When it comes to food, fermentation simply refers to the metabolic process that converts sugar to acids, gases, or alcohol. This results in the uniquely flavored food that fermentation enthusiasts love.
Fermented food and drinks are said to be one of the biggest food trends of 2017; however, there is nothing new or trendy about fermentation. Humans have been utilizing fermentation to preserve foods since the Neolithic Era. It was simply a way to ensure you would have food to eat long after the harvest was over. While that still holds true today, people are starting to take notice of the health benefits of fermented food and drinks. Most notably, the positive affect they can have on your gut microbiome. Did you know recent research has shown a connection between your gut health and your mental health? I think it’s fascinating to think about the little microbiota in my gut having a positive (or negative) impact on my brain and mental well-being. But back to the process of fermentation…
What types of fermentation are there and how are they different from each other? When it comes to fermentation, there are three terms you will come across: wild fermentation, lacto-fermentation and culturing. Though these ideas do overlap, they are actually three different processes. I’ve caught myself using the words interchangeably and decided I needed to do my research to figure what the differences are, so I can better understand what is happening with my food.
What is Wild Fermentation?
Wild fermentation occurs when microbes naturally found on foods or in the air are used to initiate the fermentation process. Essentially spontaneous fermentation! Wild fermentation was actually my first real introduction to the world of fermented food and drinks. For example, the initial process of creating a sourdough starter illustrates wild fermentation, as it utilizes wild yeasts found in the air. That is why a sourdough starter originating in New York will taste different from a sourdough starter originating in San Fransisco: different locations, different yeasts in the air! Kind of cool, eh?
Sauerkraut is also an example of wild fermentation. Sauerkraut utilizes the naturally occurring bacteria on the cabbage, Lactobacillus, to break down and ferment in an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment. If left exposed to oxygen, the cabbage would simply mold. The anaerobic environment paired with a little salt keeps the bad bacteria away and allows the beneficial bacteria (Lactobacillus) to turn into lactic acid. This results in the sour tasting fermented cabbage that we call sauerkraut.
What is Lacto-Fermentation?
Lactic acid fermentation (AKA: lacto-fermentation) is variant of wild fermentation. Lacto-fermentation refers to the specific bacteria, Lactobacillus. Lactobacillus is present on anything grown in the earth. So, sauerkraut is actually an example of both wild fermentation and lacto-fermentation. The naturally occurring Lactobacillus bacteria found on the cabbage feeds on sugar and produces lactic acid as a by product. This fermented carrot stick recipe is also an example of lacto-fermenation. Lactobaccillus is naturally present on the carrots and with the help of a little salt and an anerobic environment, these carrots naturally ferment.
What is Culturing?
Culturing generally means there has been some sort of microbial starter used to initiate fermentation. Common microbial starters include whey, SCOBYs and powdered starter cultures. Water kefir is an example of culturing. The water kefir grains are actually grain sized symbiotic colonies of yeast and bacteria. These grains feed on sugar water producing a cultured beverage containing beneficial yeast and bacteria.
Some fermented condiments can be considered cultured as well. My Spicy Fermented Mustard recipe is an example as the addition of whey initiates the fermentation process. Without the whey, it would just be…spicy mustard.
As you can see, a wild ferment can also be a lacto-ferment, but not always. A lacto-ferment is a wild ferment. And culturing is a fermentation process where a microbial starter is used. And now I know!