Food Lab Glossary
Get to know the jargon of our research and traditional methods of food preparation.
Acidification: The process of lowering pH in food by either adding an acid (like lemon juice or yogurt) or promoting acid production in food. Often done at the early stages of fermentation to create a safe environment and enhance flavor and texture in the food. Fermentation itself also lowers pH.
Aging/Curing: Placing food in the right environmental conditions (such as a space that has controlled temperature, humidity and air flow) so that chemical processes such as fermentation can work on the food over a period of time to release nutrients, increase nutrient density and improve flavor, texture and quality.
Anaerobic bacteria: Bacteria that work in the absence of oxygen, as in the case of most lactic acid fermentations.
Backslopping: Saving a yeast and/or bacteria culture at the end of the fermentation process to kick-start the next one. Example, sourdough or yogurt starter.
Bioavailability: The nutrients that are available for an individual’s body to absorb and process. Things that will impact this include not only the quality of the food but also how it was prepared, the context in which it was consumed, and the health of the individual. An example is corn; when nixtamalized, niacin becomes available and can be absorbed.
Brining: Soaking a food in salt water and allowing the salt to be absorbed through osmosis.
Cheddaring: A stage in the cheddar cheese-making process when you shuffle layers of curd to evenly express the whey. It’s how cheddar cheese got its name, however it is not a step typically used in commercially made cheddar cheese.
Cheese cave: A controlled environment that’s attempting to replicate the humidity, temperature, and air flow of the caves in which the world’s most famous cheeses were created. Typically 55 degrees F, 85 percent relative humidity.
Crème fraiche: A cultured dairy product made by acidifying cream. The acidification process creates a pleasant sourness, thickens the cream and improves shelf life.
Culture: A colony of yeast and/or bacteria used to inoculate food to induce fermentation, aging, curing, etc.
Curds: During the cheese-making process, milk is typically separated into curds and whey through the use of rennet. Most cheeses are made from the curds.
Decoction: The process of extracting the essence of something typically through heating or boiling plants.
Enzymes: Catalysts that convert parts of foods into things that are more digestible or nutritious for the human body, for example amylase, which exists in human saliva and converts complex carbohydrates into simple sugars.
Fat-soluble: Vitamins that require the presence of fat to be absorbed and used properly by our bodies.
Foraging: The practice of gathering wild food.
Kefir: An ancient fermented dairy product that provides the human body with a host of valuable bacteria and yeast.
Kombucha: A lactic- and yeast-fermented beverage that provides the human body with a host of valuable bacteria and yeast. Relies upon SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) to catalyze fermentation.
Kvass: A fermented Russian beverage that requires stale dark bread as the catalyst.
Laban: A coagulated sour milk diluted with water.
Lactic acid bacteria: The anaerobic bacteria, which produces lactic acid as a byproduct, responsible for most food fermentation.
Lacto-fermentation: Fermentation that relies upon lactic acid bacteria.
Nitrates/nitrites: Preservatives added to meats during processing in advance of fermenting or curing to create a safe environment. Controversial because excessive consumption may be detrimental to health, and some believe that it’s not necessary when meat is processed and cured under strict conditions with healthy animals.
Nixtamalize: The ancient process of increasing the bioavailability of nutrients in maze (corn), an otherwise very difficult food for our bodies to process, through the use of lye. First invented by the Native Americans who first domesticated maze and used wood ash as a source of lye.
Nutrient-dense: Foods that contain and make available the components—such as high-quality fats, proteins, minerals, enzymes, and bacteria/yeasts—that the human body has relied upon through throughout its evolution. This has depended upon our ability to both gain access to such foods by overcoming a plant’s or animal’s physical defenses (cracking a nut, hunting a mammal), and developing processing technologies, such as fermentation.
Phytic acid: An acid found in many plant seeds, nuts, grains and legumes that inhibits the absorption of nutrients by the human body. This needs to be deactivated through specific food processing technologies for the body to realize the food’s full value; fermentation and soaking are two typical methods.
Polyculture: The cultivation of several crops or animals in such a way that they mutually benefit each other and mimic what happens naturally.
Saccharification: The process of using enzymes to convert complex carbohydrates into sugar that can later be acted upon through yeasts during fermentation to produce alcohol.
SCOBY: Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast.
Sprouting: The act of placing a seed, nut, or legume in a moist, warm environment to allow the sprout to form, for the purpose of releasing enzymes, neutralizing phytic acid, and increasing digestibility and taste.
Starter culture: A yeast and/or bacteria culture used to induce fermentation.
Terroir: The singular environmental conditions in a particular place, including soil chemistry, climate, and microflora, that contribute to the unique qualities of food and/or beverages produced in that area. An example would be the difference between San Francisco and Parisian sourdough breads.
Thermophilic bacteria: Bacteria typically used in dairy fermentation (including most yogurts and some cheeses like mozzarella) that withstand higher temperatures.
Whey: One of the byproducts of most cheese-making and is separate from the curd with the use of rennit.
Wild fermentation: Fermentation that relies upon wild bacteria and/or yeast specific to a particular place.