Don’t Waste Food – Ferment It
Ironically, even with all the technological advances, 30% of all food goes to waste yearly, while 30% of the global population is food insecure. While these numbers cannot fully put into perspective how we live in the best of times and the worst of times, one thing remains clear: there’s a growing need for every individual to address how and why they waste food. Thankfully, we just need to look back to a solution that has always been around in all cultures that we in modern society often take for granted- fermentation.
Fermenting food is a great way to reduce waste while extending the shelf life of your produce. It's also a way to add new flavors and textures to your meals. The fermentation process converts sugars in food into gasses, acids, or alcohol with the help of microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast. Let’s dive deep into how we can utilize fermentation to reduce food waste.
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation is a biological process involving the conversion of organic substances, typically carbohydrates, into simpler compounds by microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, or fungi. This transformation occurs without oxygen and is characterized by producing various byproducts, such as alcohol, acids, or gasses. You can harness this fundamental natural process for various purposes, including food preservation and beverage production.
Here's a more detailed breakdown of the fermentation process:
Microorganisms: Fermentation relies on the activity of microorganisms. Different types of microorganisms are used depending on the specific process and desired outcome. For example, yeast is commonly employed in the fermentation of sugars to produce alcohol, while lactic acid bacteria are used in fermenting vegetables and dairy products.
Substrate: The substance being fermented is called the substrate. This can be a wide range of organic materials, including sugars, starches, or organic acids. The microorganisms feed on these substrates as their energy source.
Anaerobic Conditions: Fermentation occurs in the absence of oxygen. Unlike aerobic respiration, which requires oxygen, fermentation is an anaerobic process. This is why it's often used in sealed containers or environments where oxygen is excluded.
Byproduct Formation: During fermentation, microorganisms metabolize the substrates, breaking them into simpler compounds. The key feature of fermentation is the production of various byproducts, which can include alcohol, lactic acid, acetic acid, carbon dioxide, or other organic compounds. These byproducts are responsible for the distinct flavors and preservation of fermented foods and beverages.
Applications: Fermentation is widely used in various applications. It's essential in producing bread, cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, and beer. Additionally, it's used to create biofuels, pharmaceuticals, and chemical processes.
How Can Fermentation Reduce Food Wastage?
One of the primary benefits of fermentation is that it acts as a natural preservative. The byproducts of fermentation, such as acids and alcohol, create an environment that inhibits the growth of spoilage microorganisms. This means that food items can be preserved for extended periods without refrigeration or other artificial means, reducing the likelihood of spoilage and waste.
Extending Shelf Life
Fermentation can significantly extend the shelf life of various foods. For example, fermentation can transform vegetables like cucumbers into pickles, allowing them to remain edible for months. Similarly, milk can be turned into yogurt or cheese, with a longer shelf life than fresh milk.
Utilizing Excess Produce
Fermentation offers an excellent way to salvage these items when you have excess fruits, vegetables, or dairy products nearing expiration dates. Rather than letting them go to waste, you can ferment them into a new and valuable product. This can be particularly useful for gardeners or small-scale farmers looking to make the most of their harvest.
Enhancing Nutritional Value
Fermentation not only preserves food but can also enhance its nutritional value. For instance, the fermentation of cabbage to make sauerkraut or kimchi introduces probiotics, which are beneficial for gut health. Similarly, fermented bread (sourdough) can be easier to digest for some individuals due to the breakdown of specific compounds during fermentation.
Transforming Unappealing Foods
Foods that may not be visually appealing or have an off-putting taste can be transformed through fermentation. This includes overripe fruits, wilted vegetables, or slightly sour milk. Fermentation can mask or alter these undesirable qualities, making the food palatable and delicious.
Reducing Consumer Waste
Fermented foods like yogurt and kefir are often sold in larger containers. This can encourage consumers to buy in bulk, reducing the packaging and waste associated with single-serving products.
