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Bring on the Ferment, Bring on the Funk

Are we entering a new age of micro-brewed sauerkraut?

My kitchen smells like a boy's locker room. At least that's what my roommate says. Feet and food just do not mix, so I lug my crock full of fermenting sauerkraut-45 lbs in all-into my bedroom, because it's too cold on the back porch. After studying the smell for weeks, there are some differences between socks and sauerkraut, but, I'll admit, it's a fine line. A small price to pay, though, for a winter's worth of fresh, crunchy kraut.

It might be time to get used to the smell. Whether it's extreme brewers introducing wild yeasts to beers, chefs creating kimchi, or home-tinkerers culturing kraut, funk is back. Home brewers and cheese makers are very much in vogue. So are mead makers, kombucha companies, and distillers. New regional start-up pickle and fermented food makers seem to pop up every other week.

But the process of purposefully letting food rot probably began before humans first cultivated crops. "Obviously, all of these foods are ancient. There's nothing new about any of them," says Sandor Katz, the author of the seminal, how-to guide Wild Fermentation, and another forthcoming fermentation manual. "But there has been resurging interest in fermentation. There has been an explosion of awareness about health and nutrition. Then, there's the whole local food movement. Anyone who lives in a temperate climate should think about fermentation if they want to eat local in the winter."

Fermented foods have also been a classic way to add value to crops: Cabbage, milk, and apples are all more valuable as sauerkraut, cheese, and hard cider. They're ultra-slow food, generally taking a couple of weeks to months to create. Still, the process is rather simple.

Fermentation requires conditions that allow certain microorganisms to flourish. With vegetables, the fermentation process relies on a combination of salt and beneficial bacteria. Salt is used to draw water out of the vegetable tissue. The water covers the fermenting vegetables as the anaerobic bacteria goes to work converting sugars and starches into lactic acid and acetic acid. These acids prevent molds from turning cabbage to slime and also act as an all-natural preservative.

Perhaps the smell is why the fine art of fermenting remains stuck in a perilous middle ground between a fresh, edible food and rotted food waste. Zymurgy-the study of fermentation-may get overlooked because walk this line between funky and insane. And it's not just sauerkraut. A friend brought back a plastic jug from Mongolia, which smelled like petrol and tasted exactly like what it was: fermented milk vodka. It coated the inside of my mouth with a film of unpleasantness that lasted for hours. But it was alcohol, and it got the job done.

While the popularity of fermented foods may suffer from stinky reputations, nearly every culture has refined the art of controlling the fermentation process. Fermented fish sauces predated the invention of ketchup. And, more recently, farmstead cheeses have ushered in a cottage industry of cheesemakers. The next microbrewers could be a wave of micro-sauerkrauters. Either way, the funk is on.

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