Fermented foods not only support the immune system, they provide strains of good bacteria that are essential for health.
You may be surprised by the number of foods that require fermentation. Bread, cured meats, cheeses. Beer, wine, certain coffees. Sauerkraut, miso, yogurt.
Not only are these foods tasty, but they share a characteristic that is essential for life. Our bodies are ecosystems teeming with trillions of bacteria — both good and bad — and fermented foods offer the healthy strains of bacteria we need for our systems to stay in balance. In short, if you eat enough sauerkraut, the bad guys are less likely to wreak havoc on your immune system. (For more on the health benefits of good bacteria, see “Your Microbiome: The Ecosystem Inside“.)
You can find probiotic-rich fermented foods throughout your grocery store, but making your own is easy — and fun. Here’s how to enjoy simple, good-for-your-gut food that you can trust.
Fermented Foods Glossary Slideshow
Hankering for some probiotics? Check out these 11 fermented foods.
Kefir: Fermented milk made with a yeast and bacterial fermentation starter called “grains,” kefir is a thick-yet-pourable drink that’s wonderful served on its own or with nuts and fruit.
Yogurt: A fermented milk product that can also be made from nondairy milks like almond, coconut, and soy. If you don’t make your own, look for yogurt with live, active cultures.
Pickles: Make your own or look for fermented pickles, which are in the refrigerated section. The pickles found in grocery aisles are made using heat and vinegar, both of which kill good bacteria.
Miso: A savory, complex soybean, rice, or barley paste fermented with a mold called koji. It is a good salt alternative in soups, sauces, spreads, salad dressings, and marinades.
Kombucha: A lightly effervescent drink made from sweetened tea that’s been fermented with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). If you make it at home, vary the flavor by adding juices, fruit, or even chia seeds.
Tempeh: Made from whole, fermented soybeans, tempeh has a nutty, smoky, mushroomlike flavor and is best eaten cooked. Because of its firm, chewy texture, tempeh is often used as a meat substitute. (For more, see Natural Wonder: Tempeh.)
Vinegar: Made by fermenting wine, cider, or beer, vinegar can be splashed on many savory dishes for added tang and a nutrient boost. And after your meal, you can mix some with a little baking soda to clean the kitchen.
Sauerkraut: Made by fermenting finely chopped cabbage, sauerkraut is simple to make. If you want to purchase it, look for a good-quality one sold in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.
Sourdough: Sourdough bread contains the bacteria lactobacilli that ferment the dough, give the bread its tangy flavor — and make it easier to digest than traditional yeast breads. Easy to make if you keep a starter on hand.
Fish sauce, tamari, and shrimp paste: Found in Asian markets, these fermented products are great additions to salad dressings, marinades, and stir-fries.
Sandor Ellix Katz is a true artist when it comes to fermented foods. He grew up in New York City eating traditional Eastern European sour pickles. He’s now based in Tennessee, where his house contains buckets and jars full of bubbling cultured creations.
Katz, who has lived with HIV since the 1980s, credits his good health to these fermented foods. A leading authority on fermentation, he is the author of the recent book The Art of Fermentation, which won a 2013 James Beard Award, and of Wild Fermentation. He runs www.wildfermentation.com, which shares recipes and all sorts of fermentation-related resources. We talked to him recently about his deep knowledge of the cultured world.
Experience Life: Do you see fermented foods as a growing trend?
Sandor Katz | Fermentation has had enduring popularity. Think about breads, cheese, cured meats, condiments, vinegar, beer, wine — supermarket shelves have always been filled with these foods. What’s shifting is that, like all aspects of food production, people are getting interested in being closer to the source of their food. There’s just a hunger to reclaim their food and be part of it. And fermentation is an important aspect of culinary traditions and what people eat.
EL | What do you ferment, and how often do you tend to them?
SK | I definitely am keeping fewer ferments going these days only because my life is busier and I’m running around a lot. I pretty much always have some kind of sauerkraut going: I can go away for months, and it’s fine. I always have miso going. I have lots of meads and wines going. I make yogurt: Once every month I’ll make a bunch of jars of it. Sporadically, I make bread. Frequently, when I’m at home, I make savory sourdough pancakes — that’s actually just what I had for lunch. I used my sourdough starter and added some grated daikon radishes, sautéed onions, and some cheese to make them savory.
EL | It sounds like fermenting affects the rhythm of your life.
SK | Fermentation definitely requires you to step back from instant gratification. Even the fastest ferments require some hours of waiting. Many ferments take days. Some take weeks. Others take months or even years.
EL | What are the least-intimidating recipes to start with?
SK | I recommend that people start out fermenting vegetables and making something like sauerkraut. You don’t need any special equipment. You don’t need any special starter cultures. It’s all on the cabbages. It’s extremely safe, you can enjoy it relatively quickly, and it’s incredibly delicious and healthy to eat.
EL | What common problems do beginners run into?
SK | The key to fermenting vegetables is getting them submerged under their own juices. You chop up the vegetables to expose surface area. You salt them, and then you pound them or squeeze them, and that bruises them, breaks down cell walls, and helps them start releasing their juices. Then you use some force to stuff them into your vessel, pressing down hard enough so that the actual solid vegetables get submerged under their juices that come out as a result of being forced down. That protects them from oxygen.
EL | Can you eat too many fermented foods?
SK | I would say moderation is a good thing, and variety is a good thing. Clearly, with alcoholic beverages it’s possible to have too much. Sauerkraut, the fermented vegetables, miso, and many other ferments are salty, and I think you want to be aware of moderation and not eat too much of them. Many fermented foods, including sauerkraut, are really thought of as condiments.
EL | You’re living with HIV. How has consuming fermented foods had an impact on your health?
