You probably try to keep microbes out of your cooking most of the time, but if you want to create a new taste sensation – or jump onboard the latest foodie trend – more bacteria could be just what you need.
“There's a huge territory ripe for experimentation and discovery, if one is not afraid of failing and trying again,” says flavour chemist Dr Arielle Johnson in an article published today in Nature Microbiology.
She explains how microorganisms play an important role in creative culinary pursuits, allowing chefs and home cooks to create entirely new flavours from existing ingredients.
Johnson is head researcher at MAD, a food culture non-profit organisation in Copenhagen. She says that while fermentation has been used for thousands of years to create things like cheese, chocolate, yoghurt and pickles, cooks around the world have now “begun to discover – or, more accurately, to rediscover – the possibilities of using fermentation processes in the kitchen”.
When we ferment food, the job is done by microorganisms which turn less tasty molecules (like starch) into something more delicious – like sugar or alcohol. By employing rather scientific methods, this process can be tightly controlled – chefs use different species of microbes, adjust temperature, humidity and so on.
These ‘culinary microorganisms’ include species like Lactobacillus, a genus of bacteria which produce lactic acid from sugar to preserve and flavour sauerkraut, kimchi, and yoghurt. And nearly everyone’s familiar with yeast, a fungus that metabolises sugar into alcohol and carbon – useful for making beer or bread.
Different moulds create different flavours: Johnson mentions Aspergillus oryzae, whose “amylolytic and proteolytic activities” help make miso and soy sauce, and Penicillium roqueforti, responsible for “the blue-green veins, and pungent flavour of blue cheeses.”
Many top restaurants now have labs devoted to creating new food techniques, but home cooks are also getting in on kitchen microbiology with fermentation experiments that could rival Heston Blumenthal’s wacky approach.
Need some inspiration?
Cooked dough with fungi and bacteria, topped with concentrated yeast extract
Aka, your vegemite and toast – a flavour combo we can all get behind.
This... delicious-looking leaf
Michael Ryan, of the Provenance Restaurant in Beechworth, studied science and worked as a chemist before becoming an award-winning chef. His science background and interest in Japanese cuisine inspired him to experiment with fermentation, like this kimchi shiso leaf that’s been fermented for 8 months.
Squash with squash fermented in grain husk nuka
This ultra-fancy dish was served up at Emmer & Rye in Austin, Texas, where fermentologist Jason White creates unusual preserves. With fermentation, “you can get so many variations from one organic structure,” White told Study Breaks. “I could make 17 different things out of this one leaf, instead of four things that are all pretty similar.”
Johnson says young chefs like White are combining local resources with ancient techniques to create new dishes, and sharing their findings with Instagram “acting as a kind of peer-reviewed forum of ideas for cooks”.
Sweet, fermented cherries
If you’re a very patient person, you might like to try fermenting your own cherries for at least three years. Eric Edgin, a low-tech foodie and woodworker from Duluth in the US, experimented on a batch of sweet cherries by using partial dehydration to control the fermentation process.
“I was searching for fruit fermentation techniques that didn't run towards alcoholic,” Edgin writes on his blog. Half drying the fruit changes the texture, and limits the range of microbes that can get in there. Edgin says it was “interesting to taste and feel” the changes in the cherries over the years.
So why not try popping some semi-dried fruit into a jar and coming back to it in a year or more? Or, you could do what I did in year 10, and leave a banana in your schoolbag over the summer.
Who knows what amazing flavours and aromas you’ll come back to? It’s all part of the joy of fermenting - and sometimes ruining - your own food.