There’s a joke that goes something like, “What’s the difference between the United States and a cup of yogurt? Well, if you leave the yogurt sitting around for 200 years, it’ll develop a culture.”
Fortunately, a fast-rising Hudson Valley industry is looking to introduce a bit of culture directly into the food we eat, with the goal of bringing elevated flavor, endless culinary possibilities, and a host of health benefits to our table. We’re talking about fermentation, and while its processes have been a part of our species’ culinary traditions for thousands of years, our region is seeing a remarkable resurgence of its methods in the production of popular goods like kombucha, sausage, hot sauce, and, yes, even waffles.
“I think this is happening because [of] the crisis in the food industry,” says Miguel LaCruz, who owns the Hastings-on-Hudson waffle shop Wild Culture with his wife, Gabriela Montiel. “Those of us who are lucky enough to have a choice — because most humans on this planet are hungry and cannot make a choice — are looking into what we are putting on the table. Fermentation basically transforms the ingredients in a way we need to make them healthy.”
At Wild Culture, LaCruz makes his waffle batter with just water, flour, and a live yeast starter that nurtures the dough through the natural process of fermentation, which, in short, is the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, and other microorganisms. LaCruz found his inspiration in Los Angeles sourdough specialist Chad Robertson of Tartine Bread, as well as the works of writer Michael Pollan.
LaCruz’s mixture is fermented in a refrigerator for no less than 10 hours, after which the batter is finalized with ingredients like butter, eggs, and, most notably, banana and maple. That batter is placed back in the fridge, where the yeast will feast on the sugar in the banana and maple for another 10 hours.
“That long fermentation, what it does is it breaks the gluten protein in a way that makes it easier to digest,” says LaCruz. “I started to think about why have people had all these issues with gluten, when we’ve been eating bread for thousands of years.”
LaCruz points to fast-acting commercial yeast, which minimizes rising times from hours or days to mere minutes, as the source of today’s rise in gluten intolerance and celiac disease. While he avoids pushing his waffles on customers with either of these conditions, he’ll often open the possibility for them to try a bite.
“I realized the natural fermentation used in this technique, in having a live culture, is the way we have been baking for thousands of years, and we just recently changed that because we learned how to recreate this yeast in a lab,” explains LaCruz. “I have clients that have been craving gluten baked goods for so long, [then] they try my waffles at the farmers’ market, and they were fine. Zero bad reactions or anything.”
Wild Culture is only one of many Hudson Valley businesses boasting the body-healing benefits of fermented foods. And where their philosophy focuses on transforming the food we put into our bodies, Seek North Kombucha is looking to transform the body itself.
“We’re finding that your gut affects pretty much every system and function in your body, and is even deeply related to your brain,” Philippe Trinh and Julian Lesser, co-founders of the Kingston-based kombucha brewing company, explain. “The more we find out, the more it seems diet, and the effect that diet has on your microbiome, is pretty much at the core of everything wellness: weight, nutrient availability, mental health.”
The story of Seek North started in 2017, when Lesser tested positive for Lyme Disease. The antibiotics he was prescribed were stripping away beneficial bacteria from his gut, resulting in a host of stomach issues.
About 70 percent of the entire human immune system is located in our gut, so Lesser and Trinh knew it was imperative that these healthy and essential bacteria and probiotics be replaced. Eating and drinking fermented foods is one of the most natural ways to do so.
This realization encouraged the pair to pursue a cleaner diet, cutting out sugar and processed foods — and drinking kombucha, a fermented tea drink. To avoid the high acidity and sugar levels of commercial brands, Trinh set out to ferment his own organic brews that were both flavorful and full of health benefits.
“We drank more and more kombucha and we both noticed a change. We had more energy, our skin seemed clearer, and it helped digestive issues from the antibiotics Julian was taking,” explains Trinh.
Seek North’s kombucha is raw and unpasteurized, meaning beneficial yeast and bacteria are not killed off or filtered out during the brewing process. A mixture of green and black teas are allowed to ferment for two weeks — during which a cream or light-tan colored blob known as a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) is formed at the top of the brew that blocks harmful bacteria and molds from forming — before a second fermentation process begins. Here, Trinh infuses exotic herbs and fruits into the mix.
During the second fermentation, the kombucha microbes imparted by the SCOBY metabolize any sugar to produce lactic acid, acetic acid, ethanol, and carbon dioxide, making kombucha less sweet, but tangier and carbonated.
“Fermentation is rebellious in the fact that you’re taking ownership of your own body in your own hands,” says Trinh. “You’re not just buying the next trendy thing on the shelf; you’re letting nature do the work it’s always done, taking part in it, and using it to replenish and take care of your very literal center.”
The 3 Types of Fermentation
The practice of fermentation and knowledge of its food-preservation and health benefits have been a part of food preparation since, well, the dawn of human history, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that French microbiologist Louis Pasteur showed that living organisms initiate the process. Because of Pasteur’s research, we know a lot more about the inner workings of fermentation and its three distinct types.
