This weekend I went to a fermentation party in Clinton Hill. No, I’m not sorry. Despite its reputation as a yuppie/yuccies-only trend, fermentation is actually a widespread and incredibly accessible practice. And Sunday’s party, hosted at the Brooklyn Free School, was packed to the gills with home-brewers and neophytes alike who flocked from various parts of the borough to swap starters, scobys and other sour recipe secrets. There were workshops, potluck-style tables organized by type of fermented food, and an area reserved for people to donate starter cultures (more on this in a second).
As an amateur kombucha brewess myself, I was looking forward to sharing my latest batch and swapping stories. But when I arrived, I realized that this was far more than a niche get-together, and that I was way out of my league. This was no tupperware party — this was some kind of small-batch speakeasy. In the span of one gut-fizzing hour, I tasted chipotle kimchi, brazil nut cheese, sour dumplings and miso beet hummus; I drank belgian ale, amazake and ghost pepper water kefir; I ate a goddamn fermented cookie.
What I saw on Sunday begs the question: is fermentation the new pickling? Will kimchi jokes be the next focal point of Jimmy Kimmel’s next Brooklyn Week? Are vinegar-based preserves as passé as pre-condo Williamsburg? To these we at Brokelyn sing a resounding “yes!” Folks, the fermentation game in Brooklyn is strong. Much stronger than spicy McClure’s. And you might want to get with the program.
Why do people ferment?
Unlike pickling, fermenting is actually awesome. It’s the process of culturing digestion-assistive acid and enzymes in ordinary foods, taking them to next-level healthiness. Say goodbye to expensive probiotic supplements: fermented foods are the best thing for gut health, and everyone will tell you so. Fitness buffs, yoga mommies, doctors, ecologists and the hippies that literally wrote books on it. Pickles are preserves using an acidic medium, and don’t have any special probiotic or enzymatic properties beyond the acidic tang. Whereas the sour, fizzy flavor you’ve come to recognize in foods like sauerkraut and miso soup is actually a natural byproduct of the fermenting process, i.e. lactic acid.
Fermenting is also way cheap. One bottle of GT’s kombucha is $3.50-5 at any deli or grocery store. My brew at home costs roughly half a tea bag’s worth of black tea and a few tablespoons of organic sugar, plus supplies (amortized over time). It ends up at about 80 cents per bottle.
With all the social capital you’ll earn from fermenting any of the foods below, you’ll be dating up in no time. And being so ahead of the home-fermented foods movement that’ll surely take over farmers’ markets and Whole Foods in the next few years, this hobby won’t just get you laid — it might make you rich. Here’s a sample of what the kids in Brooklyn are fermenting these days.
Kombucha: Of all the probiotic foods, this is easily the trendiest one in the past decade. Kombucha is fermented sweet tea that uses SCOBYs (Symbiotic Cultures of Bacterial Yeast) which, to the uninitiated, look like fleshy placenta pancakes. Ugh, sorry. I make my own kombucha at home and it really is sooo easy. But in order to start brewing, you need a SCOBY. And in order to get a SCOBY, you need to get it from someone else. This makes kombucha both a very hot invitation-only hobby and the most successful chain letter ever created.
Black garlic: Someone at the party had made black garlic popcorn, which sounded so light and easy that I figured black garlic (i.e. fermented garlic) must be really easy to make. Nope! Turns out it takes eight days spent cooking in a special fermenting box. On the bright side, you don’t need anything except garlic, said fermenting box and some patience to start flavoring your dishes with this pungent, umami-like upgrade to regular garlic. On the not-so-bright side, it means leaving a heated appliance plugged into your wall for days at a time.
Beer: This one’s not shocking, everybody makes beer. Someone you know makes beer. Grimm’s brews are some of the best in Brooklyn IMHO, and it was started by a young couple tinkering with fermentation in their Gowanus apartment. I’m telling you because hey, that could be you! While at the fermentation party, my friend and I tried an awesome stout and a Belgian Pale ale that were as good as any commercially available craft beers in their category. Far better than piss-colored bottles of musty barley juice that so often accompany images of home-brewing. If you’ve had dreams brewing for a while, let this be your call to action. Or laziness, since fermentation is basically just a fancy word for “waiting.” Brew shops like Bitter & Esters (700 Washington Ave.) are a great place to get started.
Nut Cheese: God, I know. This sounds like scatological slang reserved for boys on high school playgrounds. But it’s a very real thing, and scrumptious af. Recipes are versatile — you can do anything from a cashew-based double brie to the toasted gouda-esque brazil nut version I tried on Sunday. Most nut cheeses are so-named because they use nuts in place of dairy, and use a fermented grain starter called rejuvelac (also not a dirty word). It’s easy enough to make at home, then you can make things like said cashew brie. N.B. not all nut cheese is fermented. Stick with recipes that include nutritional yeast, rejuvelac or opt for refrigeration instead of cooking.
Sourdough bread: Baking bread is one thing, but fermenting bread is another. Sourdough, the bread with a slightly dank aftertaste that everyone either loves or hates, is a fermented food. It contains the Lactobacillus culture (the same as in yogurt), giving it healthful probiotic properties and that sour twinge on your tongue. Sourdough starter involves “feeding” a flour mixture for a few days like it’s alive. Which it is. But anyway, here’s that recipe. You can use any flour you like to start, and you feed it with more flour and water until it bubbles.
Kimchi 2.0: Basic kimchi is just cabbage with salt, spices and other vegetables. It’s fermented in its own brine for anywhere from two to five days (and in ancient times, they buried it for months at a time.) And I thought I was fancy for making my own. But as I learned at the party, you can get real crazy with kimchi by subbing out the cabbage for other root vegetables. You can make kimchi beets, kale or daikon radishes. Kimchi ramps, kimchi cucumbers. What makes the flavor of this dish distinct isn’t the cabbage so much as the gochugaru (korean red pepper powder) and accompanying shrimp or fish paste flavors. You can make it vegan by skipping those, though, and dialing up the carrot/garlic combinations.
Amazake: The first ten times I tried to google this, it auto-corrected to “kamikaze.” But this lesser-known Japanese beverage is real, and far from suicidal to ingest. It’s basically a fermented rice (vegan!) pudding, and tastes kind of like a healthier horchata. It’s chock full of probiotic benefits and you can even make it alcoholic. There aren’t many people out there making this stuff — the girls sharing their batches at the party said they currently only sell to Japanese specialty stores — so corner the market ASAP by learning how to do it yourself.
Kefir and kefir water: Yes, even water can be fermented! Well, sort of. With the help of kefir grains, you create a sugar-water solution and let the grains ferment it over a 48-hour period. After the sweetness dulls (since the grains consume the sugar), you’re left with a lower-calorie, slightly aromatic beverage. Almost like aloe juice. The kind I tried at the party was made with coconut water. You can also make a more traditional dairy kefir, which is known for being easier to digest than regular milk. If you get really good at it, you can even use it in your fraudulent breakfast cereal instead.
Cookies: I ate a fermented cookie. I don’t know what was in it, but after snooping around a little online I’ve gleaned that any cookie can be “fermented,” so long as something inside it is. In other words, you can ferment oats with a splash kefir and then use them for oatmeal cookies. Or add a little sourdough starter into your chocolate chip cookies. Or even throw some beer into the mix. Then again, the cookie I ate at the party tasted pretty bad. So try this, or any other of the above recipes that involve raising tiny bacteria in your home, at your own risk.
Sam is currently fermenting her theater and comedy career in the hope that it comes to life. Follow her on Twitter: @ahoysamantha