Fermentation! What is it? And You Can Too!

Originally, this was going to be a post about brewing beer. It probably would have contained a not-especially-informative description of the 4 key components of beer – water, barley malt, hops, and yeast – it probably would have mentioned that beer was discovered in Mesopotamia, and that there is some evidence that growing the grains used to brew beer was the impetus for agricultural society. This information is all well and good, but it can be found elsewhere. The equipment and ingredients needed for the average person to brew beer have become harder to obtain, and there’s no reason not to apply the same fundamental mechanic behind beer brewing to more commonly found ingredients during this extended stay indoors. Let’s talk about fermentation at large!

In its original form, this post would definitely have discussed fermentation. It would have been framed as ‘the process by which yeast breaks down carbohydrates from barley malt into CO2 and alcohol’. However, this process can be positioned more generally. Wikipedia is helpful here:

“In the context of food production, [fermentation] may more broadly refer to any process in which the activity of microorganisms brings about a desirable change to a foodstuff or beverage.[1]

So, using microorganisms (such as yeast, bacteria, and mold) to bring about a ‘desirable change’ in foodstuffs. Personally, I would define any kind of cooking as ‘bringing about a desirable change in foodstuffs’. As such, fermentation is just cooking with microorganisms! This is more common than one may realize. A hypothetical list of fermented foods, in addition to beer and wine, would include:

Yeasted/sourdough bread

Yogurt

Pickles

Cheese

Chocolate

Saurkraut

Salami

Hot sauce

Soy sauce

Tofu

Kombucha

Kimchi

Etc., etc., and on, and on, and on. Many fermented foods are associated with tradition and culture, and many of these foods also remain safe to consume for a long time. This is not a coincidence, as fermentation was one of the first methods of food preservation and sanitation, and many cultures have attached significance to the fermented dishes that allowed them to grow and thrive in the times before refrigeration.

Fermentation is having a bit of a moment right now. Artisan pickles, cheeses, hot sauces, kombucha, and kimchee are all the rage. Sourdough bread, whether home-baked or from a boutique boulangerie, is everywhere. If there is a sourdough starter in the fridge or on the counter, fermentation is happening. Hell, if there’s orange juice that has been sitting around a little too long in the fridge and it makes a hiss or pop when it’s opened, fermentation is happening. Since many of us are cooped up inside with extra time on our hands, now is a great time to play around with this all-natural cooking method. Let’s dive in!

Making fermented foods on purpose is largely a hands-off affair. We’re basically only interested setting up a hospitable environment for microbes, then letting them do the work. Some rules of thumb are to thoroughly clean whatever vessel you’ll use to ferment, and to try to keep it airtight and at a proper temperature. The microbes will do the rest. This is the same essential process for brewing beer as it is for making sauerkraut or yogurt.

So, as a newly-minted fermentation expert, where to start? One of the easiest first fermentation projects is brewing some hard cider. Store bought apple juice or “cider” can be used in conjunction with packaged dry yeast, as long as there are no preservatives other than ascorbic acid (aka Vitamin C) on the ingredients list. Specially bred brewing yeast for hard cider can be ordered online, and regular baking yeast will work in a pinch. Farm-fresh unpasteurized pressed juice will ferment spontaneously from wild yeast already in the air. You can even use that sourdough starter to get the process going. Hard cider is fairly difficult to screw up, and the flavor can be adjusted with spices, other fruits, even hops commonly used for beer brewing. The time frame for a 3-5 gallon batch of hard cider is about 2 weeks, but the longer the cider ferments, the dryer (and more alcoholic) it will become. Taste your batch periodically and store it in a cool place once it’s to your taste preference to shut down the active fermentation process. Fermentation is what turns that anodyne apple juice into a tasty alcoholic beverage, and it can transform other foods as well. Jump on that Bon Appetit Youtube train and watch “It’s Alive” with Brad Leone for inspiration, if not necessarily recipes, and have fun! A microscopic world of flavor is at your fingertips.

