It is believed that wild fermentation was discovered accidentally when rainwater fell into a hollowed-out tree stump containing honey from a beehive. When the honey and water were combined, something magical happened. The wild yeasts in the nectar woke up and began to eat up the sugars, transforming it into mead, A.K.A the nectar of the Gods.
Wood, a seemingly ordinary ingredient, comes with a unique ability to absorb wild yeasts and bacteria. During fermentation, the yeasts creep into the cracks and eat up the sap.
In ancient times, the Vikings would make wild fermented mead and pass down family heirlooms in the form of branches or a tree stump. They used these as starters for their own unique family mead.
The Vikings would add wild herbs and plants to their mead as well. This added more wild yeasts that were present on the surfaces of the botanicals.
Fast forward to today. We are surrounded completely by microorganisms like yeast and bacteria. They are in the air, on every surface, and in our bodies. Wild fermentation is essentially harnessing the power of these microbes from the natural world and giving them the proper conditions to thrive. In turn, they have the ability to help us produce treasures like wine, sauerkraut, and other foods.
The Advantages of Wild Fermentation
Using wild fermentation has many advantages for home brewers and fermentation enthusiasts. For one thing, it can save time and money. But perhaps more importantly, it provides a fulfilling connection to the natural world and our ancestors.
No need to borrow or buy starter cultures
When using wild fermentation, there is no need to acquire a starter culture because the culture is already present in the ingredients as well as in the air. Wild fermentation also allows you the opportunity to make your own starters for future use.
Signature Flavors & Textures
Our world is full of microbes that are unique to each environment and season. These microbes will bring forth complex new flavors to each of your ferments. These variations might otherwise be difficult to achieve when working with commercial yeasts and starters.
Greater Diversity of Probiotics
The old proverb “Man cannot live on bread alone” rings true when it comes to probiotics. The human body thrives on a diet full of nutrients and variety. Introducing a variety of microbes into your diet will result in a rich and diverse microbiome and overall health improvement.
While you can certainly enjoy some of these benefits via store-bought products, there will be a wider variety and greater number of probiotics in your homemade creation.
How to Summon Wild Yeast and Bacteria
We are no strangers to wild yeast and bacteria, as they already live all around us. There are countless ways to befriend them, help them thrive and transform ordinary ingredients into culinary gold.
For wine, beer, and beverages:
Using wild fermentation to make wine, beer, and other alcoholic beverages is a lost art. It’s also a controversial topic today because of its unpredictability. Most homebrewers will argue that it’s better to use commercial yeasts in order to capture a very refined and specific flavor.
It all comes down to preference, but for me, the unpredictability is what makes wild fermented wine so fascinating. If you do successfully create a tasty wild fermented beverage, you can save a cup or two of it to add to your next batch to inoculate it with your unique “strain” just as the Vikings did.
Making wild fermented alcoholic beverages is extremely simple. One way is to combine honey or mashed fruit with water in an open container (a bucket, crock, etc) and cover with a cloth to keep critters out.
Stir a few times daily for 2-3 minutes using the same stick or wooden spoon (do not wash between uses). By stirring throughout the day, you supply the yeast with the oxygen it needs to survive. Additionally, you also introduce airborne wild yeasts to the mix.
Sometimes you can even place your vessel outdoors under a tree to really rein in wild yeasts from the outdoor plants.
When the wild yeasts begin to take over, they will make your wine bubbly and fizzy. This is a good indication that the gods have blessed your wine with the gift of life. It’s amazing to watch this transformation and to know that you’ve made the yeast very happy.
Continue to stir daily until the bubbling begins to slow down. When this happens, transfer it to a carboy to continue fermentation. You can also drink it young if you prefer.
Vegetables have wild yeasts and bacteria already on their surfaces. These mainly exist in the form of lactic acid bacteria. When vegetables are placed in a salt water brine environment, it creates the perfect environment for the lactic acid bacteria to multiply and take over. This multiplication prevents spoilage from undesirable invaders like mold and other harmful microbes.
To ferment vegetables, simply cut, chop, or grate them as needed and place in a jar or crock. Add a salt water brine and other spices to taste. Be sure to completely submerge the vegetables in the brine to prevent mold or other spoilage from occurring. Allow to ferment until the desired taste and consistency is reached.
Vinegar can also be made using wild fermentation by the same method as wine. The key difference is that after the bubbling stops, allow the vinegar to be exposed to the air for about 6 weeks before use.
Sourdough is another great candidate for wild fermentation. All it takes is flour and water to make a starter. There is a risk of the wrong microbes taking over from time to time, but you can avoid that by creating a more acidic environment. Adding a splash of pineapple juice the first couple of days will ensure success.
Yogurt is a nutrient-dense food full of probiotics. It can be made without a starter culture as well. An easy way to do this is by using the stems of green chilis. Allow the chili stems to sit covered in milk for 1-2 days in a warm area and you will have yogurt.
There are countless other ways to utilize the principles of wild fermentation in your own way. But most importantly, embrace the process and enjoy watching your food and drinks come to life right before your eyes. It’s an amazing feeling.
Fermentation is a very safe process, but in the event that your recipe has turned on you, it’s pretty easy to tell. Things like mold forming or a putrid smell can be good indicators that something is amiss. Here is a great resource for safe fermentation practices.
Happy fermenting, folks!
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