Fermentation Nation

Food & Beverage

A special post from Dale Dougherty:

Most of the time when we think of fermentation, we think of the process that produces alcohol in beer or wine. I was making beer yesterday, producing a dark liquid from steeping grains. At the end, I added yeast which will convert those sugars to alcohol over the course of a few days. In a week or so, I’ll have a nice porter. I’ve also been making cheese, which also ferments. After I’ve added culture to milk (goat or cow), the curds form and separate from the whey, and then I can mold and dry the cheese, as I’m about to do in the photo below. I was making soft cheeses, either sprinkling salt on the cheese or soaking a cheese such as feta in brine.


This summer, I made a variety of pickles but my favorite ones were the simplest, adding salt to water, and letting the pickling cukes sit in this solution for a week or so. These were deliciously sour pickles that remain reasonably crunchy, and they were better than canned pickles which relied on vinegar. This is an example of lacto-fermentation.

Mark Frauenfelder, Make’s Editor-in-Chief, writes on BoingBoing about something that’s on my list to try soon — making sauerkraut. It’s essentially pickling cabbage using lacto-fermentation. Mark uses a red cabbage, which is quite colorful. I used the same kind of stoneware container for making pickles. sauerkraut

Now, I grew up in a household that had sauerkraut on the stove and I have to tell you that when I entered the room and smelled it, I did an immediate about-face. Because I couldn’t stand the smell, I couldn’t go so far as tasting it. However, this new “fresh” sauerkraut is not the same; it’s not like the stuff that came out of cans. This fermented sauerkraut tastes better and it’s supposedly even better for you.

What’s amazing to me is how much these natural processes have in common. (And like most biological processes they take time.) I would never have thought I’d see connections in making beer, cheese, pickles or sauerkraut. But they could all be chapters of the same book. While the finished products are familiar to us, the processes of making them are not. Essentially, these are means of preserving food that comes in season and creating something that lasts much longer. One can imagine that in the days before refrigeration knowing how to generate products from milk, grain or vegetables was a necessary art. Some of the art came from observing how food goes bad and learning how to control that process, adding sugar or salt as a preservative, or converting sugars into alcohol. These arts are refined by nearly every culture, and experimenting with subtle but different variations is also part of the fun.

There are probably more home brewers and cheese makers today than there ever were. Most of them are hobbyists, but there’s also a re-emergence of artisanal foods based on the re-discovery of these arts. For me, I enjoy these products, which are good to share with friends, but controlling these natural processes is a satisfying learning process in itself.

10 thoughts on “Fermentation Nation

  1. BG says:

    I subscribe to both MAKE and CRAFT online blog updates, and it is REALLY annoying when both of you double post each other’s stuff. I open up the link expecting to see something new and fresh, and I find I’ve seen it first on CRAFT/MAKE. It seems like you don’t have enough material on your hands sometimes.
    If I want to look at stuff on MAKE, I want to see technical stuff with wires. Not how to make doillies.
    If I want to look at stuff on CRAFT, I want to see glue, paper, yarn, crocheting/knitting, etc. Not how to make a robot.
    I know sometimes the two overlap which is a given example (like a crocheting robot, lol), but it seems like you’re just doing it now to make sure the readers are awake and aware of what’s going on.
    We get it. Now stop.

  2. Fermentation Nation Rebecca Stern says:

    @BG I’m usually the one doing the cross-posting, but it’s only because I want to make sure the cool stuff out there on the internet gets to an appreciative audience. I’m sympathetic to those as multi-interested as you, but most of our readers read just MAKE or just CRAFT. If I didn’t cross-post, who should miss out on a crocheting robot? All I can say is that I’ll try to be more mindful of folks like you (and me).

  3. Lilorfnannie says:

    You should try kefir then. It’s awesome!

  4. Jessie says:

    Lacto-fermented foods are good and good for you! I’ve made my own lacto-fermented salsa, a sauerkraut variation, and mayo (all using whey), and I drink my fair share of kombucha. A great cookbook for recipes for lacto-fermented foods in Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig.

  5. shala_beads says:

    Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. It’s really fantastic. Philosophy, a bit of history, instructions and recipes. It’s one of my can’t live without it cookbooks.

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Becky Stern is a Content Creator at Autodesk/Instructables, and part time faculty at New York’s School of Visual Arts Products of Design grad program. Making and sharing are her two biggest passions, and she's created hundreds of free online DIY tutorials and videos, mostly about technology and its intersection with crafts. Find her @bekathwia on YouTube/Twitter/Instagram.

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