GAGAN MAUR DELVES INTO THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF FERMENTED FOODS
Fermented food and beverages have developed in cuisines across the globe to amplify and bring depth to dishes. But fermentation is also functional: through its complex techniques, we preserve the season’s harvest, improve nutrition by unlocking key nutrients, or make inedible foods (in their raw form) edible. While almost everyone is familiar with more common ferments like sourdough, beer or wine, or the standard cucumber pickle, there’s a whole world of wonderfully delicious, fermented foods waiting to be explored and tasted! Fermentation enthusiast and nutritionist Gagan Maur is a guide to a growing community and here shares how to get started at home.
Gagan Maur founded the North Dallas Fermentation Enthusiast Meetup Group.
WHAT IS FERMENTATION?
The word “ferment” is derived from the Latin verb “fervere,” which means “to boil,” but it’s not actually heat that creates the bubbles in many fermentation processes. The fizziness is just an offshoot of the CO2 created by beneficial bacteria and yeasts which are doing all the work.
The living microorganisms contained in many fermented foods are similar to strains in commercial probiotics oen taken as health supplements. Maur compares these living home ferments to pets that are much easier to take care of aer the initial combination of ingredients, also giving tremendous joy and company! During each process, beneficial microbes break down sugars and starches into acids (or alcohols), not only making foods more nutritious, but also impeding spoilage.
By definition, fermentation is simply the process of controlling this microbial growth. In the case of food and drink, this process can transform almost any vegetable or fruit (for myriad pickles), dairy products (for kefirs and yogurts), grains (brews!), soybeans and other legumes (tempeh!) — even meat (think cured salami or prosciutto).
“What really brings me joy is that creating fermented foods is the perfect combination of science and art,” Maur says.
And there is growing evidence that fermented foods provide additional health benefits as well, including improved digestibility and nutrient bioavailability.
(left)Kimchi; (right)A vibrant carrot- chile achar (Indian fermented condiment)
WHY FERMENT AT HOME?
Although most North Texans eat or drink some type of commercially fermented food in their regular diet, Maur suggests these might not be as healthful as they could be.
“Store-bought ferments, like yogurt for instance, have been dumbed down,” he says. “Because there are fewer species of microbes, the cultures are weaker and lack the complex flavors and health benefits of those created at home with diverse probiotic cultures.”
The commercial food industry uses different fermentation techniques than artisan or home-scale producers. Instead of “spontaneous” ferments that use more complex and diverse pass-along starters, mainstream, industrial- scale fermentation uses tamer starters that are easier to control and reproduce consistently. A more simplified taste emerges from the significantly smaller number of bacteria, yeasts and fungi artificially cultivated under more controlled circumstances.
On the other hand, home-made or artisanal ferments tend to be less predictable, sometimes with subtle differences in flavor and aroma from batch to batch, this inconsistency results from numerous factors such as temperature, ingredients or vessel, or the slight changes in the microclimate in which they are made and stored.
(left)Variations of sauerkraut; (right)Kombucha with its SCOBY
THE BASICS OF FERMENTATION
Maur explains that fermentations can be categorized into three groups, all of which you can practice at home.
These are often referred to as “spontaneous” or wild ferments, in which the active microorganisms are present naturally in the raw food (or the surrounding atmosphere). These organisms are oen native to the local environments and can change drastically from city to city or season to season. For example, both sauerkraut and kimchi are created by merely adding salt and spices to cabbage. e combination of live beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally live on the cabbage leaves trigger the fermentation. Many unique ginger beers, sour beers, wines and ciders also use wild microbes to kickstart the fermentation process, which oen creates incredibly diverse and complex (but oen more unpredictable) flavors when compared to more controlled commercial beverages that use cultivated yeasts as catalysts.
These culture-dependent ferments begin by incorporating a small amount of a previously fermented batch (teaming with beneficial microbes) to the raw ingredients of a newer batch. Traditionally, yogurts and sourdough breads use this technique.
This acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast refers to the jelly-like mats used to create the refreshing, fermented-tea drink called kombucha as well as the grain-like cultures that start milk and/or water- based kefirs. In milk kefirs, the SCOBY are added to cow, sheep or goat milk, or even coconut milk, to create a refreshing, fermented, almost yogurt-like drink. Due to yeast activity, kefir is slightly carbonated, and therefore sometimes referred to as the “Champagne of milks.” inner, water-based versions are made by combining sugar water with water kefir “grains.” The term grain refers to the size and shape of the SCOBY only and kefir does not contain any cereal grains like wheat or rice.
OVERCOMING THE FEAR OF FERMENTATION FAILURES
Basic fermentation typically involves few ingredients and utensils you probably already have in the kitchen, and most recipes take very little time to assemble. But as you wait the days or weeks for your cultures to do their work, you might be worried about messing up or not knowing when a ferment has gone bad.
