Fun Fact Friday: Fermentation, Our Friend

No matter who you are or where you live, you’re eating fermented foods. But what is fermentation and why does it matter?

Dough proofing at iconic Paris bakery, Poilâne. During this step of bread-making, the dough sits out for hours. As the yeast ferments the grain sugar, the resulting carbon dioxide rises the dough. Picture courtesy of Boulangerie Poilâne @painpoilane

Fermentation is your friend, whether you realize it or not. Beer, wine, bread, cheese, miso, soy sauce, kombucha, tempeh. . . the list goes on. And it’s getting longer, thanks to chef David Chang, who’s out there trying to bring us fermented pork.

But what’s all this fervent ferment really about?

Read on to learn how fermentation works and why you should be eating all the fermented foods you can.

1 – “When rotten goes right”

Fermentation is the “metabolic process by which microbes produce energy in the absence of oxygen and other terminal electron acceptors.”

Whoa. Slow down there, buddy. This is not Mr. Nun’s 9th grade chemistry class. (And let’s all be grateful for that, because Mr. Nun was a real pre-Me Too type creep.)

So what’s fermentation to us simple folk?

Basically, it’s when yeast, mold, or bacteria break sugar down into something else, without the presence of oxygen. Or, as Chef Chang puts it, “when rotten goes right.” Ain’t that the truth.

In the case of cheese, we’ve got a little lady who goes by Dissacharide Lactose, which is the sugar in milk. Let’s call her DiLa.

DiLa meets up with the lactic acid bacteria that’s already hanging out in the milk, or she goes off with yeast, mold, or bacteria that’s introduced by the cheese maker. They dance the night away and at the end, DiLa has been turned into lactic acid, which is a necessary step towards coagulating milk (the first step to cheese) and gives cheese its famous tang.

Depending on what kind of dance they did, sometimes they leave behind a trail of alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide.

The foam that appears on the top of fermenting wine is produced by the release of carbon dioxide. Photo from Wine Cuentista.

It’s basically the same thing in wine and bread, except the process relies exclusively on yeast to break down the sugars. In this case, the process always produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. In bread the alcohol evaporates and in wine… well, you know.

At the same time, CO2 bubbles form. It’s what makes bread dough rise and why you see foam on beer, and in wine that it’s in the fermenting tank.

For you word lovers out there, you’ll appreciate knowing that those bubbles explain the origins of the word ferment, which comes from the Latin fervere – to boil.

Look, it’s not my fault I’m a word nerd. My dad’s a competitive Scrabble player. I can’t help it. (Just don’t judge me when you see me wearing my glasses, k?)

2 – A 5,000-Year-Old Tradition

History suggests that ancient Egyptian honey hunters discovered fermentation. The theory goes that hunters stored honey in animal skin sacks, which they kept to eat later. And when later came, they found their honey had turned into a sweet booze we call mead, thanks to enzymes in the animal skin.

(Another nerdy wordy fun fact: the word “honeymoon” supposedly comes from the tradition of giving newlyweds’ mead to encourage fertility. But I digress.)

The Egyptians pioneered fermentation in other areas, too. They had a thriving beer industry, they made wine, and they were producing so much cheese that wealthy Egyptians were buried with their cheese urns. They even had a goddess of fermentation, Ninkasi.

A 3,200-year-old cheese discovered in the tomb of a wealthy Egyptian. Archaeologists have found traces of cheese residue in pots dating even further back, to 7,000 B.C. Photo from the University of Catania and Cairo University, via the New York Times.

Ultimately, these discoveries came out of necessity. All the acid produced by fermentation makes food last longer. Wine keeps longer than grape juice, cheese stays longer than milk, etcetera. So, weirdly enough, fermentation is the process of preserving food by letting it go bad. In the so bad it’s good kind of way, of course.

To understand the science of fermentation, we have to fast-forward to 19th-century Paris, and to one famous Parisian in particular: Louis Pasteur.

Actually, different scientists started piecing together the fermentation puzzle once the microscope was invented in the 16th century. But the early 19th-century was where it was at for fomenting all that fermenting knowledge.

All this action was happening in the Latin Quarter. Walk near rue Mouffetard and most of the streets are named after guys – and occasionally, women – who had their hand in these scientific developments, one way or another.

That work culminated with the 1877 publication of Pasteur’s Study on Fermentation, which in French is called Studies on Beer. Yummy.

There was still a ways to go, though. Thanks to Pasteur, we now knew that fermentation was caused by microorganisms, but not even he could figure out which microorganisms, which made it hard to control the process.

The Germans get credit for figuring that one out, specifically a guy named Edouard Buechner, who was shocked to find that the liquid he’d collected from crushed yeast could actually ferment a sugar solution.

Buechner won the 1907 Nobel Prize and we’ve been fermenting to our heart’s desire ever since.

3 – A Taste of Place

This one’s a quickie but a goodie.

While we see fermentation around the world, the results will taste different depending on where the process takes place. Even if you follow the same steps, the microbes in different regions are so wildly different that the results will be distinct. Which is why many people say baguettes never taste the same outside of Paris, why San Francisco sourdough is so unique, and why real bagels can only be made in New York. (Sorry, Montreal. Love you anyways. )

4 – Fermentation Fights Depression (Seriously!)

There are one trillion bacteria living in our gut. That’s about four pounds’ worth of bacteria living inside us. And if you haven’t heard, it’s all about gut health.

The problem is, our good bacteria is constantly fighting our bad bacteria. (Gut Wars: The Bacteria Strikes Back? Anyone?)

Bad bacteria weakens our immune systems and causes bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. And since bad bacteria is caused by refined sugars and stress, us modern-life livers are one big, bad bacteria breeding ground.

Yogurt is often touted as a healthy probiotic food, but all fermented foods are full of goodies for our gut. Picture from Master Cheesemongers Maison Androuet @Maison_Androuet

But we can fight those bad boys by eating probiotics. And guess what is flourishing with probiotics? You guessed it! FERMENTED FOODS!

Probiotics strengthen our immune systems by supporting a strong mucosa (the gut lining). And it doesn’t end there.

Because fermentation is a process of breaking things down at the microbial level, fermented foods are easier for us to digest. In turn, that makes a food’s vitamins and minerals easier to absorb.

But wait, there’s still more!

The gut is linked directly to the brain by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. And you know what the gut produces? Our all-important serotonin, which travels from our gut to our brain to create the feeling of happiness. That process is helped by good gut health.

You read that right. Eating cheese and drinking wine will make you happy. It’s called science.

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