Fermenting fervor: Tips from Asheville food artisans on DIY probiotic veggies

BUBBLING OVER: Making fermented foods at home is a simple process that implements very basic ingredients. Fresh vegetables, salt and water are the key elements, says Lars Peterson, owner of Fermenti, a Marshall-based producer of live, probiotic foods.
BUBBLING OVER: Making fermented foods at home is a simple process that implements very basic ingredients. Fresh vegetables, salt and water are the key elements, says Lars Peterson, owner of Fermenti, a Marshall-based producer of live, probiotic foods. Photo courtesy of Fermenti

Fermented foods have steadily bubbled their way into the spotlight in Asheville’s culinary and wellness sectors. Not only do they brighten our plates with complex and zesty flavor profiles, but their gut-friendly bacteria are also believed to offer health benefits ranging from improved digestion to allergy relief.

Best of all, they are incredibly accessible. Making them at home is simple and inexpensive, requiring no fancy equipment or exotic ingredients. And fortunately, Asheville chefs and food artisans have plenty of insight on how to get started with easy do-it-yourself ferments.

How it works

Fermentation is accomplished by microorganisms that convert sugars into other compounds, such as alcohol and lactic acid. In the case of vegetable ferments like sauerkraut, through their respiration, anaerobic bacteria produce carbon dioxide, which replaces the oxygen in the sealed fermenting container, and lactic acid, according to a 2014 article on the science of sauerkraut by biochemist S.E. Gould in Scientific American. “Eventually, the conditions within the jar become too acidic for these bacteria to survive and they die out, replaced with bacteria that can better handle the acidic conditions such as Lactobacillus species,” Gould writes.

A 2014 article published in Tufts University’s Health & Nutrition Letter explains that during fermentation, “bacteria predigest certain food components, making them easier for your gut to handle and for nutrients to be absorbed when you eat them.” People who are lactose-intolerant can often consume fermented dairy products like yogurt because the lactose sugar has been partly broken down by the bacteria in them. In addition, making cabbage into sauerkraut or kimchi, for example, increases the number of glucosinolate compounds, which are believed to fight cancer.

Lars Peterson of Fermenti, a Marshall-based business that specializes in producing handcrafted probiotic-rich foods, beverages and seasonings, says the most important thing people need to know about raw, unpasteurized fermented food is this: Lactic-acid bacteria fermentation of vegetables perfectly imitates the human body’s digestive system.

“As a result, these fermented foods dramatically reduce the work your body has to do during digestion and increases absorptivity of available chelated nutrients,” Peterson says.

Do it yourself

Peterson adds that while Fermenti’s products are unpasteurized and full of live cultures, many fermented vegetables available in grocery stores have been preserved using modern sterilization methods. The high heat kills any friendly bacteria along with the unfriendly sort, so if you want pickles and kraut with bacterial benefits, aside from buying cultured products from local vendors, making it yourself is a good option.

Evan Timmons, head chef at White Labs Kitchen & Tap, works with the fermentation process on a daily basis. White Labs produces yeast for the craft beer industry, and the new eatery’s menu offers a variety of fermented sauces and vegetables with a focus on bread and wood-fired pizzas made with White Labs yeast.

Lucky for DIYers, sauerkraut and pickles are simple to make and forgiving of beginners’ mistakes, Timmons says. To those who are considering venturing into the world of home fermenting, he advises, “Don’t be afraid. Trust in the wisdom of these microbes, which humanity has been using for thousands of years.” If basic precautions are observed, he says, there’s little risk.

When getting started, garlic, chilies and other vegetables that have moderate natural sugar are some of the easiest foods to ferment, says Jacob Sessoms, executive chef at Table. For a vessel, he suggests buying a ceramic fermenting crock at a kitchen supply store. “You don’t want to use plastic as it will retain the odor,” he says.

Timmons says that a lot of traditionalists like to use stoneware crocks, but wide-mouth Mason jars work great, too. “They also make neat gadgets, like double-bubble airlock lids for these jars,” he says, adding that Villagers in West Asheville specializes in fermenting products. Fifth Season on Tunnel Road and Kitchen & Company in River Hills Plaza are also good resources for supplies.

Carrots, onions and celery, Timmons notes, are good candidates for fermenting, and the process can be boosted with brewer’s yeast or whey (a byproduct of making dairy ferments such as cheese and yogurt). “Or simply allow the microbes naturally occurring on the surface of the vegetables do the work for you,” he says, adding the caveat that this last method is less reliable and can sometimes allow in unwanted microbes.

Also crucial for a successful ferment is salt, which draws the water out of the vegetables, creating a natural brine that ensures that the more salt-tolerant beneficial microbes can thrive and the unwanted ones will perish. “We recommend using fine-grain, dehydrated sea salt because all of our recipes are based on weight, and different salts have varying amounts of water added which will affect your consistency,” says Peterson.

He adds that temperature also plays a big role — heat speeds up the process, and cold slows it down. He recommends keeping ferments as close to 72 degrees as possible during their active stage before they are refrigerated.

The final element is water, which Peterson says is the most important one and a common culprit in fermenting failures. He advises that only distilled and reverse osmosis-treated water be used.

Trouble-shooting

Although the process is straightforward, problems can arise. While Peterson says it’s not necessary “to be hazmat-level clean to make delicious food — just wash everything with good soap and hot water,” he notes that the surfactants and antibacterial agents in some soaps can hinder probiotic development. There’s also the possibility of airborne contamination if the vessel isn’t properly sealed.

Knowing when your project has finished fermenting, he adds, can cause confusion. But it’s usually ready for refrigeration within five days, when the airlock stops bubbling and no juice is coming out of the jar.

Fermenti, in addition to offering classes, sells a fermenting kit with supplies and detailed instructions that Peterson says “takes away variables and simplifies the whole process so you can have success and feel motivated.” Also, fermenting workshops happen regularly in the Asheville area, including at Villagers, Timmons notes.

For those who are still nervous, Peterson says it’s easy to tell when a ferment is unsafe to eat. “It is very obvious when you’ve made a bad ferment,” he explains. “The smell will be like hot garbage or feces and there will be obvious mold growth.” Toxic molds, he says, are fuzzy and white and will eventually develop black mold spores. “A good ferment will smell like it’s been cooked and will also have a vibrant color that is not brown or grey from contamination or oxidization.”

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