First Person: Fermentation De-mystified by Branden Byers

by Branden Byers, guest contributor

Fermentation and do-it-yourself workshops both were major attractions at FamilyFarmed.org’s Good Food Festival this past March. And Branden Byers of FermUp was one of the favorite presenters at the “Good Food Commons.” Branden has an approachable way of explaining fermentation, and he has just come out with a book — The Everyday Fermentation Handbook — to help you get started. We have an excerpt from the new book here along with a recipe for fermented leek rings. Enjoy and get on the fermentation kick with Branden.

Fermentation is everywhere. It’s a natural process, and humans, over the ages, have managed to control enough of the process in order to make a few delicious and healthy foods.

It’s a great way to get healthy foods into your diet. Of course, you can buy some fermented foods in the store, and probably do; your shopping list undoubtedly includes things like pickles and possibly sauerkraut. However, in this book you’ll find recipes free of preservatives and artificial ingredients for these delicious treats—much healthier than anything you can buy in a store. There are other health benefits: For example, fermentation breaks down lactose in dairy products.

Fermented leek rings

Fermented leek rings look a little like art. Here they are served, as recommended by author Branden Byers, with goat cheese on toast. The recipe is below.

Fermenting can preserve foods. Not surprisingly, many of the recipes for fermenting were first developed at a time when most humans didn’t have access to refrigeration. Fermentation was a way around this problem. Today, it can make storing foods much simpler.

Finally, of course, fermented foods are delicious and fun. We live in an age of refrigeration and highly processed foods. Most people are no longer required to preserve food in times of abundance in order to be able to survive extended periods of scarcity such as long winters. Now most humans can ferment food as a luxury.

I love fermented foods because I get to play amateur scientist in my kitchen. Learning about new ferments from around the world is an opportunity for me to explore where these foods originated and the necessity or desires that once shaped the fermentation process. And of course there are the flavors; although a picky eater as a child, I now crave the complex, intense, and sometimes funky flavors of fermented foods.

With all of this comes the opportunity to share knowledge with others. What were once commonplace traditions, passed down from one generation to the next, have in many cases been lost. The invention of alternatives and conveniences over the past couple hundred years has meant too few parents and grandparents handing down the skills of fermentation to the next generation.

While fermented foods can be purchased from commercial producers, it’s possible to make a lot more than what can be found in the grocery store. Some fermented foods are too strange for mass appeal and so are relegated to limited regions or not produced commercially at all.

Fermented foods don’t require specialized equipment, they offer endless possibilities, and often they’re less expensive to make than buy.

For most people, the hardest part is figuring out where to store ferments in progress and how to plan ahead so that fermented foods are ready to eat when desired. It’s disappointing to crave sauerkraut or kimchi and then realize that either the next batch still has two weeks to finish or that you never started it in the first place. Even worse is to lose a starter culture of sourdough or heirloom yogurt that can’t be easily replaced. Throughout this book you will find tips and suggestions to ensure you have fermented food ready to serve whenever you so desire.

Whether you are looking for ways to incorporate one or one hundred different homemade fermented foods into your life, the recipes in this book will help you get started. Fermentation does take time and patience but the learning curve is gradual. Start simple with something that sounds appetizing and the next thing you know, you may have a zoo of microbial diversity fermenting in your home, too. Enter the world of fermentation and you will never feel alone in the kitchen again.

Recipe: Leek Rings

A simple, yet elegant, example of how easy fermentation can be. Experience the transformation by sampling the leeks pre- and post-fermentation. Leeks, salt, and thyme aren’t really that exciting when mixed fresh. But after a few weeks and once lactic acid bacteria have done their thing, this recipe turns sour, the leeks mellow out and become tender, and the thyme fully infuses the rings. This goes especially well with goat cheese on a toasted cracker.

Yield: 1 quart

Prep time: 10 minutes

Fermentation: 3–6 weeks

Salt: 5% brine

Ingredients

4 large leeks, sliced into ¼” rounds

700 grams (3 cups) water

35 grams (2½ tablespoons) salt

8 grams (2 tablespoons) thyme

Steps

● Gently transfer the leeks to a quart-size jar while attempting to keep most of the inner rings intact.

● Combine the water, salt, and thyme in a separate jar or bowl until the salt dissolves.

● Pour the salt brine over the leeks until submerged.

● Weighing down the leeks below the brine is optional but not necessary if checked regularly.

● Leave to ferment, away from direct sunlight, for at least 3 weeks until leeks are tender.

● Make certain to release any CO2 buildup in the first week by quickly opening and closing the lid.

● When fermentation is to your liking, move to long-term storage (i.e., refrigerator, basement, root cellar).

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Branden Byers is the creator of FermUp.com, a blog and weekly podcast about anything and everything fermented. He spends a lot of time thinking, talking, and writing about fermented foods when not photographing or eating them. Branden spreads his fermented ideas around the globe from his home base in Madison, Wisconsin.

You can purchase The Everyday Fermentation Handbook here: fermentationhandbook.com

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