aid in liver function. Also know as my hangover cure.
  • Kefir: A drinking yogurt loaded with probiotics.
  • Lacto: The term ‘lacto” refers to lactic acid fermentation. So when I make pickles, I call them lactopickles to distinguish them from pickles made with vinegar. They may taste vinegary, but they are merely vegetables left to soak under a brine of salt and water. It’s like magic. Okay, it’s actually chemistry and nature, but it SEEMS like magic the first time you pickle this way!
Your website says you’re 'evangelical' about ferments. Why are you so fervent to spread the word?

Fermentation has been a revelation for me, and I think it will be for others, too. When I started to delve into this topic I felt like so many things became clear. We suffer from so many food-related ailments and it seems science is increasingly linking these issues back to our gut bacteria. I feel like I hear a new story about it every week.

I’m not trying to overstate this. I don’t think ferments are a panacea for all the ailments of modern society, and I think we’re still at the begininng of research in this area. But I do know that since I’ve started consuming ferments regularly, my health has improved. I also feel so much more connected to my food sources and, not to be too much of a hippy, so much more appreciative of the symbiosis of life. For thousands of years, people were able to survive only because these bacteria preserved their vegetables, dairy and meat through the winter and made those foods more nutrient-rich in the process. It kind of messes with my head to think of a world where we are knowingly dependent on all levels of life for survival and well-being.

Also, home-fermented foods are delicious! So much tastier than anything you can buy at the store.

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I have more great information from Amanda about fermentation. Come back later this afternoon for part two of my interview where she talks about why we shouldn’t be afraid of bacteria and what its health benefits are.

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