First and foremost is ethanol fermentation, or as we all know it, alcohol fermentation. Here, yeasts break sugars down into ethanol and carbon dioxide molecules. In baking, the carbon dioxide creates bubbles that cause bread to rise. The ethanol is why beer, wine, and liquor make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Next is lactic acid fermentation. No, dairy is not involved. Instead, yeast strains and bacteria convert starches or sugars into lactic acid, a process that occurs in human muscles when we work out. Lactic acid bacteria are integral in producing and preserving foods, and this method is used to make foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt.
Finally, we have acetic acid fermentation, which is used to make vinegar and kombucha.
For many fermentation experts, letting nature do the work is one of the most essential tenets to abide by. And here in the Hudson Valley, nature is in abundance.
“I wanted to make native ferments that thrive off the environment they’re in and work from spontaneous fermentation [by] utilizing the ambient bacteria and yeast in the air around us,” says Jori Jayne Emde, co-owner of Fish & Game restaurant in Hudson.
Through her brand Lady Jayne’s Alchemy, Emde sells her home-grown concoctions, including Worcestershire sauce, floral tinctures, and, most notably, raw vinegar.
Emde lets her vinegars ferment slowly in an open-air barn in six-gallon drums over the course of several months. Without the introduction of a starter, Emde allows the vinegars to sour naturally and develop acetic acid over time. During winter, the steel containers freeze, and the microorganisms at work go dormant. When the warm weather returns, the vinegars thaw out and go back to business as usual.
“Having the space to work and the fresh air and healthy environment and really clean water made for really great ferments,” explains Emde.
These ferments, she believes, offer more health benefits than the average person knows about. “A lot of people don’t realize that we have seven different microbiomes on and in the human body, and raw, real, unadulterated vinegar is healthy for all seven of them,” explains Emde.
The benefits include clearing your sinuses when diluted in a neti-pot, lubrication for your lungs when ingested, fighting yeast in your reproductive organs, and introducing and maintaining healthy bacteria when used on your skin.
Behind all of these natural benefits, Emde has found that vinegar-making also offers a way to give back to nature in the form of reusing food scraps to reduce waste. The flavor-boosting abilities of fermentation bring new life to nutrient-packed scraps like carrot peels, egg whites, and steeped coffee grounds, in turn opening up an endless array of culinary possibilities that Emde has brought to Fish & Game.
“There are ways to utilize as much as you can from all ingredients you’re working with. Like turning tough stems from beets into a fermented condiment by pressing them in a saline solution to break the cell walls and soften the membrane and fibers, and then fine dicing and using as a pickled condiment for a dish or oysters,” she explains. “[It’s about] Not wasting nutrients and finding creative ways to use these forgotten or neglected ingredients and turn them to full flavor through fermentation methods.”
She calls this process “whole utilization,” and its end-products are used across her restaurant’s menu in cocktails, appetizers, or to alter the acidity in their dishes. For instance, her pineapple vinegar — made with pineapple scraps from their sister restaurant — serves as a base for a ponzu used to flavor steelhead trout; yet it’s also used to make a sorbet garnish for raw oysters. To Emde, fermentation is the gift that keeps on giving.
Emde isn’t the only mad-fermentation-scientist up in Hudson, either. Jared Schwartz, the head fermenter at Farm Ferments and founder of Poor Devil Pepper Co., has been feeding his fascination of the topic for the last 10 years.
“I started with sauerkraut and kimchi and started to push the envelope with hot sauce in terms of what you could do, applying the same ideas to hot peppers, root veg, squash, anything really,” says Schwartz.
The lacto-fermented hot sauces he makes at Poor Devil are bold, packed with flavors you won’t typically find in your average vinegar-based hot sauce, like carrot, ginger, and beets. “I think you really capture layers of flavor that you’re unable to replicate [with other methods],” explains Schwartz.
He’s even taken his penchant for experimentation over to Jack Peele of JACüTERIE, an artisanal charcuterie company that produces cured meats and fermented sausages out of Ancramdale in Columbia County.
“They’re on their own wild journey creating amazing things,” says Schwartz. “[At Poor Devil] we created this byproduct we weren’t able to capture before: some of the skin and seeds left over after blending and thinning the sauce. We call it a pulp. We’ve been giving a bunch of it to JACüTERIE.”
With this pulp and Poor Devil’s sauces, the pair recently collaborated on several fermented-sausage releases, loaded with the flavors of Schwartz’s sauces, like the spicy “Borscht” sausage, loaded with fresh dill, beets, carrots, spicy peppers, and nigella seeds; the “Kali Curry” sausage, infused with Poor Devil’s Kali Curry hot sauce pulp, golden raisins, fresh ginger, and cilantro; and the “Green Widow,” which uses Green Widow hot sauce pulp blended into a sausage along with crushed pineapple, orange zest, and other spices.
“Again, it creates those levels of flavor that you can’t really mimic outside of a ferment,” says Schwartz.
And that’s the crux of it all: the results of fermentation, in both flavor and health benefits, just can’t be replicated by commercial means, or any other. Humans’ relationship with the process is symbiotic in nature. And, in the eyes of Trinh and Lesser, it’s a relationship we wouldn’t be whole without.
“It’s the perfect example to show that when you take care of, respect, and support nature’s processes, nature will take care of you, too. Ancient medicine has been saying this for thousands of years,” explains Trinh. “By looking outward, falling in love with nature, tending to it, learning about it, going outside and experiencing it, you’re really looking inward because you’re a part of this all.”