Various fermented foods. Photo by Daniela Roberts.
You may not realize just how many fermented foods you regularly eat. All sorts of delicious foods undergo fermentation at some point in their preparation: sourdough bread, cheese, yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, dill pickles, beer, wine, vinegar, chocolate, coffee, tea…all the good stuff.
Perhaps you need no reasons to ferment food yourself other than the fact that it tastes absolutely delicious. But this ancient method of food preparation has been undergoing a renaissance of late for many reasons in addition to flavor.
1. Food preservation not food waste. Who hasn’t—with the best intentions—bought too many vegetables? If you have a cabbage on hand that you need to use up quickly for example, simply chop it, salt it and submerge it in its own juices for a few days. Your resulting probiotic-rich sauerkraut will keep for many months.
How does that transformation happen seemingly by magic? Immersed in liquid, the anaerobic lactic-acid bacteria present on the cabbage eat its sugars and produce lactic acid, which ferments and preserves the food. These acids not only give sauerkraut its tangy flavor, they also inhibit the growth of bad bacteria. As a result, fermentation is very safe.
Before the introductions of refrigeration and chemical preservatives last century and canning a century before that, people fermented or dehydrated food to preserve it. This was especially important in cold climates with short growing seasons. People could enjoy vegetables throughout the winter by fermenting them at the end of the summer. Cold weather slows down the fermentation, preserving the food longer, making this method a perfect, seasonal and natural fit in these parts of the world.
2. Health benefits. Fermentation preserves vitamin C and increases levels of B vitamins, such as thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. It reduces phytates, anti-nutrients present in grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Phytates bind to minerals, making nutrients unavailable for absorption. Fermentation breaks these bonds so the body can absorb the previously unavailable nutrients. Fermented foods also contain beneficial microbes that can improve your gut flora.
Lemons and carrots ready to prep. Photo by Daniela Roberts.
3. Savings. My family loves real dill pickles—the delicious fermented cucumbers that you will find in the refrigerator section of some grocery stores. Fermented dill pickles differ from the shelf-stable ones that you find in the center aisles of every grocery store in America. Those highly processed pickles have been pasteurized in vinegar. They lack the health benefits and flavor of naturally fermented pickled cucumbers. However, the fermented ones can cost a small fortune. I can ferment about three jars of pickles for the price of one store-bought jar.
4. Low energy consumption, low-tech. Fermented foods consume very little—if any—energy to prepare. To make my fermented salsa, for example, I merely prep and salt all the vegetables—tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, jalapeño peppers, garlic, cilantro and so on—pack them into jars and set those out on the counter at room temperature for a few days while the food ferments. I don’t cook anything. I don’t turn on a burner. The energy required to transform my ingredients into tangy, mouthwatering and slightly effervescent salsa comes from the bacteria within the jar, not from an outside source.
Only basic tools and skills required. Photo by Daniela Roberts
5. Minimal effort. Almost every time I ferment something new, I ask myself, “Is that all there is to it?” Fermentation requires very little of our energy to prepare and only the most basic cooking skills. If you can cut cabbage, you can make sauerkraut. If you can brew tea, you can make kombucha. Some dairy ferments require even less work. To make kefir, add kefir grains to milk and wait for a day.
To me a jar of homemade kimchi isn’t just a tasty, healthy snack. It’s a protest of our current broken food system. An act of defiance. I’m not saying fermentation will save the world. But I do believe preparing food this way does put you more in tune with the natural world. The food is alive after all. Sourdough is the new tattoo.