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By Maya Epelbaum, Phase I Fellow

I used to think fermentation meant turning something into alcohol, like wine or beer. Now, after months of cooking whole foods, learning nutrition, and our wonderful fermentation lesson, I have a whole new perspective on fermentation and all its benefits.

Fermentation is formally defined as the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms. And this occurs with more than just beer and wine. It occurs in chocolate, coffee, sourdough, sprouted beans , yogurt, sauerkraut, ginger beer, and pickled fruits and vegetables. There are also some foods that I never even heard of until I came to Allegheny Mountain Institute, like kimchi, kombucha, ginger soda, and kefir.

So why do all of my favorite foods have this in common? What is the purpose of putting live microorganisms in our food? Rose, fermenter extraordinaire and workshop instructor, and Carter, Allegheny Mountain Farm Manager, helped explain the five main benefits that these microorganisms give to us.

We are all excited to have a ginger bug ferment to make ginger soda from.

See the before and after.

Elora and the ginger bug ferment: before

Ginger bug ferment: after

1) Health: Fermentation can happen because bacteria eats the food it lives in and creates something new from it. For example, I have a sourdough starter made up of an equal mix of water and flour for the bacteria to eat. As it eats the mixture, I have to keep feeding the bacteria so it can survive. This makes the smells and texture of the dough change.

By eating the mixture, the yeasts are pre-digesting the dough for us. This makes fermented food more

digestible for humans because it has already been eaten once before we eat it -- kind of like a mother bird does for her baby! In addition to being more digestible, it gets more probiotics into our bodies, and helps boost our immune systems.

Sophia has inspired us to create sourdough starters, which we feed daily

2) Safety: Have you ever tried raw or under-cooked beans? One cool fermentation process we learned is sprouting beans. We soak them overnight, and then rinse them a couple times a day until they form sprouts. This process renders a previously inedible food delicious and nutritious. Other foods that are made possible to consume by fermentation are soybeans, cocoa beans, and hops.

3) Preservation: As we are getting pounds and pounds of cabbage and cucumbers each week, we are in desperate need of a way to preserve them. The lactic acid that builds from the bacteria naturally preserves many fruits and vegetables, through a process called lacto-fermentation. Additionally, by putting a yogurt or kefir culture in milk, you can preserve that as well.

4) Diet Diversity: The probiotics and predigested food that you get when you eat fermented foods are widespread and prolific. For instance, probiotics are great in yogurt and supplementary pills, but those are just two sources with only some bacteria. You can get hundreds of different kinds of bacteria from each of the fermented foods.

5) New flavors: The byproducts of fermentation are still a little incomprehensible to me. How can I put a kefir starter (a culture with probiotics that has usually been passed down multiple generations) into milk and simply by doing this, change the taste and consistency? It is amazing to me that anyone can create alcohol, sour flavors, vinegar, and more from basic foods like milk or tea.

Fermentation workshop with all of our ferments in progress

I am beginning to see a world of life within our food. I always thought my food needed to be dead before consuming it (though I did eat a live fish on a bet once), but now I see how most of our food is swimming with live bacteria, waiting to aid our digestive systems. So while fermentation often takes planning ahead and caring like you would for any other living plant or pet, it is well worth it for me. I am excited to make sprouted beans, sourdough, and Kombucha staples in my diet after AMI, and hopefully, I’ll continue adding more as I keep learning and experimenting.

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