Fermentation (also known as ‘culturing’) is a food preparation technique that sees bacteria, yeasts and other micro-organisms partially break down food, increasing its nutritional content and digestibility while creating helpful enzymes.
This culturing process can feel like an art crossed with a science experiment – adding vague quantities of ingredients and slimy blobs of bacteria to an array of glass beakers, with sometimes strange outcomes. But don’t be put off … it’s all part of the fun, and the health benefits are enormous. As you feel your overall well-being improve, don’t be surprised if fermenting becomes something of a hobby!
Why Do We Need Fermented Foods?
There’s plenty of evidence to prove that the state of our gut influences our mental, physical and emotional health. Countless studies show that an overabundance of ‘bad’ bacteria is linked to digestive issues, skin disorders, ADHD, mood swings and anxiety, weight problems, food allergies and autoimmune disorders. How do these harmful bugs get so out of control, you ask? Poor diet, antibiotics (both those prescribed to us and those found in our meat and dairy), anti-bacterial cleaners and birth control pills all contribute to a lower level of beneficial bacteria.
Don’t despair, recent studies prove that by simply adding friendly bacteria back into our bodies we can force out the bad microbes, and so prevent or control negative conditions like acne, IBS, Crohn’s Disease and many neurological issues. While you could head to the health store for some probiotic pills, there is a much more effective and economical alternative – fermenting your own foods! This guarantees even greater quantities of healthy, living bacteria, plus you get several different strains of these microbes, for optimal gut health.
To get you started, try some of these classic cultures and you’ll be on the road to better gut health in no time!
This lacto-fermented cabbage is probably the most well-known of all cultured foods, and for good reason – it’s an absolute powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, good bacteria and enzymes. It contains several times more Vitamin C than regular cabbage and studies even show links between increased Sauerkraut consumption and a reduction in the risk of cancer. You can easily whip up your own with just two ingredients to serve as a healthy accompaniment to so many meals.
Simply finely shred a head of cabbage, add to a mixing bowl and sprinkle over 1.5 tablespoons of sea salt. Massage the salt into the cabbage until it’s all coated and some liquid is drawn out. Pack the cabbage into a sterilized glass jar and pour over any liquid left in the bowl, pushing down until the vegetable is submerged by liquid. Cover with a cloth and leave for 24 hours at room temperature.
Now, wait for five to ten days for the bacteria to do its thing. You should notice bubbles in the jar, proving good bacteria are alive in there, ready to help populate your digestive system. Taste regularly and, once the Sauerkraut is tangy enough for your liking, you can screw on the lid and store in the fridge for several weeks.
Kefir is a fermented drink made with a starter known as ‘grains’ (which are not actually grains, but a symbiotic blend of bacteria and yeasts). There are two different types of Kefir – one made with milk, and one with water – both using separate types of grains.
Making kefir is simple; getting your hands on the grains can be a little trickier! However, seeing as the grains multiply with each fermentation, nice health-conscious folk often advertise their spare grains for free on sites like Craigslist or eBay. Alternatively, try your local health food store.
To make milk kefir, just add one tablespoon of milk kefir grains to four cups of milk, cover with a cloth and allow to ferment at room temperature for 24 hours. The milk will thicken, and become tangy like yogurt. At this point, just strain out the grains and store this probiotic wonder-food in the fridge for up to two weeks. You can immediately transfer the grains to a new batch of milk and begin the process again. The grains will multiply indefinitely so you can pass on good gut health to family and friends!
Milk kefir is great served on top of homemade granola, or blended with a banana and fresh berries for a healthy smoothie – the perfect start to the day! It’s also an ideal way to get beneficial bacteria into kids, with promising research showing that kefir may help protect against food allergies. And those who are lactose intolerant need not miss out – the bacteria breaks down the lactose sugars in the milk meaning kefir can usually be managed by most sufferers.
While water kefir doesn’t contain as many strains of bacteria and yeast as milk kefir does, it has much more than other cultured products like yogurt or buttermilk. It can be ‘double fermented’ with a fruit juice, to make a refreshing, sparkling drink that is a great alternative to soda, for both kids and adults. This kind of kefir is suitable for those on a dairy-free or vegan diet.
To make water kefir, bring four cups of water to a boil. Dissolve a quarter cup of organic sugar in this and allow to cool to room temperature, before adding to a jar with a quarter cup of water kefir grains. Cover with a cloth and leave to ferment at room temperature for 48 hours until it has a mildly sweet and tangy flavor with some bubbles. Strain out the grains, screw on the lid and store in the fridge for up to one week. Repeat the process again with a new batch of cooled sugar-water.
To double ferment, add the strained kefir to a quarter cup of fruit juice (but not citrus). Pour this into a flip-top bottle, close the lid and allow to stand at room temperature for another 24 hours before refrigerating.
