Fermented foods are regaining popularity as an important source of probiotics. This "good" bacteria restores crucial intestinal flora and improves immunity.
Before the age of refrigerators, fermentation was traditionally used as a method of food preservation. Going back to the basics by making our own ferments at home allows us to reconnect to the origin of our food, and profit from diverse colonies of live bacteria within it.
The benefits of bacteria
Fermentation occurs when micro-organisms, including bacteria and yeast, convert the sugars from raw foods into a longer-lasting form of energy, such as lactic acid. Consuming these live micro-organisms, as we do through many fermented foods, helps keep our digestive and immune systems strong.
“We are all ingesting antibacterial products on a daily basis, even at a low level, which can have repercussions for the health of our micro-ecology,” says Sandor Ellix Katz, fermentation expert and author of The Art of Fermentation (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012). “Consuming fermented foods containing live bacterial cultures can help replenish the populations already living in our gut.”
Probiotics, a term referring to the beneficial live bacteria that can reach our intestinal tracts through fermented food, have been shown to act as anticarcinogens, restore crucial intestinal flora, and help us ward off illness.
A natural evolution
Although our ancestors may not have been aware of the microscopic superheroes present in many of their traditional foods, the preservation process enacted by probiotic bacteria was both visible and invaluable.
“The historical context of fermentation was to preserve the harvest,” says Katz.
Without refrigerators, milk was transformed into longer-lasting kefir, yogurt, and cheese. Vegetables such as cabbage and cucumbers were turned into rot-resisting kimchi and pickles. In this way, the “good” bacteria, which instigate the process of fermentation, can inhibit the growth of pathogenic “bad” bacteria, acting as a safe and natural preservative.
“Even now, looking at the earth as a whole, most people do not own a refrigerator,” says Katz. “These are practical preservation strategies; fermentation, throughout history, has always been used for effective food safety.”
Much attention has been paid in recent years to the benefits of probiotics. However, mass-produced commercial ferments are usually treated with heat—killing the live bacteria—or contain only limited bacterial strains. Home fermentation allows multiple types of beneficial bacteria to transform and remain in our food, providing a wealth of health benefits.
From Eastern European sauerkraut to Japanese miso soup, traditional ferments provide a simple way to benefit from natural bacterial processes. The following ferments are all rich in live bacteria and can be made at home using very little equipment.
Usually made of fermented cabbage and radish, this tangy Korean staple is rich in both bone-protective vitamin K and brain-boosting vitamin B12. Studies have suggested that fermented kimchi can increase metabolism, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, and reduce inflammation in overweight subjects. The beneficial effects were noted to be much greater in those who consumed fermented kimchi, rather than fresh.
This probiotic-filled fermented milk packs a healthy punch. Grown from bacterial grains, kefir’s protective lactic acid bacteria boosts immunity, helping us to ward off infections. It can also decrease the severity of allergic responses such as lactose intolerance.
Regular consumption of kefir can ease tummy troubles and may promote anticarcinogenic activity. One study even referred to the tart treat as “a new dawn of food for mankind”—so go ahead and drink up!
This hearty ferment brings good news for those with a gluten allergy. Research suggests the bacteria in sourdough can calm intestinal inflammation, and further studies found that fermenting gluten-free sourdough bread with lactic acid bacteria can remove the risk of gluten contamination. Though more detailed studies are needed, sourdough bread made with gluten-free flours may be a tasty option for celiacs.
Unprocessed cheese, including Gouda, havarti, mozzarella, ricotta, and feta, is another fermented milk product that allows us to benefit from lactic acid-producing bacteria. These probiotics have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels and offer protection from heart disease, while helping to regulate digestive function and soothe inflammation, which is particularly beneficial for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Tips for home fermenters
Katz has several simple tips for those curious about getting started.
Don’t buy expensive equipment
Wide mouth glass jars are often the only accessory you need. Kimchi, kefir, and sourdough can all be made using this basic vessel, although cheese becomes more complicated.
Start off with veggies
Katz recommends starting off with a recipe for fermented vegetables, which are simple, safe, and delicious. Follow your recipe, but keep in mind that it is best to aggressively hand-squeeze the vegetables, after being chopped and seasoned, so they are soft and easy to submerge into their own juices for jarring.
Once jarred, ferment vegetables for anywhere from two weeks to two months. Feel free to open the jar and sample your progress along the way, so you can decide what fermentation time works best for your taste buds.
Keep outside temperature in mind
Bacteria works at a different rate depending on the outside temperature—during a heat wave, foods will ferment much quicker than they will during the middle of winter. Refrigeration will halt the fermentation process entirely.
Anyone interested in home fermentation can find a wealth of further information available online or at their local library. Once you start on your fermentation journey, the sky is the limit—Katz is constantly amazed by the new ferments he encounters, such as sauerkraut fermented with vanilla beans or tamarind-chill fermented soda.
“It’s empowering for people to ferment for themselves,” he says. “By realizing that the bacteria in our midst can be our allies, rather than our enemies, we are opened up to all the benefits of the powerful yet invisible life forms around us.”
Sharing and gifting “mother” grains
Looking to give an unusual gift this holiday season? A slimy bacterial grain could make the perfect present.
Some ferments, such as kefir, require a white, cottage cheese-like “mother” grain to initially activate the fermentation process. Legend has it that the first kefir grains were a gift from the gods—good thing that they multiply so quickly.
If you are lucky enough to already own a kefir grain, consider donating one of the sister grains that it produces as a gift to a friend in fermentation need. Simply rinse and strain the grain before passing it on in an airtight container. They can last this way for up to a week—no wrapping paper necessary.
If you have yet to befriend your own bacteria, starter kefir grains can be shipped from many fermentation-friendly online communities. Order an extra for that special someone on your list!