Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Are Old Methods of Food Preservation Still Necessary?

Refrigeration is something we take for granted today to the point where I often forget not everyone in the past had this luxury. Some people still don’t. In the past, people came up with other ways to preserve food such as canning, pickling, and fermenting. Today, those of us in the developed world can preserve our fresh fruits and veggies for longer and thanks to international trade, can buy a variety of produce all year round, so why should we bother using these “outdated” methods of preservation?

I recently attended Boston’s Third Annual Fermentation Festival, and I’m sure everyone there would argue strongly that yes, fermentation is something we need to keep doing.

Amanda Feifer, a speaker at the festival, talked about why fermentation is beneficial to us today. In her talk she focused on fermentation of vegetables (lactic acid fermentation) not yeast fermentation, and I this post I am going to do so as well.

Homemade fermented sauerkraut
All vegetables and fruits come with a layer of bacteria on them, some “good” and some “bad” bacteria. The bad bacteria (such as Pectobacterium carotovorum) cause rotting, but the good ones will allow the food to ferment. Unlike vinegar based pickling or canning, which preserve food by creating a sterile environment where no bacteria can grow, fermentation is all about cultivating the right bacteria. By right bacteria, I mean lactic acid bacteria.

Lactic acid bacteria eat the starches in food and produce acid as waste. This acidic environment kills all the rest of the bad bacteria, preventing the food from rotting.

Plate of fermented pickles to judge at the festival

The job of fermenters is to give the lactic acid bacteria a head start. To do this, they place the food they want to ferment in a salty brine. Lactic acid bacteria don’t mind the salt, but the bacteria that cause rotting are halophobic (salt fearing), and will start to die. The lactic acid bacteria then start creating a more and more acidic environment to the point where it is too acidic for the first strain of bacteria. The first strain then dies off and a new strain of lactic acid bacteria take over and continue to lower the pH and increase acidity. This process is quite effective at preventing rotting, as Amanda Feifer explained, and no one is ever know to have fallen ill from eating fermented food. This may be because bad ferments have obviously gone wrong and no one in their right mind would eat them, but still ferments are actually safer than most food.

Pickle judging
But since refrigeration can prevent rotting too, what’s the point of eating this acidic and pungent food? Luckily for us aficionados of fermentation, there are many health benefits to eating ferments. Lactic acid bacteria are probiotic and the fermentation process makes B vitamins, preserves C vitamins, and cultivates enzymes. Actually microbiologists, like Benjamin Wolfe, are still working on understanding everything going on in ferments and why it’s good for us. There’s a bunch of unknown processes going on in one jar of seemingly simple sauerkraut. In addition to all the health benefits, known and unknown, there is one last reason to eat fermented food, and that’s because it tastes good.

Homemade cherry jam, dill pickles, and bread and butter pickles
Canned food and vinegar-based pickles are also delicious, but neither have the same health benefits as ferments. Canned food and vinegar pickles have a longer shelf life than fermented foods, but they are harder to make and more likely to go wrong. I still don’t see canned foods and vinegar pickles going out of fashion soon because of refrigeration, mainly because people like tradition. We want to eat toast and fruit jelly for breakfast and have a pickle on our sandwich whether or not we have to preserve cucumbers and berries anymore. I, for one, will continue to eat and make all types of preserved foods, canned, pickled, and fermented, with gusto!


  1. So interesting! The process, at least the process that we know, was very well explained here. Now i want to try fermenting! Any advice on how to start?

    1. Fermenting is very easy and fun! Here is a link to all fermented food recipes from my cousin Stephanie's blog: Amanda Feifer's blog also has lots of recipes and advice on fermenting. If you would rather have a book on fermenting, Ferment Your Vegetables by Amanda Feifer is a great option. I use it all the time. Stephanie is also writing a fermenting and canning cookbook now, so keep an eye out for that. Happy fermenting!

  2. So interesting! The process, at least the process that we know, was very well explained here. Now i want to try fermenting! Any advice on how to start?