Food & dining

The newest food trend: fermentation

Lee Kun Shee (right) shows the author how to make kimchi at Dumpling Daughter.
Kieran Kesner for The Boston Gobe
Lee Kun Shee (right) shows the author how to make kimchi at Dumpling Daughter.

On the day my wife refused to enter our kitchen — June 17: Sharpie’d on a jug of home-brewed kombucha — I had the first inkling of what I’d gotten myself into. How I was dabbling with a cult. How it would be hard to turn back. How I felt this in my . . . gut.

At first, she’d been encouraging enough. I’d made my case fervently, devotionally: I could make food that was alive and packed with flavor that changed by the day. It was elemental, earthy, real. So she indulged the project — yet another cooking project — even as our kitchen counter began to groan under the weight of jugs of fermenting tea, canisters of brined hot peppers, ceramic crocks of kraut, sewer cap-size bowls of kimchi, jars of sourdough. All of it gurgling, bubbling, hissing.

Not to mention the many Ball jars, filled or half-filled with suspicious contents, set out on every level surface. An unknowing visitor might think he’d stumbled onto a frat party the morning after. Make that the year after.

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Because the smell, what some fermentos call perfume, had gotten to her. And with the days getting hotter, time was precious. If I could only “complete” one of these home fermentations and get her to try it. (I soon learned they’re never completed, one of their beauties.) Once she’d had a taste, I hoped she wouldn’t only tolerate my efforts — to “rot vegetables,” as she’d cruelly taken to calling it — but join the crusade.

Craze, contagion, culture

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Home fermentation is having a moment. Amazon lists page upon page of cookbooks on the subject released in the last two years. Google Trends traces steady ascent for “fermented foods” and “probiotics” and “sauerkraut” over the last decade. Cutting-edge microbiologists have recently become preoccupied with fermented foods, using them to get a handle on the dazzling complexity of the microbiome. Everybody and his sister appears to be making (or at least drinking) kombucha.

On Aug. 28, the 2016 Fermentation Festival takes place at the Boston Public Market. More than 5,000 people attended last year. Even larger numbers are expected at this year’s event, which includes demonstrations and presentations by authors, scientists, doctors, and entrepreneurs.

Five thousand people attending a fermentation festival? The interest, says organizer Jeremy Ogusky, reflects an accelerated passion for tasty, nutritious, healthy — potentially very healthy — living creations that for the last century or so have been elbowed aside by food-industry standardization and a general fear of microbes.

Why now? Underpinning the D.I.Y. fun of home fermentation and a quest for more diverse flavors, science and health are driving the phenomenon.

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Ben Wolfe, a biology professor at Tufts, believes this has something to do with the growing excitement over the microbiome, which has been made more accessible via the explosion in inexpensive and easy DNA sequencing.

“There’s a soil microbiome, there’s a gut microbiome. It’s the collection of microbes living in a particular place, and we’re now realizing that the microbes in soil are doing so many things to improve and inhibit the growth of plants, so that if we can manipulate what’s there or work with it as opposed to trying to kill it with pesticides, we might be able to actually improve the sustainability of agriculture.”

Same goes for the human gut. Wolfe elaborates: “One potential source of microbes in the human microbiome — especially in the gut microbiome, where we think a lot of these immune system microbe interactions happen — could be fermented foods. So when you eat kimchi or cheese or any of these foods that are intentionally grown with microbes, those microbes could interact with your gut microbiome and perhaps become part of your microbiome.”

Note Wolfe’s careful wording: “could” and “perhaps.” Every scientist I spoke with was careful not to make outsize claims for fermented foods, even as they expressed great excitement for their potential. “The renaissance and incredible branding of yogurt” has been instrumental in spreading the word about the health benefits of good bacteria, says Christina Agapakis, a synthetic biologist at Boston’s Ginkgo Bioworks, a company that specializes in creating fermented compounds.

Granted, these benefits are often exaggerated. Still, the perception that bacteria are vitally important to our health has been confirmed by the studies that regularly pop up showing interesting connections between the microbiome and obesity, diabetes, mood, and much more. “We still have a lot of work to do to understand why this is happening,” Agapakis says, “but there’s something going on.”

The guru

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Ask any chef, scientist, home fermenter, or entrepreneur working with fermentation, and invariably the enthusiasm traces back to one person: Sandor Ellix Katz. The author of “Wild Fermentation” (2003) and “The Art of Home Fermentation” (2012), Katz has been an indispensable guide and the moving force behind reclaiming this ancient method of food preservation.

In June, I attended one of his all-day fermentation workshops, which took place at Hope and Main, a food business incubator in Bristol, R.I. People traveled from all over the East Coast to attend. This included Katz, whose home base is in Tennessee, where he lives on what he’s called a “fairy commune.” He was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1991; fermented foods, he believes, have helped keep him in good health.

