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Does The Fermentation Process Affect Flavor? How To Ferment Food, & Why Fermentation Is Useful.

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Rose and Shrimp Garum at Tiki Food Lab

The answer is yes! When you ferment food, it transforms the ingredients and changes flavor and texture of the items fermented. In general, the flavors produced by fermentation include increased acid (makes it taste bright) and adding complexity and funk (what we call umami). Not to mention, properly fermented foods are also good for you because fermentation breaks molecules down to more digestible components and the microbes also aid in digestion. Fermented foods like yogurt, pickles, miso, tempeh, kimchi, tofuru, sauerkraut, kombucha, sourdough, and jiangs contain probiotics that have not been stripped out by commercial pasteurization or preservatives.

Food fermentation may be intimidating at first, but fermentation is a process that can help you increase flavor and allow your body to benefit from eating fermented foods. Plus, consuming fermented foods is good for your gut and muscles. In this blog, we discuss how foods are fermented and how fermentation occurs. At the Tiki Food Lab, we experiment with many fermented foods, with a focus on how fermentation can be used in food processing, in restaurants, and by you at home. Not only do fermented foods make food taste great - but fermentation can be used to preserve food, and to achieve umami in a vegan context from fermented vegetables.

At our restaurant, Suis Generis in New Orleans, we also use natural fermentation and food science to seek zero waste. When a harvest is ready at our Tiki Farm, we generally have too much to use on our weekly changing menu. Thus, we implement lactic acid fermentation, and other forms of vegetable fermentation such as miso fermentation, kimchee, and jiangs to preserve and transform ingredients into new products and flavors. After all, fermentation increases umami, and you eat many fermented products on a daily basis without necessarily knowing they are fermented. So, embrace that lactic acid bacteria in fermented foods - whether you know the chemical formula or not. Fermentation provides the platform for you to make your food ingredients tastier and easier to digest.

The value of fermented foods cannot be underestimated in restaurants and home kitchens! Below is a discussion of some of the basic types of fermentation, health benefits of fermented foods, and how to use traditional fermented processes in your own kitchen.

Amino ferment with koji, house made gochujang, dried peppers and anchovies at the Tiki Food Lab

Lacto Fermentation

Lacto fermentation involves the use of salt and water to ferment ingredients. Foods like pickles are produced through lacto fermentation. All vegetables have some form of sugar, whether sucrose, glucose or fructose. When you lacto-ferment vegetables, you use lactobacillus bacteria to break sugars down to lactic acid. People tend to know that fermented foods are good for you, but don’t necessarily understand the science behind it. Fermentation involves the breaking of molecules into more useable parts. At the Tiki Food Lab, one of our goals it education in a way that people can actually use. Lactic acid - the byproduct of lacto fermentation, is an essential molecule for cellular respiration, glucose production, and molecular signaling, which is the regulation of information between cells. Yes, but what does that mean? It means fermentation is good for you! Glucose is really important because it allows you body to make energy. You can think of lactic acid as fuel for your muscles. Traditional fermented foods using lacto fermentation include: milks, yogurts, sourdough bread, kimchee, pickles, sauerkraut & olives. Stay tuned for more detailed blogs and classes/food experiences at the Tiki Food Lab on the details of how to do each of these ferments.

Alcohol Fermentation

We know that all cultures across the globe use some form of alcohol fermentation, and that’s not just a coincidence. Similar to lacto fermentation, alcohol fermentation also uses microorganisms to transform sugars into other compounds. For alcohol fermentation yeast is the fungi of choice. So, when yeast is added to naturally occurring sugars in food, the “mash” bubbles, gurgles and turns into ethanol and carbon dioxide. We use alcohol fermentation in breads, wines and beer. For example, the little pockets in the bread you eat is from the carbon dioxide produced in alcohol fermentation – as are the bubbles in champagne. It's easy to make cooking wine from fruits you have in your fridge. Doing so adds layers of flavor to what you cook - and that is how we seek complexity in the dishes we prepare.

Acetic Fermentation

Acetic fermentation is essentially a form of oxidation where Acetobacter bacteria is used to convert alcohol into acetic acid. This is how vinegar is made. At Suis Generis restaurant, we hold a chef meeting right before the new menu comes on each Friday night. During those meetings, when tasting and finishing flavors, you will very often hear me say – that needs more acid. In fact, it has become a running joke, but it's true. The answer to dialing in the flavor of most dishes is to add acid (ie: vinegar, lime, orange juice, lemon, etc.). The taste buds read acid as brightness, and it adds balance to both bitterness and sweetness. Acids even help in baking, because they contribute to the leavening process. They also assist in the tenderization of meats by denaturing or unwinding the long proteins in muscles - which positively effects flavor and texture of the meat. In fact, proteins are made of long chains of amino acids linked together in chains. So, using acid will act on the longer chains of amino acids to break them down to smaller chains that read as tenderness when you eat it. However, If you hold your meat in an acid brine for too long it can become mushy (For Example: this is a risk when using pineapple juice in a brine, which is particularly good at breaking down the amino acid chains.

