Fermenting Foods for Flavour, Fun, and Nutrition!
by Paulette Millis
Preserving foods by fermenting to make them more digestible and more nutritious is as old as humanity. This old technique, lactic fermentation, produces foods that have biological energy, and it is time to renew this practice. It has largely disappeared from our Western diet, partly because it is an artisanal process and also because processed, refined, and pasteurized foods have taken its place. Lactic fermentation was the prime method of preservation before heat sterilization was discovered.
In the dead of winter you may be wishing for something crisp that hasn’t travelled thousands of miles, or been processed and refined until there is no life left. Modern scientific methods of food preservation remove the life from food, as opposed to natural methods that enhance or maintain food life.
The “miracle” of lactic fermentation is the ability to preserve vegetables for months using neither heat, cold, nor preservatives, and retaining the freshness and nutrient value.
The health-giving properties and the complex tastes of fermented foods are good reasons to give yourself the opportunity to acquire a taste for and long for fermented foods. In Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz states fermentation is an everyday miracle and is everywhere! He says the microscopic bacteria and fungi are in every breath we take and every bite we eat. We, as a culture, are terrified of germs and obsessed with hygiene. Try as we might to eradicate them with anti-bacterial soaps, anti-fungal creams, and antibiotic drugs, we are unable to escape them.
Microbial cultures, called microflora, are essential to life processes such as digestion and immunity. These single-cell life-forms digest our food into nutrients our bodies can absorb and protect us from unhealthy organisms, according to Katz.
“The cleaner we live… the more likely we’ll get asthma and allergies,” states Dr. David Rosenstreich. Microorganisms teach the immune system how to function, as well as protect us by competing with potentially dangerous organisms. Dr. Irun R. Cohen of Israel says, “The immune system organizes itself through experience, just like the brain.” (1)
If we continue to assault the bacteria on, in, and around us with anti-bacterial compounds we are weakening one of the lines of defence our bodies use to protect us. It is interesting how quickly the antibacterial soaps have become used as the standard hand-washing practice. Is there any evidence that fewer people are getting sick as a result? Dr. Myron Genel, chair of the American Medical Association’s Council on Scientific Affairs states, “There’s no evidence that they do any good and there’s reason to suspect that they could contribute to a problem by helping to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria.” The sale of these products is merely playing upon people’s fears.
Many of our basic staples are actually fermented, for example, bread, aged cheeses, coffee, wine, beer, chocolate, and tangy sauerkraut. Traditional Asian foods such as tofu, miso, tamari, and tempeh are popular, as fermentation breaks down the soybeans’ complex protein into more digestible amino acids. We all know that fermenting fruit produces wine! Yogurt is likely the most well-known cultured food, prized for its health benefits. Early Europeans made a flat sour rye bread using sour rye starter cultures as early as 800 BC and sour rye bread has survived the centuries. Soy sauce is a liquid food condiment made from fermented rice, wheat, and soybeans with the help of molds, bacteria, and yeasts, and miso is a fermented soybean paste.
Pickled vegetables have been popular in Egypt for centuries, and include carrots, cucumbers, turnips, cauliflower, green and black olives, onions, and peppers. These are used as appetizers and served with most meals.
The Polynesian people who populated Hawaii sustained themselves with poi, a fermented food. It is a thick, starchy taro root porridge still popular today. Sour flavours from fermentation are much more common in Eastern Europe and other areas of the world.
My focus with this article is on vegetables, as these are the foods I want to encourage people to add to their diet. Other methods of preserving often enhance the flavour of the food rather than its nutritional value. It is a good practice to eat small amounts of live fermented foods each day. Eating these veggies uncooked retains their enzyme and vitamin content, although you may cook them as well, as we often do in baked sauerkraut dishes.
Anyone can learn to ferment food! It is easy, doesn’t require a lot of expertise, or equipment, and can be done in your kitchen. Patricia Meyer Watt, who teaches fermentation, calls it an “investment food”—you spend 2 to 3 hours in the kitchen then you have it for three months in the fridge.
NUTRITIONAL AND MEDICINAL INFORMATION
Uncooked lacto-fermented vegetables retain their enzyme and vitamin content, therefore this is the ideal state in which to eat them. To reap the benefits all you need are a few tablespoons a day. Do not eat them in large quantities for they are very acidic. They can be cooked; some examples are sauerkraut dishes like sour cabbage rolls, quiche, and sauerkraut and smokies. Although some nutrition is lost, larger amounts of these foods can be eaten as cooking reduces their acidity.
Sally Fallon in Nourishing Traditions states that lacto-fermented foods normalize the acidity of the stomach; stimulating acid-producing glands if necessary, and the inverse effect if acid is high. Lactic acid helps break down proteins and aids in iron assimilation. Secretions of the pancreas are activated, particularly important for diabetics, and sauerkraut is high in choline, a nutrient that helps lower blood pressure and
aids in metabolism of fats. (2) Raw sauerkraut and other fermented veggies are also recommended for constipation.
