By Harold McGee
Preserving fruits and vegetables by fermentation is based on the fact that plants are the natural home of certain benign microbes which in the right conditions—primarily the absence of air—will flourish and suppress the growth of other microbes that cause spoilage and disease. They accomplish this suppression by being the first to consume the plant material’s readily metabolized sugars, and by producing a variety of antimicrobial substances, including lactic and other acids, carbon dioxide, and alcohol. At the same time, they leave most of the plant material intact, including its vitamin C (protected from oxidation by the carbon dioxide they generate); they often add significant amounts of B vitamins; and they generate new volatile substances that enrich the food’s aroma. These benign “lactic acid bacteria” apparently evolved eons ago in oxygen-poor piles of decaying vegetation, and now transform our carefully gathered harvests into dozens of different foods across the globe, as well as turning milk into yogurt and cheese and chopped meat into tangy sausages.