SK | I want to be really clear: I take HIV meds. We can’t expect the foods that we eat to necessarily cure specific diseases. That said, I absolutely am convinced that the regular ingestion of bacterially rich, live-culture foods has been hugely important in my maintaining good health, but I don’t think it’s specific to HIV at all.
I think that it’s really clear that bacterially rich foods can help us digest food better — to assimilate nutrients better — and can contribute to improved immune functioning. And that’s huge for anyone.
EL | There’s an incredibly rich, intertwined history between humans and bacteria, and yet we wage war on bacteria. Are we getting any smarter?
SK | In the last decade in science, we have come to a more nuanced understanding of the body and how it relates to the microbial world that is all around us and inside of us. But I think there’s a huge lag. Everyone’s still washing with these ridiculous antibacterial cleansing products, and we still respond to this marketing: There’s really nothing sexier that a soap manufacturer could write on a container of soap than promising that it’ll kill 99.9 percent of bacteria. But, in fact, we can get along with 99.9 percent of bacteria just fine. And in truth, that’s what protects us from the 0.1 percent of bacteria that have the potential to make us sick.
EL | What else should we know about fermentation?
SK |More than anything, I want to encourage people to not be afraid of fermentation and just recognize that it is a widespread phenomenon. It can be done safely with just a minimum of information. It can be incredibly fun and satisfying. I want to help people get over any fear that they might have from the war on bacteria and take a stab at it.
Greek yogurt is thick and hearty. Make it yourself to avoid the artificial sweeteners and thickeners in some commercial brands. Alternately, you can make a regular whole-milk yogurt by stopping before straining the yogurt. This recipe is inspired by Molly Sheridan at SeriousEats.com.
Makes 6 cups
- 8 cups whole milk
- 4 tbs. plain whole-milk yogurt with live, active cultures
- Special equipment:
- Kitchen thermometer
- 2 quart-size canning jars with lids
- Fine-mesh strainer
Set oven to warm. In a heavy, 3-quart saucepan, bring the milk to 180 degrees F over medium heat. Remove from heat and allow to cool to 110 degrees F. Whisk in the yogurt until smooth. Pour the milk mixture into the canning jars and seal with the lids. Turn the oven off, and place the jars in the oven and close the door. Allow the yogurt to incubate for at least eight hours (or up to 24 hours if you like your yogurt extra tangy). Check the yogurt to see that it has thickened. Once it has, place it in the refrigerator for at least six hours. Line a large fine-mesh strainer with two layers of cheesecloth and place over a large bowl. Pour the yogurt into the strainer and allow it to drain for two hours or until it is as thick as you like it. Store the yogurt in the refrigerator; reserve the whey that collects in the bowl for another recipe, such as vegetable pickles. (For Maple-Vanilla Greek Yogurt, see the recipe below.)
Wine vinegar is a great way to use up leftover wine. Red wine produces the fullest flavor, but rosé or white will work as well. This recipe is inspired by Ideas in Food, by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot.
Makes 3 1/2 cups
- 11/2 cups organic apple-cider vinegar (Bragg or another type that has a “mother”)
- 2 cups red wine
- 1 quart-size jar with a loose-fitting lid (or use a 2-quart jar if you want to keep adding to it as a continuous ferment)
- Rubber band
Combine the vinegar and wine in the clean jar. Cover with the cheesecloth and secure with the rubber band; this will keep fruit flies out. Rest the jar lid loosely on top to allow for airflow. Let the vinegar sit in a cool, dark location for one week. After a week, check the vinegar for flavor. You may use it now, or add another cup of wine to it and let it sit for at least another week to allow the flavor to mature. When your vinegar has aged one to two weeks, pour it into a bottle, saving the sediment in your base jar, and seal it with a cap. Add more wine to the base to continuously produce your own vinegar.
You can make this sauerkraut with just one head of cabbage. You don’t need a special crock or a root cellar; it may simply be stored in the refrigerator. This recipe is adapted from Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon.
Makes 1 quart
- 1 medium head of cabbage, cored and shredded
- 1 tbs. caraway seeds
- 1 tbs. sea salt
- 4 tbs. whey (if not available, use an additional 1 tbs. salt)
- Special equipment:
- 1 quart-size, wide-mouth canning jar with lid
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together. Press with the rounded bottom of a ladle to release the juices. Transfer the cabbage into the canning jar and press down firmly until the juices cover the cabbage. The top of the cabbage should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar. Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about three days before transferring to the refrigerator. The sauerkraut may be eaten immediately, but it tastes best if you store it in the refrigerator for at least a week.
Summer Vegetable Pickles
These tasty lacto-fermented vegetables are great with meals or as a snack. This recipe is inspired by Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon.
Makes about 1 quart
- 2 jalapeño peppers, deseeded and thinly sliced (optional)
- 1 cup red bell pepper strips
- 11/2 cups carrot sticks
- 4 cups bite-size cauliflower pieces
- 1 bunch cilantro, coarsely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1 tbs. sea salt
- 4 tbs. whey (if not available, use an additional 1 tbs. salt)
- Filtered water (do not use chlorinated water)
- Special equipment:
- 1 quart-size, wide-mouthed canning jar with lid
In a large bowl, mix all the ingredients together except the water. Press the ingredients lightly with the rounded bottom of a soup ladle. Place in the canning jar and press down with the ladle so that liquid rises to the top of the vegetables. Add filtered water as necessary to cover the vegetables. The top of the vegetables should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar. Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about two days before transferring to the refrigerator. The vegetables are ready to consume after a week in the refrigerator and will improve with age. (For a Gingered-Carrot Relish recipe, see below.)
This article originally appeared as “Get Cultured” in the June 2014 issue of Experience Life.