I have recently been browsing a wonderful book called The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes From Around the World, by Sandor Ellix Katz. It is a beautifully written book, and Katz’s expertise and passion for the subject are easy to see. One of the things I like about it is the relaxed, exploratory attitude he has towards the subject– for example there are no exact recipes, but rather general descriptions of the processes, with lots of detailed explanations and many possible variations. It is the “art” of fermentation, not the science, and it reflects the amazing variety of fermented foods around the world.
What is fermentation? Katz describes it as “The transformation of food by various bacteria, fungi, and the enzymes they produce.” Some of the most recognizable ones in the US are alchohol, vinegar, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, certain cheeses, and salami. One of the primary functions of fermentation is to preserve foods, and another is to increase health benefits.
Fermented foods have been highly valued in traditional cuisines throughout history and in every culture. Fermented foods that still have live bacteria are known as probiotics, and they are very important for our digestive health, immune function, and more. The importance of our microbiomes (the friendly bacteria that live on and in us) is a huge area of research right now, and we are only beginning to understand how very important they are. One amazing fact is that the bacteria cells living in our body outnumber our own cells about 10 to 1. (The bacterial cells are much smaller.)
The health benefits don’t only come from probiotic content, however. The fermentation of foods is essentially their “pre-digestion” by bacteria and fungi. As Katz explains, this breaks down compounds to make them easier for us to digest, and makes minerals and nutrients more available to our bodies. Fermentation can also break down substances that would otherwise be toxic. It can also actually increase the nutrients in foods; for example, it can increase levels of B vitamins and create helpful enzymes and other compounds. Continue reading