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12 Comments

  1. Awesome post! I’ve been brewing beer for about 20 years but really ramped up the last 5 or so. I’m lucky enough to live near a homebrew store that is considered essential busines so I can continue brewing during the pandemic. My first quarantine brew I call “Stir Crazy” just finished getting to proper carbonation on Friday. I hope it makes it long enough to share though I’m thinking of delivering crowlers to my beer club friends.

    • Thanks! My homebrewing amped up after my girlfriend got into it too. We won 2nd place in a competition and she decided to go all in. We built a 4 tap draft system and she learned how to do kettle sours. She’s got our first batch of hard seltzer brewing right now!

      • That’s awesome. Did you win with a sour? I mostly brew ipa’s and hop forward beers, grow hops and visit hop farms each year to get info on the newest hops. Last year I got a Grainfather setup to make it easier to brew alone and control exact temperatures in all parts of the brewing cycle (as well as a brite tank). I only have a 2 tap kegerator but that is more than enough most of the time & can serve from the brite tank.

        • The competition was an “apples to apples” cider competition. The entry fee bought 5 gallons of unpasteurized pressed juice from a local orchard that you had to bring back ~6 weeks later for the tasting. There were no restrictions on what you could do with the juice. We briefly boiled it to kill the wild yeast, then fermented with Safcider to ~5% ABV to keep some residual sweetness and character from the juice, then dry hopped with 1oz Citra and added a few drops of Amoretti Lingonberry extract. It was quite tasty!

  2. And don’t forget, you can tell the so called experts to bite you.

    You’ll get people who tell you that you must use distilled water and sea salt and unwashed produce to make pickles, which is nonsense. Grandma used store bought veggies and chlorinated tap water and iodized salt and made great pickles.

    Beer snobs will load you down with official rules about what counts as a lager, but real historians like Ron Pattinson
    ( http://barclayperkins.blogspot.com )
    and microbiologists will tell you that the snobs are full of it.

    Play around, see what works, do what you like and don’t stress about it.

    • “Grandma used store bought veggies and chlorinated tap water and iodized salt and made great pickles.”

      This one made me giggle, because where I grew up (rural MN), our moms and grandmas got “the fancy salt” for pickling…
      Morton’s Kosher Salt😉

      Iodized was for everyday, but the kosher stuff was fancy/special, and the stuff *everyone* bought once a year for doing their pickling🤣

  3. My next door neighbor is retired and has gotten into making all sorts of kimchee and has started on sour dough. He’s like this 68 yr. old dude who loves to go to the Asian grocery stores and talk to everyone. Everyone loves him.
    Mr. McGee used to hang gallons of cider out his dorm room window and make hard cider in Wisconsin. Cheaper than beer, I guess.

  4. One of my favorite things to ferment is wine into vinegar for cooking/making tasty salad dressings.

    Depending on the wine, I pretty frequently save back at least *some* to turn over. Last night’s was Summer Blush, from Forestedge Winery, up north;

    Summer Blush

    I plan on using the vinegar from the wine, to make some poppyseed dressing, and then we’ll have it on some salads with Amsblu/Amagorg, berries, red onion, and whatever greens we can get later on😉

    Otherwise, I don’t do as much fermenting as I do… basically Tinctures;

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tincture

    I grew up calling them “Cordials,” because that’s what my grandma called them, but they’re never boiled, or a multi-step process, where you add water like most cordials are. The process i use is a LOT simpler** & only involves filtration (afterwards)–no distillation, and so far, never any cooking.

    For anyone wondering, Amablu and Amagorg are cheeses made down in the caves in Faribault. Lots of stores around here carry them, so it’s pretty easy to get, and it has a LOT more flavor than the similarly priced and cheaper blue cheeses around here;
    http://www.faribaultdairy.com/about/

    (**soak fruit & sugar in 80 proof vodka/gin, until the fruit is desiccated & gives up all its juices, then strain & bottle)

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