Fermenter: DIY Fermentation for Vegan Fare, Including Recipes for Krauts, Pickles, Koji, Tempeh, Nut- & Seed-Based Cheeses, FermePaperback (2024)

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INTRODUCTION

Oh, hello there.



Most days when I’m behind the counter at Fermenter Workshop, right next door to Fermenter proper, I’ll get some eager person, wild-eyed and firing fermentation questions at me. They want me to explain the mechanism for all of the weird sh*t that is going on in all of these jars and crocks, and most of the time I shrug and say, “I dunno.” This, of course, usually doesn’t go over that well, so I’ll wryly add, “I approach fermentation from a craft perspective.”

Indeed. Which is to say I’m a bit of a dum-dum who doesn’t really know what the heck I’m doing. I can’t imagine many old timey fermenters understood exactly what was going on when they were salting cabbage and storing it away in big mud pots either, bless them. Knowing that gives me the strength I need to carry on making things when I have zero idea what’s happening.

That’s been a major theme in my life. As a moderately successful chef and restaurateur, who is pretty famous within the square block of Southeast Portland that Fermenter inhabits, I’ve always pushed forward into the inky darkness of not knowing. It isn’t fearlessness or courage, but rather a sort of advantageous dimwittedness that allows me to try all sorts of things out. Luckily, I also lack an ability to be too terribly embarrassed, which allows me to fail over and over again without slowing down.

This is an important trait for a fermenter. When some time ago I was having major texture deterioration issues with some cabbage kraut, I asked the experts at Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, California what I was doing wrong. Kevin Farley, co-owner there with his wife Alex Hozven, let me in on a little secret when he said, “I imagine you will find, as we have, that fermentation is a cruel collaborator, and will continue to f*ck you over. Hopefully it will keep you humble.”

And there you have it. Even the experts make something awful from time to time. What I’m driving at here is when you approach fermentation projects, be ready to make some really disgusting things from time to time. Take plenty of notes so you can figure out what the heck happened, and then try not to repeat those processes and recreate those conditions. But, don’t ever ever feel bad about trying.

I used to work for a chef who was a real asshole, but who did leave me with one gem. He told me, “I’m not better than you, I’ve just f*cked up more than you have.” So, go f*ck stuff up, and make a million things. See which ones are good, and then hold onto those babies.

Who the heck are you?
I was raised in a fairly boring mid-sized town in the Bay Area named Livermore. After my parents divorced, we moved around a lot, landing in the great and noble city of Hayward in East Bay. I spent a good amount of time pissing my parents off there, running around and hanging with other kids who liked pissing off their parents, too. I was a fat, nerdy, somewhat androgynous, vegetarian weirdo, and I was unliked by most of my classmates. During my sophom*ore year of high school, I finally found a group of other weirdos who were having a hard time fitting in as well: punks.

Oh punks, beautiful punks. Even they had their hierarchies of cool, still a goofball like me could find a way to wedge into their culture. I spent nearly every weekend at punk temple 924 Gilman in the early ‘90s. When I got beat up by a bunch of Nazis by the truck trailers down the street from Gilman, I decided to join a group of anti-racist kids called SHARPs (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice). After that I went running around pretending to be a tough guy. Of course, I’m not very tough, and I remained fairly terrified while hanging out with these insane people for the next five years or so.
I continued my anti-racist skinhead gig when I moved up to Seattle, where I was very into wearing Levi’s Sta-Prest trousers and red socks for many years. I am, as the kids say, over it now. (I know, I know, if you’re not now, you never were. Oh well.)

I think that the first time I knew I wanted to cook (that is, to be a cook more than wanting to actually cook) was when I saw some swarthy looking fellas in chef whites smoking cigarettes by a dumpster behind a restaurant. It had that same cachet as punk to me. Street tough and working class. I was instantly obsessed with kitchen culture, which I treated like any other subculture I obsessed over. I got my first kitchen job as a dishwasher at a terrible steakhouse where the chef wore cowboy boots and tried to impress the young waitresses by slinging kegs over his shoulder.

