Chefs use microorganisms for extra flavor and nutrition

sauerkraut

Fermented foods are not a new discovery; cooks have been using microorganisms like yeast and bacteria to make tasty food and beverages for millenia. But recently interest in using beneficial bacteria to transform food's flavor and nutrition has hit new highs, as NPR's The Salt reports.

We've long known that fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut can be delicious, and now scientists are finally beginning to understand their health benefits. For instance, resarchers have found that turning cabbage into sauerkraut "increases glucosinolate compounds believed to fight cancer,"  according to a publication from Tufts University Health & Nutrition.

These discoveries, coupled with renewed interest in traditional cooking methods among chefs and adventurous home cooks, have led to a renaissance in fermented food production. Although the health benefits are welcome, most chefs look to the fermentation process to boost flavor. Chef Rob Weiland of Washington, DC, explains to NPR how he uses time, heat, and humidity to turn ordinary garlic into something extraordinary. Called black garlic, the finished product "picks up caramel notes during browning. Hints of dried fruit come out. Also, natural microbes on the garlic bulb can ferment, creating more distinct flavors," according to the article.

Just as many chefs have jumped on the fermentation bandwagon, so too have academics. There is now a fermentation certificate program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, offers an elective course on another popular fermented product - beer. Students learn brewing basics, with an emphasis on science. "I would say the most exciting development has been the ready use of wild yeast and bacteria in beer fermentation," says Hutch Kugeman, head brewer at the CIA.

Photo of Sauerkraut from Observer Food Monthly Magazine by Claire Ptak

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