Janet Brandon stacks a plateful of pancakes for her three young grandchildren to devour.
To the untrained eye, these fluffy flapjacks look hot and delicious, but little do these youngsters know they're about to ingest gazillions of bacteria with their breakfast.
Brandon added a SCOBY – a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast – to the pancake batter, in the form of a fermented coconut milk drink.
"My grandkids don't eat stuff like this so I put it in pancakes," admits the 60-year-old. She pulls out a mason jar of coconut milk kefir from the refrigerator in her Grandin home. The substance inside has the colour and viscosity of buttermilk and a similar sour smell.
Brandon is a "fermento", part of a new movement of people exploring the art and science of do-it-yourself home food fermentation.
Fermentation is an age-old method of food preservation. For millennia, various cultures worldwide have been fermenting foods – from beer, wine and mead to miso, sauerkraut and salsa.
Proponents of fermentation cite its many health benefits. As stated in The Art of Fermentation by self-described fermentation revivalist Sandor Katz, fermented foods have been associated with improved digestion (as it is a form of pre-digestion) and makes certain nutrients, such as B vitamins, more available for the body to absorb.
Research has found that the ingestion of probiotics – live bacterial cultures found in milk, cheese and yogurt – help improve the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and the body's immune system in general, by replenishing and balancing the "good bacteria" in the gut.
One of the reasons this type of kitchen microbiology has taken off in recent years is because people are becoming more connected with what they eat, says Megan Miller, a local fermento who teaches a workshop on fermented foods at Earth's General Store in Edmonton.
"And it's really fun," she adds.
Fermentation is the act of preserving food with the help of micro-organisms. In biological terms, the process is completed under anaerobic conditions (with no oxygen).
Miller describes it as a children's science, and not just because she has three kids under the age of five who gobble up her latest ferments.
"Every jar is a bit of an experiment. You know the basic principles – but if you put a little bit of this spice, a little more of that – you don't know how it will turn out," she says.
The flavours of the ferment – like sauerkraut, for example – will mature and change with time much like a fine wine.
"I'm a bacteriologist in my kitchen with no training," she chuckles.
Despite it being mid-winter, the "skinny" season for concocting new ferments, Miller is able to fill her kitchen table with various mason jars and bottles containing various fermented substances, such as pickled peppers, sourdough, brandied cherries and fizzy probiotic drinks.
In her workshops, Miller outlines the three main types of fermentation: yeast (for alcoholic beverages), lacto-fermentation and SCOBYs.
Lacto-fermentation, known to many as pickling, is the process that makes dill pickles, kimchi and sauerkraut using lactobacillus bacteria.
Miller says lacto-ferments have gained the most hype lately. They are also the simplest form of fermentation, involving salt-water brine.
"Most bacteria don't like salt, that's why salt is such a good preservative," she says, explaining that the bacteria will eat the sugars found in the fruit and vegetables being preserved and in turn create lactic acid.
"Eventually the lactic acid creates such an acidic environment – that's that characteristic sour taste that you look for in sourdough and sauerkraut – that the bacteria stops reproducing and everything stays in this state of preservation."
One of the basic tenets of fermenting is creating a controlled environment, selecting which bacteria live and which die off.
That concept is at work in Brandon's pancake recipe. Her coconut milk ferment is an example of a SCOBY, in which colonies of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts are added in the form of a gelatinous cauliflower-like grain called kefir.
The micro-organisms eat the sugars in the milk and break them down, creating a sour, slightly carbonated product.
"They need to be constantly washed and fed. They're pets," chuckles Miller as she "burps" one of her ferment bottles to release built up carbon dioxide and (trace amounts of) ethanol. To keep her grains alive, Miller gives them fresh water every few days and replenishes their sugar stocks.
"It's a living entity – they just keep reproducing," she says.
The grains can be used over and over again.
"No one knows how it was first cultured so once you got it, you want to keep it. If you throw them out and want to start up again, you need to find someone who has a live culture."
SCOBY colonies are also used to make kombucha, an effervescent sweet probiotic tea.
On a late Thursday afternoon, Brandon opens the lid to a jar of preserved Meyer lemons, the odour that emanates from it is concentrated and tart.
"You want a bit of a sour fizzy taste," she says, smacking her lips. "These (lemons) will last up to a year, but they won't because they will get eaten by then."
Brandon began experimenting with fermentation three years ago, part of a lifestyle change for medical reasons. She ferments for the health benefits – the addition of good gut bacteria, added nutrients and easy digestibility.
"It was a lifetime of eating what my body couldn't digest and I finally said 'no'," she says, "Nothing helped as much as changing the way I eat."
Brandon tries to eat a small portion of fermented food three times a day – including a yogurt for breakfast.
She says she would like to see more people testing out a ferment or two, but a common misconception is that the food is rotten.
Miller likens the process to a "controlled rot."
"We're using the bacteria to break down the foods just enough," she explains, adding that smell and colour are good indicators if a food product has gone bad.
"If you're doing it correctly, they will go soggy before they go off."
She says fermentation was designed simply with no need for fancy equipment. Ferments were made to get people through until the next harvest season.
"All you need is a cutting board, a knife, non-iodized salt and an imagination," adds Brandon.
Miller makes it even simpler.
"I put some stuff in a pot, I ignore it for four days then I put it in my fridge. It's really not that hard," she says.
"It's not a dogma. It's fun, otherwise I wouldn't do it anymore."
As one of the latest food movements in North America, fermented foods are working their way onto store shelves and into people's homes.
According to some blogs on fermentation, ferment parties have become the new girls night in.
"There are ferment parties where we get together and swap bacteria," laughs Miller, "Not like we're sneezing on each other – but here, try my SCOBY."
Parties may also involve swapping fermenting horror stories, sharing recipes or trying a new one together.
"What better way to bring people together than sharing food together," says Miller.
"A culture and its food are really important, a culture and its bacterial cultures are something else."
Megan Miller will host her next introduction to fermented foods workshop in March. Check the Earth's General Store website (http://egs.ca/) for more details.