A dedicated community in Philadelphia
revives the lost art of fermentation
Seven thousand years ago, a thirsty Neolithic Iranian watched Eurasian grapes ferment into two and a half gallons of wine. He may not have known at the time that it was wine, or that he was Iranian, or that one day, his jar would be on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. He likely attributed the process he witnessed to something that made sense to him, like magic, or perhaps the intervention of a decent god.
Whatever it was, it didn’t scare him off, nor the next few millennia of fermenters. But with the relatively recent advent of processed foods, the number of fermenters dwindled. Now, a renaissance of the practice is afoot, led by both food activists wishing to control food production and the health conscious who read studies about the positive effects that “good” bacteria found in fermented food can carry. Today, it exists in the form of what Carly and David Dougherty hand me—a bottle of apple and hibiscus kombucha—across the table of a coffee shop.
With an excited squeak, the container is uncorked. Inside is a sparkling, harmonious draught of sweet tea cultured with yeast and bacteria, bursting with life after several months sealed tightly on a shelf. Fermentation eats up nothing more than it does time; kombucha can take anywhere from a week to a month, with a lengthier brew leading to more sugars being consumed.
“We’re pretty patient people,” Carly says, adding that perhaps the waiting is the hardest part. “If you can follow a basic recipe, then you can make a ferment.”
Two years ago, the Doughertys embarked on a four-month venture to California’s Bay Area during a personal farmhouse culture tour that included Santa Cruz, Oakland and Berkeley, which locked in their fermentation passions. Since then, they have become part of an expanding circle of fermenters in the Philadelphia region, and insist that the process is for anyone. Their business, Food and Ferments, has been a full-time job since January 2014, and is why they recently relocated from Chestnut Hill to a larger facility in upstate New York, where, if it starts with a “K,” they ferment it: kombucha, kraut and even kvass, all available at the Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal Market and at the Rittenhouse Farmers Market on Saturdays. “Beet kvass is like a pickle juice,” David says. “After long nights on the town, that’s our hangover cure.”
Food That’s Alive
The Doughertys heap praise upon many of their compatriots, including Amanda Feifer, a foodie, teacher and writer of phickle.com, her blog of fermentation facts, finds and recipes. Feifer is a lively source on fermentation’s slow-moving microbial chaos and how far it’s come.
“Most fermentation is sugars being consumed and turned into something else,” she explains. “Even in ancient alcohol ferments, it was true, if not understood. Only the shamans would have access to them, and they put a liquid in a closed vessel and it starts moving. If you don’t understand the science, of course it seems like magic.”
Fermentation is actually a frenzy of microscopic science. For example, with sauerkraut, the specialty of local fermenter Cobblestone Krautery, a cabbage already comes layered with lactic acid. Sealed in a container with a bacterial culture and left in room temperature, the sugars on the cabbage are slowly devoured by the lactic acid. This creates carbon dioxide and in turn, small quantities of alcohol via one of two culturings: a living bacteria culture like salt or whey to speed up the process (cheese); or wild fermentation, during which the fermentation is given no culture and takes longer to occur (fruits and vegetables, like sauerkraut).
The process prolongs the shelf life of food, making regional crops even more sustainable. “It’s very easy to source local produce,” insists Cobblestone Krautery owner David Siller. “And we’re working on always using local ingredients.” Siller sells his products at Weavers Way Co-op, Greensgrow Farms, the Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal Market and other local markets.
Near the end of the process, the health benefits kick in. Enzymes are created that boost vitamins already in the food, and new vitamins—distinctly from fermentation—are created. Pickles, cabbage, carrots or whatever you’ve jarred is now swimming in probiotics, fermentation’s friendly microorganism byproduct. They emerge from the process alive and at their most beneficial to human health. (You gain nothing from consuming dead bacteria.) Probiotics are available on their own as supplements, but these don’t have the potency to fend off something like salmonella or ulcers. For that, you need fermented food.
Blessed Are the Cheesemakers: Bread, Beer and Cheese
Sourdough bread, like that made by Michael Dolich at West Philadelphia’s Four Worlds Bakery, provides benefits that don’t stop with the fermented bread itself, but reach out to any foods touching it.
