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Fermenting Veggies at Home: Follow Food Safety ABCs

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Fermentation has become what USDA microbiologist Fred Breidt, Jr., describes as a "movement that's picking up speed."

And for good reason, said Breidt, who specializes in the safety of fermented and acidic foods. Referring to home preparers, small producers and restaurant owners, he said that "they like being able to pick up these nice flavors (from fermentation) and making new ones."

Sandor Katz, author of "Wild Fermentation" and "The Art of Fermentation," refers to this "food movement" as a "fermentation revival."

Considered to be "live foods, fermented foods have a natural tart flavor because the sugars and carbohydrates have been broken down and used up during fermentation." Katz said that, in the case of vegetables, they're more digestible than raw ones. And, because they contain "living bacteria," they help digest other foods in the digestive tract.

Fermentation has long been part of human history. In fact, food scientists say that it played a vital role in human survival in the days before stoves and refrigerators simply because it allowed people to preserve food in a nutritional and safe way. Think foods such as cheese, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchee, olives, salami, jerky and even bread. And think beverages such as wine and beer, not to mention coffee and hot chocolate. All of these - and many more - are examples of fermented foods.

Although we eat one form of fermented food every day, the idea of fermenting our own food conjures up images of strange, iffy, and perhaps dangerous dishes. Surely it would be best to leave it to the experts.

Not so, say food scientists, microbiologists and fermentation advocates - especially in the case of fermented raw vegetables. They point out that just about any raw vegetable can be safely fermented at home, if done properly.

Breidt has often been quoted as saying that the scientific literature has never recorded a case of food poisoning involving raw vegetables that have been fermented properly. But he emphasized that the key word here is "properly," which some people who quote him fail to include in that sentence.  
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