Fermentation’s simple recipe: vegetables, water, salt and time

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    Fermented radish and cucumber salad (Photo courtesy of twice-cooked.com)

    Fermented radish and cucumber salad (Photo courtesy of twice-cooked.com)

    One of the oldest food preparation techniques known to man is back.

    At a recent Science on Tap event at National Mechanics restaurant in Philadelphia, scientists and interested participants gathered to hear Adam Zolkover, professor and food blogger, explain the biochemical event known as fermentation. And, a few beers were downed in the interest of experiencing the biochemical event that makes the beer they are enjoying … well … so enjoyable.

    “Fermentation,” explains Zolkover “is a process by which cells that don’t have access to have to oxygen, create energy for themselves, and the byproduct of that energy is in the case of some kinds of bacteria, lactic acid, and in the case of other kinds of bacteria, it’s alcohol and carbon dioxide.”

    Which begs the question, can you put this in layman’s terms?

    Zolkover says, “Basically what’s happening is that the little bacteria are eating and then we are eating those little bacteria’s waste.”

    Yep, you heard it on The Pulse. The deliciousness in wine, beer, bread, cheese … it’s essentially poop!

    “And it tastes great.” interjects Zolkover. “We select for certain kinds of microbes that are particularly advantageous to us. In the 18th century, fermentation was a key part of long sea voyages in the absence of refrigeration because you had to do something to stave off scurvy.”

    Zolkover adds, “Bread is a fermented product, beer and wine are both fermented products. Cheeses are fermented. Kefir, which is a hot health trend right now; kombucha, which is even hotter — all fermented products.”

    Kefir, a yogurt-like beverage, and Kombucha, a fermented tea, may be trendy today, but Zolkover notes there are references to fermentation 4,000 years ago in the Epic of Gilgamesh. And fermented products are enjoyed around the globe. So, how did man figure out that invisible living cells in the air would start this chemical reaction that preserves food and yields pleasures such as alcoholic beverages?

    Zolkover says, “Sometimes I think it is remarkable and sometimes I think it is an act of desperation that if you are hungry and it’s winter and there are two cabbages at the bottom of the barrel, you are going to eat those cabbages no matter whether they look like fresh nice cabbages or whether they look like, well, sauerkraut.”

    You would think that after all this time fermentation would have evolved some modernist technique, but from sauerkraut in Germany to Kimchee in Korea, it remains a simple formula: vegetables, water salt, and time. Chefs have embraced its new popularity and are using it to add flavor, texture and interest to their menus.

    Chef Eli Kulp at Fork and High Street on Market Street in Philadelphia has been using fermentation in his kitchen for over 10 years and said, “The process of it allows us as chefs to take something that might be very sort of pedestrian, and with a little bit of time, and a little bit of salt, and a little bit of patience we can get something that we can really uniquely use in our menu.”

    In his menu, as well as a regular series of fermentation dinners, he explores dishes from the common to the exotic. He notes, “We do a cream cheese that is a fermentation process, we make our own vinegars,um, we do sort of kimchee style fermentation and then we do things more advanced like a cashew cheese.”

    Kulp explains, “It’s also called rejuvelac. Rejuvelac is taking the water of a soaked grain that creates an enzymatic reaction with warm water and aging that like a cheese and what that does is it gives an acid savory flavor to the nuts.”

    Kulp sees no produce out of bounds and will ferment just about anything to see what happens. This trial and error often yields the perfect accent for a dish such as his parsley and scallops.

    “The scallops are naturally sweet, they are raw and creamy,” notes Kulp, “so this sorta like slight abrasiveness of the acidity and the texture of that partially broken down parsley goes nicely with it.”

    While Kulp uses both wild fermentation (microbes occurring naturally in the air ) as well as purchasing cultured starters he notes both are attributed with health qualities and fill our guts not only with deliciousness but also the good bacteria we need.

    Back at Science on Tap, Zolkover says wild fermentation with a seasoned brine is easy to do at home, much easier than pickling with vinegar. 

    “What I would suggest is not pickled cucumbers.  Pickled cucumbers have a tendency to go soft if you don’t watch them carefully,” said Zolkover. ” The best place to start is probably with white turnips. You just need a quart of water, two tablespoons of sea salt, you slice up the turnips you put them in a jar, add your flavoring you pour the brine over and leave it for about a week and that is probably the best place to start pickling.”

    So, next time you tuck into that wine and cheese or brewski with a burger and pickle, know that you have bio chemistry to thank!

    For more information and recipes, visit Adam Zolkover’s website. For information on what’s fermenting with Chef Eli Kulp, click here.

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