What are fermented foods?

Kimchi and Sauerkraut

I really enjoy the health benefits, as well as the great flavors of fermented foods and drinks. You may have heard of some of them, some of them are making a bit of a comeback: sauerkraut, Kimchi, kombucha, kefir and yogurt. There is actually more than that, but you can find each of these in many grocery stores now. Or can you?

Why should I consume fermented foods and drinks?

You have probably heard of the benefits of fermented foods. That they have natural probiotics that benefit our digestive system by helping us break down our nutrients and make them more absorbable in the digestive tract.

Another amazing benefit is they support our immune system, which is also heavily located in our digestive tract. Having good bacteria, yeast and other microbes helps crowd out the unwanted microbes, such as Candida albicans, which creates serious cravings for sugars and many different types of yeast infections.

So many digestive issues can be easily solved just by increasing the good bacteria in our gut. Constipation alone causes so many health problems, and has even been attributed to colon cancer. Can you imagine permanently solving your constipation problem just by eating a few forkfuls of delicious fermented vegetables each day?

What are fermented foods?

Traditionally, most societies have used fermentation to preserve their foods. The history of these foods is rich; from beet kavas from the Soviet Union, kimchi from Korea, sauerkraut in Germany, to Injera bread in Ethiopia; let’s not forget the infamous pickle, which was originally fermented cucumbers. Even pioneers made San Francisco sourdough bread famous, because the local yeast gave the fermented bread such a great flavor. Not only were they making their food available during times of lack, but they were even benefiting themselves with healthy gut flora.

Can I buy fermented foods and drinks in the store?

Unfortunately, most foods and drinks sold in the grocery store need to be pasturized, both to keep them “safe” and to be able to keep them for a long time. As we know, heat kills bacteria. When sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir and kombucha are pasteurized, often they are exposed to high heat, which kills the probiotic bacteria and yeast. Sometimes they are added back into the foods (like taking a supplement), but that defeats the purpose of consuming them. They are still fairly healthy foods, and have been partially digested by the bacterias, so they are easier to digest, but they no longer have natural probiotics, so they lack these great benefits.

Can’t I just take a probiotic supplement?

That may be a good place to start, but it is a short term strategy. Bacteria and microbes are living organisms. They feed and grow and have waste products. But they live in the environment of our digestive system, so we want to make the environment of our digestive systems conducive for good microbes to thrive.

Taking probiotic supplements can be a little like throwing grass seed onto a yard filled with weeds. Some of the grass may grow, but the weeds are well established, so the grass will have a hard time fighting for space. However, if you have prepared the soil, and take care of the soil once you sow those grass seeds, you may still have a few weeds, but the grass will be able to get established, and will keep the weeds to a minimum.

Another issue with probiotic supplements is which strains do you need? Some supplements leave out strains that need to be refrigerated, so you will see those on the shelves. And all the different types have different stains, which ones do you need? Fermented foods naturally have a larger diversity, with the natural complementary strains. No reading labels required, just the naturally well established ones that will have better chance of getting established in your digestive system.

How should we get our fermented foods?

So, what do we do, in a world that is so rushed and depleted of beneficial bacteria?

You have two choices:

Buy “raw, unpasturized” products. You can look for a company that sells their products without being pasteurized. There are some small companies out there that make these products available. Look in your local health food stores, look for “raw, unpasteurized” on the label. This is a great way to support small healthy minded companies.

Or, you can make it yourself.

Yep, that’s what I said.

It is so embarrassingly easy to make many of these products, that when I gave a sauerkraut making class, I had to come up with something else for them to do, because it was just Cut, salt, mash, put in jar. Done. Now what?

Kefir is even more scary, put kefir grains in jar, pour milk in jar, put coffee filter on top, set on counter. Done. Ready tomorrow.

Really? Yep. Youtube it. I am in the process of making some videos to demonstrate how simple it is, but there are plenty online. I know, that’s how I learned. That and trying it.

Where should I start?

Fermented Vegetables:

My favorite place to start is making fermented vegetables. All that you require is cabbage, salt, and a canning jar. The only equipment you need are a bowl, a knife and cutting board. You can do it right now.

Most people are only acquainted with those sauerkrauts made with vinegar, and don’t enjoy that pure vinegar flavor. I don’t blame them. However, once they taste the true flavor of home fermented vegetables, they are often hooked. I know, I have been asked to teach several classes, and they loved the results. Even people that don’t like Kimchi can enjoy my less spicy version of a wonderful Korean staple.

Milk Kefir

Dairy Kefir:

This does require kefir grains, but you can purchase them easily online, or get them from a friend that makes kefir. Just follow the directions for establishing them, and then you are off. Honestly, you pour milk into a jar, add the kefir grains, and put a coffee filter on top of the jar and let it sit. The next day you have kefir. Strain the grains, add more milk and you are making another batch.

I add my kefir to my smoothies in the morning. Or I second ferment with fruit and have a desert. I also love to make kefir cheese.

Once you have started with these, you may become addicted and branch off to new foods, but these are a great place to start.

Happy fermenting!