QT 80 – The Flavors of Fermentation

Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, where one man loses sleep over telling you how to eat. I’m your insomniac instructor, and today, we’re talking about fermented foods. Specifically, today’s going to be a pretty light little post mostly just about how to work your way into fermented foods. You’ve actually probably been eating fermented foods, and consuming fermented drinks already, it’s just that you don’t think about it. So today, we’re going to do a kind of ranking of fermented flavors, to help guide you through the process if you want to explore.


A Foundation: Fermenting Familiar and Foreign

The first quick thing I want to say is that, as things go on here, they’re going to get more and more extreme. And you may find yourself wondering “how could anyone eat something like that?” And I just want to warn against that kind of thinking. There’s probably many things that you eat and love that would be incredibly off-putting to other people for various reasons. And fermented foods really lock into that niche of “I like this, but no one else does”. As Michael Pollan noted, and I repeated/minorly clarified, fermented foods of a specific region do a lot to unify members of that region. The shared experience, and the exposure to the microbes that create those reactions, makes these foods particularly fond feasts, and fiercely foreign to those who DON’T consume it.

black garlic.png

At first look, this kind of looks like some sort of weird beetle stuff. It’s actually fermented garlic.

Just an observation before we begin. So let’s dive right in, with a drink.


Alcohol to Pre-Funk

When you’re taking about fermented food and drink, I think there’s no option as wide-spread in its consumption as alcohol. Which is fermented, yes, but it doesn’t have the sense kind of funky flavors as many fermented food, because it’s SO fermented. There are beers and wines you can get that have more funky fermented flavors. Beers that use brettanomyces or lactobacillus in particular will have a more sour, tangy funk to them.

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Does this beer have either of those things? I don’t know, and neither do you.
It showed up when I searched for “funky beer yeast”, so hopefully.

Tangy is a word you’re probably going to read a fair bit here, by the way, as it’s a pretty common result of fermentation: a sour of acidic twinge on the tongue. In fact, it’s what helps us pick out the more fermented varieties of our next product!


Bread For the Big Flex

Yes, most BREAD is also fermented, technically. This is a great follow-up on the idea that “yes, these things ARE fermented, but they’re not really in the category we’re thinking about.” However, there IS a bread that contains the funky, acidic fermented tang we’re talking about.


In retrospect, thinking you could recognize a variety of bread on sight was a very generous assumption. Though, it IS darker than most white breads, which might be a hint.

Of course, it’s Sourdough. Sourdough gets a bigger flavor boost from fermentation because it’s begun with a starter, which has had a longer time to form those funky flavor profiles, and absorbed more weird local microbes to change things up. There’s actually a fun clip in Food, Fact or Fiction where a couple guys try three different breads, and discover that despite the breads being quite different, they’re all the same recipe. They’re just shaped by the local airborne yeasts, which changed their density, greasiness, and more.

Speaking of greasy density

Cheese can Do a Body Good

I legitimately didn’t intend to do an ABC thing. I was originally going to do Cheese right after alcohol, and then I thought “Shit, let’s not forget bread!”, and then I realized I had a thing going on. Which I will shortly (but not immediately) abandon, but for now, let’s continue. Cheese ALSO ferments, and is probably the third biggest fermented food consumed globally. Thousands of tons of cheese are munched on all across America, Europe, some of Asia, Australia and Africa. And they get their distinctive funk from fermentation.

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I think this one, for instance, is Portu-cheese.
I’m sorry.

To really get into the more fermented flavors, you’re going to want to move to softer cheeses. The Washed Rinds, Bleus, and so on are where you’ll get more of the complex flavors that fermentation creates. Spend some cheddar on getting some funky soft cheese, and you’ll see what I mean. Not as tangy as other offerings, but complicated. Of course, if it’s tangy you’re looking for



That’s right, dairy and cheese are separate categories. This is mostly because of the flavor profiles. As noted, hard cheeses don’t really taste all that fermented, and soft cheeses are more funky, but if you go with most dairy, you get tangy fermentation. Sour Cream is just fermented cream. That’s it. Yogurt, in its MANY varieties, is fermented dairy.