It’s easy to see why Katz has such a following. Over the course of several hours, he laid out in low-key, authoritative, charismatic fashion the history and principles of fermentation. But he also portrayed fermenting as a spiritual, ethical, and creative act. Yes, your sauerkraut is a delicious concoction guided by your own inimitable hand. But it’s also an example, as Katz describes it, “of a consciousness of ourselves as coevolutionary beings, part of a greater web of life.”

In 2014, Katz attended Boston’s Fermentation Festival. Ogusky says, “He gave our keynote talk and people were starstruck. It was crazy. There were paparazzi.”

Ogusky runs Boston Ferments, which organizes the festival, and also instructs chefs, conducts workshops, stages pop-ups, and handcrafts fermentation vessels — along with other ceramics — in his Jamaica Plain workshop. He lives by Katz’s example. “He’s my inspiration,” Ogusky says simply.

Sauerkraut: the gateway drug

Ogusky volunteers to teach me to make sauerkraut, which he calls fermentation’s “gateway drug.”

“It’s super easy. It’s very safe. It’s hard to screw up,” he says. “The worst that’s going to happen is that you may get a little bit of funky growth on top. But it’s never going to harm you.”

Ogusky has no interest in recipes. Instead, like Katz, he’s more interested in passing along concepts and processes that can be broadly applied. And he loves dispelling myths about fermenting — that it has to be done a certain way, that you need special equipment, that you should use particular measures or criteria. “My approach is to just do it, figure it out, and gain confidence. When people take my workshops I want them to walk away feeling empowered.”

In this vein, it’s good to recognize the variability of fermenting. The sauerkraut you make this week is going to be different from the sauerkraut you make next week, depending on weather, humidity, and your local community of microorganisms. On top of which, the composition of those microorganisms and bacteria shifts over the life of the fermentation, changing taste and probiotic profile from hour to hour, day to day. Both Ogusky and Katz stress the pleasure of enjoying this evolving nature.

So we get down to business — shredding cabbage, salting and wringing it out to break down the cellular walls, releasing the liquid. We pack it into jars and weigh it down. If there is one rule, it’s that the final ferment must be anaerobic, meaning the vegetables should be covered with liquid, whether their own or additional brine. This is called lacto-fermenting. Within hours, microorganisms and bacteria are set in motion, with lactobacillus bacteria the dominant factor. It’s the lactobacillus that converts vegetables’ natural sugars into lactic acid, accounting for the sour flavor. When the sauerkraut is as sour as you like it, stick it in the fridge. Though it continues to ferment, the cold slows it down.

The kimchi master

I’m hooked. And so my mind turns to kimchi — specifically that made by chef Lee Kun Shee at Weston restaurant Dumpling Daughter. When I first tasted it with barbecued pork tenderloin, I had to order the kimchi ramen. And then the short rib with kimchi. OK, and then the Taiwanese kielbasa bun with kimchi. Heck, I would eat this kimchi on an English muffin. I have to know how to make it.

Shee, who is from Taiwan, learned from Korean chef friends. It took him four years to perfect. Like Ogusky and Katz, he is not one for an exact recipe. He operates by sight, color, and feel.

First pick a good Napa cabbage, about 2 pounds. Shee prefers one with yellow rather than green leaves. Core the cabbage, then cut it into 1½- or 2-inch squares. Toss the cabbage lightly — no deep-tissue massage here — with a teaspoon of salt, or to taste. Let the cabbage sit in the bowl for three hours, tossing it lightly every 20 minutes. Quickly, it begins to shed water.

After two to three hours, pour off the water and add your ingredients: one medium carrot, two scallions cut into matchsticks, two cloves of minced garlic, ¼ to cup gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), and ¼ to cup gochujang (a Korean condiment made of fermented soybeans, glutinous rice, and red chiles).

Shee loads the kimchi into a Ziploc bag and pushes out all the air before sealing it; I use 1-quart wide-mouth Ball jars. Shee puts the kimchi straight into the fridge (required by restaurant regulation), but to get the fermentation really rolling at home — as in cabbage that zings in your mouth — one to two days at room temperature is advised. Shee says it keeps for up to six weeks in your fridge. Considering that kimchi in Korea was traditionally stored in underground jars for months and months, this seems conservative.

I’ve tried various additions to Shee’s recipe — fish sauce, daikon, dried shrimp — but his subtle, elemental version remains my favorite. During our tutorial, he gently scolds me for over-handling the Napa cabbage. We both laugh. How American — piling on, over-handling! And I now see that it’s Shee’s restraint that animates his superior kimchi.

The verdict

When it comes to food, my wife is conservative. And my kids — three young boys — are the Barry Goldwaters of culinary adventure. So when I sit them all down at the kitchen table, before a spread of my fermented foods and beverages, it is with trepidation.

The kimchi is a tough sell. Too spicy. But the sauerkraut and kombucha? All of them love it. In the history of cooking for my family, I’ve never been so thrilled. The cult is now four stronger.

The 2016 Boston Fermentation Festival takes place Aug. 28 at the Boston Public Market. For more information, go to www.bostonferments.com.

Ted Weesner can be reached at tedweesner@gmail.com.