Maur admits that some home artisans are initially hesitant when it comes to nurturing their first fermentations, but he encourages folks that the process is not only easy but relatively safe.
“Almost every culture evolved with fermentation as part of their cuisines. During that time as a species, we also learned to tell what is good to eat (and what has gone bad) by our senses of sight, smell and taste,” he says. Bottom line: Those senses can typically help you discern a “good” sour from a “something’s-not-quite-right” sour.
And remember that one of the main functions of fermenting foods was to preserve them from spoiling. The process of inoculating the raw foods with beneficial probiotic bacteria, yeasts and fungi creates more acidic conditions, which actually helps to reduce the risk of contamination with pathogenic microorganisms.
“If there’s a little mold growing on top of your sauerkraut, most of the time you can simply scrape the discoloration off the top and move on, without any worry or detriment to flavor,” Maur says. “But if the end result doesn’t smell or taste quite right, simply toss it out and move on to the next batch and learn from your mistake,” Maur encourages.
To learn more about fermentation and to taste and drink the many culinary creations of the North Dallas Fermentation Enthusiasts Meetup group, visit meetup.com/north-dallas-fermentation-enthusiasts and join this effervescent group for its next gathering.
DATES & THEMES FOR WINTER MEETUPS:
December: home brewed meads and wines
January: fermentation with a focus on healthy, kid-friendly ferments
February: bubble into homemade sodas, kombucha and water kefir
GAGAN MAUR’S STORY AND THE NORTH DALLAS FERMENTATION ENTHUSIAST MEETUP GROUP
At his day job as an IT Manager for Texas Instruments, Maur manages factory automation of TI’s advanced semiconductor, a job he is passionate about. But over a decade ago, he hit a rut in his diet and health.
“For 13 to 14 years, I was overweight even though I was following traditional nutrition guidelines,” Maur says. He began juicing greens and vegetables and researching holistic nutrition, going as far as to earn his credentials as a licensed nutritionist.
As part of that journey, he experimented with, and eventually became an expert in, fermentation. Maur is a true believer that the root of our overall health is in the health of our gut. “The increased use of antibiotics, the stress of the modern lifestyle, and consumption of processed foods have severely compromised our gut health.
This impacts all aspects of our health, including our mental health,” Maur says.
And he is passionate that fermented foods are curative, restoring our natural gut biota as a catalyst to help remedy many ailments tied to the American diet.
Maur launched the North Dallas Fermentation Enthusiast Meetup group in 2019 to share what had worked for him and teach others how to make their own ferments at home.
“There is a general reluctance — almost fear — when people think of fermentation. Also, many ferments require access to starters that are not easily available,” Maur says. “I started the group to bring like-minded people in the community together, dispel myths around fermentation, share recipes, provide easy access to hard-to-find starters, and most importantly to have fun and make friends!” The group quickly grew to almost 800 members.
Much of that growth happened during the height of the pandemic, which triggered a near-viral spike in the trend of making fermented foods like sourdough breads during lockdown. Like most groups, Maur’s Meetup went virtual in 2020, which solidified an online community hungry to learn how to expand their culinary ferments.
Now they are back to gathering in person. They meet once a month with free classes ranging in topics from homebrewing hard ciders, meads or ginger beer; crafting cabbage ferments like kimchi and sauerkraut; culturing dairy ferments like yogurt, kefir and sour cream; and even making fermented hot sauces, salsas and chutneys.
MAKING FRIENDS WITH FERMENTATION
Gagan Maur never expected his Meetup group to grow as fast as it has in the past three and a half years. The joyful North Dallas Fermentation Enthusiast group is as diverse and varied as the microbial cultures that initiate the gastronomic creations.
“We have people of all ethnicities: from Kazakhstan, China, India, Africa, Chile and Texas,” Maur says. “We have a pastry chef; people with jobs in finance, the tech industry, medicine; an air traffic controller, nurses and teachers . . . each sharing their life stories and life experiences.”
Maur also says that one of the main benefits that extends beyond a shared love of healthy and delicious bubbly foods is the sharing of cultures and cuisines from around the globe.
“The pursuit of health is one of the key factors in the pursuit of happiness. We all want to be happy and there is always happiness when we gather to share fermented food and drinks!”
FROM THE FILES AND KITCHEN OF GAGAN MAUR
Lime, Ginger and Green Chili Pickle
Yogurt & Sour Cream
Daniel Cunningham, Horticulturist with Texas A&M AgriLife's Water University program. His primary focus is a holistic approach to landscaping and food production systems. Cunningham specializes in Texas native plants and trees, vegetable gardening, edible landscaping, rainwater harvesting and is passionate about utilizing landscapes as habitat for benecial wildlife. For more gardening advice om Daniel, tune in to NBC DFW (Channel 5) on Sunday mornings or ask @TxPlantGuy on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.