“Fermented”… that’s a divisive word, isn’t it? At THE PIG Hotel, they describe it as “controlled spoilage” – a fantastic phrase, but hardly one to have you salivating wildly and digging in. If we had a penny for every time we saw someone turn their nose up at the idea of fermented food and drink, well… we may not have to do a day’s work again.
Of course, those that know a thing or two about flavour will tell you that fermented foods contribute so much to the modern chef’s toolkit, adding flavour to vegan plates that can turn them into the best dish on the menu, and a rich umami swathe to dishes that need that extra oomph.
There’s also a wonderful communal aspect to getting involved in the world of the humble ferment. We all love to share what we’ve been fermenting, and that shared, ancient knowledge is a wonderful glue that brings people together. Goodness knows we need more of that in these confusing times.
But you don’t need us to tell you about fermented foods. The truth is, you probably know all about them already, even if you’ve never referred to them with that particular “F word”. Fermented foods are all around you – often part of your daily diet. Once you’ve got your head around that and realised what fermentation can bring to your flavour palate, there’s a whole lot more out there that you could explore.
This little list is intended to show you the fermented foods you’re eating every day, while mixing in a few ideas that you might want to go out and try. Welcome to the Fermentation Nation!
Fermented grapes, AKA wine
Pretty sure you’ve heard of this one. So, what makes this a fermented drink whereas plain grape juice is not? Simply put, when those yeasty microorganisms get to work on the sugar in the grapes, the fermentation process creates alcohol. The “controlled spoilage” is precisely what leads to the personal “controlled spoilage” you experience once you’ve had a few glasses. While grapes are commonly thought of as the natural base ingredient, other foodstuffs can be fermented to make a great wine, too. For instance…
Fermented tea, AKA kombucha
Kombucha is on the up, and has been touted as the ideal non-alcoholic alternative to wine. When brewed well, the fermentation process draws incredible, complex flavours from the raw tea leaves, altering your perception of a plant that is so heavily associated with the humble cuppa. At REAL, we know a thing or two about fine fermented teas brewed as wine alternatives. Try our Royal Flush (from Darjeeling, the Queen of Teas) or our Dry Dragon (a delicious, refreshing alternative to a Sauvignon Blanc).
Fermented grains, AKA beer
You can brew beer by fermenting a whole range of different things. It’s a grainy world, so you might plump for wheat, barley, maize, rice… It’s a wonderful area for experimentation, and the craft world takes great pride in coming up with new and fascinating brews and ferments. It’s no wonder that beer is the third most consumed drink in the world (after water and tea, in case you were interested).
Fermented apples, AKA cider
We’ve written about ciders on this website before, and we reckon that, like wine, it’s a drink in which the flavours of fermentation are to be celebrated. Take away that delicious, fermented bite and you’re left with apple juice. There’s nothing wrong with an apple juice, of course, but it’s not really what you’re at the bar for. What you’re after is that lingering tang… “controlled spoilage” at its best.
Fermented coffea beans, AKA coffee
Nope, that’s not a typo. Coffea beans, or cherries, are the first step en route to a great cup of morning joe. And yes, coffee is fermented… or, at least, it can be. There are so many varieties and flavours, and many of them go through a fermentation process to arrive at a specific flavour. If you’re keen to learn more, here’s a great article on how coffee is fermented.
Fermented milk (part 1), AKA cheese
Cheese fact incoming: Over in the United States, a third of all milk produced is used for making cheese. It’s pretty high on the list of fermented foods that most of us enjoy on a regular basis. Mostly created from cultured milk, each cheese will go on its own microbiological journey, often stopping off at Fermentation Station before it arrives in your fridge. And if you’re looking for a great fermented food/drink combo, may we humbly recommend a delicious soft cheese with our very own Dry Dragon? That’s a party in your mouth just waiting to happen.
Fermented milk (part 2), AKA yoghurt
Yoghurt facts (yes, plural!) incoming: Anyone who thinks they’re consuming old milk when they put yoghurt in their bowl is absolutely right… they’ve been eating yoghurt in and around Turkey, Lebanon and Syria for the best part of 5,000 years. India was in on the secret pretty early, too – ancient records show that they called yoghurt and honey, “Food Of The Gods”. Sounds a bit better than “controlled spoilage”, don’t you think?
Fermented cocoa beans, AKA chocolate
Yes indeed. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter… none of them would be half as tasty without the art of fermentation. The first stage in the process of making chocolate is to ferment the beans, often for up to seven days. So, all those delicious, creamy, morsels of sexy romance? Controlled spoilage, mate.
Fermented soy beans (part 1), AKA miso
Definitely one to try if you’re keen to break away from the norm. Miso is a staple in Japanese cooking, enriched with the umami flavours of koji fermentation. Use it as a delicious, natural soup stock, as part of a glaze when you’re roasting meats (Jamie Oliver has a great recipe here), as part of your salad dressing… It’s such a versatile concoction to have in your fridge, and the sharing of your miso amongst friends really demonstrates the community aspect of fermentation.
Fermented soy beans (part 2), AKA soy sauce
We’re here to champion that oft-overlooked bottle of soy sauce, another staple of East Asian cooking, but pretty common in many kitchens here in the UK, too. It’s all about the koji and the umami, see? There are few autumnal or winter dishes – broths, soups, stews, roasted veg – that can’t be improved with a dash of this fermented goodness.
Fermented bread, AKA sourdough
OK, so it’s the dough that’s fermented rather than the finished loaf. Like kombucha, however, sourdough has done its time as a hipster fad. And, like kombucha, sourdough has now found its way onto the shelves of most supermarkets. Once again, it’s all about that fermented tang. Toast it, and the flavours seem to spring forth, as though they’d been lying dormant and are ready to live again. And what can be more communal than sharing a bit of your starter dough with your inquisitive friends? That’s what fermentation is all about.
Fermented crusts, AKA pizza dough
It’s that fermented dough thing again, isn’t it? Think about it. A pizza without that delicious zing in the crust would lose a whole load of its appeal.
Fermented ale, AKA vinegar
Sure, focusing on ale is a bit of a reductive way of looking at things. Vinegar can be fermented from all kinds of things – rice wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, malt barley vinegar – but, in short, it’s a great example of a fermented food that is as common to our everyday lives as fish’n’chips.
…which leads us to Worcestershire Sauce
A traditional Worcestershire Sauce will usually be made with a vinegar base, not to mention slowly fermented fresh fish. Subsequently, it shares that rich umami flavour you’ll find in soy sauce, which is why it’s one of those at-hand condiments that people reach for to add a little body to their cooking.
Fermented vegetables, AKA pickles
You’re not going to get terribly far in your pickling process, whether you’re working with sauerkraut, kimchi, or the humble pickled onion, without an element of fermentation. Both sauerkraut and kimchi have their own processes, but pickled onions (and other straightforward pickled vegetables) rely very heavily on vinegar, which, as we’ve already seen, can’t really be done without that tasty F-word.
…which leads us to ploughman’s pickle
It doesn’t get much more traditional than a dollop of ploughman’s pickle with your cheese, does it? And look at all the fermentation happening on that plate. You’ve got cheese, for starters. Then you’ve got pickles, and, in many recipes, you’ll also have call for a good spoonful of Worcestershire Sauce. Lip-smackingly good. If that’s what controlled spoilage is all about, book us a table.
Want to explore fermented foods further? Try our podcast episode with the godfather of modern fermentation, Sandor Katz. Simply strap on your ear goggles and hit play on the player below.