The Art & Science of Fermentation: Lessons in Local Food Preservation
This time of year, it’s so easy to forget how badly we longed for crisp pickling cucumbers and fresh local tomatoes during the winter – sometimes, it all comes in at once, and it’s all we can do to keep the bounty of our gardens and farm shares from going to waste. Gardening is, of course, a great way to expose kids to cycles of growth and the joy of producing your own food, and the cooking that eventually follows. A solidly planted garden brings with it a myriad of other kitchen-based learning experiences (measuring math, recipe literacy, and lots of fine motor skill development for small folks). But what do you do when you’ve cooked all you can eat and your self-sufficient kiddos have already mastered the ins and outs of your kitchen? Start fermenting!
Fermentation is a healthy and delicious (and fascinating!) way to prolong the life of foods – primarily veggies – and is especially useful this time of year when the harvest comes in a seemingly endless burst of green from mid-July until the end of August. Of course, there is an incredibly wide variety of things that can be made via fermentation, and its use in the kitchen isn’t limited just to the summer months. Kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles are always most delicious when made with fresh seasonal vegetables, but they can be made any time of year. Similarly, kimchi and sourdough know no season – though temperatures affect the fermentation process itself, these fermented favorites can be made all year long. And good thing, too – there’s lots of space for learning about food science when you turn your kitchen into a fermentation station!
For small children, fermentation may seem like a magical process. Add ingredients, put them out of the way for a while, and voila! The food is magically different and delicious. Youngsters who are not yet ready to tackle the concept of chemistry and cellular biology can still learn from helping out with fermentation, however. Helping out in the kitchen by measuring and mixing ingredients, fetching utensils, and helping to devour the end results of your efforts can help children learn recipes that your family uses often, and they’ll develop a deeper connection to the food that they enjoy by participating in its creation.
Older kids, on the other hand, can enjoy much more specific scientific learning by helping out with fermentation at home. All kinds of fermentation rely on the same basic principle – that yeast and bacteria eat sugar and convert it into acid, gas, and/or alcohol – and this is what all of zymology (the science of fermentation) is based on. Making a few batches of fermented foods can transform a kitchen into a laboratory, opening the door for older learners to explore zymology experientially.
Before beginning any large scale fermentation projects, it might be a good idea to try a quick experiment to gain familiarity with the process of fermentation. One quick experiment uses balloons alongside sugar and yeast packets in order to reveal the gases given off by fermentation. Using a lab sheet as a guide, families can practice the scientific method, use zymology-specific vocabulary, and see some quick fermentation in action.
Once you’ve finished experimenting and are ready to begin making some real fermented treats, get a hold of a copy of Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation, books that together cover the scientific theory and socio-cultural history of fermentation and offer a wide variety of recipes, both common and uncommon. Online, The Fermenter’s Kitchen is a blog filled with useful suggestions and resources for fermenters both expert and novice.
Additionally, local fermentation events take place throughout the harvest months, offering families the opportunity to learn from fermentation experts about the basics of home fermenting. Take a look at our list of Weekly Suggested Events for ideas!
Carry on the fermentation conversation with Western Mass Fermenters Club, a place for western MA folks to connect and share around fermented foods! It’s also a great place to discover fermentation meet-ups to share skills and knowledge.