Bringing Anerobic Metabolism to the Masses
By John Garland
Most beer drinkers have some understanding of fermentation. They know that carefully selected microbes work to transform hop-flavored sugar water into the brews we know and love. Fermentation is when the magic happens, when carbohydrates become ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide.
But alcohol isn’t the only thing made by this mystical process. “For biologists, what fermentation specifically describes is anaerobic metabolism, the production of energy without oxygen,” explains Sandor Katz, author of 2012’s The Art of Fermentation, a New York Times bestseller and James Beard Award winner. “Certainly that describes alcohol fermentation, but that’s only one possibility.”
In fact, many of the foods you eat every day are produced or preserved by the anaerobic metabolism microorganisms. Fermentation breaks down the thick layer of sugars found on coffee beans. It acts the same way on cacao beans, producing the flavors we associate with chocolate. It accounts for the acetic acids in vinegar. You can taste its effects in teas like pu-erh or kombucha.
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The process has been at the center of food production for most of human history. “It’s really driven by practical considerations. Fermentation is a strategy for preserving food,” says Katz. “Agriculture would not have been possible if you didn’t have insight into effectively preserving food, which until the 1800s was fermentation or drying.”
Besides being practical, fermentation makes things taste better. Just think about all those interesting esters and phenols in your beer that result from the type of yeast the brewer chose. The same process breaks down complex molecules to create nuanced flavors in fermented foods. In much of food production, these bacteria are considered a hazard. When used intentionally, they create foods that are spontaneous, primal and alive.
Katz sees a growing interest in anaerobic metabolism as a part of the movement towards local, seasonal and organic foods. “It’s part of the desire to be closer to the source of our food and an important part of the source of our food is microorganisms,” he explains. “Bacteria and fungi transform the raw products of agriculture into the things that people love to eat and drink.”
“I’ve always loved sauerkraut,” says Katz. “What got me to make it for the first time was keeping a garden. When you have a garden all the cabbage is ready around the same time. It was a practical necessity of dealing with these abundances.”
Search Katz’s website Wild Fermentation for his foolproof kraut recipe. It involves salting and pressing chopped cabbage until enough water has been extracted that the cabbage becomes submerged in its own salty brine, where it’s left to ferment. From there, it’s not much further afield to experiments with kimchi and cortido, the fermented cabbage specialties of Korea and Latin America.
“I always recommend sauerkraut as the ideal first fermentation project primarily because you don’t need any special starter cultures. It’s incredibly easy, you don’t need any special equipment,” he says, adding, “It’s also delicious and it’s healthy.”
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