Fermented foods

While the process is not very appetizing, the result is worth it.

Ice cream (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ice cream
(photo credit: Courtesy)
To many people, fermented foods might not sound so tempting but in fact, some of our most treasured staples are the products of fermentation.
Bread and wine, for example, have achieved a sacred status in Judaism, and have their own blessings.
When bread is made, “the yeast in the starter ferments some of the flour,” writes Alex Lewin, author of Real Food Fermentation, “generating 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.
This 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.
Making 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 “European-style.”
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 buttermilk...
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 repeatedly.
The history of kefir is shrouded in mystery.
“Some 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 wide.”
Today, kefir starter can be purchased at natural foods stores.
“The word kefir is said to have originated from the Turkish word ‘keif,’ which means ‘good feeling,’” writes Donna Schwenk, author of Cultured Food Life. 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 active.
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 cups
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 1 minute.
Pour into a jar, partially cover and let stand at room temperature overnight or at least 8 hours or until thickened.
Stir gently, cover and refrigerate.
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 the honey.
You can substitute frozen strawberries when fresh ones are not available.
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
2 mangoes, peeled and cubed
1 cup strawberries, rinsed and hulled
juice of 1 orange
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.
Serve chilled soup in shallow bowls and top each with a scoop of ice cream. Garnish with shredded coconut.