Cultured or fermented foods seem to be all the rage these days, like they are some kind of new fashion food. Desert flavored yogurts and designer kombucha are all in vogue. But the truth is, fermentation goes back centuries in human history. Ancient people all over the world knew the practical side of preserving food this way, as well as the health benefits derived from it. The earliest records of fermentation date back to around 6,000 B.C. According to Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, "Humans have been fermenting longer than we've been writing words or cultivating soil."
There exists in nature certain beneficial microbes that can convert regular foods into probiotic rich, super foods. In the course of working their magic, they create deliciously pickled or otherwise robustly flavored condiments, food or drinks. Culturing converts milk into yummy creations like yogurt, kefir and cheese. Fermented vegetables become pickles, sauerkraut and kimchee. Grain can turn into a hearty, sourdough bread and beans turn into easily assimilated protein foods like tempeh and miso.
Fermentation is a procedure that breaks food down into a more easily digestible form by converting sugars and starches into lactic and acetic acids. It releases usable nutrients and amino acids and makes them more bio-available and thereby increases their uptake. For instance, cultured dairy products are noted for an increase in folic acid and other B vitamins compared to their non-fermented counterparts, while vegetables often see an increase in vitamins C and A. Beans are not only more digestible (thank you!) but their protein is now easier to assimilate. This is something that is important for everyone but even more so for young children, the elderly or anyone with weak digestion.
Some staples like nuts and seeds have within them naturally occurring food toxins like oxalic acid, nitrites, and glucosides to name a few. They also contain a compound called phytic acid. This is a substance which blocks the bio-availability of certain minerals. These substances can be greatly diminished or eradicated altogether through the act of fermentation. Fermenting a food doesn’t actually increase the mineral content of it, but it does make it possible for your body to better utilize the ones that are there. Bottom line, you are getting more nutrition for your food dollars.
Naturally fermented foods are unpasteurized and teaming with beneficial bacteria like acidophilus, lactobacillus plantarum, lactobacillus brevis and lactobacilli. These bacteria have multiple functions in the body. They can create nutrients like b-vitamins and they are known for boosting the immune system by keeping bad bacteria in check. They are critical for proper digestion and by maintaining a healthy ratio of bacteria and yeasts in the body, they can improve metabolism, help your body to detox and enhance the productions of hormones. Fermented or cultured foods are also high in antioxidants which are believed to reduce our risk of certain cancers. It has also been discovered that a healthy gut is essential to brain health, as well as the proper functioning of our immune systems.
Some other benefits associated with consuming fermented foods include: improved skin quality, eliminating or minimalizing acne, alleviating depression, relieving allergy symptoms, and reducing inflammation. By increasing the number of beneficial bacteria in the intestines, fermented foods also help to reduce gas and bloating. The list of the advantages of using these amazing foods goes on and on.
These days, pickled food is often mistaken for fermented. We envision the vinegary pickles and sauerkraut found in cans or jars on grocery store shelves. Salt and vinegar may make foods pickled but time and bacteria make them fermented and the difference is incomparable. The taste of naturally fermented foods, like so many other things we make ourselves, seriously surpasses the flavor of the over-processed, acid-forming, sodium laden stuff that is passed off on the unsuspecting public. I believe I can safely say, that for the most part, people have no idea what something like sauerkraut for instance, really tastes like.
It was a little strange that I decided to make my own batch of sauerkraut. After all, I absolutely, positively couldn’t stand the stuff! I had pretty much hated it all my life. I wanted to like it, but no matter how many times I tried it, it always tasted like over-cooked cabbage in vinegar. Ugh. However, there were so many great articles out there about the benefits of naturally fermented foods that I knew I had to try to make myself like it.
One thing that I found encouraging was that long ago I had learned a very simple lesson. Just about anything you make fresh usually tastes completely different (and better) than what is turned out by machines in a factory.
I thought back to one of my first experiences in health food. I read some books about macrobiotics. It was one of the first healing diets that I had ever been exposed to and it made a lot of sense to me. Well, a really important, staple dish of macrobiotics happens to be miso soup. Miso is a fermented soybean paste that is used to make a number of dishes and if you are going to be macrobiotic, you pretty much have to eat miso. Prior to studying macrobiotics, I had never even heard of this stuff. So, rather than buying the ingredients used in making it, I decided that I would start out cheaply with a box of instant. You know, just to see if I liked it.