“There’s an inverse relationship between flavor and volume when we talk about bread,” Dolich says. “The denser it is, the more complex flavor you’re going to get. With the really light, fluffy stuff, you’ve got to add to it because it loses all of its flavor. When you eat sourdough bread, it opens your palate to whatever you put on the bread and makes it tastes better.”
Restaurants such as Hawthorne’s, OCF, Lovers and Madmen, Earth Cup, Green Line Café and Ultimo Café agree, and all serve Dolich’s bread with their menu items. The bread can also be found at Mariposa Food Co-op and Harvest Local Foods in Lansdowne.
“We’re still at the very beginning of discovering all the stuff ferments can do,” Feifer adds. “It’s not just probiotics, it’s not just digestion and immunity and improved absorption and increased mineral content. It’s other weird compounds that don’t exist anywhere else that are created in the fermentation process.”
Feifer’s enthusiasm for fermentation is routinely on display during classes she teaches at Reading Terminal Market through Fair Food’s education series. In September, it was a soda-making workshop that sold out far in advance.
“People don’t just make one thing and then they’re like, ‘Oh, that was fun,’” Feifer says of the addiction to ferment. “They tend to make one thing and then suddenly their entire house is covered in jars. If you live in small studio spaces, you might want to make an investment in an airlock and a recap. The two together would cost $10.”
It’s easy to do right, and it’s easy to do again—but things get more complicated outside of your kitchen. “It’s fine for one jar,” Feifer says, “but if you’re spending $10 on every jar, that would be impossible for me. I have 50 ferments going at any given time.”
It’s as simple as thinking of the foods you like, and then putting them through a process that brings out even more of their natural flavors. Pickles are a traditional starting point, and as Feifer says, “They’re probably the best ferment to make; you don’t need any special equipment, you don’t need anything—you need salt and vegetables.”
Yogurt is another popular at-home ferment, and offers an alternative to the pricey high-quality yogurts at the grocery store.
“There are yogurt cultures you can purchase for nine dollars that will live literally forever,” Feifer says. “You can make yogurt for the rest of your life just by buying good milk.”
Jon Medlinsky, brewer of heavily fermented sour beers at Khyber Pass Pub, is in attendance for Feifer’s soda class, quietly seated in the back, only to be immediately outed by Feifer after someone asks about beer fermentation.
“Home brewers doing sour beers for the first time, it’s difficult,” Medlinsky says. “For most people, their first sour beers are terrible. Mine were terrible.”
Medlinsky says a sour beer’s signature tart, acidic flavor can come from fermenting lambics and red ales with fruit, but the real thrill is in using the untamable bacterial strains, brettanomyces and pediococcus, the fiends that sour beers and spoil wines. They are wickedly temperamental, having strong, flavorful reactions to the passage of time. It can take months for the beer to be drinkable; longer if you wait for it to hit maturity, but each passing day is a gamble.
“People think sour beer can be dangerous for them, but it really almost can’t be,” Medlinsky says of the timely, finicky process. But the practice doesn’t scare him. Not like cheese does.
“Cheese is really difficult to do,” Medlinsky warns, his beard practically curling fearfully at the thought. “As a home brewer, I can go out and buy Hefeweizen yeast when I’m making a Hefeweizen, and I follow a recipe, and I get a pretty stable, normal product. And you can do that with cheese, too. But it’s almost illegal.”
Medlinksy is referring to rules set by the Food and Drug Administration, which has rigid stances on milk, and a lot of people going down the cheese-making path wind up turning back when faced with the full brunt of the government’s standards. This past June, rebellion almost erupted from the FDA’s threats to ban all cheese-making on wooden shelves.
But an hour from Center City, past the endless corn of the Oley Valley and through the covered bridge that gives Covered Bridge Road its name, is Stefanie Angstadt’s Valley Milkhouse. Angstadt is more aware than anyone of milk’s treachery.
“Milk is such a living and breathing chemical substance as it is,” she says. “If you don’t do anything to it, it will ferment. Fermentation is happening right now in the gallon in your fridge.”
It was happening to milk thousands of years ago, too, when peasants stored their surplus supply in preparation for future outages, and had their foresight rewarded by the discovery that, over time, their reserves had partially solidified and fully soured. That is the full spectrum of fermentation in the dairy world—milk spoiling into curd.
