Fermenting 101: Everything You Need to Know About Pickling, Fermenting and Brewing Your Own Food


While it is now the trendiest of trends, fermentation used to be a way to preserve food and drinks long before refrigerators and freezers were the twinkle of an idea in somebody’s eye.

Nowadays, there’s fermentation everywhere. Kimchi is one of this year’s hottest foods, booch is booming (that’s kombucha, if you’re not yet down with the fermentation slang…) and fermented hot sauces are all the rage.

 

So, why is fermentation so popular?

Well, quite simply, because it’s awesome.

It’s fascinating. It’s fun to do. And, best of all, it produces some incredible flavours!

Let’s start with the science-y stuff.

Did you know that during fermentation, a little army of microorganisms (bacteria, yeast and sometimes fungi) get busy converting sugars and starch into natural preservatives like alcohol or acids?

This process preserves them, but also changes the flavour too, giving it tangy, strong and slightly sour flavours. Things like beer, yoghurt, sauerkraut, sourdough, pickles, kombucha and vinegar all get their distinctive flavours from different kinds of fermentation.

 

Hold on, what was that? Different kinds of fermentation?

Oh yeah. There are three types of fermentation:

Lactic acid fermentation: this is when yeasts and bacteria convert the sugars in your food or liquid into lactic acid, a natural preservative. This is the most common form of fermentation and can be used for everything from pickles to kimchi.

Ethyl alcohol fermentation; this is where the molecules in starches or sugars are broken down by yeasts into alcohol and carbon dioxide molecules to produce things like wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages.

Acetic acid fermentation: this is where starches and sugars from grains and fruit ferment into sour versions of themselves, much like apple cider vinegar.

 

You still with us?

Good.

There’s one last bit of science-y stuff to go over, then we can move onto some of our favourite recipes, tricks and tips!

Did you know that fermenting the sugars in food and drink can enhance the natural, beneficial probiotics (the bacteria that’s good for you) which are thought to help with digestive health and mental health?

A growing body of research shows that your gut and brain are linked, through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Sometimes called the enteric nervous system (told you we were going to bust out the science), the gut is full of neurons that can have an effect on our emotions and feelings.

In fact, serotonin – the neurotransmitter that makes us feel happy – is produced in the gut and there’s a lot of research to suggest that a healthy gut can also lead to better mental health. (For more information, see the work by The Human Microbiome Project.)

 

In other words, there’s a reason our guts are often called our second brain: the bacteria that live in there are crazy important.

Not only do they aid digestion and the absorption of nutrients into our bodies, but they play a HUGE role in the health of our immune system.

But there are also bad bacteria in our guts too. These bacteria feed on refined sugars and stress, which can lead to bloating and other gastrointestinal issues.

A healthy gut is all about balance. Eliminating some of the refined high sugar foods in your diet and including some fermented foods is thought by scientists to help restore the gut back into balance give your immune system a helping hand keeping you happy and healthy.

 

Right, let’s get down to the fun part now: fermenting some food.

Before we get into the ingredients and recipes, let’s talk equipment. If you’re thinking about fermenting, then you only need a few bits of equipment to get started.

You’ve probably even got a few of them around the house already:

  • A jar with a lid (Kilner jars are perfect for fermenting, but you can just use old food jars as long as they’ve been thoroughly washed)
  • Salt

That’s literally it. Fermenting is an incredibly accessible hobby. You just need some food, water and salt to get started.

Of course, if you catch the fermenting bug, you’ll probably want to buy lots more. (This kit from Amazon is really good!) But you can get by with just these two basic bits of equipment.

 

Our Top Three Fermentation Tips:

Use filtered water

Using pure water rather than water from a tap is vital when you’re fermenting. If there are any chemical in your water, like chlorine, it can cause your ferment to go all funky and horrible.

 

Use pure sea salt too

Pure sea salt doesn’t contain any additives is another important step. Additives like iodine can kill the little team of microorganisms that are at work making your food super tasty.

 

Don’t forget to burp your ferments!

This one comes from experience. If you’re not using a valve like this one on your fermentation jar, remember to burp your ferment every day or two. Just a quick open and close of the lid to let the carbon dioxide out will do, but otherwise, it goes BOOM and you end up in a bit of a pickle!

 

And now, the main event: our favourite fermentation recipes to get started with!

Now, when it comes to recipes, there’s almost no limit to the things you can ferment. Cucumbers? Yep. Fruit? Yep. Grasshoppers? Erm, yep. (We’ve recently been reading The Noma Guide to Fermentation: Including Koji, Kombuchas, Shoyus, Misos, Vinegars, Garums, Lacto-ferments, and Black Fruits and Vegetables by the team at Noma and there’s a recipe for fermented grasshopper garum in there. Still working up the courage for that one…)

We’re big fans of using fermentation to make the most of our leftover produce from our gardens, so here are 3 fermented recipes that you can make with your leftover Plantables products.

 

Fermented Hot Sauce 

We could give you our “secret recipe” for fermented hot sauce, but we love Brad Leone’s sauce from Bon Appetit’s It’s Alive YouTube series (which is all about fermentation and is awesome) so we thought we’d leave this one to The Man himself:

You can use any of the chillis from the Hot Chilli Pepper pack in here to add more punch and zing!

 

Mini Pickles

Again, it’s much easier to pick up on the nuances of fermentation watching a video, and we love Bill’s recipe for dill pickles.

(We use our mini cukes to make these and they are FANTASTIC.)

 

Tasty, healthy kombucha (AKA booch)

Booooooooch! Kombucha is very trendy and hip right now — and for good reason. It’s really good for you, it tastes great (although, it is an acquired taste, to be fair) and it’s a great alternative to alcohol if you’re trying to cut back.

Here’s a fantastic video on why booch is so awesome and how to make it from Irish twins The Happy Pear. (There are tonnes of videos on kombucha on YouTube that are all great — your boy Brad from It’s Alive has a great one too — but we like this one because it’s ever-so-slightly surreal to see two identical twins make kombucha…)

Once you’ve nailed the booch basics, you might even want to pimp it out with some of herbal tea plants to take it to the next level! 

And there you have it! A quick guide to getting started with brewing, fermenting and playing around with microbes: you can now be the coolest kid on the block with the healthiest gut! 

(And don’t forget to let us know if you try those fermented grasshoppers! You’re braver than us!)

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