Life feeds on life. There is no way to live by eating things that have never lived, it’s too bad for the eaten. In a perfect world even your own mortal flesh will be consumed by something, returning your borrowed matter to the cycle of life. I say “In a perfect world…” because if you add enough of the proper chemicals to once-living matter you can make it unavailable to living creatures to eat. In your corpse it will be formaldehyde to keep you pristine for the second coming, in other things it is added chemicals that prevent foods from rotting.
Next weekend I will be performing in a team of three presenters to present a workshop on fermenting foods. My bit of the show will be to lay the case for fermentation. The people that we expect to attend will be expecting the basic knowledge on fermentation.
I happen to know quite a bit about fermented foods and the causes and effects of controlled rot on our foods. All of the best fresh foods, once they have passed their prime fresh, are best as fermented foods. Preservation of the summer and fall harvests is an ancient art, and is performed with ancient tools and chemicals. We humans have evolved to take advantage of all of the products of fermentation. We are omnivores and scavengers and creatures well suited to take advantage of foods we hunt and gather, including the kills and finds from lesser animals that we would be competing with for food. I will be presenting the most basic of tools and chemicals needed to conduct your own ‘laying away’ of foods for the winter.
We will begin with a discussion of what fermentation is, and what it is not. Fermentation does not equal pickling. In pickling you take a fresh fruit and you cook it to the point that you have killed the naturally occurring bacteria in and on the food to be preserved, then you submerge it in a liquid that will contain vinegar. Vinegar itself is a product of fermentation, a waste product of bacteria that are consuming the alcohols and proteins in a food, say wine. The alcohol is a waste product of yeast eating the sugar from a living food, say grapes. You cannot pickle a food without something having been fermented before it. When you pickle a food you are preventing fermentation or rot from occurring. Pickled foods can be kept on the shelf, at room temperature, because they are dead and floating in a solution that does not promote life. When you eat pickled foods they do not kill you because you are big enough to dilute the deadly acids in vinegar by diluting them with your own juices. The sugars and proteins in the pickled foods will be processed by you.
So what is vinegar, then? To make your own vinegar you take a bottle of red or white wine and dilute it by one-third with water, to lessen the concentration of alcohol in the solution. You add a dose of bacteria to the solution, so that your beneficial bacteria get a significant head start in the competition for food from the wine. The acetobacter bacteria begin consuming the alcohol, increasing the acidity of the liquid which kills the chances of any other bacteria from taking hold. Just like when you make sourdough bread, adding a pinch of your last batch of dough to the new batch to get the process started in the right direction, if you add a vinegar “mother” to the wine you will get exactly the same kind of vinegar out of your batch as you intend.
If you take a gallon of apple cider and dilute it, cover it loosely to keep the fruit flies out of it and to let in bacteria from the air, after a few months you will have apple cider. The process works like this…there are yeast floating in the air of your home. You can’t do anything about it, it’s what will turn your sourdough bread sour if you just leave the dough out without adding any yeast to it. The yeast will begin eating the sugar in the cider and giving off alcohol as a byproduct. As the alcohol level rises it prevents any other yeast from gaining a foothold. They cider will smell yeasty as this all happens. Next the acetobacter in the air will begin to eat the yeast and alcohol. Acetobacter will form a layer of matter floating on the top of the liquid. It gets very thick if you wait long enough, it feels like flesh, it will be the color of the liquid, red for red wine, tan for kombucha, white for white wine…this is the ‘mother’ of vinegar. You can purchase already formed mothers for different end uses. In this case, you are making a mother of your own for use making vinegars. As the acid is made it renders the liquid uninhabitable for any other living thing, except the bacteria that made it. The final liquid can be used to pickle any living thing…meat, fruit, vegetable.
The process that I just described all happens at room temperature, it is all automatic and pretty much foolproof. The only things that can screw it up involve not keeping the fermenting vessel protected agains insects. Fruit flies will accumulate near your fermenting vessel, looking for a way in. If they get in they will lay eggs in your cider or wine. The eggs will quickly hatch and your liquid will be full of a floating mass of eggs, maggots and dead fruit flies. Not good eats, and not conducive to making a tasty vinegar, or kombucha.
Fermenting foods differs from making vinegar by allowing the food to ferment itself. The only thing you need to ferment any food is clean, ripe, unblemished food, unchlorinated water, salt, a clean fermenting vessel, and a way to keep the air off of your food. During the workshop we will show all of the ways that you keep the air off of the food, as that is the only difference between different fermenting methods.
More on this tomorrow…