Koji and The Art of Spring Ferments
Sauerkraut is usually the first stop on the fermentation train. Nearly every book I’ve read on fermentation reports sauerkraut as the author’s first ferment and for good reasons. It’s simple to make and will seem familiar to most people. But my first was hot sauce. As a grower of lots of hot peppers, I needed a way to preserve them outside of chile powder or flakes. Once I saw the bubbly action that fermentation creates, I was hooked.
For Brian Ruhlmann of Craic Sauce, a craft hot-sauce company based in Lowell, his appreciation stemmed from the depth of flavor that fermentation could add.
“When I started making hot sauce,” Ruhlmann says, “I’d just experiment trying new combinations of ingredients and would be amazed about the new flavors I’d create. When I learned about fermentation, I realized those flavor possibilities could stretch so much further and create umami flavors that I couldn’t get by roasted fresh ingredients. Craic [a Gaelic word for something positive or a good time, pronounced “crack”] Sauce now has four hot sauces, the first two are made with fresh ingredients and roasted, the second two sauces are made with a fermented mash.”
What exactly is fermentation? It’s a process in which “good” bacteria, yeasts and molds break down carbohydrates, proteins and alcohols into other compounds. There are a couple of routes to fermentation. One is lacto-fermentation, which is easy as it uses the good bacteria already present on foods to get the bacterial party started. Then there is alcoholic and acetic acid fermentation, which give you (you guessed it) alcohols and acids (such as vinegars). But there is also a less familiar method, at least to the Western world, and it’s the most magical of all: enter koji.
It was inevitable that I would come upon koji in my research, and I really fell in love with it when I tried miso on its own for the first time. The taste was so new to me that I had to learn more.
Koji is a mold that was discovered over 9,000 years ago and has been refined through careful human selection to enhance its enzymatic abilities. Think of this mold as growing many tiny scissors (enzymes) that cut up bigger molecules (like carbohydrates and proteins) into smaller, tastier ones. These smaller compounds are things like simple sugars or amino acids, which give us that highly sought-after fifth sense of taste: umami. Koji creates luxurious soy sauces (called shoyus in Japan and light-years ahead of the grocery store stuff), miso, sake, and many other products. A dawning interest in the Western world has come with an exciting exploration of its uses, from seriously expedited charcuterie and cheese making (producing something in two months that would otherwise take a year), reducing food waste by using koji to turn scraps into delicious food products, and even using it in the farming space (which for me, as a farmer, is something I can’t wait to “dig into” more deeply). The applications of koji seem to be limitless, and the exploration of these possibilities is really starting to take off.
We are seriously indebted to some brave pioneers from Asia who decided to put a moldy piece of rice in their mouths thousands of years ago, and I highly recommend reading more deeply on this topic. There are people out there growing koji on popcorn, cacao nibs, vegetables, and meat (check out the book “Koji Alchemy”), making miso out of kitchen scraps (“The Art of Fermentation”), shoyus out of used coffee grinds (“The Noma Guide to Fermentation”), and incorporating amazake (a sweet rice drink) into a mocha latte (“Miso, Tempeh, Natto & other Tasty Ferments”).
To begin enjoying koji right away, you can start with a store-bought sweet white miso. Try making a salted miso caramel with it and see if you don’t get hooked, too!