Set the Table with Cultured Foods
Written onFebruary 11 , 2015
Salty, sour, tangy, tart—I’m in love with the flavors of fermentation, and I celebrate this passion with most every meal that I bring to the table. Introducing bold-flavored ferments—from the spicy kick of kimchi to the sour tang of kefir and the refreshing effervescence of kombucha and beyond—into your culinary repertoire opens a new world of taste sensations. Fermentation becomes a happy compulsion.
Fermenting is a traditional way of preserving food common to every culture, from sauerkraut in central Europe to miso in Japan and pickles in the United States. In this process, bacteria and yeasts are allowed to feed on the nutrients in food, which creates lactic acid, a preservative, which in turn transforms the taste and sometimes the texture of the food. Through the magic of fermentation, cabbage becomes sauerkraut, milk becomes yogurt, tea becomes kombucha.
Fermenting is also a way of getting maximum nutrition from your food: You start with an already healthy food, and through the process of fermentation, beneficial bacteria are produced, imparting even more living qualities. Live cultured foods provide an unparalleled probiotic punch—miles above costly supplements—and ferments are beneficial not just for the digestion but for the whole mind-body system. Ferments can also function as antioxidants and immune boosters, and they can both increase the nutrition in a food and create new nutrients. (When shopping for ferments, look for the words “live,” “raw,” or “contains living cultures” on the label—anything that’s on the shelf is likely pasteurized and contains no living cultures.)
With the advent of the industrialized food system, much of live culture preservation was lost, but with a recent resurgence in the traditional foods movement and a strengthening farmers’ market culture, fermentation is experiencing a revival. We’re foregoing the pasteurized pickles and sauerkraut from a can, instead choosing live brands or making our own. We’re bringing new life to our diets, using probiotic-rich cultured foods as a tool in our recovery from the ravages of processed foods. We’re learning from the past and creating bold new traditions based on the transformation that is fermentation.
While many of us think of fermentation as a fall-centered practice—a way of putting up the bounty of the harvest to last through the winter—fermentation takes to any season, and here I offer two recipes from my recent book. One features first-of-spring baby turnips, the other mid-spring asparagus, to usher in a brand-new season of fermentation. You’ll know your vegetables are ready when they’re crisp-tender and tangy, like a good dill pickle.
Photos © Cultured Foods for Your Kitchen: 100 Recipes Featuring the Bold Flavors of Fermentation by Leda Scheintaub, Rizzoli New York, 2014