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Friday, February 13, 2009

The Art and Science of Lacto-fermentation: An Ancient Process Reborn

Lacto-fermentation is an ancient food preservation technique that both enhances the flavor and nutrition of food. Many foods that we consume everyday have undergone fermentation, including beer, bread, cheese, miso, salami, tempeh, wine, and yogurt. Many more, such as pickles, sauerkraut, ketchup, mayonnaise, sushi, and chutneys, were commonly fermented before the rise of commercial canning. For those interested in preserving food at home, who favor taste over transportability and nutrition over years of shelf stability, lacto-fermentation is a technique well worth exploring. Fermentation enthusiast Sandor Katz, author of The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movement (Chelsea Green, 2006), notes, "It's only in the past century that fermentation disappeared behind factory doors. Reviving those practices is a way of reclaiming control of your food."

Lactobacillus is the name of a family of bacteria naturally found in all living things (including humans) that convert carbohydrates into lactic acid. These bacteria, when present in the digestive tract, create an environment inhospitable to unhealthy organisms, improving digestion and boosting the immune system. Some of us are familiar with L. acidopholus, which is one of several bacteria used to turn milk into yogurt and is sold in a pill form to counter the side effects of antibiotics. L. sanfranciscensis gives sourdough bread its characteristic taste. Guess what L. kimchi does?

The lactic acid produced by lactobacilli during fermentation preserves vegetables. While modern preservation methods such as canning and freezing destroy nutrients, lacto-fermentation enhances food's nutritional value. Indeed, this ancient method creates new nutrients, such as the B vitamins folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential for cell membrane and immune system function. Some ferments have been shown to act as antioxidants, removing cancer precursors--free radicals--from the cells of the body.

So, with all those big Latin names and nutritional factoids, there's obviously a lot of science behind lacto-fermentation. The art is in making these fermented foods so delicious we don't eat them out of obligation to our health, but because of the pleasure we experience in the process. Humans have been fermenting foods for millenia because they taste so good, not because they are full of omega-3 fatty acids and riboflavin. Lacto-fermented foods are more complex and tangy than commercially processed foods. If you're accustomed to the flavors conventional sauerkraut, pickles, or even ketchup, you may be pleasantly surprised at how different and delicious these foods can be when preserved with this ancient method.


  1. Hey! I am an Oregonian too! I just linked to this article for a post I'm doing Wednesday for Real Food Wednesdays, hosted at Cheeseslave.com. We're all a bunch of Real Foodies a la Nina Plank, Sandor Katz, Weston Price, etc. Please come join us!!! It's so fun to meet more like-minded, local bloggers!


  2. I live in Portland as well! Glad to connect with you all!

  3. Hey Jo--

    Thanks for stopping by. I noticed that you're following my Cooking GAPS blog. I've been wanting to play with Wordpress and so have moved that one for cookinggaps.wordpress.com. Do you know Teri & Sierra at Grain-Free Foodies?