During my earliest days of being introduced to the world of fermentation, I was apprehensive and a bit worried. Worried that I might poison my husband by putting milk in an oven with a pilot light with nothing more than a few tablespoons of yogurt to do the culturing. Worried that those vegetables were going to smell putrid, not pleasantly sour after a few days bubbling away on the counter. But, you know what, they were fine. Actually, they were great, and they opened up a whole new way of thinking about food. A world where pasteurization and refrigeration aren’t necessary, a world somewhat similar to what our ancestors would have known. All fermented foods are prized for their keeping qualities. Fermenting vegetables provides an acidic environment for them to hang out in for months. Introducing a beneficial culture to milk gives it a specific flavor, but also allows it to keep without picking up unwanted bacteria when refrigeration isn’t available. Even sourdough bread keeps longer than its commercial yeast-risen counterpart. You see, fermented foods were often discovered, by accident, when foods took on interesting flavors, textures, and longer keeping times on their way to rotting. Once harnessed, our ancestors found these techniques to be of the utmost importance in putting up a bit of abundance for less abundant times.
For my generation it is difficult to imagine a world without refrigeration. What do you do with milk? How do you store delicate greens? And, perhaps most shocking of all, how can you have meat without a freezer? The answer, I’m finding, is simpler than we think. Yes, refrigerators are convenient. I have learned that over the past two years of off-grid living with spotty solar-powered refrigeration. But it is also possible to live without these fairly new devices. Most of mankind throughout all of history have lived without them, in fact. And it always comes back to being connected to your food, its source, and taking the time necessary to put it to good use. When milk comes in daily, there are non-electric means of keeping it cool for a short period of time. Or, you can just add some culture to it, or even allow it to clabber on its own, and you’ll have a food that you can eat from for a bit longer. Delicate vegetables are only a problem when we are bringing them in from far away at random intervals. If we have them growing in our own kitchen garden, we just pick them when we need them. And if there’s an abundance then we can ferment them. Even meat has been preserved with fermentation. Think pickled herring, corned beef, and pickled pig’s feet. Sure, a steak in the freezer is nice, but it’s really not necessary to preserve food this way, and it’s fairly disconnected from the real world of animal husbandry and butchery. As usual, there is a lot we can learn from our ancestors, and how to break free from the “necessity” of refrigeration is one of them. It just so happens that fermentation has been utilized quite often as a nice, sustainable alternative to such practices.