Most of us will have heard of food fermentation but what is it and why is it so good for us? Like many ancient practices that are now in vogue – meditation and yoga, to name just two – fermentation has been around for thousands of years, used in food staples such as bread, yoghurt and also in alcoholic drinks like beer and wine. However, here we’re discussing purely the health benefits of fermentation on foods, not alcohol. This ancient way of preserving foods with a short shelf life and adding flavour was before the advent of refrigeration.
Essentially, fermentation is the process of using naturally occurring microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeast, to convert carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids.
What are the health benefits?
The bacteria that live in our gut are essential for healthy digestion, and fermented foods are brimming with beneficial bacteria that work to reinforce the good bacteria in our digestive systems. As some of the sugars and starches in food get broken down through the process, fermented foods are easier to digest. Fermentation can also increase the availability of vitamins and minerals for our bodies to absorb. Fermented foods contain both probiotics (aiding digestion) and prebiotics (supporting the growth of good gut bacteria) giving them antimicrobial, cardio-protective and antioxidant properties.
Hence the health benefits of fermentation are numerous and varied and are said to help manage and prevent diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, and autoimmune disease.
Recent advances in the understanding of gut-brain interactions, and the effect of the microbiome on mental health, indicate that a healthy gut enables clearer thinking and can lift the mood. Most of us may have experienced some kind of brain-fog after a meal. The suggestion is that a condiment of fermented foods can alleviate this and not only improve our gut health but also our health in general. This is probably why fermentation has long been practiced around the globe.
Popular fermented foods
- Sauerkraut – a fermented cabbage that can be used in a range of recipes, popular in Germany and Poland
- Kimchi – traditionally made in the autumn, this Korean side dish of fermented vegetables often features cabbage
- Kefir – a cultured milk drink commonly made with cow’s milk but also made with other types of milk and substitutes including goat’s milk, rice milk, coconut milk or coconut water.
- Lassi – a traditional Indian and Pakistani drink, blending yoghurt, water, salt and spices
- Miso – this traditional Japanese paste made from fermented soybeans and grains consists of millions of beneficial bacteria
What can be fermented?
The health benefits of fermented food have given rise to a crop of innovative new recipes. Practically anything edible that grows in the garden can be fermented, and best if it’s organic and chemical-free. Fermenting farm-fresh or home-grown produce is a great way to provide good nutrition year-round. Try radishes, cucumbers, pepper and even green beans which you can slice, grate or chop. Add basil, dill, fennel seed, juniper berries, lemon zest or apples to flavour. You can get creative.
How to make your own
It is very easy and far cheaper to ferment your own food, plus there won’t be any chemicals that some shop-bought products can contain. Try to start with local and organic produce – autumn is the perfect time to create jars of fermented produce to see you through the winter months.
Vegetables will ferment in plain water, but their taste and texture are better with the addition of salt, which promotes the growth of ‘good’ bacteria and inhibits the growth of ‘bad’ bacteria. Effectively, you can make fermented foods like sauerkraut with just cabbage, water and salt. It’s as easy as that!
7 simple tips
- Use fresh ingredients – Avoid bruised vegetables as they could cause a ferment to go bad.
- Hygiene – Clean your vegetables. Wash your tools and hands with hot, soapy water before use.
- Salt – A. Use the recommended amount of salt as per recipe. Salt is important to create an environment that is inhospitable for harmful bacteria to survive. B. Make sure the salt is evenly distributed. C. Use fine high quality sea salt. Do not use iodized salt or table salt as it contains additives that can make the ferment go bad.
- Water – Always use either purified water or good spring water. Tap water contains chemicals like chlorine that inhibit good bacteria.
- Submerge – Ensure all vegetables are well covered with salty water that no air can get to them and weigh the vege down with either a heavy glass or terracotta disc, or a clear, clean plastic bag filled with water.
- Glass – Make your ferments in glass jars, not metal. Once the ferment has started avoid using metal tools to stir as it interferes with the fermentation process. Use a wooden spoon instead.
- Stir the surface of the fermenting food daily to prevent mould from forming on the surface. If mould should start to form at the top, you can skim it off. Everything under the brine is still safe to eat. If mould develops under the brine, the batch is bad. Throw it away.
- 1 medium head of white cabbage (800-900gms)
- 3½ teaspoons sea salt (about 18 grams)
- ⅓ cup filtered water
- Large bucket, container or a mixing bowl
- Cut the cabbage into quarters, remove the core and shred with a knife or a food processor.
- Add to a container and sprinkle with salt, toss through and set aside for five mins.
- Wash the glass jar and its lid in soapy water, rinse and dry.
- Add water to the cabbage and start mixing and squeezing everything with your hands for a few minutes to bruise the vegetable and release the juices.
- Pack the cabbage tightly into the clean jar. Use a spoon or a wooden stick to push down the cabbage so it’s very compacted and the brine floats to the top. Fill up to the top, leaving about 1-2cm space at the top. Press down again so that the cabbage is covered by the juice, pour in the rest of the brine. Cover tightly with the lid and set aside in a warm spot, like near the stove.
- Leave the jar out at this room temperature for at least seven days. For the first few days, open the lid every 12-16 hours to let some of the pressure out and to make sure cabbage is submerged under the liquid. Add a little extra water if needed. Taste after 7 days and it should be fermented enough to start consuming. Ferment longer for more sour and softer kraut. After that, keep the jar in the fridge for a few weeks.
As fermentation is also said to help improve your mood, what could be better to produce and consume in autumn and winter? – Invite a friend round and get started together!
Jo Fernandez is a leading UK travel journalist, with much of her career spent working for the London Evening Standard where she was Travel Editor until 2015. Now a freelance travel journalist and copywriter, she lives in Essex and has one daughter. As a travel expert, she still enjoys jetting off to write travel pieces, with favourite destinations including Mexico, Croatia and, of course, Essex.
The content within this blog is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the advice of your own doctor – this applies especially for pregnant women and children. Neal’s Yard Holidays is not responsible or liable for any actions taken by the reader based on the content of this site, nor for the contents of any external internet sites. Always consult your own health care professional if you are in any way concerned about your health.