Fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, and kombucha are widely available and wildly popular these days. There are good reasons for that – they provide some impressive health benefits.
Fermentation originated as a food preservation method and means to produce alcohol. The earliest record of fermentation dates back thousands of years, and nearly every civilization has included at least one fermented food in its culinary heritage. Bread, beer, Indian chutneys, miso, sauerkraut, yogurt, cheese, sour cream, soy sauce, pickles, and even chocolate are some examples of fermented foods that people around the world have created.
Fermented foods are preserved using an ancient process that boosts shelf life and increases nutritional value. In addition, they give your body a healthy dose of probiotics, which are live microorganisms that are important to good digestion and overall health. The bacteria in fermented foods are considered probiotics.
What is fermentation?
Fermentation is a process that involves the breakdown of sugars in foods by bacteria and yeast.
Here’s a more detailed explanation from a research review titled Inclusion of Fermented Foods in Food Guides around the World:
What exactly are fermented foods? Fermentation is a process that has been used by humans for thousands of years, with major roles in food preservation and alcohol production. Fermentation is primarily an anaerobic process converting sugars, such as glucose, to other compounds like alcohol, while producing energy for the microorganism or cell. Bacteria and yeast are microorganisms with the enzymatic capacity for fermentation, specifically, lactic acid fermentation in the former and ethanol fermentation in the latter. Many different products around the world are a result of fermentation, either occurring naturally or through addition of a starter culture. Different bacterial and yeast species are present in each case, which contribute to the unique flavors and textures present in fermented foods.
In the article Fermentation: A History, eatCultured explains it another way:
Fermentation, or more specifically of certain kinds of food, is called culturing. Essentially communities of microbes, or “cultures”, colonize a food. As they start to convert naturally occurring sugars in the food into energy for themselves, microbes cause spontaneous fermentation in the surrounding food or beverage.
During fermentation, these small organisms consume available biodegradable material – like the sugar in dairy or grains – without the presence of oxygen. This process is known as anaerobic digestion.
Anaerobic digestion creates a range of bi-products, from the bubbles in a bubbling bottle of kombucha to the textures and flavors of cheeses, dairy products, fermented vegetable products like sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), kimchi (cabbage again…) and of course, Cultured Coffee!
Lacto fermentation describes a process by which microorganisms convert sugars in vegetables and milk into lactic acid. Lactic acid is very beneficial to health. The more lactic acid present in food, the more acidic the taste will be. It is the main reason fermented foods taste tangy and refreshing.
Fermented foods offer a lot of health benefits.
Fermented foods are getting a lot of attention these days because they provide a wide range of probiotics that contribute to the health of the microbiome.
The bacteria and microorganisms that reside in your digestive tract are linked to a wide range of health conditions, so caring for your gut is very important. Probiotics have a range of positive effects on health, including the improvement of various inflammatory conditions, positive impacts on the immune system and even weight loss, and can alter the composition of the gut microbiome.
Fermented foods provide another unique benefit, according to The History and Health Benefits of Fermented Food:
In addition to supporting human health, Lactobacillus and other bacteria may protect against foodborne illness by inhibiting and eradicating foodborne pathogens, including Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus cereus. The inhibition of pathogenic bacteria may be due in part to pH, as well as antimicrobial bacteriocins produced by Lactobacillus to inhibit other competitive strains, including foodborne pathogens. While these findings support fermentation as a safe method of preservation, and consumption of fermented grain has been associated with decreases in foodborne illness, more research is needed.
Dr. David S. Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explains that fermentation can extend the usability of food for months and can improve the flavor:
“For example, if you put cabbage on the shelf for a few weeks, it’ll spoil,” says Dr. Ludwig. “But if you ferment it into sauerkraut, it will last for months.” It’s the same concept with fermented dairy foods and proteins. “Think about how long milk lasts compared with cheese,” he says.
In addition to helping food last longer, fermentation also enhances the taste of foods, giving them added complexity. Plus, the fermentation process works other forms of magic on foods, changing them and adding nutrients. For example, by eating fermented vegetables, vegetarians can get vitamin B12, which otherwise isn’t present in plant foods, says Dr. Ludwig.
Here’s how to ferment vegetables.
To start fermenting vegetables you will need two things: equipment and fresh produce. Fermentation doesn’t require expensive gadgets, and to keep things simple, you can purchase a kit like The Easy Fermenter or starter kits from Cultures for Health.
Spontaneous fermentation refers to the process of letting natural bacteria already present on vegetables or in the milk to start the fermentation process. Therefore, no microorganisms are added for this process to happen. However, the right environment needs to be created to promote bacterial growth. This might involve shredding vegetables, adding salt, using airlocks, or keeping the right temperature.
Microorganisms are present in most vegetables and raw, unpasteurized milk or cream. Cabbage, carrots, celery and many other vegetables can have up to 40 different bacteria species naturally occurring. Some bacteria species will, under the right circumstances, start consuming sugars present in vegetables and dairy. This process produces other substances including lactic acid. Lactic acid is responsible for the familiar tart, tangy flavor of fermented foods.
Almost any vegetable can be fermented, and you aren’t limited to one veggie alone. You can create a mix of several different kinds along with herbs and spices of your choosing, so get creative! Here is a list of vegetables you can ferment that will inspire you: Fermenting Vegetables – A-Z Veggie List.
After you select your vegetables, you’ll need to prepare them for fermenting. Because the size and shape of the vegetables impact the speed of fermentation, keep the size of the vegetables in each batch consistent. There are several ways to prepare your veggies for fermenting – you can grate, shred, chop, julienne, or slice them, or leave them whole.
According to Cultures for Health:
Grating works well for hard or crunchy vegetables
Firm veggies can be sliced very thinly
Softer vegetables should be cut into thick pieces so they hold their shape
Small vegetables such as radishes, green beans, and brussel sprouts are easy to culture whole
Once you have prepared your vegetables, it is time to start fermenting them. Try these guidelines from Cultures for Health if you don’t already have instructions or are not using a kit.
First, choose your culture.
A fermented food recipe may call specifically for salt, salt and whey, or a starter culture. The method chosen can vary, depending on personal taste, special dietary requirements, and even the vegetables used.
If salt fermentation is the preferred method, choose from the different kinds of salt appropriate for culturing.
Next, prepare your brine:
Water used for preparing brine or starter culture should be as free from contaminants as possible, for the best-tasting fermented vegetables. Consider the points in this article before choosing your water source for culturing.
Then, weigh your veggies down:
Once the vegetables have been prepared and placed in the chosen fermentation vessel, weigh the vegetables down under the brine, keeping them in an anaerobic environment during the fermentation period.
Once the fermentation process is complete, it’s time to move your vegetables to cold storage. This guide from Cultures for Health can help you determine when your veggies are ready: How to Know When Your Fermented Vegetables Are Ready for Cold Storage.
Give these Ready Nutrition recipes a try.
Lacto-Fermented Pickled Vegetables (from thekitchn.com)
Kefir: Your Solution To Milk Without Refrigeration (originally published at PrepperProject)
Have you fermented vegetables before?
If so, please feel free to offer tips, tricks, and ideas in the comments.