Fermented foods are making a tasty new splash as
“good-for-you-foods”–although our grandparents
knew it all along.
By Mary Lynn Bruny
Photos courtesy shutterstock.com
Several years ago, Tim Brod’s digestive tract was out of whack. “For 10 years my intestines were in a bad place. My energy was in a bad place,” says the Boulder beekeeper.
Instead of resorting to over-the-counter drugs or supplements to fix his problem, Brod, owner of Highland Honey Bees, did what his eastern-European grandparents taught him. He ate healthier and added more homemade fermented foods to his diet. “I felt better within days. Not weeks, not months—days. Now my digestion, immune system and overall health are all significantly better.”
Brod is a self-proclaimed devotee of the culinary and health benefits of fermented foods, and he’s not alone. The popularity of these tasty foods is on the rise, part of the wave of the high-quality food movement that includes farmers’ markets, CSAs (community-supported agriculture), residential organic gardening and slow-food preparation, and the growing awareness of beneficial microorganisms’ role in digestive and overall health.
[quote]“To eat is human.
To digest, divine.”
Fermented foods are all around us: Yogurt, cheese, sourdough bread, pickles, salami, soy sauce, sauerkraut and beer are some examples. Pickled vegetables, kombucha (a sweetened tea drink), kimchi (a Korean side dish) and kefir (a milk drink) are all fermented foods gaining in popularity. Practically any type of food can be fermented, including dairy, produce, meat, grains and legumes.
Beneficial microorganisms—be they bacteria, yeasts or fungi—transform raw foods into fermented foods, usually with a distinct, intense flavor. While the thought of fermented foods may make some folks squeamish, fermentation is an excellent preservation technique that’s been used for thousands of years all over the globe, keeping people healthy while adding complex flavors to their dishes.
“There’s a real ‘gut feeling’ to eating them. It’s a feel-good thing,” says Mara King, cofounder of Esoteric Food Company in Boulder, which produces nine varieties of Zuké Pickled Things (Zuké comes from tsukemono, the Japanese word for “pickled things”).
That may be because our gut “is the body’s first line of defense,” explains Laura Bauer, M.S., R.D., and a Ph.D. candidate at Colorado State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. “With gut health, you have overall health.” Unfortunately, the good bacteria in our gut are continuously under attack due to the prevalence of chlorinated water and antibiotics in antibacterial soaps, milk and meats—all of which reduce good gut bacteria.
“There are more and more people with intestinal and general immune issues, whether it’s wheat, dairy or whatever,” Brod observes. “When I was a kid you knew these things were possible, but you never knew anyone who had them. Now it seems everyone you know has something.”
Many fermented foods are considered “probiotic,” particularly those fermented by lactic-acid bacteria such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha and pickled items. These foods can help replenish and diversify the gut’s good bacteria populations, while controlling the bad.
“Fermented foods bring in live enzymes to help your gut digest better,” says Jessica Emich, who has a master’s degree in holistic nutrition and is owner/executive chef of Boulder’s Shine Restaurant and Gathering Space, which serves up a bounty of fermented foods and drinks. “Fermented foods kick-start your digestion,” she says, explaining that the fermentation process breaks down the foodstuff—in essence predigesting it for you—making the food easier to fully digest and absorb. Thus, your body assimilates more nutrients.
“Predigestion is a huge thing with dairy fermented products,” Bauer says. “People with lactose intolerance can often tolerate fermented dairy products, like kefir.” The microorganisms in kefir not only help predigest the lactose, they produce lactase enzymes, which is what these folks lack to begin with.
In the same vein, people bothered by gluten may have less of an issue with sourdough bread. “Sourdough does help predigest the gluten, making it easier to digest,” Bauer explains. In general, people with food allergies note health improvements after eating fermented foods. “I have celiac disease,” says Bauer, who was diagnosed nine years ago. “After I introduced considerably more fermented food into my diet, I’ve had a noticeably healthier immune system and gut.”
Brod agrees: “When we were sick and had bad stomachs, we were taught to drink (fermented) cabbage juice and pickle juice.” Brod’s grandparents always had fermented foods pickling away in clay crocks on their counters. “In fact, you should drink (fermented) pickle juice for any intestinal problem. It will make a huge, huge difference,” he says, noting that it also helps with constipation.
Emich believes fermented foods can also delay aging. “A big part of aging is really our digestive system breaking down because of years and years of the body not knowing what to do with foreign ingredients, whether it’s chemicals, gluten, or this or that. Your body starts to digest less, therefore it gets less nutrients and that ages you,” she says.
Weight loss is another reported side effect. “I find that a lot of fermented foods leave you well satiated, so you eat less,” Brod says. Scientific research in the area of fermented foods is relatively new and exciting in terms of disease prevention, particularly gastric cancer, Bauer says. “It’s not ‘eat this and you won’t get cancer,’ but it’s definitely ‘adding these things into your diet can have a healthful effect.’”
If there’s one common theme among fermented-food devotees, it’s that these foods help the body run like a well-oiled machine. “It just feels good on your body to eat a lot of fermented foods,” Brod says.
When adding fermented foods into your diet, “start small and diversify,” Bauer suggests. “Don’t just sit down with a jar of sauerkraut. Have a little bit on a dish; use it as a condiment. Or try drinking kefir. Different fermented foods offer different bacteria.”
