My first introduction to fermentation came one day during lunchtime in third grade. Sitting knee to knee with my classmates on a bright blue, netted picnic table, I popped a few ruby red pomegranate arils into my mouth and began to chew. Quickly, I realized that the taste was different than I was used to. The arils had been in a Ziploc® bag leftover from my lunch the previous day—likely sitting out in the sun for hours before I remembered to bring my lunchbox back into the classroom.
When I explained this to my mom later that day, she laughed and told me, “It probably tasted like alcohol!” explaining that the fruit had likely begun to ferment. While I could not fully wrap my young mind around the concept, I remember feeling amazed that fruit could transform itself so completely within a matter of days.
Like me, you may be asking, “So what’s the difference between pickling and fermenting?” When pickling vegetables, the brine base includes an added acid such as vinegar to achieve a sour flavor. This differs from fermenting in that the acid is created naturally by a chemical reaction rather than added in during the fermentation process. For this reason, fermented vegetables tend to be healthier as they are closer to their raw form*. Ever heard of probiotics? You can thank fermentation for that as well.
You may have also noticed that fermented vegetables are found more commonly than fermented fruit. That is because the high sugar content tends to promote the growth of yeast when deprived of oxygen, which converts the sugar into alcohol quite quickly**! Hence why fruits like grapes and berries are used to make wine, and why some beverages like kombucha have a low alcohol content.
In the case of fermented vegetables—think kimchi, sauerkraut, and cucumbers—the food is often submerged in a simple brine made of salt and water and left to sit within a sealed container for a number of days. Natural bacteria within the vegetables multiplies and helps to inhibit the growth of microbes, ultimately transforming into acid that serves as a preservative for the food***.
Alternative preparations for vegetables, such as fermenting, often serve as a way for suppliers to diversify their offerings while potentially cutting down food waste for items that are not shelf-ready. Retailers can also build out their fresh selection by bringing refrigerated fermented vegetables to the perimeter of the aisles.
While the trend has definitely taken off in recent years, fermentation has been used for millennia. Humans have utilized the metabolic process to preserve and enhance foods since 10,000 BCE****.
And, as different cultures continue to influence the eating experiences of North Americans, fermentation is one trend here to stay.