Angstadt specializes in “tangy, oozy, creamy” cheeses that rely heavily on strict amounts of lactose and precise timing to hit their peak flavor, but don’t have lengthy shelf lives. (Philadelphians can buy her cheese at the Fair Food Farmstand in the Terminal, too.) Cheese can be the roughest fermenting ride in town, and Angstadt knows it.
“You can try all you want to have it be as controlled as possible,” she says. “But in the end, you’re at the mercy of something that’s really wild. And I think that’s kind of sexy.”
Batter Up: Prosciutto, Cured Meats
What is sexy about something natural and mysterious that refuses to play by the rules? For Andrew Wood, head chef and farm-to-table enthusiast at Russet, the allure lies in the cyclical nature.
“We’re only two generations removed from this,” he says. “My grandma fermented things. So, if you look at it over a 150-year span, it’s the grocery stores that are the trend.”
Wood is accustomed to watching the weeks tick by as he prepares his duck prosciutto and other cured meats; after, of course, the part where he beats them without mercy. “You gotta beat it up with a baseball bat to break down the muscle fibers,’” Wood says. “And then our prosciutto takes a year—it’s just pork and sea salt. That’s it. Then you wait.”
At six months, the meat is good to go, but it can be another six months before it reaches the intended level of dryness, and 10 to 18 months later before the water has left the meat and penetrated the salt.
But that’s the straightforward approach. It’s a widespread falsehood that salami is the easiest starting point of meat fermentation, because once it’s broken down in a meat grinder, the surface area is larger and will absorb more bacteria, now requiring a hurry-up fermentation like cheese. If the salami isn’t immediately cultured, Wood says, “Bad things are gonna happen.” No one’s getting hit with a bat or anything, but the salt may not penetrate correctly, or the acidity may not dip low enough. Wood shakes his head at some catastrophic memory. “All kinds of weird and different things can happen with salamis.”
Simple Plan: How to Get Started
It’s the potential for the weird and different—like Cobblestone’s “Jungle Kraut” or Food and Ferments’ beet kvass—that has brought fermentation home to more and more Philadelphia kitchens, thanks to a strong regional base of willing local experts with endless tips. Feifer hails the importance of keeping a marker and masking tape near the fridge for dating and labeling jars.
“And do not do cauliflower first,” Feifer warns. “It tastes great, but it smells.”
Food and Ferments’ David Dougherty echoes that sentiment: “Ultimately, you trust your senses. If it smells like crap and it’s green and growing hair, it’s probably not good to eat it.”
There certainly exists an industry of fermentation gear, the usage of which guides the process along amicably. But Feifer has always found alternatives to coming home with her arms full of equipment.
“All of the people I’ve found that say buying equipment makes it better are people that are usually selling something,” she says. “I’ve tried all of these things so many times and I’ve never experienced any benefit to spending the extra money.”
Fermentation is at its purest when performed simply—there was a time when this process required nothing more than a wine jar and a lot of time to kill. Being a natural process, it’s going to occur in some cases with or without your involvement; you are merely controlling the elements in play when it does.
The Doughertys recommend starting with a one-gallon container, or even just a mason jar. “Temperature is really important,” Carly advises. “If it’s 90 degrees in your kitchen, those microbes are gonna do different things than if it’s 65-70.”
They have a room adjacent to their kitchen, separated with a sheet that stays cool with an AC unit in the window. Food and Ferments now includes up to 10 different ferments of various sizes; when demand forced them to bring home their first two-gallon crock, they knew they’d hit the big time.
For those more interested in kraut by the truckload, renting out kitchen space has allowed Cobblestone Krautery to produce 100 gallons in a batch. “The most important part of the whole thing, in my opinion, is labor,” Siller says. Cobblestone makes use of large, food-grade 33-gallon plastic containers, storing shredded cabbage in a Hobart shredder at Greensgrow Farms.
“Just plan, and don’t get too nervous about it.” Siller says. “Don’t buy a bunch of CSA food items and then realize too late that it’s too much food.”
When performing a cooking method from before the invention of writing, it helps to embody the practices closer to agriculture in its fledgling, highly natural stage. It also helps to do so around here, where Philadelphia’s fermenters are always pointing to and repeating each other, usually without even realizing it. Angstadt, her Oley Valley operation only five months old, has found it nothing but convivial: “It’s fun to geek out over this stuff, and it’s nice to have people in this immediate area that are willing to do that.”