Fermentation Evangelist Says the Current Trend May Halt Our ‘Insane Bacteria-phobia’

fermentation of liquid
Maple Water Kefir.

Amanda Feifer O'Brien / Phickle.com

Allow me to introduce you to Amanda Feifer O’Brien, fermentation evangelist and blogger at Phickle. Her excellent introduction to fermentation continues.

You mentioned on your blog that you hope the current trend in fermentation will help to bring our “insane bacteria-phobia to a halt.” What is it that you think people are afraid of and why are those fears unfounded?
Oh man, don’t get me started here. I totally get the fear. I think the only thing more likely to skeeve people out than that magnified image of all the bacteria on a baby’s pacifier is an image of a tarantula crawling up someone's leg. But that image kind of highlights my point. Bacteria are everywhere and that’s where they are supposed to be!

There’s no question that there are dangerous pathogenic bacteria in the world. Unfortunately, we don’t differentiate between the good and bad and revel in sanitizers that kill 99.9% of ALL bacteria. We douse the systems of our meat and dairy producing livestock with antibiotics that again, kill the good with the bad, and then we’re surprised when things get out of balance.

I’m not the crazy person who thinks antibiotics are bad. Clearly, antibiotics have greatly improved human health and when used correctly, they are fantastic. But, when they are overused and used incorrectly they are really, really bad. And call me crazy, but if you aren’t a surgeon or other health professional who constantly comes into contact with pathogenic bacteria, why do you have to kill 99.9% of the bacteria on your hands? Wash them with normal soap, keep yourself clean, but realize we are not meant to be sanitized. We live in the world.

What are the health benefits of fermented foods?
There are a great number of health benefits associated with the regular consumption of fermented foods. I can’t cite all the studies (although Sandor Katz does in his excellent book “The Art of Fermentation), but we know that ferments help with long and short term gut health, make foods more digestible, and improve the nutrient content of foods. One study has even shown that the pesticides used in non-organic farming can be neutralized through fermentation. There are specific ferments that have been shown to improve the health of specific organs (namely kombucha for liver function). I am certainly not an expert in this field, but I don’t think there is any question that a thriving community of healthy gut bacteria is good for us across the board.

How does fermentation differ from canning?
They are just about opposites! The benefit of canning is that you preserve the food as it is and you’re done. The upside is it can sit on a shelf and not change at all for years. The downside is that you’ve destroyed at least some of the valuable nutrient content of the food.

In fermentation, the situation is reversed. You are actually adding to the healthfulness of the food, but it will continue to ferment at room temperature and the flavor profile will change over time, usually becoming more acidic. I actually like this about fermented foods. What you put in a container in March tastes completely different in July. But if your goal is to have a consistent product on the shelf, canning is the way to go. I do both, actually, for different things. But I’m a lazy and imprecise cook and I don’t like to have a lot of equipment around so fermentation is definitely my preferred preservation method.

How do you store fermented foods?
This depends on the type of ferment and on your taste preferences. Fermentation will continue at room temp, so if you like how it tastes and don’t want it getting more acidic, move it to the fridge (or cellar or cool basement in winter) where fermentation will occur much more slowly or stop altogether.

If want to see what happens to the flavor, you can leave it at room temperature for days or weeks longer. There are dips and peaks in the kind of bacteria that are active over time, and they impact the flavor profile so it might completely shift. That’s why I almost always stick my kimchi in the fridge when I like the flavor (after 3-7 days) and my sauerkraut stays out for at least a month. Things like vinegar and preserved citrus that have high acid content, I always leave at room temperature once they’re done. I fridge kefir immediately because it tastes better cold. Those are just some examples.

With natural sodas like ginger beer, it is important to put them in the fridge as soon as they are done fermenting because the pressure will continue to build as they ferment and eventually they will explode! I have never had this happen, but I have read enough to know better than to tempt the fates.

For those who are still a little skeptical about fermenting themselves, which foods should they start with that would be the most familiar to them?
Personally I would recommend starting with carrot or radish pickles or kefir. Yes, you have to get grains to make kefir but once you have them, the process of making it is the easiest thing imaginable. It is also a very quick ferment. You’ll have your finished product in less than 24 hours.

With pickles, you need nothing special to get started. It just takes carrots, salt, water, and time. Believe me, you won’t regret making these. They really are a simple and delicious gateway drug.

I want to thank Amanda for her thorough introduction to fermentation. I feel like I now have a grasp on what the technique is and how it could benefit my family. I hope you do, too. If you want to know more, follow Phickle on Facebook and Twitter (@phicklefoods).