Fermentation has been part of human culinary history for more than 10,000 years, but a new wave of home cooks, artisan food producers and restaurateurs are bringing this traditional form of food preservation into the spotlight.

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Does the thought of leaving food sitting on your counter to be overrun by bacteria disgust you — or make you happy? If you said “happy,” then odds are you’re a home fermenter. Fermentation has been part of human culinary history for more than 10,000 years, but a new wave of home cooks, artisan food producers and restaurateurs are bringing this traditional form of food preservation into the spotlight.

In simple terms, fermentation is the use of beneficial bacteria and yeast to preserve food and beverages. In more technical terms, the bacteria and yeasts convert sugars and other carbohydrates to acids, gases or alcohol under anaerobic (oxygen-free) conditions.

Fermentation harnesses the power of these microbes to transform food from one form to another, preserving it and often turning it into something more delicious.

Examples of fermented foods include making alcohol from fruits or grains, vinegar from alcohol, kombucha from tea and sugar, kimchi from assorted vegetables, tempeh or miso from soybeans, yogurt or kefir from milk, pickles from cucumbers, and sauerkraut from cabbage. Cheese, olives and sourdough bread are other common fermented foods.

Virtually any raw vegetable can be safely fermented at home when done properly — and that includes using good personal and kitchen hygiene.

Fermentation and health

In modern times, we have many ways to preserve foods, including freezing, refrigeration and canning. Why would we want to ferment? Microbes. Our guts, and the rest of our body, are teeming with bacteria and other microbes, some beneficial, some not.

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This population of microbes, also known as our microbiome, can influence our health for better or for worse (more on this in next week’s column).

Properly fermented foods are teeming with beneficial, health-promoting microbes. When we regularly eat these probiotic foods, they may help maintain or improve the population of good microbes in our guts.

Fermented vegetables may be more digestible than raw vegetables because bacteria have already digested many of the sugars and carbohydrates. Some people with lactose intolerance can enjoy quality yogurt and kefir symptom-free because the beneficial bacteria have predigested much of the lactose.

Not all fermentation is intended to preserve food. Sometimes it’s simply a way to enhance flavor or nutritional value. Because some microbes produce vitamins as they digest sugars and carbohydrates, fermented foods may offer more nutrition than their nonfermented counterparts.

Planning your first ferment

Home fermentation may be right up your alley if you geek out over the science of cooking, if you are an experienced home canner who wants to branch out, or if you enjoy partaking of high-quality fermented foods but don’t enjoy the impact on your wallet.

Simple ferments, such as sauerkraut or fermented pickles, are easy as pie (easier, actually), but if you are a fledgling fermenter you’ll benefit from some expert guidance. Starting your first batch of kraut is basic, but interpreting your results is more nuanced.

Taking a class or adding a few fermentation books to your personal library can help you troubleshoot so you can tell the difference between what’s normal and what’s not. This can prevent the needless tossing of a perfectly good ferment because you see a bit of mold.

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There are a number of options for fermentation classes in Seattle. Hot Stove Society, Seattle Tilth and PCC Natural Markets have all offered fermentation classes. In Ballard, Firefly Kitchens is offering a “Fermentation 101” workshop in January, and The Pantry’s upcoming fermentation classes are selling out.

On the book front, the James Beard Award-winning “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Katz is my fermentation Bible. It includes everything you want to know the about the seemingly endless list of foods that can be fermented — and more.

I also benefited benefitted from “Fermented Vegetables” by Oregon “fermentistas” Kirsten and Christopher Shockey. They include lots of recipes, a good resource list and a helpful gallery of “scum” photos.

You can buy special crocks for fermenting vegetables, but quart-sized, wide-mouth Mason jars offer the benefit of being inexpensive and clear so you can see what’s going on inside (just keep them out of direct sunlight). They also allow you to do a small batch, which is nice when you are just starting out or want to make fermented pickles in the summer from your backyard cucumbers, which don’t all ripen at once.

If you would feel better with some training wheels, I recommend using an airlock pickling cap such as Primal Kitchen’s Kraut Kaps, which are available on Amazon. The caps allow for the release of carbon-dioxide gas while keeping out the oxygen that most molds and bad bacteria need to survive.

A sauerkraut overview

The books I mentioned have instructions for making sauerkraut — among many other things. But if you need immediate gratification, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has online instructions for fermented kraut and pickles online. To show you how simple the process is, here’s an outline:

  1. Remove the outer leaves from a head of cabbage, rinse and set aside.
  2. Rinse the outside of the remaining head. Cut into quarters, remove the core, then thinly slice and place it in a bowl.
  3. Add salt to the bowl and mix well with your hands, massaging and squeezing the cabbage to release enough water to make brine.
  4. When liquid pools in the bottom of the bowl (there may be foam as well), put handfuls of the cabbage in your jar, packing them down with your fist to remove air pockets. Continue until you are out of cabbage or you reach the “shoulders” of the jar. Pour in more brine from the bowl.
  5. Place a piece of the reserved cabbage leaf on top, then add a weight, such as Primal Kitchen’s Crock Rocks, to keep the shreds submerged.