To many people, fermented foods might not sound so tempting but in fact, some of
our most treasured staples are the products of fermentation.
wine, for example, have achieved a sacred status in Judaism, and have their own
When bread is made, “the yeast in the starter ferments some of
the flour,” writes Alex Lewin, author of Real Food Fermentation
carbon dioxide and small amounts of alcohol... The carbon dioxide is responsible
for the rise of the dough.”
In addition to wine, many other beverages are
fermented. Indeed, notes Lewin, “The most popular, interesting and important
beverages in the world are fermented... A partial list: coffee, chocolate and
some kinds of tea; every alcoholic beverage, including... beer, hard apple
cider, mead, sake and hard liquor; and vinegar.”
Pickles are a popular
category of preserved food, although only those preserved in salt, like
sauerkraut, dill pickles and preserved lemons, are fermented; vinegar pickles
are preserved by the acid in the vinegar. During the fermentation of
salt-preserved pickles, which are left to stand for several days at room
temperature, friendly bacteria create an acidic liquid that gives the pickles
their pleasantly sour flavor. Olives and soy sauce are other examples of
much-loved fermented foods.
In many cuisines, yogurt and cheeses are
prized fermented foods. “Yogurt,” writes Lewin, “is produced by bacterial
fermentation of milk at warm temperatures... It is likely that yogurt originated
accidentally in the Middle East more than 4,500 years ago” when milk was
transported in animal skins. “The natural bacteria from an animal skin could
have combined with the milk, and along with the warm temperatures, could have
led to something we would recognize today as yogurt.”
In Paris we learned
to make one of the most luscious of fermented foods – crème fraîche.
thick cream is readily available in France, but most of the students at our
cooking school were unable to find it in their home countries.
crème fraîche is simple; you warm cream slightly, add a small amount of yogurt
or buttermilk and let the mixture sit at room temperature until it thickens.
Even when crème fraîche became available in our local markets, we found it
valuable to know how to make it because homemade crème fraîche is more
economical. (The recipe is below.) The process of making yogurt is similar to
making crème fraîche, but milk is used instead of cream and it is heated to a
higher temperature. We like to make yogurt at home because it has a pleasing
flavor and a light texture.
It’s easy to understand why many Indian cooks
make yogurt regularly.
Most of us don’t think of butter as a fermented
food, but often it is. “When you make butter from pasteurized cream,” writes
Lewin, “you get what is called sweet cream butter.
When you make it from
fermented cream (like crème fraîche), using the same process, you get cultured
butter.” In the US, most butter is sweet cream butter. Europeans, however,
prefer cultured butter. When such butter is made in the US, it is often labeled
Buttermilk, a by-product of making butter, is another
popular fermented food. “When you make butter from cream,” writes Lewin, “you
will have some residual liquid. This residual liquid is true
genuine buttermilk is fat free, or pretty close to it,
because the fat is in the butter.”
We first tasted kefir, a fermented
milk drink loved by Russians, in Israel. This special form of cultured dairy
food is related to yogurt but, unlike yogurt, cannot be made from a previous
batch. Instead, kefir requires a special starter known as kefir grains. Lewin
describes them as a cottage cheese-like collection of globules. The kefir
starter is strained out during the kefir-making process and reused
The history of kefir is shrouded in mystery.
accounts hold that it has existed in central Asia since at least 3000 BCE,”
writes Lewin; “a legend tells that it was a gift from Allah to Muhammad... The
starters necessary to make kefir were guarded by the people of the region until
the early twentieth century, at which time a Russian spy supposedly stole some
of the starters and brought them to Moscow, whence they spread far and
Today, kefir starter can be purchased at natural foods
“The word kefir is said to have originated from the Turkish word
‘keif,’ which means ‘good feeling,’” writes Donna Schwenk, author of Cultured
. Schwenk believes strongly in kefir’s healthful properties and claims
it is much more beneficial than yogurt because it “has 30 plus good bacteria as
compared to yogurt which has only seven.”
Schwenk makes kefir cheese by
letting kefir drip slowly through a strainer lined with a coffee filter, a
process similar to making labaneh from yogurt. Then she turns the cheese into
appetizer dips, flavored, for instance, with roasted garlic, olive oil and
grated Parmesan cheese. Her tempting apple and kefir breakfast is composed of
warm baked apples with a filling of cinnamon, sugar, chopped walnuts and butter,
topped with kefir flavored with cinnamon and maple syrup and garnished with
golden raisins and walnuts.
For dessert, Schwenk makes strawberry-lemon-
basil kefir pie with a filling of kefir, kefir cheese and a little milk; the
filling is set with gelatin and flavored with honey, fresh basil, vanilla and
lemon juice and zest.
Schwenk pours the creamy filling into a cookie
crust pie shell and tops it with halved or chopped strawberries. Her mango soup
with kefir coconut ice cream makes a refreshing summertime dessert. (The recipe
is below.) Faye Levy is the author of
Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.
Instead of using yogurt as a starter to make the crème fraîche,
you can use kefir, cultured buttermilk or a previous batch of homemade crème
fraîche. Commercial crème fraîche or sour cream that has been pasteurized will
not work as starters because the friendly bacteria are no longer
Homemade crème fraîche keeps up to two weeks in the refrigerator.
You can use it as a delicious replacement for sour cream.
Makes about 2
2 cups whipping cream
1⁄4 cup whole-milk yogurt
Stir cream and yogurt
together in a medium saucepan. Heat over very low heat, stirring constantly, for
Pour into a jar, partially cover and let stand at room
temperature overnight or at least 8 hours or until thickened.
gently, cover and refrigerate.
MANGO SOUP WITH KEFIR COCONUT ICE CREAM
This recipe is from Cultured Food Life
. If you have stevia in packets, author
Donna Schwenk suggests sweetening this dessert with 2 or 3 packets instead of
You can substitute frozen strawberries when fresh ones are not
Makes 2 servings
1 can (400 gr. or 14 ounces) unsweetened
coconut milk (13⁄4 cups)
1⁄2 cup kefir
3 to 4 Tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla extract
mangoes, peeled and cubed
1 cup strawberries, rinsed and hulled
juice of 1
Shredded coconut (for garnish)
Blend the coconut milk, kefir, honey and
vanilla in a blender.
Transfer coconut milk mixture to an ice cream
machine and freeze according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Meanwhile,
chill a container for storing the ice cream.
When the ice cream mixture
is frozen, transfer it to the chilled container, cover and keep in the freezer
until ready to serve.
To make the soup, process mango cubes, strawberries
and orange juice in a blender until mixed and creamy. Refrigerate until ready to
Serve chilled soup in shallow bowls and top each with a scoop of
ice cream. Garnish with shredded coconut.