Alaskans are just starting to get good at growing our own food. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of people who have managed their animals, farms, and resources beautifully for many generations, feeding their families and neighbors. But I am seeing a revitalization in the way we approach our food and the need for locally grown and developed products that allow our economies and bodies to thrive. I can only hope others including yourself also see this dynamic shift.
Here’s the problem! We grow this beautiful, sweet, rich (insert adjective of your choosing) produce in the land of the midnight sun and we either rush to eat and give it all away, or we struggle to find variety in the methods of preservation to enable consumption of these delicious goods throughout the lengthy wintertime.
Enter fermentation center stage
Most people are at least aware of fermentation and its ability to loosen our inhibitions, sometimes a little too much. The process of fermentation is when foods or beverages are produced through controlled microbial growth and chemical changes in composition. Historically, many foods have been fermented including meat and fish, dairy, vegetables, soybeans, other legumes, cereals, and fruits to stabilize the food for preservation and add flavor. When done properly, the microbial properties of a ferment can minimize the risks of pathogens and allow food to be stored for longer periods. We know fermentation can drastically alter the flavor of our foods, and the large swath of variety in taste is due to the many combinations of microorganisms, nutritional ingredients, and environmental conditions possible. Each difference in flavor is caused by a variation in one of these factors.
For many Alaska Natives, the use of fermentation was sometimes a necessity to ensure healthy food for all peoples. These processes can also add some zest and flavor that otherwise may not have been accessible for earlier generations. Now, we have three methods of fermentation used widely for many foods:
- Spontaneous or natural: natural fermenting organisms on the vegetables allowed to grow and develop complex flavor profiles
- Back-slopping: adding live bacteria from fermented products to start other batches
- Culture inoculation: A specific bacterial culture is added to start the fermentation, as commonly performed in industry settings
In addition to one of these methods, you may find yourself needing to investigate various types of salts, fermenting containers, pH levels, temperatures, and more since there are so many factors involved in the fermentation process. In recent years, there has been an increase in the popularity of fermented foods for their distinction in gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, immune, and metabolic health benefits.
I think of fermentation as another resource. Here in Alaska, our agriculture is somewhat limited by our ability to house what we grow during the winter. Some veggies can be stored in a cold cellar and others can be jarred or canned, but many are lost at the end of fall. Fermentation can be used to safely store our food too! This is just another method that I have been learning a lot about in recent years as my family embarks on making more fermented goat’s milk, vegetable, and berry products. And I honestly think you should check it out too. Maybe we’ll continue to expand our state’s capability to grow food and continue to become more innovative in the process. That’s a win/win in my book, but who’s counting…
Written by Nikira Lane, agAlaska Ag Tech Specialist