Fermentation is a little appreciated, but nutritionally significant, biological process that has created some of humanity’s most iconic foods and beverages.
It’s now commonly understood that grains, such as barley or wheat, that contain sugars can undergo spontaneous fermentation and become beer, due to the strains of wild yeast organisms that are floating around in the air. However, there’s no doubt that the first cave dweller who discovered that happy accident would have been named Party Animal of the Millennia.
If there had been any rudimentary languages back then.
As best as historians can determine, the first recorded beer recipe was developed in Mesopotamia, what is now modern-day Iraq, some 6,000 years ago in a poem honoring Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing.
In modern times, that role has been taken over by multiple goddesses, now referred to as cocktail waitresses.
At around the same time period in ancient history, yogurt and other fermented dairy foods were also accidentally discovered, as herdsmen stored milk in pouches made from animal stomachs that contained natural enzymes capable of curdling the milk.
Fast forward about eight thousand years and commercial yogurt was first marketed in Barcelona, Spain, by Isaac Carass, who founded a company named for his son (Danone, or “Little Daniel”) that became the Dannon brand of yogurt.
It’s also believed Carass was one of the first yogurt makers to figure out a fermentation process that didn’t involve using animal stomachs, which would have been a tough sell in terms of a “clean” label statement.
No Shortcuts to Flavor
Like those other heavily marketed and widely appreciated foods, traditional salami is also a fermented food made from ground, seasoned pork mixtures stuffed into natural casings.
As with other fermented foods — including such staples as pickles and sauerkraut, as well as more exotic foods such as tempeh (fermented soybeans) — the production of salami involves inoculating microbes into the meat. The classic salami recipes from the Middle Ages utilized bacteria from ambient air to cure the meat as the salamis hung in open-air barns to slowly dry cure.
Of course, commercial salami manufacturers now use scientifically formulated starter cultures, not only to ensure consistency but also to accelerate the curing process used with many Italian cured meats, including soppresata, prosciutto and pepperoni.
Modern technology has improved efficiency, but has it compromised flavor?
Apparently, the answer is yes.
A new study done by researchers at the University of Turin in Italy and published in Applied Environmental Microbiology (one of my must-read journals each month), found that salami made with “wild” bacteria scored higher with consumer-tasters than salami made with a starter culture.
Why? According to the researchers, “Changes in the microbial gene content and abundance can be analyzed to detect shifts in the microbiota composition due to the use of a starter culture in the food fermentation process with the consequent shift of key metabolic pathways directly connected with product acceptance.”
Translation: Starter culture bacteria secrete acid, which affects flavor.
In drilling down a little deeper, Luca Cocolin, the lead researcher and a professor of microbiology at the University of Turin, explained in a New York Times article on the study that a “rainbow of [bacterial] species” was present in salami cured without use of a starter culture, which he said resulted in “a more complex, and apparently more pleasant, array of scent and flavor molecules.”
In contrast, the bacteria in the commercial starter culture excreted significant amounts of acetic acid, i.e., vinegar, which is excellent in certain salad dressings, marinades and South Carolina-style mustard-based barbecue sauce.
Not so much in salami.
“If you have these notes that are strong in your product,” Cocolin told the newspaper, “it’s not good.”
Next up for Cocolin’s research group, however, is an advance that may prove to be the best of both worlds — Old and New: A more “tailored approach” using wild microbes as the basis for an “artisanal starter culture” that could improve overall flavor, while speeding up the curing process.
The only problem is that even if they’re successful, the resulting product will retail for $20 to $30 a pound (shipping not included), which means it can only be an occasional treat, rather than the staple food cured meats once were.
Then again, it beats eating your midday snack out of a goat-stomach pouch.
Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.