Fermentation has been shown to break down lectins, allowing some celiac patients to consume sourdough bread made with wheat and other grains fermented by lactobacilli, according to a study done in Italy. (3)
Fermented foods protect against disease, and are a powerful aid to digestion. These live, unpasteurized foods carry beneficial bacteria into and through our digestive systems, breaking down food and making it easier to digest and preserving the nutrients in the process.
Another major benefit of fermentation is that it preserves food. “Fermentation organisms produce alcohol, lactic acid, and acetic acid, all bio-preservatives that retain nutrients and prevent spoilage.” (4) On Captain James Cook’s second round-the-world trip in the 1770s, 60 barrels of sauerkraut lasted for 27 months, allowing all members to be free of scurvy, previously a killer of huge numbers of sailors.
Yogurt is far easier to digest than milk, due to the lactobacilli that transform the lactose (milk sugar) into the easier-to-digest lactic acid.
The Nutritional Health Journal compared unfermented and fermented versions of a mix of barley, lentils, milk powder, and tomato pulp, and found that “starch digestibility almost doubled in the fermented mixture.” The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization actively promotes fermentation due to the improvement of the bioavailability of minerals present in the food. (5)
New nutrients are created by fermentation. Microbial cultures create B vitamins, e.g. folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin, as they go through their life cycles. According to Katz, ferments have long been credited with creating B12, a nutrient absent from plant-source foods, but new techniques show that what had been identified as B12 in fermented soy and vegetables was actually inactive analogues. Animal foods are the source of B12, therefore vegetarians need to do their research and monitor their B12 levels and consider supplementation.
Yet another benefit of fermentation is the removal of toxins from food. An example is the high level of cyanide in some cassava tubers prior to a soaking fermentation. Phytic acid, found in all grains, blocks absorption of zinc, calcium, iron, magnesium, and other minerals, leading to deficiencies in those who consume a diet high in grains. Soaking the grains (a simple fermentation process) before cooking neutralizes this acid. Other potentially toxic chemicals such as nitrites, oxalic acid, nitrosamines, and more can be reduced or eliminated by fermentation as well. (6)
Because lactobacillus fermentation inhibits the growth of diarrhea-related bacteria, e.g. salmonella and E. coli, a study involving infants fed weaning gruels, some fermented, some not, found that there were half as many diarrhea episodes in the fermented gruel group of infants. (7)
Fallon reports that the different lacto-fermented foods are a valuable aid to the cancer patient. Professor Zabel says sick people always lack digestive juices, during the acute stage, as well as for a long time afterwards, and also, that he hasn’t seen a cancer victim with healthy intestinal flora. (8)
Many foods are fermented: vegetables, fruits, dairy (yogurt, cheese), breads, and alcohols. Many purchased fermented foods are no longer alive, thereby reducing the digestibility and nutrient value. Finding and purchasing ready-made fermented foods that have not been pasteurized, heated and/or canned is difficult. Many yogurts are pasteurized, and sauerkrauts are pasteurized and canned which destroys the enzymes and water-soluble vitamins such as vitamin C, and even miso is sometimes dried, making it lifeless.
To find the best yogurts look for the words: contains live cultures.
If you really want live cultured foods in your diet, seek out caring, knowledgeable producers, or make these foods yourself.
Fermentation can be low-tech, mostly involving creating conditions in which naturally-occurring wild organisms thrive and proliferate. It is so easy and so effective one wonders why it has nearly disappeared from practice.
Basically, vegetables are grated or cut up, seasoned with a bit of salt or milk brine, and herbs, and left to soak in their own juices. Salt is key, usually 2 to 3 tablespoons of salt per quart. The lactic microbial organisms develop spontaneously, converting the natural sugars into lactic acid. The environment is thus acidified, making it impossible for bacteria to multiply. The salt inhibits putrefying bacteria for several days until enough lactic acid is produced to preserve the veggies. Use only the best quality organic vegetables, sea salt, and pure filtered water. Do NOT use chlorinated tap water when fermenting because chlorine inhibits lactic fermentation. Two to four days at 72ºF or 22ºC generally is needed to ensure fermentation. (9)
Lacto-fermented veggies will have flavour increases with time; experts say sauerkraut is best at 6 months but it may also be eaten immediately.
There is no cause for concern if some lacto-ferments get bubbly, or have white foam appear at the top of the pickling liquid. Remove with a spoon. Rarely, a batch will go bad; the smell will prevent you from eating it!
These veggies keep for months in a cool place, providing ready-to-eat raw veggies year-round.