Fermentation is an integral part of many culinary traditions around the world. It allows communities to use local and seasonal ingredients to preserve their culinary heritage and prevent food waste.
Factors to Consider When Fermenting Food
Cleanliness and Sanitation: Proper sanitation is paramount. Clean all equipment, containers, and utensils thoroughly to eliminate unwanted bacteria that could spoil the fermentation or make it unsafe. Sterilize items if necessary, especially when dealing with low-salt or no-salt fermentation.
Quality of Ingredients: Start with fresh, high-quality ingredients. The quality of your initial ingredients will directly impact the final product. For vegetables, use fresh produce, and for beverages like kombucha, ensure the tea and scoby are of good quality.
Water Quality: If water is a key ingredient in your recipe, be sure to use clean and safe water. Chlorinated tap water can inhibit fermentation, so consider using filtered or dechlorinated water when needed.
Temperature: The temperature at which you ferment is vital. Different microorganisms thrive at different temperatures. Research and follow specific temperature recommendations for your chosen fermentation process. For instance, many bread recipes require a warm environment, while some cheese-making requires cooler temperatures.
Salt and Sugar Levels: Fermentation often involves the addition of salt or sugar. These not only affect flavor but also serve as preservatives. Ensure you use the right proportions to balance taste and preservation.
Acidity Levels: For some fermentations, like pickles, it's essential to maintain the correct acidity level to prevent spoilage. Use vinegar or other acidifiers as necessary.
Fermentation Vessel: Choose an appropriate container for fermentation. It should be non-reactive, like glass, ceramic, or food-grade plastic. Ensure it has a tight-fitting lid or can be sealed to create an anaerobic (no oxygen) environment.
Airlock or Burping: Some ferments release gasses during the process. To avoid explosions or contamination, consider using an airlock or burping the container periodically to release built-up gas.
Microorganism Selection: Select the suitable strains of microorganisms for your fermentation. This could be specific yeast for bread or wine, lactic acid bacteria for sauerkraut, or koji spores for miso. Using the correct strains is crucial for success.
Time: Fermentation is a time-dependent process. Be patient and follow the recommended fermentation time. Under- or over-fermentation can affect the quality and safety of the product.
Hygiene: Ensure personal hygiene when handling fermenting food. Clean hands, utensils, and containers are essential to prevent contamination.
Recipe and Method: Follow a reliable recipe and method. Experimenting is encouraged, but having a sound understanding of the basics before you innovate is crucial.
Observation: Regularly monitor your fermentation. Look for signs of successful fermentation, such as bubbles, changes in texture or color, and the development of the desired flavors. Any unusual or off-putting smells or appearances may indicate a problem.
Safety: Be aware of the safety considerations for specific ferments. For example, in alcoholic fermentation, managing alcohol levels and preventing contamination are essential for safe consumption.
Storage: After fermentation, you need to store the product appropriately. This might involve refrigeration, canning, or other methods to prevent spoilage.
Types Of Food You Can Ferment to Prevent Wastage
Sauerkraut: Made by fermenting finely chopped cabbage with salt, sauerkraut is a traditional German dish. The fermentation process involves lactic acid bacteria, which preserve the cabbage and enhance its nutritional value.
Kimchi: This iconic Korean side dish consists of fermented vegetables, such as Korean radishes and Napa cabbage, flavored with ingredients like ginger, garlic, and chili peppers. Kimchi is rich in probiotics and has a unique spicy and tangy flavor.
Pickles: Cucumbers are the most common choice for pickling, but you can also pickle other vegetables like carrots, beets, and green beans. The cucumbers are typically brined with salt and spices and then left to ferment.
Yogurt: Made by fermenting milk with specific bacterial cultures, yogurt is known for its probiotic content, which can aid digestion while also boosting the immune system. It can be enjoyed plain or with various toppings.
Kefir: Kefir is a fermented milk product made with kefir grains, a mix of bacteria and yeast. It has a tangy, effervescent taste and is rich in probiotics.
