Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Q-and-A: FT33 chef Matt McCallister explains vegetable fermentation
He says it's so easy, you can do it at home.
It is likely the oldest form of preservation that is, strangely enough, due to a small amount of controlled decomposition. Beer, wine, cheese – even bread – they’re all fortunate consequences of yeasts or molds or different bacteria a finding their way into the food we eat and transforming it into something entirely new. Those blue veins in your gorgonzola? Mold. The bun your lunchtime burger was between? Yeast. The pickle on that burger – probably made with vinegar, a product of fermentation, but if not, maybe just fermented on its own, made slightly sour and acidic on its own through the actions of millions of lactobacilli munching on the vegetable’s own natural sugars and leaving behind lactic acid.
In fact, if you take a look at a charcuterie board at Matt McCallister’s FT33, what you’ll find among the varieties of preserved meats and vegetables are foods that have been fermented by different various means. The entrees, too, often contain ingredients prepared through the same process. We sat down with Matt to chat a little about vegetable fermentation, how he puts this ancient process to work in his own restaurant, and the trust it takes to let nature do its work every time.
Entree Dallas: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Matt. For a bit of context, could you estimate a percentage of your offerings, both food and drink, that have gone through some sort of fermentation?
Matt McCallister: A lot. All our alcohols – our whole beverage program, and a lot of our dishes have components that have in one way, shape or form gone through some form of fermentation. I would say around 40 percent.
Is it one of those things that’s been around so long that people just eat fermented foods without thinking about how it was created?
Well, if you look at Asian traditions, miso and forms of kimchi have been around since the neolithic period – like, 12,000 years ago – a very large span of time, and all that fermentation was basically a means for survival. And that’s true historically in any culture you look at. If you really break it all down, the reason they have the celebratory killing of the pig in Italy with their families and hang them in barns is because that’s the only place they have to hang them – it was their means for survival through the winter when they weren’t going to have a vast amount of nutrients with vegetables and all these things they could get through the spring and summer months. Yeah, it picked up the characteristics from the terrior, but that was secondary to the practical aspect of survival.
With that said, it’s been cool to see the resurgence coming back to fermentation, with all these books like The Art of Fermentation. There have just been a bunch of chefs playing around with all these different varieties and styles of making new styles of miso and practicing with other grains – making vinegers with different vegetables and inoculating things with different cultures. Really taking a step from making basic pickled products and expanding on it.
How does it work at the basic level, though?
Essentially, the whole process of lactic fermentation for vegetables is just converting sugars that are naturally existing in vegetables into lactic acid. It’s an anaerobic process. It’s really simple, basically introducing a salt brine and then leaving it out at room temperature, allowing the osmosis of the salt going into the vegetables to start getting it active, and then the bacteria will create the sugars into lactic acid, which creates an environment that doesn’t allow harmful bacteria to grow in it. But you have to follow the simple rules – it has to be submerged, or you’ll get mold on anything that’s exposed to air – and you have to have the salt brine. Basically, it’s patience, cleanliness, and making sure you have a few good recipes to start with. Then you can expand and start experimenting, but you need a baseline, some tried and true ones to start from so you can see how its supposed to happen.
What are some of the more in-depth experiments that you’ve done with fermentation lately?
I’ve been doing a lot of experimentation with Nukadoku method – the miso/rice paste fermentation. It’s the Japanese farmhouse style of making pickles – you take rice paste and you add miso and spicy chilies to it. Then you introduce vegetables to it; maybe you’ll put carrots into it one day, and then the next day you take them out. Basically, you’re activating this paste by introducing the lactic-acid producing bacteria to it. You have to inoculate the paste over a week or two, and then when there’s a suitable amount of activity going you’ll actually see it. Over the course of a day it will start just growing, and then once that’s active you just feed vegetables into it – when you take them out they’re pickled, but it’s like a rice-paste, funky, miso-ey flavor profile. It’s something that’s probably not for everybody, but they’ve been doing it in Japan for centuries and centuries. And again, they would do this on their farms as a means for preserving produce.
I’m also doing a blend between salt and whey, which is a byproduct of cheese or yogurt or cream cheese – it’s a liquid byproduct of those processes, and it has lactic acid in it, so you’re able to cut down on the salt. So, if you don’t have a dairy allergy and you want to have something that’s a little less salty, that’s an option and just another application.
One of the great things about fermentation is this – lot of times I’ll bring in product and because we change our menu so frequently, I might have some carrots or something left over, and I need to do something with them. I’m not going to throw them in the trash, so I’ll just ferment them and they may eventually show up on the charcuterie board. So if you get our charcuterie board, you might get fermented vegetables on the board that we were serving in a dish six months ago. In every respect, we’re getting full utilization out of the product. Obviously, not as means for survival anymore – more of a craft.
Is it a craft that is accessible to most home cooks?
Yeah, and saurkraut’s a good way to start. You can use brussels sprouts – you can actually make saurkraut out of fennel. You want to always make sure you’re starting out with as fresh product as possible. Especially with cabbage, that will ensure that you’ll be able to get enough water seepage out of it after salting that you’ll be able to cover it with its own brine. And it can be real quick – I can typically get full activation and have a finished product within two weeks. More dense vegetables, though, will take a little bit longer to achieve a finished product – I really like doing lacto-fermented carrots because they retain a super-crisp texture.
And of course, once you know your controlled environment and had some positive results, you definitely get more comfortable doing it.
If it’s easy, then why do you think more people don’t just do it at home?
It’s so easy to get the stuff off the shelves, but the stuff you get isn’t really that good. In San Francisco, they have a shop called the Cultured Pickle Shop, and they make kombucha and all that stuff, and there are a few that are brewing it around Texas, but people are so accustomed to going and getting Claussen pickles, I don’t think they realize how easy it would be to go to a farmers market, buy cheap cucumbers and then in a week they can have their own half-sour pickles. It’s not hard. It’s really easy. It’s salt and water.
Thanks for the time, Matt. So should we conclude that everyone should go find a trustworthy recipe and start fermenting their own vegetables?
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