Wild Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2003) by Sandor Ellix Katz explores the variety of dishes that can be made via fermentation. This excerpt comes from chapter 9, “Fermented-Grain Porridges and Beverages”.
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Nothing is better for gently waking up your digestive tract and energizing you for the day ahead than porridge. In its many guises, it is the ultimate breakfast food. Crazy Owl, my miso-making mentor, makes porridge that he calls congee, in the Chinese tradition. He places whole grains in a stainless steel thermos at night (with various healing herbs), pours boiled water over them, and leaves them to steep in the insulated environment overnight. The congee is deeply restorative. Lately, one of my fellow communards, Buffy, has been on a porridge-for-breakfast kick, and I’ve been a happy beneficiary of his mush-mania. Most mornings you can hear him cranking our hand grain-grinder, coarsely grinding whole grains, preparing for breakfast. He mixes different grains, toasts the ground grains in a dry cast-iron skillet, and cooks them in water, at a ratio of 1 part grain to 5 parts water. After about 20 minutes of cooking, they are creamy and delicious.
Fermentation can add new dimensions to grain porridges. A 12- to 24-hour soak will increase digestibility and creaminess without altering flavor. Sally Fallon, author of the pro-fermentation cookbook Nourishing Traditions, is emphatic about soaking grains to make them digestible. “The well-meaning advice of many nutritionists, to consume whole grains as our ancestors did and not refined flours and polished rice, is misleading and often harmful in its consequences; for while our ancestors ate whole grains, they did not consume them as presented in our modern cookbooks in the form of quick-rise breads, granolas, and other hastily prepared casseroles and concoctions. Our ancestors, and virtually all preindustrialized peoples, soaked or fermented their grains before making them into porridge, breads, cakes, and casseroles. ”Her scientific rationale, confirmed by Paul Pitchford in Healing with Whole Foods, is that the outer layer of most grains contains a compound called phytic acid, which can block mineral absorption during digestion. Fermenting grains by soaking them before cooking neutralizes phytic acid and renders the grain far more nutritious. A short soak — 24 hours in cool weather, 8 to 12 hours in hot weather — accomplishes this without affecting the flavor.
Then again, sometimes you want to affect the flavor. Not everyone likes their food mild and bland. Some of us crave intense sour flavors. The longer you allow grain fermentation to proceed, the more acidic flavors will develop, thanks to the presence everywhere of lactic acid-producing Lactobacilli.
Oatmeal (or “oytmeal,” as my father always calls it, in imitation of his Lithuanian-born grandmother) is the quintessential comfort food. It is soft and mushy, harking back to that long-ago time of infancy, when all our food was of such a consistency and lovingly spoon-fed to us. Fermenting oats before cooking them makes them creamier, richer in flavor, and more nutritious. I grew up eating oatmeal savory, with butter, milk, salt, and pepper. These days I doll it up with butter, eanut butter, and miso. Oatmeal is nothing if not versatile.
For the freshest, most nutritious oatmeal, coarsely grind whole oats yourself when you are ready to use them, though steel-cut oats or rolled oats will work fine, too.
Time frame: 24 hours
Ingredients (for 3 to 4 servings):
• 1 cup/250 milliliters oats, coarsely ground, steel-cut, or rolled
• Sea salt
1. Soak the oats in about 3 cups/750 milliliters of water. Cover to keep dust and flies out.
2. Ferment overnight, or for several days. A short ferment begins pre-digestion but has a mild flavor not heavily influenced by fermentation. The distinctive flavors of fermentation emerge after 24 to 48 hours, depending upon temperature, and become more prominent the longer you let it ferment (up to a point).
3. Cook the oats. Add a pinch of salt and bring the oats and water to a boil. Lower the heat and cook until the oats absorb all the water, about 10 minutes. Add a little more water if you prefer a thinner, runnier texture; more oats if you prefer it firmer. Stir frequently, as the sticky, starchy oatmeal can burn easily.
4. Serve. However you like to eat your oatmeal, sweet or savory, you’ll love the creaminess of this fermented version.