The off-season brings a time to reflect and take a breather, as I wrote about in a recent column. However, I also always find it to be a good time to try something different, to take on a new project or challenge that I may not normally have time for in between laps on the mountain and live music festivals — quintessential activities that fill the busy months in a mountain town.
Usually, each year, I try to learn something new on the computer or I take some kind of alternate workout class. But this time around, I’ve decided to try something even more … well, different. I’m attempting to ferment foods and drinks.
My motivation to try this process was sparked on a sailboat last May in the Bahamas. My boyfriend and I went to a small island with another couple and ended up meeting a woman who lives on a boat, traveling the Caribbean and beyond. She invited us on board one day for lunch, showing us some of her cooking techniques for her constant on-the-go lifestyle. She worked very hard to eat healthy due to some health problems she had experienced over the years. In her kitchen, she made kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and even a tasty honey wine. She made all of these through a fermentation process because it was a healthy option, and it was a relatively easy way to keep things fresh when she was at sea for days or weeks at a time. Our group was inspired by her creativity and steadfast approach to healthy eating. We ate everything she served us, while contemplating new goals of our own.
Seeing our keen interest in her food making and storing processes, she suggested we purchase the book “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz. First published in 2003, this is essentially a textbook on the process of preserving foods, however, the author also talks about his own journey. He says that learning how to eat healthy and fermented foods changed his life for the better. He dives in deep about the process of fermenting and the science behind it, and also provides many recipes for readers to try.
Now, I’ve always been slightly familiar with the idea of fermentation. But, when it comes to things like sauerkraut or kimchi, I’ve typically felt ambivalent, at best. The foods always taste too bitter and, frankly, like there’s something horribly wrong with them. So, when we decided to get the book that our sailboat friend suggested, I steered clear of the food recipes and went straight for the Ethiopian honey wine. My friend and I both tried out the recipe in the book. Over four to five weeks, we turned honey, water and a few chunks of fruit into a tasty alcoholic beverage. The seamless transition from honey water to wine amazed me. Now, despite my lingering hesitation about sauerkraut and kimchi, I’m ready to try this process with the food I eat.
The act of fermenting is one that really is as old as humans. Some of the things we enjoy most today are fermented, such as wine, cheese, yogurt and pickles, to name a few. There’s a great deal of science behind fermentation, and I’ve never been particularly good at that topic. But, essentially, fermentation is the process of converting foods to alcohol or organic acids by using microorganisms, like yeast and bacteria. What seems important to understand from this definition is that the things we are fermenting have live microorganisms in them. Katz, the author of “Wild Fermentation,” says we are “…creating conditions in which naturally occurring wild organisms thrive and proliferate.” The idea of something live in our food may seem alarming, but Katz argues that these microorganisms are what keep us healthy.
Along with making foods and drinks more stable for storage, fermenting something can also make it more digestible and nutritious. In fact, some of the foods act as a natural probiotic, which improves digestion. Katz also says these foods improve immune function and overall health.
Fermented foods aren’t always easy to find at a grocery store. Most are pasteurized or heat treated to extend their shelf life. This, unfortunately, kills all of the microorganisms, which are what make the difference in these products. Because of this, it seems like the best way to try fermented foods is the DIY approach. Katz makes it easy with the recipes in his book, which can be created in just about any kitchen with a limited amount of supplies.
Although this fermentation game is still incredibly new to me, I’ve made it my goal this off-season to try at least four recipes from Katz’s book. Yes, that may be overly ambitious, but the items on my list are his Alaskan frontier sourdough hot cakes, miso soup, sweet and spicy glazed tempeh, and kombucha soda. Wish me luck. I’m going to need it!
Barbara Platts is diving in deep with this fermentation thing. Though she’s still not sure she will ever become a regular sauerkraut eater, only time will tell. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter