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Today’s supermarkets and grocery stores paint a vivid picture of constant abundance. Many fruits and vegetables can be found year-round, regularly shipped in from other countries during off seasons. Meat, a resource-intensive protein that’s been a luxury for many throughout history, is piled high in refrigerated cases, neatly encased in packaging that ensures it bears no resemblance to the living creature it came from.
This sense of abundance, however, is simply a veneer: That year-round produce comes with a huge environmental footprint through shipping and packaging, along with the toll of unethical labor practices that can be found on large-scale farms. Our modern-day grocery store habits have another impact as well: Bright, inviting stores with overflowing bins of produce encourage us to buy more than we need. While the convenience of a supermarket is something we can all appreciate, this model ultimately disconnects us from our food and where it comes from, and overbuying leads to a lot of items landing in a trash can instead of our stomachs.
Our Trashy Secret
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines food waste as food that reaches its final destination — either retail markets, food service providers, or the consumer — in the desired quality, but is then discarded instead of consumed. Food loss, on the other hand, refers to losses that occur throughout the supply chain.
Although food waste isn’t new, the staggering amount of waste we currently contend with is truly a modern phenomenon, both in terms of the food itself and the packaging it comes in. (We see examples of our ancestors trying to reduce waste too. Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife, published in 1615, includes examples of reducing waste by reuse in cooking or feeding scraps to livestock.)
The 2018 study “Relationship Between Food Waste, Diet Quality, and Environmental Sustainability,” published in the journal PLOS One, reports that Americans waste about 1 pound of food per person per day. What are we throwing away? According to the study, fruits and vegetables, central to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, are the most wasted foods. In fact, fresh produce accounts for 35 to 40 percent of the food discarded in American households. And it isn’t just food that’s gone bad, either. Much of what we waste is peels, stems, and other usable parts. Perhaps most frustratingly, whole fruits and vegetables will be chucked in the bin if they aren’t attractive enough.
What can we do? Besides buying less and eating what we buy, one of the greatest ways we can reduce waste is by using every part of our food. Fortunately, fermentation is one of the most powerful tools we have for utilizing those often-tossed food items.
Fermentation literally transforms food. Whether it’s adding a tart pucker or some funky nuanced flavors, changing the texture, or creating something with an entirely different use (think vinegar from wine, or wine from grapes), fermentation helps us reimagine what we eat and the kinds of flavors and uses we can get from our food.
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When it comes to food waste, fermentation opens a whole world of possibilities for transforming scraps into something magical that we’re excited to put on our plates. Throw your broccoli stems in brine for a day or two, and you’ll have a crunchy, tasty pickle. Let your carrot tops just start to ferment for a bright, satisfying pesto, or grate a medley of stems and ends to make “kraut-chi.” The possibilities go beyond veggies too; one of my favorites is butter cultured with cheese rinds or scraps from vinegar-making.
Trust Your Gut
I teach new and seasoned fermenters how to re-envision their scraps into usable food, and I’m often asked to share my go-to best practices. The biggest one? Trust your gut (and your eyes, and your nose). Our senses are the best way to tell the difference between a tasty, healthy ferment and one we don’t want to eat. Make sure to taste your ferments as their flavors develop, and to keep an eye out for molds and yeasts growing on the surface.
Of course, we give our senses a better chance of sharing good news when we practice fermentation safely. This means using clean containers and utensils, and keeping air away from anaerobic ferments (ferments that don’t require oxygen). For lacto-fermented food, make sure your substrate — the thing you’re trying to ferment — is entirely submerged in brine, and stays submerged through the entire fermentation process. If you’re making alcohol and aren’t using an airlock, make sure to disrupt the liquid’s surface regularly by stirring or shaking in order to prevent mold and yeast from growing on top. (I do this 2 to 3 times a day.) When done properly, fermentation is one of the safest ways to prepare food.
Here are a few simple recipes to get you started fermenting food waste.
Fermented food is the food of community: the community of microbes that bring so much flavor and so many health benefits to what we eat, and the community of people with whom we share our ferments. During your food waste journey, surround yourself with resources from your fellow fermentation enthusiasts to stay inspired and build your skills. Here are some of my favorites.
- Sandor Katz is the author of The Art of Fermentation and Wild Fermentation, as well as other books and articles on the subject. His website links to countless resources on many aspects of fermentation. Follow him on Instagram @SandorKraut.
- The James Beard Foundation’s Waste Not initiative trains chefs and home cooks to reduce food waste in their kitchens, and their Creating a Full-Use Kitchen class helps culinary school instructors teach students how to reduce waste. Information about both programs can be found on the James Beard Foundation website.
- Pascal Baudar’s books and social media presence are fantastic resources for wild fermentation, wildcrafting, and methods of using the food we have in creative ways. Find him at Urban Outdoor Skills and on Facebook and Instagram @PascalBaudar.
- Preserving Abundance, Root Kitchens’ online food waste class, offers recipes for ferments and beyond, as well as home and craft ideas. Learn more on the Root website and on Facebook and Instagram @RootKitchens.
- Ferment Works, the brainchild of Kirsten and Christopher Shockey, features plenty of helpful how-to resources, books, and workshops around the country. Check it out on Facebook @FermentWorks1.
- OurCookQuest is a community of chefs and cooks of all stripes, led by Rich Shih. This resource, which includes his blog as well as social media presence, offers endless ideas for ways to bring fermentation (particularly koji fermentation) to your kitchen. Shih also co-authored Koji Alchemy with chef Jeremy Umansky. Engage with the community on the OurCookQuest website, on Instagram @OurCookQuest, and with the hashtag #KojiBuildsCommunity.
Julia Skinner, Ph.D, is the director of Root, an Atlanta-based food history and fermentation organization. She’s also a food writer, artist, and avid fermenter. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @BookishJulia.