CAUTION: The USDA and the FDA recommend that all fermented foods should also be canned in a hot water bath to protect against botulism. However, traditional lacto-fermentation methods such as those described here seem to effectively prevent botulism by creating a sufficiently acidic environment. There is good reason to think these recipes are safe without canning. Readers should, of course, use their best judgment. (10)
Cucumbers in Jars
A container for mixing brine
1-1/4 tbsp sea salt per quart of water
2 cups non-chlorinated tap water
A few black peppercorns or fennel seeds
1 tbsp mustard seeds
5–6 cloves of garlic
A few onion slices
2 lbs medium size cucumbers, freshly picked and well washed
1 horseradish root, sliced (to keep cucumbers firm)
A few dill flower heads and leaves
1 horseradish leaf (optional)
1-1/2 quart sterilized jar, with rubber seal and fastener
Mix the brine in a separate container; let the salt dissolve in the water while you fill the jar.
Place a few peppercorns, mustard seeds, and fennel seeds in the bottom of the jar, along with the garlic pieces and a few onion slices. Pierce the larger cucumbers with a fork or a toothpick to help the brine penetrate. Put the cucumbers into the jar upright and pack them tightly. As you do so, add the horseradish, mustard seeds, and dill leaves. Place dill flower heads on top of the last layer of cucumbers to keep them from surfacing. Cover everything with a piece of horseradish leaf that you have cut to fit the size of the jar.
Fill the jar with brine, making sure that all ingredients are covered; stop 3/8 to 3/4 of an inch below the rim so the brine doesn’t overflow during fermentation. Close the jar tightly; the rubber seal will release any gas produced during fermentation. Bubbles will begin to appear within a day, and a foam will form on the surface—fermentation has begun. Leave the jar in the kitchen for a few days, then store it in a cool place when the brine becomes cloudy. Wait approximately six weeks before eating. A perfect way to help digest a heavy meal!
—From D. Mary, Belgium, Preserving Food
Sauerkraut in Glass Jars
10 juniper berries, or 1 or 2 bay leaves
1 tbsp coarse sea salt per jar of cabbage
Hot pure filtered water
1 quart glass jars with rubber seals
Scald the jars and rubber seals. Grate the cabbage and pack it firmly, adding some of the bay leaves or juniper berries as you fill then.
Top off each jar with one tablespoon of coarse sea salt and a bit of hot, non-chlorinated water. With very juicy cabbage, only a few spoonfuls of water are needed.
Close each jar with its rubber seal. Let stand for two to three days in the kitchen, then store in the cellar. (Fridge will likely be the best bet.) Wait one month before eating.
—From M. M. Boulo (La Gacilly), Preserving Food: “I have been using this method for four years, have never lost a jar of sauerkraut and it keeps until the following summer.”
Fermented Oat Porridge
Fermenting oats before cooking them not only makes them more nutritious and digestible, it makes the resulting oatmeal much creamier as well. Grinding whole oats yourself is ideal, though steel-cut oats or large flake rolled oats will work fine.
Timeframe: 24 hours
1 cup coarsely ground, steel-cut, or rolled oats
5 cups pure water
1. Measure out oats.
2. Soak oats for 24 hours in 2 cups of the water, in a covered jar or bowl. Most of the water will be absorbed.
3. When ready to cook, bring an additional 3 cups water, with a pinch of salt, to a boil. Lower the heat, add the soaked oats with any remaining water, and stir until the oats are hot and have absorbed all of the water, about 10 minutes. Stir constantly, as the thick, sticky oatmeal can burn easily.
4. Serve, using sweet or savory flavours as you desire.
Makes 2 quarts.
3 medium organic beets, peeled and chopped up coarsely (do not grate)
1/4 cup sauerkraut juice (or use homemade whey (see p. 87 Nourishing Traditions)
1 tbsp sea salt
Place beets, juice, and salt in a 2-quart glass container. Add water to fill the container. Stir well and cover securely. Keep at room temperature for 2 days before transferring to the fridge. Drink 4 ounces morning and night, reserving the veggies. You may refill the container with water and keep at room temperature for another 2 days to make a slightly less strong brew than the first. Discard beets after the second batch. Reserve some of the liquid to use as your inoculants instead of whey or sauerkraut juice.
—From Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon
References: Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods, Edward Farnworth; (1) Wild Fermentation, Sandor Katz (Dr. I.R. Cohen) 9; (2) Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon, 101; (3) Nourishing Hope, Julie Matthews, (D. Cagno, 2004) 148; (4) Katz, 7; (5) Katz, 6; (6) Katz, 9; (7) Katz, 8; (8) Fallon, 610; (9) Preserving Food, Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante, France, 64; (10) Preserving Food, 64. Further Reading—The Life Bridge: The Way to Longevity with Probiotic Nutrients, Dr. Richard Sarnat, Paul Schulick, and Thomas M. Newmark.
The above information regarding nutritious food is not intended to replace any instruction from medical or health professionals.
Paulette Millis is a speaker, author, and nutritional consultant. To contract her for speaking engagements call (306) 244-8890 in Saskatoon, or email email@example.com. Website: www.healingwithnutrition.ca. Her books, Eat Away Illness and Cook Your Way to Health, are available at health food stores and at McNally Robinson Booksellers.