Everything you wanted to know about fermentation.
I really love pickled stuff, isn't that what you sell?
Many people have wondered about the difference between fermentation and pickling. Both have a wonderful sour taste and make your favorite veggies that much more fun to eat. Only one, however, harnesses the power of helpful and beneficial microbes to help you get healthier.
What is your first thought when you hear microbes?
Most people grew up hearing that germs are bad. Yes, there are plenty of invisible microbes that can harm you (so, you still need to wash your hands, kids). The truth is that there are also tons of beneficial microscopic single-celled organisms that help us on a daily basis. Think of how your stomach feels after taking a bunch of antibiotics. Healthy microbes help you bounce back after taking antibiotics. There are lots of microbes working with you to help your health and scare away dangerous microbes.
In fermentation, we work to harness the beneficial bacteria and give them plenty of room to roam. This starts with salt. We use just the right amount of very high-quality salt which helps keep the harmful microbes at bay while the good ones have space to grow. We seal all of our ferments in air-tight containers and let them ferment for the right amount of time. For most veggies, 1-2 weeks is ideal. For sauerkraut, 30 days helps unlock the most amount of beneficial bacteria.
Why is fermenting better than pickling?
Fermentation is the process of allowing beneficial bacteria to break down carbohydrates into sugars. When this happens, one of the side effects is that all those beneficial bacteria create CO2. When everything is all sealed, this process creates a perfect environment for the magical lactobacillus microbe to do what it does best: create lactic acid. Yes, the same acid that makes your legs sore is the same thing that makes your sauerkraut taste nice and tangy.
Don’t get me wrong; I loooooveee a good vinegar pickle. The crunchy vinegar sourness is fantastic. However, a fermented one is where it’s at for my money. The flavor is far more complex and mild, the texture is satisfying, and knowing I’m doing something that has both amazing taste and is beneficial for my health, makes me choose fermented pickles far more often. I see it as a way to indulge and take care of myself at the same time.
Isn’t it dangerous to consume fermented foods? Can’t you get sick?
Fermented foods are some of the safest ways to consume and preserve food. Even though I use almost exclusively organic produce, when people do ferment with conventional veggies, the fermentation process actually ends up denaturing most pesticides. I, however, still lean to organic veggies because they have higher vitamin content and I find their flavor to be much better.
What about the salt in fermentation? Isn’t it unhealthy to consume too much salt?
For someone who needs to keep a sharp eye on their salt intake, it’s always best to check with your doctor and make sure to read the back of the label. However, for most folks, a high-quality, non-iodine salt like natural sea salt and pink Himalayan sea salt are a healthy source of electrolytes and certain minerals like potassium. In reality, most sauerkrauts have about one total teaspoon per pint and most pickles have about two. Pickles need a little bit more to help keep them crispy.
Speaking of crispy…have you read about all the additives that are in some brands of pickles?! There are plenty of things like alum and yellow dye number 5 that preserve pickles. However, Fink’s Fermented Foods does something different. Enter the almighty tannin. Tannins are a naturally occurring tangy substance that helps preserve pickles. Some things that have tannins are bay leaves, oak leaves, grape leaves and black tea. Fink’s pickles use the luscious black tea leaf which gives it a natural smoky umami flavor and keeps the crunch naturally. Even some of the biggest names in pickle producing have said that nothing compares to the flavor of a Fink’s pickle.
What the heck is umami, anyway?!
You might have heard people speak about umami. Umami is a magical flavor that is neither sweet, nor sour, nor bitter, nor salty. Umami is the flavor that you get on the back of your tongue when you eat mushrooms and tomatoes. In reality, umami is the flavor of protein. There are certain processes, like fermentation that unlock it. Our brains naturally seek out umami flavors because typically, umami is associated with being nutritionally complex. Our brain knows that it is being nourished properly.
What other health benefits do you receive from fermented foods?
In addition to all of the probiotic benefits, fermented foods have a complex profile of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Fermentation unlocks vitamins like Vitamin C and Vitamin K. It increases the amounts of those vitamins and also increases the bioavailability of those vitamins. Which means that your body can absorb them more easily.
Many studies are coming out saying that fermented foods are the way to happiness…no really! And not just because they taste wonderful and make you happy when you eat them.
There is a concept called the gut-brain axis and talks about the fact that the building blocks for serotonin originate in the gut. Fermented foods help build a happier microbiome and make it easier for your body to build these feel-good chemicals.
Can I cook with sauerkraut?
Yes, you absolutely can and there are a ton of amazing recipes from many different cultures and traditions that use sauerkraut or kimchi or even yogurt as an ingredient. However, one thing to keep in mind is there are certain beneficial probiotics that don’t live past 110 degrees Fahrenheit. There are still a ton of healthy fibers, vitamins and amino acids that you can take advantage of, but some of the healthy probiotics can’t take the heat. The best way to add a ferment to a dish is as a finisher. Once your scramble is done, sprinkle a little on top.
Why is your sauerkraut so expensive? I can buy a quart at the store for $8.
I’ll be the first to admit, my stuff is not cheap. In much the same way that a big box store is cheaper than a local boutique store, it’s easy to be cheaper when you cover so much ground. The small family-owned shop has cooler, more unusual stuff and typically has more heart and soul in their product but they likely don’t get the sweet price breaks of being able to afford shipping containers full of raw materials. I don’t ever want to lose that independent spirit. It’s more likely that the small independent shop has products like Fink’s Fermented Foods in it too.
One thing that I do have that the big guys don’t is the ability to work directly with small independent farms. Some of whom might grow all of their produce on less than an acre and have some of the richest soil and most gorgeous crops you’ve ever seen. I want to support those types of farms and that type of spirit.
That reminds me…remember that product that I really loved from last season? Why don’t you have that anymore?
I try as hard as I can to have all products available for all seasons. The trouble is, that pesky weather and sunshine means that different crops grow at different times of year. I succeed in getting a ton of amazing crops from local farms but that also means that sometimes the local farmers might not have that crop available. I would rather get a veggie that had been ripening in a field and getting more nutrients from the soil than an industrial farmer that picked the crop while it was green and let it ripen on the truck. Eating locally and seasonally works more harmoniously with your body and the land and the economy.
I don’t do it perfectly though. It’s hard to find locally grown ginger in the Pacific Northwest and coconuts will likely never come from Portland but I’ll never let perfect stand in the way of good.
Mostly, I love fermentation. There is magic in the microbes. When you can use nature around you to boost your health and make food more delicious you’re joining in a centuries old tradition that connects you to history, your food, your body and your world.
I would love for you to join me on this adventure within.