Discover the history and health benefits of vegetable fermentation.
Fermented foods are enjoying a surge in popularity. Create delicious kimchis, krauts, pickles and more with the help of Fermented Vegetables (Storey, 2014). Kirsten and Christopher Shockey make this age-old tradition easy for health-conscious home cooks with a variety of beautifully illustrated recipes. The following excerpt from “Back to the Future” offers a brief history and the benefits of fermented foods.
This book can be purchased from the Mother Earth Living store: Fermented Vegetables.
Fermenting vegetables is a simple, inexpensive process that was used reliably for a few thousand years. Then, in the early 1900s, technical innovations promised things the crock just couldn’t deliver. Canned jars of food remain stable on a shelf for years. Blanch your veggies, toss into a bag, and store in the freezer — what could be easier? No heavy crocks to clean, no time spent monitoring and skimming off any impurities; it was all very modern and clean and safe.
Only in more recent years have nutritionists begun to understand what all that sterilizing and freezing did to the vitamins and minerals that make vegetables good for us — not to mention the flavor. Enter fermentation, or, to be accurate, reenter fermentation.
Now fermented foods are considered artisanal, a combination of traditional methods and scientific knowledge used to preserve food for flavor, color, and nutritive value.
When we bring vegetables into the kitchen, we hope to preserve them long enough to enjoy them, so we wash them and keep them at the proper temperature. Despite that, a 2004 study by the University of Arizona found that 40 percent of the food grown in the United States goes to waste, and a large portion of that is what consumers let spoil in their fridge. Every year the average household sends $600 in food to the landfill (for some of us that is actually the compost pile or out to the chickens). So if you couldn’t resist that beautiful bunch of turnips at the farm stand but have no idea how to prepare them, think fermentation. Lactic-acid fermentation is an ideal way to preserve the bounty while retaining nutrients and deepening the flavor profile.
Science is in the nascent stages of understanding how our physical and mental health is interlocked with the vitality of the population of bacteria that live with us. We know fermented vegetables are a piece of the puzzle not only in keeping probiotics in our diet, and therefore in our gut, but also in the changes that overcome the vegetables that make their nutrients more available for our bodies to absorb.
Many discussions of vegetable fermentation mention that Captain Cook kept scurvy at bay on his ships with mandatory servings of sauerkraut; it worked, as we know now, because fermentation increases the cabbage’s vitamin C. Now we also know that fermentation increases other vitamins and minerals as well. For example, in 2005, a study published in Food Microbiology found that when homemade vegetable juices are fermented, their iron is 16 percent more soluble than in the raw juice.
Among many other nutrients critical for the body’s well-being are B-12 and folate. Vitamin B-12 is difficult to come by for people on a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, as it’s present only in animal-based foods. Fermented vegetables, however, contain B-12; the bacterium Lactobacillus reuteri produces it during the process. This friendly microorganism also munches away on the vegetable sugars, converting the carbohydrates into acid, which is important for people watching their blood sugar.
There are social benefits attached to this culinary art as well. When you cook with family or friends you create a bond — from the food preparation (which can start as early as choosing seeds to grow) to gathering daily at the table. Food keeps us connected both tangibly and immeasurably.
Consider fermenting vegetables as a group activity. Enlist the kids, your significant other, friends, and guests to chop, slice, or grate; salt; and massage, pound, or press vegetables into a crock. No experience is necessary, so even the youngest member can participate. And for the I-don’t-like-kraut set, they’re sure to at least taste the ferment they helped make.
Fermentation preserves vegetables raw and without heat, so it retains their vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. But did you know it often enhances them? And the organisms that enable fermentation are themselves beneficial. Here’s how fermentation helps:
• It preserves and enhances B and C vitamins.
• It makes nutrients more readily available.
• It aids in digestion.
• It doesn’t call for chemical preservatives.
• It supports the immune system.
Excerpted from Fermented Vegetables (c) Kirsten K. and Christopher Shockey. Photography by (c) Erin Kunkel. Used with permission of Storey Publishing. Purchase this book from our store: Fermented Vegetables.
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