The granola is just punshiment.

Greek Yogurt’s a little more tangy than ‘normal’ yogurt, so if you’re exploring the process, trying it or Icelandic Skyr would be fun ways to push fermented dairy delights. But we’ve spent a lot of time on the bottom of the food pyramid, so let’s take things in a more vegetal direction.

We’re in a Pickle now

And there went the alphabetic vibe. I told you it’d be gone soon. This is a pretty quick stop just to note that a fair bit of pickles and/or pickled products are produced by fermentation as well. Basically, the tanginess we’ve noted several times as being part of fermenting? That’s the process creating extra acid in the given food. So, while many pickles are created by creating a brine with vinegar, others just mix salt, water and air before sealing, allowing airborne yeasts to take over and start fermenting, producing their own acids, to pickle the product.

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Here’s a weird collection of pickles to prove that point.
I think the back two tubs are actually Kimchi.

So while most dill or sweet pickles you find in the store aren’t fermented, you can find some fermented pickles, in case you want to perk up your hot dog game. Thinking of which…


Sauerkraut isn’t just a really rude thing to call a German

Sauerkraut, as we briefly mentioned on Monday, is a fermented cabbage product, originally from…somewhere. Yeah, people don’t know who technically invented fermenting cabbage, because it’s such a basic idea. Romans wrote about preserving cabbage in salt, which could have made sauerkraut, but it’s unknown if they intended to do that. Genghis Khan is rumored to have brought it with him, or maybe Chinese traders brought it. The point is that it caught on in Germany (and most of Central and Eastern Europe).  As with Korean Kimchi on Monday, fermenting the cabbage allowed it to keep much longer, and, in a point I didn’t touch on on Monday, it also created useful, if volatile, chemical compounds.


Trust me, anyone who eats a lot of sour kraut knows about volatile chemical compounds.

For instance, Sauerkraut is the reason people sometimes call Germans “krauts”, and for the same reason people call English people “Limeys”: Sailors and Scurvy. Sailors, with their long times sailing far from land, were susceptible to the disease scurvy, which arises from a lack of vitamin C in the diet. Terrible disease, rather disgusting and painful, so most navies tried various ways to reduce it. England settled on lime trees and lime juice, and Germany settled on Sauerkraut. Thus, german sailors were “krauts”, and English sailors were “limeys”.

Most sauerkraut one buys in America is pretty mild, as far as fermented foods go. It’s roughly as tangy as, say, pickle relish, which is one of the reasons it’s so popular on hot dogs. (Well, technically, the other way. Hot Dogs with pickles is a variant of sausage with sauerkraut)


Kick it into Kimchi

So you’ve munched through some fermented cabbage, eh? Well, now you can try upping your game and munching on SPICY fermented Cabbage. Or another vegetable.

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This is PROBABLY cabbage, but let’s face it, the lighting’s so dark, this could be calamari in red sauce and it would look the same.

Kimchi we of course talked about on Monday. It’s fermented veggies mixed with Gochugara, the Korean red chili powder/flake, and sometimes with more ground pepper flakes, to make it hot enough to wake you up. This can be a much funkier, more intense experience than Sauerkraut, or it can be pretty just the same, just a little more vibrant-looking.

Since we’re in Korea, though, let’s jump over to Japan, for a sea of fermented figures


Sauces and Soy Sources of the Pacific

We’ve touched on a couple of these before, but like, the core of Japanese cuisine is built on fermentation. Soy Sauce? Fermented. Tofu? Often fermented. Miso? Fermented. Hell, all three of those are specifically fermented Soy products. That’s not even getting into things like shiokara, which is a form of fermented fish or shellfifh entrails. Which is where we start to get into that first paragraph’s warning. Yes, that sounds weird. It’s even weirder than it sounds, because it’s actually a mixture of the animal’s flesh, mixed with salted and fermented viscera, and koji (the fungus used to make Miso and Tofu, interestingly).


it looks like someone tried to make pudding out of worms.