I went on to cook at many mediocre to fair restaurants throughout Seattle before wandering over to cook in a resort in Guam. I went from there to Miami, then New York City, then Jacksonville, Florida, and finally here to Portland, Oregon. Lots of stuff happened in all of those places, but I’ve got to start talking about Fermenter here sooner than later, no?

Fermenter isn’t a huge restaurant—we have just under 60 seats total inside and out, but we have really big hearts, and fermentation feeds so much of what we do. Fermenter’s ethos centers around accessible, local, seasonal, handmade, craft food made with local organic agriculture and goods. We serve food that is craveable, but that’s also really good for you. Isn’t that nice?

Fermenter also aims to make people feel good when they come in. Hospitality is an important aspect of being human with other humans. Making food, without someone to make it for, is pretty dreary.
I hope that you agree when I say that everyone deserves dignity and respect. Cooking can do that for people. It is super-duper intimate and you need to go about it responsibly. You are literally putting things into another person’s body. And, if you’re going to do that, you need to do it with consent.

That is to say, if you say it’s vegan and organic, you better damn well make sure it’s vegan and organic. There are also some implied things in that consensual agreement like, you know, not serving things that fell on the ground or that have broken glass in them.

If you think someone would be mad if they knew what you were feeding them, don’t do it. But do make people feel welcome and offer them tasty and healthy things to eat. Maybe cooked up from this rad new book that you’ve got.

And, for the record, I fully believe in keeping the Y in DIY. Do it yourself. Please. Make things! 100 percent. I won’t hold your hand, you’ve gotta do the work, but I will give you a lot of advice, whether you ask for it or not. Ok, let’s make some tasty food!

“Will I Die if I Eat It?” & Other FAQs

Do you hate me if I’m not 100% vegan?

Every night I say to my wife, “I love you, Jenny, but I also hate you because you’re not vegan.” No! That’s not true. Of course, I don’t hate you. And, I don’t hate my wife! I don’t hate you if you’re zero percent vegan. I don’t cast judgment on anyone’s dietary choices. If you caught me 20 years ago, though, I would have been like, “f*ck you! If you aren’t vegan, then you don’t care about anything!”

When we look at the gift and punishment of the human perception of time—it seems so slow, but relative to what’s going on in the universe, the billions of years that came before us, the billions of years that will come after—none of the sh*t that we do matters all that much. So, who cares? Half-joking aside, what feels good to me, at this point in my life, is to do as little harm to the planet as I can while I’m here, and that includes eating and cooking vegan. That’s makes sense to me, but if you don’t feel it, you don’t feel it. And I get that.

There’s a huge historical momentous force that informs us to, and pushes us to, eat animals and to live and act a certain way—the CAFO meat, industrial food and farms way. It’s really hard to slow that train down. So, in the words of Bill Murray, in that sweet 1980s movie Meatballs, “It just doesn’t matter.” Please enjoy the material pleasures of life, to the best of your ability.

Until we all perish and enter the void.

What are the easiest ferments to start with in this book, and which are most difficult for a newbie fermenter? I want easy.

I’d say that the easiest ferments to start with here are the lactic acid bacteria ones, which are primarily in Chapter 1. The most difficult recipes are mostly in Chapter 2—the bean, legume, and rice ferments like tempeh and koji. You can do all of it. I believe in you!

What if I forget about one of your ferments in the back of the fridge, and it’s been in there longer than you say it should be, can I eat it?

We give you good-till times for most of the recipes throughout the book, ranging from days to months, but the truth is a lot of these ferments keep just about indefinitely. Those timeframes are simply for when the they are at their best. We don’t keep things all that long at Fermenter, because we’re busy as all get out, and we don’t stockpile, because in general, we favor fresh. We also just don’t have the room to.

At home, you most likely can and will keep things longer. That’s great. Please don’t worry about it. I’d say that the biggest thing you’ll want to look out for is significant texture deterioration. Some ferments can get pretty soft and yucky after a while.