Cheese: Cheese comes in countless varieties, all produced through the fermentation of milk with the help of specific bacterial cultures. The fermentation process imparts distinct flavors, textures, and characteristics to each type of cheese.
Bread and Grains
Sourdough Bread: Sourdough bread is made using a naturally fermented starter consisting of flour and water that captures wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria from the environment. This fermentation process gives the bread its signature tangy flavor and chewy texture.
Fermented Grains: In various cultures, grains like rice, corn, and barley are fermented to create unique dishes. For example, idli and dosa are South Indian dishes made from fermented rice and lentils, and injera is an Ethiopian sourdough flatbread made from teff flour.
Fermented Soy Products: Fermentation creates soy-based products like tofu, tempeh, and miso. Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk, while tempeh is made by fermenting cooked soybeans. Miso is a paste created by fermenting soybeans and other grains with salt and koji mold.
Fermented Fruit Preserves: Fruits like apples and grapes can be fermented to create preserves or chutneys. The sugars in the fruit get converted into acids, creating a unique and tangy flavor profile.
Fruit Kvass: This fermented beverage is made from fruit, water, and sugar. It has a slightly fizzy, tangy taste and can be flavored with various fruits.
Beer: Beer is produced by fermenting malted barley or other grains with yeast. The yeast cells consume the natural sugars in the grains, producing alcohol and carbonation.
Wine: Grapes are commonly fermented to produce wine. The type of grape, the fermentation process, and aging influence the final flavor and characteristics of the wine.
Kombucha: Kombucha is a fermented brew made by fermenting freshly brewed sweetened tea with a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). It's known for its probiotic content and slightly effervescent, tangy taste.
Getting Started With Food Fermentation
Getting started with fermentation is an exciting culinary adventure that can yield delicious and nutritious results. Remember that fermentation can be a trial-and-error process. It's normal for your first few attempts to have variations in flavor and texture. The more you practice, the better you'll fine-tune your ferments to suit your taste. Additionally, always prioritize safety by following proper sanitation and hygiene practices during fermentation. Here's a step-by-step guide to help you begin your fermentation journey:
Choose Your Ferment
Decide what you want to ferment. It could be vegetables, dairy, grains, or even beverages like kombucha. Start with something you enjoy and are excited to experiment with.
You don't need a lot of specialized equipment, but a few basics are helpful:
- Fermentation Container: Use a glass, ceramic, or food-grade plastic container. Ensure it has a tight-fitting lid or can be sealed to create an anaerobic environment.
- Weighing Scale: For precise measurements of ingredients.
- Knife and Cutting Board: For preparing your ingredients.
- Measuring Cups and Spoons: For precise measurements of salt, sugar, or other ingredients.
- Airlock (optional): It's useful for ferments that produce gasses, like sauerkraut.
Ensure you have high-quality ingredients. Fresh vegetables, quality milk, or grains are essential for a successful ferment.
Select a Recipe
Start with a well-established recipe from a trusted source, such as a cookbook or a reputable website. This will guide you through the process and ensure a successful outcome.
Clean all your equipment and utensils thoroughly to prevent unwanted microorganisms from contaminating your ferment. Sterilize items if required, especially for low-salt or no-salt fermentation.
Follow the recipe's instructions to prepare your ingredients. This might include chopping vegetables, heating milk, or crushing fruit. Be precise in your measurements.
Add Starter Culture (if needed)
Some ferments require a starter culture, like kefir grains, sourdough starter, or yogurt culture. Follow the recipe's guidelines for adding the culture.
Add Salt or Sugar
Depending on your recipe, you may need to add salt, sugar, or other seasonings. These not only flavor your ferment but also serve as preservatives.
Mix and Pack
Mix the ingredients thoroughly and pack them into your fermentation container. Press down to remove air bubbles and ensure the ingredients are submerged in their own liquid.
