Fermented Foods are Good for Your Body and Your Tastebuds
Probiotics, live bacteria and yeast on fermented food, have become a new health fad. Lots of people are spending a lot of money on probiotic supplements and probiotic foods because they are healthy. You may find fermented foods at the farmers market or your grocery store.
Yet fermented foods are not new, and have been made for thousands of years. In fact, our systems of sterilized food and kitchens, antibacterial soaps, and antibiotics are new. Yet half of our body is bacteria, and we need bacteria to be healthy.
Fermented foods simply means that beneficial bacteria and yeasts were allowed to change your food into something more digestible, with more nutrients, that is longer lasting, and more delicious. These beneficial organisms flourish in the proper anaerobic saline environment.
Fermented foods include wine and beer, cheese and yogurt, grains, vegetables, even chocolate and coffee! However, many of those live foods are then killed to pasteurize them and remove the bad bacteria. This stops the fermentation process, making the product last longer.
Humans have been fermenting things for at least ten thousand years. We have historical evidence of fermented beverages. Now we rely more on sterilized canned foods, or freezing after blanching foods. Bacteria are unwelcome because they would make our food spoil.
We routinely spray produce with chemicals to make it last longer. Fungicides, chemicals to prevent sprouting, waxes to keep produce looking fresh longer. Beneficial bacteria and yeast are banished.
These days, you can find unpasteurized fermented food in your grocery store. Selection is limited, and often expensive. Yet you can easily make your own fermented food at home, with minimal equipment, and minimal cost.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
Making fermented vegetables are a great way to start your fermentation journey. Once you ferment your local vegetables, they should keep for 6 months to a year if kept in a cool environment.
Probiotics from fermented foods can not only replenish your gut bacteria with the “good guys”, they can increase levels of nutrients in your food. They can also make some of those nutrients more available to you, meaning the foods are more beneficial to your body.
In addition to preserving and increasing vitamins and minerals, fermentation can remove toxins from fermented food. Cassava needs fermentation to remove cyanide. Phytic acid can be removed from grains through fermentation.
Creating your own fermented food is a simple process that anyone can do, anywhere, with few tools. If you have a knife, a cutting board, a jar, and some salt, you too can make your own vegetable ferments and enjoy superior nutrition.
Fermenting vegetables is a great way to enjoy your harvest longer. Rather than sterilizing and cooking your vegetables, you can enjoy them live. Though they won’t taste like their fresh counterparts, they will be delicious year round.
How Do We Ferment Foods?
Fermented vegetables are created with vegetables, salt, and maybe some water. That’s really it. Cut up your vegetables, mix them with salt or with a salted brine, then let them sit for a week or two until fermented. Done.
When we ferment vegetables, we add salt first. This saline brine that covers our vegetables allows beneficial organisms to grow in the absence of air. Too little salt means the food rots. Too much, and the bacteria and yeasts can’t survive.
To figure out the right amount of salt, follow a simple recipe and use your taste buds. If the salted vegetables you prepare taste good, then the fermented vegetables will be even better.
Some vegetables just require salt, and they create their own brine. Some vegetables will require more precise brine measurements to ferment properly.
To ferment a vegetable, start with clean hands and equipment. Rinse your vegetables, then slice or chop them according to your needs. You don’t need to sterilize anything.
For a salted ferment, add the salt and massage into the vegetables. They will begin to create their own brine as water comes out of them. For a brined ferment, just chop veggies and add to the brine.
After salting/brining your vegetables, pack them tightly into a jar or crock. The goal is to both remove air bubbles and to submerge the vegetables under the brine.
To pack your vegetables, some like to use a tamper to push everything down. I make my ferments in quart sized mason jars, and have good luck with my clean fist.
Crocks are great for larger ferments, but don’t use your grandparents crocks…. they might have lead in the glazing. Alternatively, you can use glass jars to pack your ferment in, and watch the fermentation process.
The key is to use a non-reactive container. As the vegetables ferment, they become more acidic and sour. That can react unpleasantly with metal or plastic containers.
Once packed well, you can cover the ferment with weights to keep it submerged (though I’ve had success without), with cabbage or other leaves or cheesecloth under the weight. Cover the ferment with a towel or loose lid and put in a cool, darkish place on a baking sheet to catch any stray brine that may bubble up.
If you don’t weight your ferment, make sure you pack it down below the brine daily with clean hands or utensils.
The best temperatures for fermenting are between 55 and 75F. I’ve fermented in 80+ and my sauerkraut worked well, though it only took 3 days. However, the bacteria you want thrive best between 55 and 75F.
Though your ferment doesn’t require absolute darkness, keep it out of direct sunlight. Keep it in a pantry or cabinet, or a dark corner of your kitchen.
As the vegetables ferment, gases will begin escaping from the bacteria and yeast. Don’t put a tight lid on it unless you have an airlock attached. Airlocks are not necessary, but they work well if you choose to use them.
Store your finished fermented food in the fridge or freezer. Don’t eat anything that smells rotten or looks slimy. Mold may form, and most is fine. There are many resources online to show you pictures of problematic mold.
The time it takes to properly ferment your food is dependent on how much salt you use, what the temperature is, and how big your crock is. The more salt, the longer it takes, and the more sour the final product. Hotter temperatures mean faster ferments. A bigger crock will take longer to finish.
A few days after you start your ferment, start tasting it. Once it’s where you like it, put it in the fridge. If it’s in a large crock, you may want to redistribute it into smaller, well packed containers.
Your fermented food should last 6 months to a year in a cool enough place. You can store them in a root cellar, or you could consider using a special fridge for storing your ferments. A fridge is easier than building a root cellar.
After enjoying a portion of your fermented food, tamp the rest back down tightly. You want to minimize exposure to air. Put it in smaller containers as you use them up to preserve them longer.
Basic Sauerkraut Recipe
Making sauerkraut is a great first choice for making your own fermented foods. It is really simple to do, and my family really enjoys homemade sauerkraut. I highly recommend trying it yourself!
- Start your sauerkraut by getting a quart sized mason jar or two and a large cabbage.
- Quarter the cabbage, core it, and slice it thinly, reserving a few whole leaves.
- Add salt to the cabbage to taste, as you massage it in (for every 5lb cabbage, add about 3T salt). Brine will start forming as liquid comes out of the salted cabbage.
- Pack the salted cabbage tightly into a clean jar or two, tamping it down firmly, leaving 2-3 inches of headspace.
- Cover cabbage with a reserved whole cabbage leaf. If you have a weight that fits inside your jar, add it. Cover the whole jar with a towel or loose lid.
- Put jar(s) on a baking sheet, and put them all in a darkish place.
- Check your ferment daily to make sure cabbage is still under the brine. Start tasting after a few days to see if it is ready.
- Once it’s sour enough for your liking, put a lid on it or transfer to a lidded container, packing it tightly, and put in fridge for up to a year.
- Every time you eat some sauerkraut, tamp it back down to store it properly.
Just cabbage and salt makes a lovely, healthy, delicious sour kraut, that we like to devour out of the jar with forks. It’s a great base to experiment with, too.
Try adding herbs and spices, or grated carrots, beets, or turnips. Experiment and see what you like. Buy a book, find a recipe online, and try other vegetables.
Fermenting is a great rabbit hole to stumble into. You may want to try home cheese making, or yogurt, or try some simple fruit wines. Fermenting is a great, healthy hobby!