From Sourdough to Sauerkraut: Learn about Fermenting, Pickling Foods

It all started when I said I didn’t like pickles, and I’m not too hot on kimchi or kombucha either. OK, said Tim Preston, let’s really talk fermented foods. Do you like chocolate, black tea, sourdough bread, or yogurt? They’re all fermented foods.

And anyone who’s a fan of Thai, Japanese or Chinese food knows fish sauce and oyster sauce are key parts of Asian cooking. They’re made from fermented seafood; soy sauce, another Asian staple, is fermented soy beans.

So, when you put it that way, fermented foods are my thing. What’s not to like? And that’s even before anyone’s mentioned alcohol.

If you want to find out the difference between fermenting and pickling, how to do both with your food and why that’s good for you, check out Preston’s talk on Tuesday, July 18, in the community room at the Windsor Senior Center, 9221 Foxwood Dr. He’s the speaker at the Windsor Garden Club’s free “Third Tuesday Talk.” Meeting and refreshments begin at 6:30; presentation begins at 6:45; as always it’s free.

When he’s not being a realtor, Preston is an anthropologist with training in archaeology and a research background in the ancient Maya people. “The Maya did ferment cacao beans before making a chocolate drink, but I never found evidence that they fermented anything else,” he said. His research into fermenting foods is personal, not professorial. “I have studied the cultural impact of fermented foods, but that was more of a hobby than an academic pursuit.”

Fermenting foods, he explains, means exposing them to yeast, and letting yeast or special bacteria cultures grow in them. (Think of the yeasts that ferment grain into beer and grapes into wine.)

The yeasts and good bacteria grow in the exposed foods, eating along the way. As they grow, they excrete carbon dioxide and either alcohol or acids. “This gives fermented foods their characteristic sour taste. Fermenting also breaks down the cell walls of fermented foods, making them easier to digest,” he said.

“And as a bonus, fermented foods are chock full of beneficial microorganisms – the ‘probiotics’ everyone has heard of. These microorganisms improve gut health. Studies have shown that a healthy gut improves overall health, fights autoimmune disorders, and even fights depression,” he added.

Traditional pickling, on the other hand, means preserving vegetables and meats by submerging them in an acidic (vinegar-based) solution. It’s how cucumbers turn into pickles. Pickling allows produce to be stored for longer periods of time without spoiling, but it hasn’t been shown to convey any special health benefits, Preston said. He’ll be covering both fermenting and pickling foods in his presentation July 18.

Preston got into pickling and fermenting foods before it was a trend big enough to support specialty supply stores. “I not only like the taste, but I believe in the health benefits. I started making pickles with my father about 10 years ago. We produce over 20 pounds of pickles a week and sell them at different farmer's markets in the area.”

He’s also got batches of other fun foods fermenting. “My favorite pickles are, well, pickles. I like the tradition fermented cucumbers. I make them with dill, mustard, pepper, and garlic – the traditional pickle recipe. And I have about 10 pounds of sauerkraut fermenting on my counter right now.”

What, I asked the anthropology professor, is the most exotic thing people pickle? Globally, that is. “That’s a tough question. What one person sees as exotic, another sees as traditional. Right now I’m fermenting some green walnuts. I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know anyone who has done this, but it is a traditional pickle in England.”

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