My new favorite hobby: fermenting foods. As nerdy as that sounds, I just don’t care (highschool is long gone and my definition of cool has changed!) I love cooking and science, and I feel like fermenting food is the perfect union of the two. There is something so incredibly satisfying about being able to preserve your own food without…well, preservatives.
I am in no way at all a master fermenter, and am really still just learning. However, my insatiable interest on the subject has led me to reading, research, and experiments of my own, and now I’m eager to share what I’ve learned. Before I can share some of my favorite fermentation recipes, I find it necessary to shed some light on the how fermentation works–the very basics. The following will give you some insight as to why fermenting food is so beneficial, how it works, and why it is has disappeared from our regular cooking regime.
What Is Fermentation?
Fermentation takes place in the absence of oxygen (an anaerobic environment), and in the presence of beneficial microorganisms (yeasts, molds and bacteria) which obtain their energy through fermentation. During the fermentation process, these microorganisms break down sugars and starches into alcohols and acids (lactic and acetic.) What you’re left with is a food that has been transformed into a more nutritious version of itself, and which can be stored for much longer without spoiling.
Fermented food goes far beyond sauerkraut–you can actually ferment almost every food group! Fermenting grains gives you sourdough bread and beer, fermenting meat gives you salami, fermenting dairy gives you yogurt and cheese, fermenting veggies gives you pickles, and fermenting fruit gives you jam and cider! The possibilities are really endless!
Types of Fermentation
There are three types of fermentation: lactic acid fermentation, ethyl alcohol fermentation, and acetic acid fermentation.
- Lactic acid fermentation, also known as lacto-fermentation, occurs when yeasts and bacteria convert starches and sugars into lactic acid. Lacto-fermentation is the healthiest form of fermentation because lactic acid “helps with blood circulation, prevents constipation, balances digestive acids, [aids in pre-digestion] and encourages good pancreatic function.”
- Ethyl alcohol fermentation, occurs when beneficial microorganisms convert carbohydrates into alcohol. Traditionally, alcohol was more nutritious and contained beneficial organisms. Today, the manufacturing process of making alcoholic beverages destroys the nutrients, and contain high amounts of sugar.
- Acetic fermentation takes place when alcohol is exposed to air and is converted to acetic acid, commonly known as vinegar! Yes, your apple cider vinegar was once good ol’ apple cider.
The Health Benefits of Fermented Food
The health benefits of fermented food are incredible. Personally, I don’t take multi-vitamins because I believe vitamins and minerals should be consumed and absorbed in their natural state, not chemically derived state (but that’s a whole other discussion). To make a long story short, incorporating fermented food into my daily diet is my multi-vitamin, and here is why.
- Fermentation increases vitamins and minerals in food or makes them more available for absorption. Fermentation increases B and C vitamins immensely. Other vitamins enhanced during this process are folic acid, riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, and biotin. The probiotics, enzymes and lactic acid in fermented foods allow these vitamins and minerals to be more easily absorbed into the body.
- Fermented foods provide enzymes necessary for digestion (digestive enzymes.) Did you know that we are born with a finite number of enzymes that decrease with age? And that fermented foods contain the enzymes that are required to break down that particular food the best? So, the best thing we can do to slow down the depletion of our enzymes, is to eat food already high in enzymes. Cooked food has no enzymes, raw food has some, and fermented food is abundant.
- Fermentation Aids in pre-digestion: during the fermentation process, the microorganisms feed on sugars and starches, essentially digesting and breaking down the food before you even eat it. In grains, gluten is predigested. In dairy, lactose (milk-sugar) is predigested (which is why lactose intolerant people can eat fermented food) and in all other starchy foods such as beans, fruits and vegetables, you’re final product will contain much less sugar.
- Fermentation neutralizes anti-nutrients, in particular phytic acid, which is found in grains, nuts, seeds and beans/legumes.The problem is that “phytic acid can bind minerals in the gut before they are absorbed and influence digestive enzymes [this can lead to mineral deficiencies]. Phytates also reduce the digestibility of starches, proteins, and fats.” This is one of the reasons that those on a Paleo diet avoid foods that are high in phytic acid. Thankfully, soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains, nuts, seeds and legumes are ways to neutralize this anti-nutrient. To learn more about phytic acid (and even the possible benefits) read this article. http://www.precisionnutrition.com/all-about-phytates-phytic-acid
- Fermented foods rich in probiotics. Probiotics are microorganisms consumed by the body for their beneficial qualities, and are responsible for maintaining a healthy gut flora. A healthy gut is capable of pulling nutrients from the food you eat, fermented or not.
- Eating fermented food helps maintain a healthy immune system because a healthy gut, rich in probiotics, produces anti-biotic, anti-tumor, anti-viral, and anti-fungal substances. Also, the acids in fermented food make the gut an “uncomfortably acidic place for pathogens.”
The Basics of Fermenting
In order for fermentation to take place, there are certain conditions required by the beneficial organisms. Their environment needs to be…
- Protected from spoiling organisms. You can protect the beneficial bacteria by creating an uncomfortable environment for the bad buys. This can be done by creating a salty environment (using brine), adding a starter culture, eliminating oxygen or increasing acidity (adding vinegar.)
- The right temperature (about room temperature for fermentation, and then in a cool environment for storage.)
- In presence of food containing sugars and starches.
In addition to the above, fermenting food needs time—days, weeks and even months in some cases.
A lot of the fermented food that I make requires brine (salt and water), and a starter culture such as whey, so to get you started, here are the recipes for those.
The Decline of Fermented Food
Humans have been fermenting food for thousands of years, in all parts of the world, and although it’s been around for centuries, fermentation is a lost “cooking” technique. Contributing to this decline was the introduction of the industrialized food market in the early nineteen hundreds, and there are a couple reasons for this. One, the fermentation process lets off gases, which leaves the risk of jars exploding on grocery store shelves, and two, fermenting food has variable results, which makes it difficult to manufacture in large quantities. So, unfortunately, pickling, and preservatives took the place of fermentation, however pickled foods are far less nutritious, and food with added preservatives can be downright bad for you.
It makes me sad that the art of fermenting food is lost from our regular cooking regime. For thousands of years people have been fermenting food for preservation and health, and now in less than one hundred, it’s hardly common practice. But I suppose cooking in general, and making food from scratch, has been on the decline for years, being pushed aside by quick and easy, oven and microwave-ready meals, which are low in nutrients and high in sugar and preservatives. It seems our society today would rather pop pills for their vitamin and mineral intake, rather than consume them naturally. I could talk about the food industry all day (and the brainwashing that goes along with it), but for now I’ll conclude by saying: I’m bringing fermented food back in my household, and I hope this post has inspired you to consider doing the same for you and your family
References and Readings:
The Complete Idiots Guide to Fermenting Foods, by Wardeh Harmon
The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World, by Sandor Ellix Katz
Stocking Up: How to Preserve the Foods You Grow Naturally, by Carol Hupping Stoner