I was rather excited as I poured the hot water into my cup with the powdered soup mix. I thought I had, after all, discovered the right way to eat and here I was doing it. With a little hint of satisfaction, I stirred my little cup of the ultimate health soup and took a sip. It was… disgusting. I tried a second sip. Nope, still disgusting. I knew most assuredly that if I had to consume that every day, then I was probably going to fail miserably at being macrobiotic.
Even though my instant miso soup was a complete culinary bomb, I continued to read and study the history and health benefits of miso and I became determined to like it. I knuckled down, went to the store and shelled out the money to purchase the ingredients for real, homemade miso. As I sipped the first spoonful I was amazed at how completely different it was from the powdered, packaged, single serve variety that I could not choke down for a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. (Ok, I would have choked it down for gold but I wouldn’t have liked it…) The two of them were like night and day. The instant was absolutely repulsive to me and the fresh, well, let’s just say it immediately became a family favorite. To this day, if one of my now grown children doesn’t feel well, they will still ask for me to make them some miso soup.
So I continued my research, watched some videos and in the end I had to go for it. Like the miso, the value of consuming homemade ferments was too good to ignore and eventually over-rode any qualms I might have had about trying something like fresh sauerkraut. I am pretty used to making my food from scratch so I was pretty sure that I could master this as well. After all, if ancient people all over the world could do it without books and YouTube tutorials available, surely I could. It must be in my DNA somewhere and moreover, I had the advantage of modern technology on my side. So with firm resolve I decided to give it a try…
I choose sauerkraut because I actually like cabbage, sauerkraut was the most familiar fermented vegetable to me and I figured that if I didn’t like it, I probably wouldn’t like any of the other vegetables prepared this way either. So I set about chopping the cabbage, precisely measured in the salt and dutifully massaged it all together according to my recipe. I was excited as I watched it begin to look just like it did in the pictures. I carefully packed it into jars, making sure everything was meticulously clean. I felt smugly sure that an ancient grandmother was watching over my shoulder and was proud of my efforts. I covered the jar and placed it in a spot in my dining room that had the best temperature and checked on it regularly. I felt satisfied in a very primal sort of way.
After several days I decided to taste it. One thing about making fermented foods yourself is that you have control over the flavor. The tang or savor is determined by how long you let it ferment. Shorter fermentation times give the dish a somewhat saltier flavor and longer times develop a more tart, sour flavor. You get to decide when it’s done according to your personal taste preferences. I am not a sour kind of gal, so less fermenting is more pleasing to me. I knew that longer fermentation would increase the bacteria content but, if it’s too sour for your palate then you aren’t going to eat it and that pretty much defeats the whole purpose. For people like me, it would probably be beneficial to add a starter culture to increase the bacteria content since the longer fermentation times also means more good bacteria. Mine could use the head start.
As I savored the slightly sour, slightly salty taste of my purple wonder food I couldn’t help but smile. This stuff was amazing, delicious and tasted nothing like that slimy, vinegary stuff that comes from the store.
I was so excited that I made everyone who was brave enough to pass through my kitchen door, try it. And, every person reacted the same. They would balk at the idea, tell me how much they did not like sauerkraut and then wrinkle their nose at my spoonful of purple shreds. But, without fail, each and every person’s eyes would open wide with amazement and say “wow, that’s really good”. One guest of mine who adamantly did not like sauerkraut, admitted to me that while I was out that day she couldn’t stop going to the refrigerator for just, “one more spoonful”. She sheepishly admitted that she might have eaten “quite a lot of that jar”. Needless to say I was hooked!
Now I do understand how you might feel a bit apprehensive about trying something like making your own sauerkraut or kefir but, I am here to tell you that it’s:
What started out as simply a way to preserve the harvest turned out to be one of the most beneficial culinary creations to date. So now it’s your turn to add these amazing superfoods and drinks to your diet and feel the healthy results! And if you want to, drop me a line and share your encounters with naturally fermented foods.
Cultured: Making Healthy Fermented Foods at Home by Kevin Gianni
Wild Fermentations by Sandor Katz
Cultured Food for Life by Donna Schwenk
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz and Michael Pollen
Cultures for Health @ www.culturesforhealth.com
Food Renegade @ www.foodrenegade.com
Body Ecology Diet @ www.bodyecology.com
Nourished Kitchen @ www.nourishedkitchen.com