Fermentation is as old as life itself. At some point, humans learned to guide the process to repeat especially tasty results. These processes have been handed down and passed around, creating beloved foods and national dishes. The most familiar fermented foods are made using lacto-fermentation.
The diets of every traditional society have included some kind of lacto-fermented food. Europeans consume lacto-fermented dairy, sauerkraut, grape leaves, herbs, and root vegetables. The Alaskan Inuit ferment fish and sea mammals. The Orient is known for pickled vegetables, sauces, and kimchi in particular. Farming societies in central Africa are known for porridges made from soured grains.
Pickles and relishes are a part of the American food tradition. Since the advent of industrialization, most pickling is done with vinegar, which offers more predictable results, but no lactic acid. With just a little patience, instruction, and minimal supplies, it is possible to learn the time-honored art of lacto-fermentation.
The important thing is not to be intimidated by lacto-fermentation. Unless it smells unmistakably putrid (in which case common sense says throw it away), fermented foods are some of the safest foods. They are easy for even a beginner to prepare, and it doesn’t take long to gain enough confidence to venture beyond basic yogurt or sauerkraut to an endless variety of vegetables and fruits, beverages and more.
Most people think about beer or wine when they hear the term fermentation. While certain yeasts are used to convert the sugars in grape juice or grains into alcohol, it is bacteria that are responsible for lacto-fermentation.
The “lacto” portion of the term refers to a specific species of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus. Various strains of these bacteria are present on the surface of all plants, especially those growing close to the ground, and are also common to the gastrointestinal tracts, mouths, and vaginas of humans and other animal species.
Lactobacillus bacteria have the ability to convert sugars into lactic acid. The Lactobacillus strain is so named because it was first studied in milk ferments. These bacteria readily use lactose or other sugars and convert them quickly and easily to lactic acid. However, lacto-fermentation does not necessarily need to involve dairy products.
Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. (Read more about preserving food with lacto-fermentation.) Beyond preservation advantages, lacto-fermentation also increases or preserves the vitamin and enzyme levels, as well as digestibility, of the fermented food. In addition, lactobacillus organisms are heavily researched for substances that may contribute to good health.