Food as Science

Trust Your Gut: Inside the World of Microbes and Fermentation

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Learn a little bit more about the science of one of Culinarian’s favorite food groups: cheese! How exactly does all that deliciousness happen? Learn about fermentation and more in our Food as Science issue releasing this Thursday

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    When you hear the word microbe, you probably picture something along the lines of a scary cartoon germ that was shown to you during biology class. However, without microbes, there would be no process of fermentation. And without fermentation, we would not have bread, alcohol, greek yogurt, kimchi, soy sauce, cheese, and a bevy of other foods and drinks. Let’s clear the air for friendly microbes once and for all, and delve into the incredible microbiological world that exists right on your plate.

So what exactly is fermentation? Basically, it is the process by which microbes break down big molecules into smaller molecules. As you might recall from biology class, the two types of fermentation are lactic acid and alcoholic. These differ in their end products: lactic acid fermentation results in the production of lactic acid molecules, and alcoholic fermentation results in the production of ethanol molecules.

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 10.20.19 AM    There are a vast number of fermentation microbes that produce many different byproducts along the way. These are vital in determining the taste, texture, and smell of the end products. Although the creation of cheese starts with simple lactic acid fermentation, more microbes can be added to alter the outcome of the product.

    Inoculating milk with the fungus Penicillium camemberti forms soft cheeses such as brie.

    If you want to make blue cheese, then add Penicillium roqueforti and your product will have the signature aroma and color of blue cheese. After lactic acid microbes grow, Propionibacterium freundenreichii is inserted and ferments the present lactic acid. One byproduct of this fermentation, propionic acid, contributes to the flavor profile of the cheese, and another byproduct, carbon dioxide, is responsible for those notorious holes of Swiss cheese. The next time you are in the grocery store, give some extra love to the remarkable variety of microscopic organisms behind the cheese case.

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