It’s not for everyone. Hell, it’s not for all Japanese. It’s considered a chinmi, or “rare taste”, referring to a meal that’s not popular any more due to being an acquired taste, or enjoyed in a specific region, etc. The recommended way to eat your first shiokara is to shoot, like one would a shot of alcohol, and then immediately shoot whiskey. AND that’s not a stirring recommendation of it. But if you want to talk about funky fermented fish, let’s jump a little further south


Tongue-Thai’ed About Fish Sauce

That title’s a bit rude, because the origin of fish sauce is fairly contested in Southeast Asia. It could be Thailand, it could very well be Vietnam, or maybe even Malaysia. The point is that it’s basically soy sauce, but instead of fermenting soy, they fermented fish. Little layers of anchovies. And that’s not the only way they ferment fish down there. There’s also Pla ra, which is fermented fish paste, bekasang from Indonesia, which is fermented fish stomach, and shrimp paste, which is…kind of obvious.

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The fact they make Pac-man shaped snowmen out of it is less obvious, and kind of impressive.

Vietnam has fermented pork too, and there’s recipe for fermenting various vegetables and fruits. Tapai is basically like, tofu paste, except that it ferments alcoholic, and therefore is MUCH more interesting. Fermented durian, fermented Papaya, all options in the area.

But to close it out, with the PEAK of fermented food, we have to cross continents, and talk about a dish so foul, every chef I know of hates it.


Don’t Hack Up Over Hákarl

Hákarl is legendary in culinary circles as being utterly awful. In the same way that the durian fruit is known to stink to high-heaven, Hákarl is a punch straight in the nostrils. And it’s a punch you’re just familiar enough with to hate. Because Hákarl reeks of ammonia. It SMELLS like piss, or cleaning products. That kind of front of the nose, almost numbing stink.

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This looks like an infestation of some kind, not a cooking shack.

Supposedly, it TASTES better than it smells, but the smell is huge. Many people trying it for the first time are gagged by the smell. Multiple famous chefs, from the late Anthony Bourdain, to Andew Zimmern and Gordon Ramsay, have tried it, and given it scathing responses. (Well, Zimmern said it TASTES pretty okay, it just smells like a nightmare) Chef Ainsley Harrott, most famously of weird memes, likened it to “chewing a urine-infested mattress”. Others say “it’s like fishy blue cheese” or “Blue cheese, but 100 times stronger.”

And that’s the top tier. When it comes to funky fermented flavors, you can’t top it. Many don’t ever even WANT to GET to that tier. They’re happy mid-way up the charts. And that’s fine. AS noted, different cultures work with different fermented foods. What appeals to you may not appeal to someone else. But this is just a sort of scale that gets funkier as you go. If you want to try fermented foods, you’re probably already doing it, with bread, cheese, and alcohol. If you want to increase trying things, go for funkier cheeses, sourdough,  and weird yeasts in beers. Or, if you want to go veggie, (or are vegetarian or vegan, there’s sauerkraut, pickles, and some types of Kimchi (as noted, take caution when buying Kimchi, or make your own to ensure it’s vegetarian/vegan.) Soy sauce and tofu both have it. And there’s plenty I didn’t touch on, like Japan’s funky bean mix Natto, or Mexican Curtido (a sort of Sauerkraut pico de gallo), or Indian Dosas (a kind of crepe or pancake, made with lightly fermented batter) or the fairly ubiquitous Worchestershire sauce. Yeah, that’s also fermented. Like I said, you’ve probably been trying fermented foods for years, this is to just give you leads to explore and see if there’s more you’ll like

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go cover kimchi in fish sauce, and make myself sick.