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Fermenting is an easy but nutritious way to preserve foods to enjoy out of season. Learn what it is and how to do it.

BY RSVP March 11,2020

With the fermentation craze growing fast, by now perhaps you’ve seen kombucha or kefir - but what actually are fermented foods and what does the science say?

What is fermentation?

Fermented foods have been altered by the action of ‘friendly’ bacteria and/or yeasts, usually with a little help from us. Wild fermentation occurs when we let the bacteria that are naturally present on vegetables do the work. Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) feed on the nutrient source and in the process create lactic acid, which acts as a preservative. Meanwhile, they produce a host of vitamins, minerals, and bioactive compounds, and manage to be delicious, too.

This process preserves them, but also changes the flavour too, giving it tangy, strong and slightly sour flavours. Things like beer, yoghurt, sauerkraut, sourdough, pickles, kombucha and vinegar all get their distinctive flavours from different kinds of fermentation.

In many countries, people have a long tradition of using vinegar and sugar to preserve fruit as jams, relishes, and chutneys. In Eastern European and Asian cultures, they have been fermenting vegetables a few centuries ago.

“Fermentation is a wondrous form of not only creative expression but also a life long skill," said Tash, the co-founder of AvantGardenLife. "It shows us how beautiful transformation can be, to be patient and to care for the food and drinks we ingest, connecting us on a deeper level to nature."

How to get started

Despite the rumours, fermenting is surprisingly little effort – once you’ve prepared it, you just leave it and allow the microbes to do all the hard work. You can later return to a dish that’s transformed and ready to serve. Some fermented foods (such as kimchi or sauerkraut) do require more love and care, but there are plenty of time-efficient options, including kefir and yoghurt.

1. Find organic produce.

Non-organic produce is sprayed with pesticides, and the good bacteria is killed off before it even makes it onto the shelf. Bonus points for local, seasonal, farmers market produce. Look for heartier veggies like cabbage, carrots, beets, and celery that will maintain their crunch after the fermentation process.

2. Find a vessel.

Try to find jars of varying sizes. Wash your jars with water and soap and set them aside to air dry. If you're worried about the cleanliness of your jars, feel free to rinse them with an apple cider vinegar and water solution.

3. Find a trusty bacterial starter.

Try to find a friend with a good starter, but you can also procure a powdered starter online or at a health food store. Another option is to sign up for a workshop (AvantGarden has a list of workshops).

4. Stuff the jars with veggies, seasoning, starter, and cover with filtered water.

The process of your bacterial starter fermenting the veggies takes about a week or two depending on how intense you want the flavour to be. Store ferments in a dark, cool place to prevent the bacteria from working at hyperspeed and causing an effervescent explosion. Another important tip is to only open fresh jars of ferments carefully over the sink to prevent an unwanted bacterial shower. After you achieve your desired puckering taste, move your ferments into the fridge, where they will last about eight months.

Two final notes:

1) One of our favorite fermentation shows is "It's Alive!" by Bon Appetit. Watch some of their videos here.

2) Restaurant Noma has compiled a book about fermentation. Get it here.