Fermented foods are bubbling up in popularity, thanks to an increasing awareness of gut health. Research suggests the balance of bacteria in our gastrointestinal systems plays a vital role in more than just digestion. In other words, there may be a connection between our gut and our bad mood or that nagging cold — and fermented foods like kimchi and kvass may put us on the right track to a healthier GI.
But the main reason to eat fermented foods isn't your microbiome — it's flavor. In fact, fermentation is probably the reason many of our favorite foods are, well, favorites.
We're just beginning to discover the microbial benefits fermented foods have to offer. For now, the correlation between the state of your gut flora and, say, that bout of adult acne, is just that — a correlation.
What we do know is that fermentation makes food taste more. As Amanda Feifer writes in Ferment Your Vegetables, fermentation gives us "flavors that taste like nothing else, flavors that can't be replicated by chemical additives or the addition of vinegar and spices."
5 Foods That Get Their Flavor from Fermentation
1. Sourdough Bread
If you love the taste of your sourdough bread, you can thank the lactobacillus bacteria. Although those microbes are not likely to be living by the time you eat the bread (due to the high temperatures of the oven), the fermentation process is responsible for both its springy texture and its hearty tang. Adam Leonti, founder of Brooklyn Bread Lab and soon-to-be chef at The Williamsburg Hotel, says, "Sourdough is the oldest way to make bread and will always be the most flavorful."
Did You Know?
In fact, all yeast breads, not just sourdough, involve fermentation. The difference is that other breads undergo yeast fermentation only, while sourdough involves both yeast and bacteria fermentation.
Give Sourdough Bread a Try at Home: How To Make Sourdough Bread
We wouldn't have wine (or beer, or bourbon) without yeast fermentation. Of course, yeast is the agent that converts sugar into alcohol, but, notes Michelle DeFeo, U.S. President of Laurent-Perrier, "yeast also has a very important role to play when it comes to creating flavor in wine."
Most wine is fermented using cultivated yeast (yeast strains that are bred for certain purposes, like winemaking), but lately we're seeing a lot more wild fermentation, which makes use of the natural yeasts that exist in the environment. The latter process takes longer, which means more contact with the grape skins, which generally yields wines with more character, greater body, and bolder fruit notes.
There are some exceptions but, for the most part, wine's favorite companion — we're talking about cheese! — gets its funky flavor from fermentation. On a related note — and good news for anyone who is lactose intolerant — fermentation, which converts lactose to lactic acid, causes some cheeses to be lactose-free.
More on Lactose and Cheese: Are You Really Lactose-Intolerant?
Double Up on Fermentation with This "Grilled Kimcheese": This Grilled Cheese Sandwich Has a Spicy, Fermented Secret
Did you know that this sweet treat is fermented? "We hardly ever think of chocolate as a fermented food," says Megan Giller, author of Chocolate Noise, "but fermentation plays a vital role in creating and locking in that chocolate taste we all know and love."
The process, which Giller says removes tannins, making the beans less astringent to let other flavors shine through, usually takes about a week, although makers are experimenting with letting the process go longer to see what kinds of flavors develop.
More on the Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Process: Fermentation and Drying
Your morning jug of jolt is also born of fermentation. If you want to get really geeky, there are actually three different types of fermentation, but the basic idea is that fermentation breaks down sugars, producing acid that gives your cuppa its depth and complexity of flavor.