Sweet, tart and fizzy all at once, Kombucha, like most other ferments, is an acquired taste. A mix of bacteria and yeasts transform simple tea into a (mildly alcoholic) probiotic drink. It’s high in a powerful antioxidant called DSL and also Vitamin C, which is why it’s believed to detoxify the body and protect against cell damage and inflammation while boosting the immune system.
To make your own Kombucha, you’ll need a ‘Scoby’ starter which you can find online (such as from here) or from other Kombucha brewers, and a half cup of pre-made Kombucha (store bought will work). Boil 4 cups of water and pour into a jug or bowl with two black teabags and a quarter cup of organic sugar, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Allow to steep for 30 minutes and then discard the teabags (or check out this list of 18 Genius Things To Do with Your Used Tea Bags). Cool this tea infusion to room temperature, add to a jar with your Scoby and pre-made Kombucha. Cover with a cloth and ferment for a week, or more depending on your tastes. Decant the Kombucha into a glass jar and refrigerate for 24 hours, before enjoying your homemade brew and all its benefits. Remember to reserve the Scoby and at least a quarter cup of the liquid for your next batch!
Kimchi is a spicy and sour Korean dish made with fermented cabbage and various seasonings. It ends up with a higher salt content than that of Sauerkraut, but a lower level of lactic acid (meaning it’s slightly less tangy than its Polish equivalent). As both are loaded with probiotics and digestive enzymes, it’s a matter of personal taste. There are also hundreds of different varieties of Kimchi so make sure to experiment with flavor combinations.
To make a basic Kimchi, shred a head of cabbage into 2-inch wide strips, discarding the cores. Massage the salt into the cabbage and allow to stand for a few hours. Drain and rinse the cabbage well. Place in a clean bowl with 5 finely diced green onions and a cup of cucumber or radish, cut into matchsticks. In another bowl form a paste from 5 cloves of minced garlic, a 1-inch piece of grated ginger, a teaspoon of sugar, 3 tablespoons of (boiled and cooled) water and up to 5 tablespoons of red chili flakes. Add the paste to the bowl of vegetables and toss to coat thoroughly. Pack tightly into a sterilized glass jar and seal. Allow to ferment for up to a week, opening the jar daily to let excess gases escape and ensuring the vegetables are submerged under the liquid. Once fermented to your liking, refrigerate for up to a month.
Enjoy Kimchi in burgers, hotdogs, salads, sandwiches or simply on its own!
5. Sourdough Bread Starter
Not only is sourdough bread delicious, it’s simple to make your own at home, using a sourdough ‘starter’ in place of dry yeast. This starter culture is full of good bacteria, which break down starches in the grains, making sourdough easier to digest than commercially made breads. It has a lower GI than other breads and so doesn’t cause blood sugar to rise and fall so dramatically. It also inhibits phytic acid, an anti-nutrient, which means we reap more vitamins and minerals from sourdough including B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, potassium, zinc and more. In addition, the lengthy process of fermenting means gluten is broken down with one study showing that Coeliac Disease sufferers could actually tolerate sourdough bread made by slow fermentation.
Making a starter is simple – all you need is an organic, whole-grain flour (such as rye or spelt) and some filtered or boiled water. Add one cup of flour to half a cup of room temperature water and mix well in a jar. Set the lid loosely on the jar and allow to ferment at room temperature for 24 hours. Each day over the next 10 days, add in 2 tablespoons of flour and one tablespoon of water and mix well. You should notice the mixture start to bubble and rise, and it should have that lovely, familiar sourdough smell.
You can now use your starter in any recipe which calls for a traditional sourdough starter, remembering to maintain the starter by feeding regularly. If it will be a while before you use your starter, store in the fridge, feeding once a week. Make sure to allow it to warm to room temperature for 24 hours before using in a recipe. Sourdough starters can be handed down from parent to child, so look after yours carefully – you never know how long it will be around!
A Few Final Notes on Fermenting
- Introduce fermented foods to your diet slowly – allow your body time to adjust to them and the effects of the bad bacteria dying-off.
- If your ferments go moldy, smell rotten or feel slimy, its best to throw them out and start again (although don’t worry too much – the USDA state there never been a reported case of food poisoning from fermented foods).
- Your ferments are only as good as the ingredients you use, so always strive for organic, local produce.
- Feel free to play around with fermenting different fruits and vegetables, and flavoring with various herbs and spices, until you find your favorites.
- If you’re pressed for time, or don’t trust your culturing abilities, you can pick up some fermented products from the refrigerated section of natural food stores – just make sure it says the product is unpasteurized. Pickled food is not the same as fermented!
- Want to learn more about fermenting foods? Pick up a copy of Fermentation For Beginners: The Step-By-Step Guide To Fermentation & Probiotic Foods.
Finally, if you want to know more ways to improve your overall health, check out this great list of Top 12 Probiotic Foods for Better Gut Health.