Smoke It, Salt It, Cure It, Pound It

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Recently by Mark Sisson: I Wish I Could Shout It From the Rooftops!

     

Before huge multinational corporations did it for us, humans had to figure out how to turn raw, unrefined formerly-living things into food that could be cooked or eaten. And before standup freezers, refrigerators, ice boxes, canned soup, bagged bread, tinned fish, and grocery stores hit the scene, we had to figure out how to preserve foods. Yes, we humans were a wily, resourceful bunch — still are, if you give us half a chance — who came up with an impressive number of food preparation and preservation techniques over the ages. Some techniques were designed solely to preserve the food. Some improved the taste. Others increased the density of the nutrients, as well as our ability to access them. Still others were simply concerned with removing natural toxins and making the food safe to eat. And some techniques accomplish some or all of these things at once. Whatever the technique, however, from basic mechanical pounding to month-long fermentation, these methods all sought to accomplish one simple thing: increase the availability of safe, nutritious, digestible caloric energy.

Let’s take a look at some of them and explore what, why, and how they work:

Soaking

What and When — Soaking, also known as steeping, is a basic elementary step in traditional food preparation, especially that of cereal grains, legumes, and anything bound for fermentation. As long as people have been relying on grains and legumes as a large source of calories, they have been soaking them. Because, well, you’ll see when you get to the “Why.”

How — Cover seeds with water, let sit in a warm place for at least twelve hours, drain, then rinse.

Why — Soaking does a few things. It prepares the seed for cooking by partially saturating it with water (particularly in the case of legumes). This makes cooking quicker and the finished product tastier. It also significantly reduces the phytic acid content while improving the digestibility of the food. By reducing phytic acid, you absorb more of the minerals that come with the food, instead of losing them. By improving the digestibility, you are able to extract more calories from the beans than you’d otherwise extract. Thus, the food is more nutritious and more calorific — extremely important for people who get the bulk of their nutrition from seeds.

Sprouting

What and When — After soaking a seed, grain, nut, or legume, a couple things can happen. It can be cooked immediately. It can be dried and then pounded (see below) into a flour or meal. It can also be prevented from fully drying, usually by constantly remoistening it, and allowed to sprout. These are seeds, after all, and their ultimate goal is to become a full-grown plant. Obviously, seeds have been sprouting for millions of years, but there’s not much data about exactly when people began sprouting seeds for their health benefits. I imagine soaking and fermenting produced a lot of sprouted seeds that were then incorporated into the food, if only by accident. I don’t imagine they were eating amaranth sprout salads or anything. Thus, sprouting seeds may be a traditional method of preparation mostly by accident.

How — Soak the raw seed, grain, nut, or legume for around 12 hours (depending on the variety, the time required changes). It must be raw, not roasted, or else the enzymes will be deactivated. After soaking, drain them completely in a colander. Every eight hours, rinse them with water and allow them to drain. Give them enough room and some air exposure. After a couple rinsings, they should begin to sprout.

Why — Sprouting deactivates enzyme inhibitors, thus making the sprouted seed more digestible. There’s also some evidence that it activates phytase, the phytic acid-degrading enzyme, but it doesn’t look like the increased phytase actually reduces phytic acid all the time.

Fermenting

What and When — Fermentation is the chemical transformation of complex organic substances into simpler compounds by enzymes produced by bacteria, molds, and yeasts. It’s a kind of “pre-digestion,” performed by microorganisms long before humans were around to witness it (let alone control it). The earliest confirmed instances of human-mediated fermentation involve alcohol, including the 7,000 year old winery from Armenia. Although no liquid wine was recovered, the residues confirm that humans have been consciously fermenting foods and altering our consciousness for a very long time. Evidence for production of fermented dairy in Babylon from over 5,000 years ago exists, and the first bread, a leavened long-fermented sourdough, was baked in Egypt roughly 3,500 years ago. I’m not sure if every culture has a tradition of fermented foods, but the list of cultures that do not would be exceedingly small.

How — It depends on what you’re trying to ferment — and you can ferment just about anything, so the methods are incredibly diverse. Some foods, like raw dairy, will ferment all on their own because they contain an abundance of living lactobacilli, while others, like pasteurized dairy, require the addition of a starter agent because all the lactobacilli have been killed. The pasteurized dairy will still pick up bacteria and “change” without human interference, but it won’t be a desirable change without lactobacilli present to hold off the unwanted bacteria. Still others, like cabbage, come with enough lactobacilli bacteria to start fermentation, but you have to squeeze the natural juices out to kickstart the process and then add enough salt to limit the growth of putrefactive bacteria. But in the end, fermentation always comes down to enzymatic actions taken by molds, yeasts, and/or bacteria upon foods.

Why — The fermentation products — acetic acid, lactic acid, and alcohol — act as natural preservatives for food and its nutrients while creating exciting, complex flavors. In a world without refrigeration, this was essential if you wanted to store enough food for leaner times without it spoiling or bleeding vitamins. Also, because the food is “pre-digested” by microorganisms, it’s easier to digest and you get more energy out of it. Fermentation can also create new nutrients, especially B-vitamins, and fermented food can populate our guts with helpful bacteria (or pass along helpful genetic data to existing bacteria). Obviously, traditional cultures didn’t know all these things, but they knew fermented food lasted longer, tasted better, and made them feel better.

Nixtamalization

What and When — In Mesoamerica around 1500 BC, the folks living there discovered that soaking maize (or corn) in water mixed with lime (the calcium hydroxide, not the fruit) or ashes from burnt trees (potassium hydroxide), the grain became more delicious, more digestible, and easier to work with.

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