The biological benefits of consuming fermented foods and an easy recipe to start fermenting at home.
Here on the Central Coast, we are no strangers to fermentation. With a plethora of wineries, vineyards, and brewhouses, the process of fermentation is happening all around us. Certainly, we know the products of fermentation can be some of the most delicious.
But are fermented foods as beneficial to our health as they claim? And if so, how can we start incorporating them into our diet more efficiently? Today, we aim to answer some of these questions. At the end of the article, you’ll find an easy recipe to start fermenting at home with a simple sauerkraut recipe from a San Luis Obispo native.
The Science of Fermentation
So really, what is fermentation? According to the Encyclopedia of Analytical Science, “fermentation is defined as a chemical change brought about using microorganisms.” Andy Tay, PhD, describes fermentation as “the process of sugars being broken down by enzymes of microorganisms in the absence of oxygen.” In both definitions, we see the motivating factor behind fermentation – microorganisms.
As Andy Tay, PhD, goes on to describe, “During fermentation, a variety of microorganisms are present in different proportions. The process is akin to a concert where different musicians (i.e. microorganisms) have their respective roles. Their cooperation produces beautiful music—our favorite fermented food.” This poetic analogy paints a vivid picture of the complex mechanics of fermentation. During the process, we may only see bubbles, or the changing color of the fermenting food. Truly, there is an orchestra of bacteria and fungi metabolizing those enzymes, creating a symphony of flavors to delight our palate.
The hard work of countless microorganisms is one major aspect of fermentation. The other aspect is something more simple; the passing of time. As much as we’d like to artificially speed up time to enjoy the fruits of our ferments sooner, this one element cannot be changed. No matter what kind of fermenting you choose—be it alcohol, lactic acid, or acetic acid—you simply can’t rush it.
Perhaps the most lauded benefit of fermented foods is the presence of probiotics. Naturally fermented foods may contain probiotic microorganism that help your body replenish its supply of good bacteria. In turn, the good bacteria can help fight infection, synthesize vitamins and breakdown complex carbohydrates like those found in whole grains.
Now, more than ever, we may need all the gut health help we can get. “Recent research suggest that the type of gut bacteria in the bodies of Americans is changing,” says a Harvard Health article, “One possible reason is that the microbiomes in our bodies are not regularly replenished the way they were in past generations.” This could be in part to the rise of processed foods, which are stripped of naturally occurring microorganisms that promote healthy gut flora.
According to David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “changes to the population of gut microbes may create an imbalance between beneficial and harmful gut bacteria.” Probiotics, research suggests, enhance and even replenish the beneficial microbes in our system.
Without these helpful bacteria assisting our body in breaking down foods, nutrients and processing essential vitamins, we may face health risks. “Research shows that less diverse gut microbiota is associated with many chronic disease such as obesity, asthma, and chronic inflammatory conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease,” an article published by the Cleveland Medical Clinic states. The probiotics in naturally fermented foods don’t have the ability to cure chronic disease, or guarantee immunity; however, consuming more may help alleviate symptoms and better support your immune system.
Fridge Ready Ferments
Shopping for naturally fermented foods necessitates some careful label-reading. For example, some pickles on the shelves of supermarkets are made using vinegar, not over the course of time as in a naturally fermented product. “To ensure the fermented foods you choose do contain probiotics, look for the words ‘naturally fermented’ on the label, and when you open the jar look for the telltale bubbles in the liquid, which signal that live organisms are inside the jar,” says Dr. Ludwig. Consumers’ may find it easier to locate naturally fermented products at a health food store or local co-op.
Alternatively, to ensure you are consuming naturally fermented products full of beneficial microorganisms, try making your own fermented foods at home! Fermenting vegetables is a great place to start. Once prepared, they require little maintenance. Be sure to alleviate pressure built up in your fermenting jars by allowing the air to escape every day or two, called “burping” the jars. There are also specialty lids available that release built-up carbonation as the product ferments. At the end of the article, you’ll find a beginner friendly recipe for sauerkraut.
Fermentation is a natural process used to preserve food. Health benefits occur thanks to the presence of microorganisms found in naturally fermented foods. Make your own at home for the most healthful fermented treats.
Recipe by Regen Williams, Pastry Chef
Start your at-home fermentation journey with this two-ingredient sauerkraut recipe by pastry chef and Central Coast native Regen Williams.
- 1 pound of green cabbage
- 2 teaspoons salt
- Chop the cabbage in half and slice thinly towards the root.
- Add cabbage to a large bowl and cover with salt.
- Massage cabbage and salt for 10 minutes. Let rest for 5 minutes, then massage for another 10 minutes.
- Once the cabbage has shrunk to about half the size, add to a clean glass jar. Pack all of the cabbage along with the liquid into the jar and secure the lid.
- Burp your sauerkraut by opening the lid every one or two days to release the built up carbonation (this will appear as bubbles along the top of the jar). After burping, press cabbage down to ensure it is all submerged in the liquid.
- Sauerkraut will be ready to enjoy after two weeks, but can ferment for up to one month.
- After patiently allowing your sauerkraut to ferment, it’s time to enjoy!
- For extra flavorful sauerkraut, try adding a teaspoon of carraway seeds or two cloves of chopped garlic to the fermenting liquid.
- Make larger batches by doubling or tripling the original recipe.
- During fermentation you may see a white cloudiness at the bottom of the jar. This is normal.
Note: This article was originally published in the February/March 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.