The Complex Flavor of Fermented Foods

One of the main reasons I think we need to eat fermented foods to be healthy is that their flavors correspond neatly to the flavors we like. Fermentation of fruits and other sweet foods changes sugars to acids, making the food taste sour — and we like sour food. Fermentation of proteins produces glutamate, which produces an umami flavor — and we like umami-flavored food. With many foods, their fermentation produces many microbial byproducts, giving the food a complex flavor — and we like complex flavors.

The connection between fermentation and complex flavor is well-put in a Saveur article about fermented foods:

[As a child] I only knew Claussen and other vinegar-cured pickles, the kind you buy in jars off the supermarket shelf, and I liked them just fine. But when I finally tasted a real pickle—the kind made the old-fashioned way, fermented with nothing more than salt, water, and time—I realized what I had been missing. A vinegary pickle plows through your palate with its tartness (often in a most pleasing way), but a live-cultured, salt-cured, fermented one tells a more multifaceted story. It is sour, to be sure, but it tastes of something more, something elusive: It’s the flavor of Middle Europe captured in one bite. When I started cooking for a living, I realized that the complexity I’d tasted in that pickle is the hallmark of well-made fermented foods, which include some of my very favorite things to eat and drink: not just pickles, but aged cheeses, tangy sourdough breads, blistering kimchis, tart yogurts, winy salamis, and of course, wine itself.


5 Replies to “The Complex Flavor of Fermented Foods”

  1. But I wonder why many fermented foods seem to be an acquired taste (i.e., they often don’t taste good the first few times you try them). I still find that to be the case myself. I recently made a fermented hot pepper sauce (well, more of a paste, actually) out of habaneros, carrots, onions, garlic, and salt. The stuff has a pungent odor, and I didn’t actually enjoy it much until I ate it a few times. Now I find myself craving it, and I’m disappointed that the jar is almost empty.

  2. Have you seen Dave Asprey’s stuff. He is saying (and supposedly cites sources, although I have not investigated) that many ferments are now unsafe, because they produce histamine, tyramine, and other -amines. He says that this has changed as a result of humans applying fungicide to so many soils, which kill 98% of the natural fungi and leave nasty ones behind. He says that well produced ferments where they are testing the bacteria are ok but that home ferments are not. I’d love to hear your take on this stuff.

    Seth: I haven’t seen those comments nor was I able to find them via Google.

  3. He covered this in a video. I’m not entirely sure because I have watched 2 or 3 by him. This might be the one where he made the specific point about fungicide —

    — but he tends to cover the amine stuff in all of them Interesting watch, anyways.

  4. “Fermentation of fruits and other sweet foods changes sugars to acids, making the food taste sour”

    Some fermented foods taste sour to me (especially vinegars), but meads, wines, liquors, raw fermented honey and raw fermented custard apple have never tasted sour to me (some wines have tasted bitter, but not particularly sour). I find that the best sweet fermented foods are less strongly sweet than fresh domesticated fruits and honeys–a more full-bodied, pleasant sweetness that is not “sickeningly sweet.”

  5. Fermented foods are a great way to change the profile of a food. It took me years (as a child) to figure out pickles = cucumbers. I think it adds a whole new layer to our food and drink opportunities.

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