Have you ever considered fermentation to preserve food or create healthy bacteria? The method is healthy, sustainable and safe if done properly, and you can learn how to do it at home.
Greenville, South Carolina, is known for an innovative and developing food scene full of locally owned, chef-driven cuisine. Chef David Porras is an example of that talent popping up in the fast-growing city. His kitchen looks like an alchemist’s workroom, jars and tubs of experimental pickling, emulsions and infusions dotting the counter. “I was always interested in learning about fermentation. Fermentation is a flavor—you can use it for cooking just like lime or lemon juice,” he said.
Chef Porras operates the hyper-local Oak Hill Café and Farm, a 2020 James Beard semi-finalist for Best New Restaurant and a new cafe concept housed in Greenville’s ultra-sustainable laundry solution, the Green Laundry Lounge. The menu reflects his farm-to-table approach. His focus on using every available part of his ingredients is key to his business. He explained, “We try to be zero waste by applying fermentation techniques as well as drying, infusion, teas, powders and compost tea.”
Porras’ interest in fermentation has led to real results. Oak Hill Café, as a combination of farm and restaurant, is devoted to environmental stewardship. Using permaculture, the acreage is naturally kept at peak fertility to grow healthy produce for the menu. As with any restaurant, waste is always a concern. Porras and his team found that they’d been able to reduce around 50% of their food waste through fermentation methods, depending on their techniques.
Porras’ restaurants serve familiar items like pickles or sauerkraut but expose diners to less-common tastes and combinations as well. Fermentation plays a part in the creation of Oak Hill’s togarashi, the peppery, citrus spice lending a deep umami note to dishes. Lacto-fermented fruit and juice infuse vinaigrettes and cocktails on the menu. The restaurant serves carrot kimchi, lacto-fermented squash and pickled vegetables incorporating normally unused parts and pieces like stems and leaves.
The chef suggested home cooks get in on the action to reduce their own wasted fruits and vegetables. “Just try it, and you’ll be surprised how awesome it is to make your own fermentation,” he advised.
“Sauerkraut is just salt plus the ingredient of choice, which can be shredded cabbage, mushrooms or anything you want to experiment with,” the chef suggests. While this popular fermented food may be super easy to make, there are a few tips to make the best kraut possible. Starting with fresh ingredients is key. You can still make fermented food with a less-than-fresh selection, but freshness maximizes flavor and nutrition. It is safest to ferment in the first 24 hours after harvest.
You’ll also want to pay attention to your salt, which stops bad bacteria and fungus growth. Sea salt is a great option, but you’ll want to avoid iodized salt since iodine can inhibit the growth of good bacteria.
Don’t be afraid to get creative with unusual combinations—you can make plenty of additions to a basic cabbage recipe. Try adding beets for a beautiful color or using spices to change up your sauerkraut depending on the season. Whatever recipe you followed, make sure you cover the vegetables thoroughly with the brine mixture.
There are three main ways to make a fermentation. Lactic acid fermentation is the method used for sauerkraut. It’s also behind umeboshi, yogurt and kimchi. Lactic acid bacteria are found naturally on decomposing plants, on the skins of vegetables and in dairy foods. These salt-tolerant bacteria, when presented with the right circumstances, eat simple carbohydrates, turning sweet flavors into sour ones in the process. This flavor change is the result of the fermentation process, which yields lactic acid molecules.
The other process of fermentation is really two types in one. The first round, ethanol or alcoholic fermentation, allows yeast to turn the sugar in the brew into alcohol, yielding beer, bread or wine. Step two uses the alcoholic brew plus oxygen and a particular type of bacteria to change to vinegar.
Porras cautions, “Folks need to be careful to avoid harmful bacteria. Everything needs to be sterilized to prevent its growth.”
It’s important to ferment in proper food-safe containers that have been washed with hot water. Proper storage practices are also key. The USDA via the University of Missouri Extension has created a list of tips for safety.
There is emerging scientific evidence that a healthy microbiome can have numerous health benefits. Stanford scientists have found that a diet high in fermented foods can promote “microbiome diversity and [improve] immune responses.” Other researchers have been investigating the link between the gut and the brain, and it turns out that good gut health is associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety.
For those who want to cut back on food waste, experiment in the kitchen and eat more healthy foods, fermenting is a great place to start. Of course, if you happen to be in Greenville, you can always take a trip to Oak Hill Café.