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Broyles: A to Z of fermented foods

Humans will ferment just about anything.

By encouraging microorganisms like yeast and bacteria to multiply on fruits, vegetables, beans, dairy, grain and even meat, we can transform raw ingredients into some of the planet’s most delicious foodstuffs.

From one vantage point, fermentation is one of nature’s most versatile and perplexing processes, and from another, it’s simply a form of controlled decay that happens to produce foods many of us would have a hard time living without, including bread, cheese, yogurt, wine and beer.

It’s a remarkable feat on both the microscopic and cultural levels, and no one better understands the depth to which that defines us as a species than Sandor Katz.

His books “Wild Fermentation” and “The Art of Fermentation” are a practical and even spiritual guide for a new generation of food fermentation enthusiasts, and many of those fans will gather Saturday to hear the Tennessee-based fermentation revivalist speak at the Austin Fermentation Festival at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. (See sidebar for details.)

This (long-overdue) first-year festival will celebrate all things cultured, a vast umbrella that includes both the familiar (sauerkraut and soy sauce) and the exotic (natto, Japanese fermented soybeans), so what better way to kick things off than an A-to-Z guide to fermentation.

This guide will cover some of the fermented foods themselves as well as some of the key tools and principles; for past stories on making kombucha, kimchi, cheese, yogurt, bread and more, go to

Alcoholic fermentation: The process through which yeast converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. One of two of the primary forms of fermentation. (The other is lacto-fermentation.) See also: Atchara, a Filipino pickle made from unripe papaya.

Bread, Beer: Without yeast’s ability to break down sugars and turn them into carbon dioxide and alcohol, we wouldn’t have bread or beer (or wine or whiskey, for that matter). See also: Bacteria, single-celled organisms that make lacto-fermentation possible; Brine, the salty byproduct of lacto-fermentation.

Cheese: Unless milk is curdled with an acid to make a fresh cheese like ricotta or paneer, it’s usually aged and fermented. Depending on how much processing and pasteurization occurs, however, the cheese might not have many probiotics left when you buy it. See also: Crock, a vessel in which to ferment sauerkraut; Cultures; the general name for colonies of living microorganisms.

Dhokla: A fermented batter made from rice and chickpeas in India that is steamed into a cake-like breakfast dish.

Eggs: Salt-cured yolks can be grated and used as a seasoning agent. Hundred-year eggs are whole eggs that are fermented for much longer, though not 100 years.

Fish sauce: Like soy sauce, fish sauce gets its powerful umami-rich flavor only through months of fermentation.

Gochujang: The fermented Korean chili paste that could be the next sriracha, which is also fermented.

Hot sauce: Speaking of sriracha, Tabasco, Texas Pete, Cholula and just about every other bottled hot sauce is made with fermented peppers.

Injera: The Ethiopian sourdough batter that is cooked on a flat surface.

Jeot: A range of salted, fermented seafood that is consumed widely in South Korea.

Kimchi, kombucha, kefir: Lucky K has all the fermentation fun. Kimchi is the Korean condiment gaining popularity quickly in America. Kombucha is that sweet tea that is carbonated with a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), and the drinkable kefir is one of the hottest trends in yogurt.

Lactic acid, lacto-fermentation: Lactobacillus bacteria break down sugar and turn it into lactic acid, a preservative that inhibits the growth of bacteria that can make you sick. We’ve been lacto-fermenting for long before we knew why a salt-enhanced anaerobic environment keeps out the bad bacteria while encouraging the good. See also: Lassi, the fermented yogurt drink from India.

Miso: Fermented soybean paste. Yes, that delicious soup you’ve been eating at your favorite sushi restaurant is actually packed with probiotics and is super good for you.

Natto: Another form of fermented soybeans, but these slimy whole beans aren’t as beloved outside Japan as their cousin, miso.

Ogi: A fermented West African porridge made from maize, sorghum or millet.

Prosciutto: Nearly all forms of charcuterie and especially any dry-cured meats involve fermentation.

Quick pickles: Not all fermented foods are pickled and not all pickles are fermented, and quick pickles usually fall into that latter category because of all that vinegar used to make them. Yes, vinegar is a product of fermentation, but it is often pasteurized to kill the bacteria, especially when used to make commercial pickles. (Hey, “Q” is always a stretch.)

Relish: Homemade relishes are perfect for fermenting because they are supposed to be salty, tangy mishmashes of vegetables. Regular old hot dog relish usually isn’t fermented, but a new book called “Fermented Vegetables: Creative Recipes for Fermenting 64 Vegetables & Herbs in Krauts, Kimchis, Brined Pickles, Chutneys, Relishes & Pastes” (Storey, $24.95) by Kirsten K. Shockey and her husband, Christopher, has dozens of fermented relishes that can fill up the condiment shelves in your refrigerator and sneak probiotics into your belly.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae: The scientific name for the yeast used in baking and brewing. In his book, “Cooked,” Michael Pollan argues that this yeast, the world’s first domesticated species, has a stronger claim as man’s best friend than dogs and that human culture wouldn’t exist without alcohol and the pursuit thereof. (Read the section in “Cooked” on fermentation and you’ll agree, even if you’re a teetotaler.) See also: Sauerkraut, sourdough, soy sauce.

Tempeh: A fermented soy patty that originated in Indonesia but has been popular among vegetarians in America for decades.

Umeboshi: Pickled Japanese plums that are also prized for the nutrient-dense vinegar that you can now buy by the bottle at health food stores across the U.S.

Viili: A Nordic strain of yogurt that, unlike many other yogurt strains, can culture milk at room temperature. See also: Vinegar.

Worcestershire sauce: Yet another condiment that wouldn’t exist without fermentation. The most popular version from the British company Lea & Perrins dates back to 1835 and is made with anchovies, tamarind and molasses that has been aged for 18 months.

Xanthan gum: A thickener often used in gluten-free baking that is made from fermented corn sugar.

Yogurt: One of the oldest fermented foods. Though the name we use now is Turkish, every culture that raised animals for milk figured out that they could keep the liquid longer if they fermented it. Many commercial yogurts don’t taste or look anything like the tangy drinkable yogurts of yore, but Austin’s White Mountain makes some of the most probiotic-rich yogurt you can buy. See also: Yeast, a single-celled organism that should be every beer, wine and bread lover’s best friend.

Zha cai: The pickled stem of a mustard cabbage from Sichuan, China.

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