In general, the nose knows. Use your senses. Organoleptic all the way. Does it smell good, does it look good, does it feel good? If it’s not stinky bad, or nasty looking, or slimy gross etc., chances are it’s perfectly fine to eat or drink up. Unless someone is out to get you and slipped some undetectable poison in there, which happens, so watch out.
And just so you know, I have a separate fridge out in my garage at home that’s entirely mine. It’s filled to the gills with ferments from all over the place. Some of those ferments have been in there way longer than any sort of sell-by date. Basically, my wife Jenny got really sick of our perpetually crowded-with-ferments fridge and I panicked.

What are your feelings about substitutions and variations?

I really, really hope that you will be inspired by my recipes while also utilizing your own intelligence and intuition. For instance, if you are short on this, that, or the other ingredient, you’re probably going to be just fine substituting something similar. In terms of cultures, starters, spores, and SCOBYs, though, please use the ones that we recommend, unless you’re comfortable gambling on the desired results.

Can I speed up any of these ferments, patience isn’t exactly my thing?

You can always try cranking up the heat a little bit to speed things up. You’ll probably sacrifice some texture, you might create some off flavors, and you might foster some undesirable yeast growth, but have at it, Speedy.

When it comes to lactic acid fermentation, or to brewing kombucha or kefir, you don’t want to up the heat too terribly much, because the conditions that you create, based on the instructions throughout our recipes, will deliver what we deem the most desirable results. If you blaze a path, and set up conditions that are different, well, you’ll most likely get different results.

If you’re fermenting vinegars, there are some methods and techniques to speed things up out there. Go get an aquarium bubbler and go to town aerating your vinegar. Or sit over it and stir it constantly like a lunatic. You do you. All of that said, if patience isn’t your thing, maybe start with something fairly quick and easy? See page XX. No shame.

Does kombucha contain alcohol?

The cool thing about kombucha, versus vinegar, is that while they both produce acetic acid, as well as some other acids, vinegar is a two-step process. Alcohol is first produced, and then it is converted into acetic acid. In kombucha, both alcohol and acetic acid are created at the same time.

Acetic acid transformation happens with the help of airflow and oxygen. If you brew your kombucha with an airlock, so that there is no airflow, you’ll most likely end up with a higher ABV, and less acidic, kombucha, than if you simply cover it in cloth. The less you aerate your kombucha, the more alcohol it will contain.

It’s a personal choice in terms of booch alcohol content, of course. I know plenty of people who are sober who drink kombucha, and plenty of people who are sober who don’t. Most of our kombuchas at Fermenter are right around .5% ABV—super low, about the same as a day-old glass of orange juice.

Can I make a salt-free ferment?

Salt is great is because it inhibits pathogenic bacteria, and it also prevents texture deterioration. So, although you don’t have to use salt, it’s advisable. If possible, you should simply use less of it. Your saltless ferment might not be dangerous, but it might not be delicious either. And, it might give you and your loved ones a tummy ache.

Is lactic acid vegan?

I think that since the words “lactic” and “lactose” look and sound so similar, a lot of people get confused and think, “lactic” must be directly related to milk and lactose, right? Please rest assured that although it can be produced from dairy products, as well as from meat and seafood, the lactic acid produced in veggie ferments is 100 percent vegan.

Can I cultivate my own koji and tempeh spores?

Please don’t. Koji is a domesticated form of wild Aspergillus, which is toxic. There is a possibility of a mutation with every growth of spores. That means that those spores of yours can just as easily mutate into something that straight up won’t be good for you. So, unless you have a testing laboratory—and yes ancient people did it with success, but they did it with intense and prolonged studying and observation—please refrain.

I just don’t think that with us watching all these darn Tik Toks that most of us have the time required to observe the subtle differences in koji and tempeh spores in order to safely and properly cultivate them. Also, hey, they’re freaking inexpensive! I know that I stress DIY but, in this case, DDIY. Don’t do it.

Fermenter: DIY Fermentation for Vegan Fare, Including Recipes for Krauts, Pickles, Koji, Tempeh, Nut- & Seed-Based Cheeses, FermePaperback (2024)
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