Seal the Container
Seal the container with a lid or airlock. If using a lid, you may need to "burp" it occasionally to release built-up gas.
Place the container in an appropriate location with the right temperature for the type of ferment you're making. The time required for fermentation can vary from a few days to several months, depending on the recipe.
Monitor and Taste
Regularly check your ferment. Look for signs of successful fermentation, such as bubbles, changes in texture or color, and the development of the desired flavors. Taste it to gauge its progress.
Once your ferment reaches the desired flavor and texture, you can move it to a storage container and store it in the refrigerator or another appropriate location.
Enjoy Your Ferment
Incorporate your homemade ferments into meals or snacks. Be creative and explore various ways to use them in your cooking.
Creative Uses For Ferments
Fermented foods are incredibly versatile, and you can use them in creative ways to enhance the flavors and nutritional value of your meals. These creative uses for ferments can take your meals to the next level by introducing complex flavors and beneficial probiotics. Don't be afraid to experiment and combine different ferments to discover new and exciting flavor combinations. Here are some creative uses for various ferments:
Fermented Vegetable Slaw: Create a vibrant and tangy slaw by mixing fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kimchi, or pickles with shredded fresh vegetables. This adds a zesty kick to your salads and sandwiches.
Fermented Salsa: Incorporate fermented tomatoes, onions, and peppers into your salsa recipe. The probiotics from the fermentation can add depth to the flavors.
Fermented Salad Dressing: Use the liquid from a jar of fermented vegetables or sauerkraut as a tangy and probiotic-rich base for homemade salad dressings.
Fermented Fruit Smoothies: Blend fermented fruits like apples or grapes into your morning smoothie for a unique twist on a classic breakfast staple.
Fermented Hot Sauce: Mix hot peppers with garlic and spices to create your signature hot sauce. The natural fermentation process adds complexity and heat to the flavor.
Fermented Condiments: Add fermented condiments like kimchi paste or miso to mayonnaise, mustard, or ketchup to elevate your burger and sandwich game.
Fermented Grain Porridge: Use fermented grains like oats or rice to create a comforting and probiotic-rich porridge. Top with fresh fruit and a drizzle of honey for extra flavor.
Fermented Cheese Platter: Arrange a cheese platter with various types of cheeses, some of which are naturally fermented, along with fermented pickles and sauerkraut. The combination of textures and flavors and textures is delightful.
Fermented Pancake or Waffle Batter: Incorporate sourdough starter or kefir into your pancake or waffle batter for a tangy twist on breakfast classics.
Fermented Ice Cream Topping: Top your favorite ice cream with fermented fruit preserves for a contrasting sweet and tangy experience.
Fermented Grain Bowl: Create a grain bowl with cooked fermented grains like barley or quinoa, and top with fermented vegetables, fresh herbs, and a drizzle of fermented soy sauce.
Fermented Beverage Mixer: Experiment with using kombucha or kefir as mixers for cocktails or mocktails. They can add depth and fizz to your drinks.
Fermented Meat Marinade: Marinate meats in fermented sauces like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or fish sauce to infuse them with unique flavors and tenderize the meat.
Fermented Grain Salad: Make a hearty grain salad using fermented grains, fresh vegetables, herbs, and a zesty vinaigrette made from fermented ingredients.
Fermented Desserts: Incorporate fermented ingredients into desserts, like adding yogurt or kefir to your baked goods or using fruit preserves as a filling for pastries.
Fermented Brine for Pickling: Save the brine from fermented pickles or kimchi to use as a starter for your next batch of pickles, adding layers of flavor to your preserved vegetables.
Fermenting food is a sustainable way to reduce food wastage, especially when dealing with seasonal foods. Unlike most preservation techniques that tend to degrade the quality of the food over time, fermentation transforms fresh produce into flavorful alternatives while also adding healthy probiotics to the food. If you are looking to get into fermentation, you should consider investing in a fermentation kit.
By Susan Grey
Written November 2023