Reuter's has an interesting video that gives viewers a look into the world of Momofuku's kitchen test lab, where chefs and microbiologists team up to create novel tastes and textures using humble common bacteria in interesting ways. Momofuku's chef David Chang is pretty adamant about his desire to use scientific methods to dissect classic fermented dishes like kimchi and use that knowledge to create new eating experiences.
He has given several lectures on the topic, discussing at great length how cooks have relied upon the natural process of fermentation to bring richer flavors, umami, to foods. Beyond the obvious fermented products like kimchi and yogurt he points out that the process of dry aging beef relies on very similar techniques.
So what's so important about fermentation? Well first it's important to point out that fermentation is basically food going "bad" in a very controlled manner. It's the difference between delicious yogurt and the rancid milk in the back of the fridge. They both can start from the same milk but yogurt is milk that has been placed into an environment that only lets delicious yogurt making bacteria flourish while suppressing all the less tasty bacteria. It's the difference between a beautiful well-tended garden and that patch on your property that the city keeps asking you to burn.
That's where all the science and the Harvard microbiologist come in. Chang is basically trying to grow gardens of deliciously productive bacteria. Since you obviously can't go after unwanted bacteria with a pruning saw, Chang hired a microbiologist to help him tend his bacterial garden. This is an exciting process because it could give chefs an incredible amount of control over exactly how their food tastes after fermentation. The complex tastes of cheese for instance are created by lactobacillus. As you can see from the Wikipedia entry, there are actually over 180 different types of lactobacillus, with only a few that actually are helpful in the creation of food. Cheese makers know this and have been isolating them for decades but the idea of doing this for all foods, that's what is novel and exciting.
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