Live fermented foods must always be refrigerated after fermentation is complete, including sauerkraut and pickles. If you’re buying fermented foods, skip the shelves and head for the refrigerated case. “On-the-shelf products have been heat-processed to make them safe, so all the good bacteria have been killed,” Bauer says. But beware: Not all products in the refrigerated case are fermented—especially pickles, despite the fancy labels. If you’re looking for fermented products, make sure vinegar isn’t listed in the ingredients and the label doesn’t say “must be refrigerated after opening—two clues the product was made for a long shelf life.
Sometimes these “live” products, like Zuké’s pickled beets, continue to ferment in the jar. King reports that after you open a jar of her pickled beets, “the fizzing slowly pushes the beets up, so it looks like they’re literally trying to climb out of the jar. A lot of people who aren’t familiar with fermented foods might get freaked out by beets jumping out of jars.” Kombucha also has a live quality, with the culture floating in the drink. Its fizzy nature and complex flavors often makes it a healthier substitute for soda or beer.
Don’t expect good fermented foods to be cheap, however. “For producers to make high-quality products, it’s pretty expensive,” Bauer says, because of added labor—“especially for sauerkraut. You have to let it ferment for a week. That’s a high cost for a manufacturer. But if you make it on your own, you can make it very cheaply.”
Whereas it may take years to develop artisanal fermented foods, simple dishes like sauerkraut and pickles take little time, skill or effort. “Things like sauerkraut don’t need a starter culture. The microorganisms are already present on the cabbage. You just have to put it in the proper environment to let them thrive,” Bauer says.
The learning curve to make simple fermented foods “is about an hour and a half,” Brod says. “Just get yourself a clay crock, or half-gallon or quart-size wide-mouth mason jars, and a couple of recipes. Then the natural salt and lactic acid inside the vegetables take over. In a week to 10 days, you have fermented food.”
Brod recommends using kosher salt and nonchlorinated water, ideally artesian. “These make all the difference to the quality of your food,” he says. Brod often makes Egyptian fermented turnips. “It’s a very simple dish to make, and nice to have as a side for lunch,” he says. “It will make you feel satiated. Fermented foods are always this way.”
Recipes for Fermenting
Make this recipe once, and I promise you your family will ask for more. My daughter, Kailee, would never let a beet near her lips in any other way!
Butter or olive oil, to taste
1 jar Zuké Pickled Things Beets, Dulse & Kale
3-4 cups rice, cooked
1 teaspoon garlic (or to taste), minced
Toasted sesame oil
Optional: sprouts, kale, fried eggs
Put butter or olive oil in a pan over medium heat. Add one full jar Beets, Dulse & Kale. Sizzle for a bit, then add cooked rice. Stir over medium heat until everything mixes together. Add minced garlic and drizzle with toasted sesame oil. We serve this rice with a fried egg on top with sprouts and baby kale on the side. You can always snazz this up with another kind of protein and call it dinner.
—Mara King, Esoteric Food Company
Egyptian Fermented Turnips
This is one of my favorite simple countertop recipes. Make it in glass quart-size mason jars.
3½ cups artesian water
1½ tablespoons kosher salt
3 smallish raw turnips
1 raw red beet root (just the root, not the beet; you can add more roots for color if you wish)
4 garlic cloves, peeled (optional)
1 smooth round stone
Peel turnips, cut into French-fry slices and set aside. Heat water and add salt to dissolve. When water cools add turnips, beet root(s) and whole garlic. Place the mixture in a glass jar, place the stone on top to keep the vegetables submerged in the water (or add more salted water to cover). Cover the jar with cheesecloth and leave it on the counter for a few days. Cap and refrigerate after three days. You can start eating this mixture after six days. You can also add chopped kohlrabi or radishes to this recipe.
—Tim Brod, Highland Honey Bees
Cultured Ginger Carrots
This is a great accompaniment to seafood, Asian dishes, poultry, etc.
4 cups grated carrots, packed tightly
1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
2 teaspoons sea salt
Mix all ingredients and pound them with a wooden mallet or meat hammer to release juices. Place the mixture in a quart-size, wide-mouth mason jar and press down firmly with a pounder or meat hammer until juices cover the carrots.* The top of the carrots should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar. Cover tightly and leave at room temperature for 2-3 days. After fermentation is complete, store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.
* If fluid doesn’t cover the carrot mixture by at least a half inch, add salted water (½ teaspoon to 1 cup) to cover.
—Jessica Emich, Shine Restaurant and Gathering Space
Cultured Tomato Salsa
Fall is the perfect time to make this salsa, when homegrown tomatoes, peppers and herbs are ready to harvest.
3 pounds fresh tomatoes, medium diced
1 large or 2 small onions, medium diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup cilantro, chopped
2 limes, juiced
2½ tablespoons sea salt
1 small jalapeño, seeded and finely chopped
(use half at first, then check the heat to see if you want to add the remainder or not)
Toss all vegetables and herbs in a large bowl. Add the lime juice and salt, and mix well. Pour the mixture into quart or half-gallon mason jars and cap. Leave on the counter for approximately two days. After fermentation is complete, store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.
—Jessica Emich, Shine Restaurant and Gathering Space