Don’t forget about the enzymes! There is a particular enzyme called Protease, that chefs love (whether they know the name or not). It's particularly good at breaking down proteins into amino acids. Fruits that are high in Protease include papaya, kiwi, pineapple, fig, and mango. So, all of these fruits are particularly good at tenderizing meat.

The making of vinegar (an acid) is a two-stage process. You first make a basic wine by using yeast to transform sugars into alcohol (Acetic Fermentation). However, alcohol fermentation is anaerobic – so an air lock is used to remove oxygen from the fermentation vessel. When you make vinegar, you typically add your acetic acid bacteria and allow it to access oxygen, usually by covering with cheesecloth affixed with a rubber band. So, first you make the wine in an anaerobic environment (without oxygen), and then turn it to vinegar in an aerobic environment (with oxygen).

Amino Fermentation a/k/a Koji Fermentation - Release the Microbes

Several Tiki Food Lab ferments!

Fermented foods may be intimidating if you do not have much experience, but microbial fermentation is a great way to get started. Plus it's our favorite!! We call this Amino Fermentation. Amino Fermentation is not really a scientific term, it is a term used by fermenters and chefs to describe the process of using Koji to ferment various food components. Koji is magic! It is our favorite fungus, and a great place to start when first getting into fermentation, because of its ability to dominate and out compete any bad bacteria. Essentially, using Koji in your ferment greatly increases your odds of success because Koji is a bad-ass. Funny story: My last name is Foundas. When I was young, people would say “there is a fungus amungus” – which I found entertaining at the time, but did not yet realize it would become an integral part of my life!!! Now, I live among the fungus fueled ferments all over my house and the Tiki Food Lab.

Koji is Aspergillus Oryzae spores grown on rice. It has been used for centuries to make soy sauce, miso, sake and jiangs. Once again, it's all about the enzymes. When Koji is used as your fermentation agent, it produces hydrolytic enzymes – namely, Amylases and Proteases. In fact, these proteins are largely responsible for what we call Umami.

Amalyse assists in breaking the bonds in starches and carbohydrates to create easily digested sugars. It is also found in the salivary glands – called Slivary Amylase, and is the first step in the chemical breakdown of food (ie: digestion). So, what do those fancy words really mean? That means Amalyse is a very important aspect of flavor. Your body responds to it by salivating, which translates to a very positive taste in your brain, which is a large part of what chefs call Umami! Amalyse is also later released by the pancreas into the small intestine to further assist in digestion. So, not only does Amalyse contribute to flavor, it helps you derive nutrients from the food you eat. That's just one reason why fermentation is good for you.

Protease is another enzyme - or flavor compound, created by Amino Fermentation using Koji. Similar to Amalyse, Protease also contributes to digestion. However, Protease focuses on the breakdowns of proteins and polypeptides to turn the gluten and casein into proline dipeptides. I know we just got crazy there with a bunch of fancy terms. However, what that means is Protease also contributes to what we read as good flavor – or Umami. Proline Peptides can read as both bitter and sweet - ie: complex flavor. Thus, fermentation not only assists to break down food, it also increases the complexity of flavor. One research group, headed up by Norio Ishibashi and Tetsuji Kubo, have called this a Stimulating Unit.* Once again, that means Protease stimulates taste glands and assists in the breakdown of carbohydrates to proteins. After all, who doesn't want a Stimulating Unit in the food they make!

Fermentation Cooking Classes - How to use fermentation in cooking

Controlled fermentation is an art and a science. The impact of fermented foods on flavor can not be under-stated. Plus, fermentation is a natural process you can easily use to increase the flavor and longevity of your food ingredients. A primary goal of the Tiki Food Lab is to conduct research on taste, flavor building, Umami, and the use of fermentation and enzymes to accentuate flavors. We also strive to get as close to zero waste as possible at our restaurant, Suis Generis in New Orleans. Check out our schedule of Food Experiences and classes and join us at the Tiki Food Lab in Pearlington, Mississippi to delve deeper into each of these topics, and a whole array of others. Our Food Experiences also typically include a farm tour and chef curated tasting menu using various techniques and research. Some of our favorite Food Experiences even involve the fermentation techniques discussed here…so, we hope to see you in person at one of those!

Additional Resources & Reliance Materials:

*Norio Ishibashi, Tetsuji Kubo, Mitsuto Chino, Hiroshi Fukui, Ichizo shinoda, Eiichi Kikuchi, Hideo Okai & Sakuzo Fukui (1988) Taste of Proline-Containing Peptides, Agricultural and Biological Chemistry, 52:1, 95-98, DOI: 10.1080/00021369.1988.10868632.



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