Sour Power: How Small-Batch, Fermented Foods Allure and Nourish

By | October 01, 2013
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It wasn’t long ago that jamming and pickling were the dual darlings of home preservationists eager to transform nature’s fleeting bounty into lasting culinary treasure. But step aside, because kimchi, kraut and kombucha are ready to share some of that lustrous limelight.

Fermented foods, of course, aren’t new—far from it. For thousands of years, home cooks have harnessed the principles of fermentation to make foods sour and preserve them for future nourishment. A fresh cabbage has a limited shelf life in your fridge’s crisper drawer, but ferment it into sauerkraut or kimchi and its lifespan multiplies manyfold. Same holds true for milk (which can be cultured into kefir or yogurt) and tea (which ferments into kombucha). Fermentation—that process of using natural biological processes, living yeasts and bacterial cultures, salt or sugar (or both) and the season’s freshest ingredients—is once again capturing imaginations and winning enthusiastic converts.

Sunnyvale-based writer and editor Emma Christensen, author of the new cookbook True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Mead, Kefir and Kombucha at Home (Ten Speed Press, 2013), says she got hooked on kombucha the second she tried it.

“It has this really fizzy, tangy, refreshing flavor. It’s so surprising when you realize it’s just fermented tea because it really tastes nothing like tea after it’s fermented. After I found out how easy it was to make at home, I knew I had to try it.”

The key to making kombucha is using a culture called a scoby, explains Christensen. An acronym that stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” the scoby is added to a mix of tea (usually black), water, sugar and a bit of premade kombucha from a prior batch (or the store) to create each new iteration, which ferments over the course of seven to 10 days.

“Once it reaches the balance of sweetness and tartness you like, you remove the scoby, bottle up the brew, and drink it. Or you can infuse anything you like into it to vary the flavor.”

But what if you want to ferment, say, vegetables? That’s where krauts and kimchi come in. Joshua Burbridge and his wife, Amber Petersen, launched True Ferments (, a line of all-organic, all-raw fermented vegetables (they produce kombucha as well) earlier this year. “Our catch phrase is ‘full-flavored natural foods steeped in tradition, rooted in the family kitchen.’” The line is available mainly in the East Bay but also on the Peninsula through the Good Eggs online marketplace (

Burbridge says his fermented vegetables rely not on vinegar but on a bacterial strain called lactobacillus, which produces lactic acid from within the vegetables themselves. “We use a salt brine,” he explains, “which allows the foods to be preserved at room temperature until the lactic acid can take over.”

In addition to krauts and kimchis, the pair also sells raw, fermented Fruitvale Carrots and Peppers (in a nod to Oakland’s taquerias and taco trucks) and Middle Eastern–style Dearborn Turnips (named after Dearborn, Michigan, where the husband-and-wife fermenting team first met).

For those new to fermentation, Burbridge advises starting with lighter-colored cabbages and root vegetables. After the fermentation process is complete, store the product in the refrigerator to keep it safe and prolong shelf life. True Ferments also sells a Red Kraut made with autumnal Fuji apples, but he cautions those at home when working with fruit. “When you introduce heavier sugars in things like apples, pears and berries, you immediately create an environment that will likely produce alcohol.”

One consistent theme in the mass media and among fermentation enthusiasts is that these products, and the probiotics they contain, boost health in myriad ways. Justin L. Sonnenburg, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, doesn’t deny that some people do experience improved health outcomes when consuming fermented foods, but he cautions against buying into too much hype. “There are very few probiotic bacteria that have been studied really in depth by multiple labs with reproducible findings concerning human health,” he says.

That said, Sonnenburg adds that, from an evolutionary perspective, consuming a diverse array of fermented and cultured foods does make good sense. “The state of our mucosal immune system is constantly being fine-tuned by exposure to bacteria—things like fermented foods, any dirt we may eat, and probiotics.” This fine-tuning may help our immune system fight invaders or prevent it from spiraling out of control in the form of allergies or autoimmune diseases. So while eating kimchi or drinking kefir or kombucha won’t necessarily cure you of ills or inhibit the common cold, exposure to diverse microbes helps mimic the “gut microbial environment” of our ancestors, which tended to be fairly hearty and hale.

Plus, of course, they taste great.

Local chefs are as fond, or perhaps fonder, of ferments as the rest of us. According to Chef de Cuisine Steven Catalano from Left Bank in Menlo Park, “Pickling is a great lead into fall because it saves the best of summer in a jar.”

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