YOUR WEEKLY DOSE OF WOWZERS AND WONDER FROM THE NATURAL WORLD
You might think that bacteria or fungi are things you wouldn’t want in your food, but when they’re used just right, they can produce some delicious results.
Put on your chef’s hat and break out the microscopes, because today we’re getting funky with fermentation!
Fermentation is a chemical process that naturally occurs in vegetables, grains, and meats.
Humans quickly realized they could use fermentation to make foods and drinks safer to consume in a world before refrigerators and preservatives.
Archaeological finds suggest that people were fermenting beverages as much as 9,000 years ago!
While many of the early products of fermentation were things we’d consider adult beverages today, such as wines, meads, and other forms of alcohol, it can also be used to create some really tasty foods—some of which you probably eat all the time.
Popular foods which rely on fermentation include:
Fermentation is even used to create medicines like Penicillin and Terramycin!
There are three basic forms of fermentation.
The first is lactic acid fermentation, which happens when yeasts and bacteria convert starches or sugars into lactic acid. This process is used to create some of our favourite foods, including pickles, yogurt, sourdough bread… and sauerkraut!
The second is called ethyl alcohol fermentation, which is the process used to create wine and beer. In this process, pyruvate molecules in starches or sugars are broken down by yeasts into alcohol and carbon dioxide molecules.
The third and final form is called acetic acid fermentation. In this process, starches or sugars from fruit or grains are changed into sour tasting vinegar or other condiments.
Each of these kinds of fermentation requires the work of microbes which specialize in converting certain substances into others.
Fermenting foods originally involved using naturally occurring bacteria and yeast from the surrounding environment.
This is why loaves of bread have a distinctive taste in different parts of the world, and one of the main reasons why there are so many different types of cheese!
In the past, using wild yeasts, bacteria, and mould could be a little tricky and imprecise. A mistake could result in a flat loaf of bread or even a deadly drink!
Today, scientists can mass-produce the bacteria, yeasts, and other components required to initiate and control fermentation processes.
Food processing facilities and equipment make it easy to safely and efficiently ferment loads of pickles, piles of pizza dough, or litres of vinegar.
Luckily, scientists or fancy equipment aren’t required to explore fermentation at home!
If you’re curious and have someone to help you in the kitchen, we think this Bread in a Bag recipe is a Wowzerful way to experience this often-overlooked wonder of science.
Some fermented foods still have live microbes in them even after they’re eaten! Known as probiotics, these microbes continue living in your gut and extract nutrients from other foods you eat!
Discovered around the ancient world in different ways, famous regional examples of fermented foods include kefir, miso, kimchi, poi, and kombucha.
Fermentation is a critical step in making chocolate!After the cocoa pods are opened, the seeds are left to ferment in the sun, creating essential compounds that are part of the chocolate flavour we all know and love.
Sourdough starters are an amazing example of how long fermentation can keep foods safe to eat. In 2018, The Guardian spoke with former Canadian senator, Ione Christensen, about her 120-year-old batch of dough!
Learn more about the different types of fermentation (and the tasty foods they create) with this TED-Ed animation!