As a general principle I believe in cleanliness. I support the ubiquitous, “All employees must wash hands” sign (though I suspect it’s more effective at pacifying diners than influencing behavior), I take my shoes off when I walk in the door and I have good intentions about at least rinsing my fruit and vegetables. But I don’t use antibacterial soap, have never bought Purrell, will use my cast iron pan a second time before washing it, and will eat food even after it’s lost its balance and tumbled to the floor.
So it may not come as a total surprise to hear that I’ve been eating a lot of foods grown with bacteria. Fermented, cultured, it goes by several names, but it’s basically food that gets marinated in its own bacteria. Loads of everyday foods use bacteria to convert carbs to either alcohol (beer, wine, yeast leavened bread) or to organic acids (cheese, yogurt, tempeh) but it’s the ones that are allowed to wallow in it for weeks and for whom the bacteria enhances an already highly nutritious food, that I’ve become particularly infatuated with.
What’s Going On When Food Ferments
Fermenting is the process of allowing the naturally present bacteria in the food to start consuming or digesting the food, which at the same time inhibits the growth of the spoiling bacteria. With vegetables, the lactic acid bacteria in the plant starts to metabolize the sugar and reproduce at a furious pace. It doesn’t requires anything more than the vegetables themselves (since they bring their own bacteria) and either salt or whey (the liquid that forms on top of yogurt). And then about two weeks of time.
Why Eat Fermented Food (This goes for all fermented foods but is especially applicable to vegetables that don’t get cooked after fermenting, unlike say bread or tempeh.)
- It’s full of probiotics (the bacteria that grows is good bacteria we need). Our body tends to assimilate nutrients better, the more “alive” the food is; the fermentation process brings the food to life through liberating and reproducing its own bacteria. (Click here for the post on probiotics.)
- It’s “cooked” by its own enzymes. Unlike cooked veg that can lose some of their nutrients when heated, the veg are still raw, but unlike off-the-grocers-shelf raw, fermented veg have already had some of the breaking-down/digesting done by their own enzymes, meaning less of our own digestive enzymes are needed. It’s why yogurt is easier to digest than milk and why tempeh is easier than tofu. (More on why tempeh’s so great here.) The older we get, the more the enzyme levels drop, which is why older people often have digestive problems, so to the extent you can “bring your own”, this makes things easier on the body.
- It’s got more Vitamin Bs (due to the bacteria) than the raw food alone.
- It stimulates stomach acid which helps digestion – which is why its ideal to consume fermented foods at the beginning of a meal.
- It’ll last forever in the fridge, due to antimicrobial substances that the bacteria produces.
Do Pickles Count?
It’s rare to find pickles that are fermented without vinegar. The problem with vinegar is, 1) For some people it can actually encourage the growth of “candida” a bad bacteria, and 2) Because it’s so acidic, it can kill some of the digestive enzymes in the cucumber. So eat pickles, by all means! but unless they’re fermented without vinegar (usually only found at a farmers market), they wont have quite the nutritional punch of lacto or whey fermented vegetables.
Where To Get Them
Best place to buy fermented vegs is at a farmers market, though stores are increasingly carrying smaller, local brands. If you go mass with the sauerkraut, there is a good chance it was pasteurized which can kill much of the enzymes and nutrients.
DIY is the other route. I’m a rookie on the DIY front (just made my first batch of ‘kraut as seen in the photo) so feel free to chime in here with your expertise, but I did it with nothing more than shredded cabbage, a touch of water, some salt and a Mason jar. Two weeks later and it was decent – not great, but not bad for someone who two weeks ago thought you needed a wooden barrel to make sauerkraut. (I think mine needed another few days and next time I’ll add some diced garlic and perhaps some caraway seeds).
For DIY instructions, click here. The beets I didn’t make. I bought those from Hawthorne Valley Farm, who have, over the years, filled my belly with the divine yogurt, kimchee and ‘kruat and to whom I dedicate my fist batch of mediocre sauerkraut …
Kombucha (another fermented food) that’s become my morning elixir and is super easy to make at home. Click to learn how.
If you’re really into this and want a deeper dive, you might want to check out this book that was recommended to me Wild Fermentation.
Your experience eating or making bacteria rich foods?
A Few Important End Notes …
1) I added this update to the end of the last post on veganism, but wanted to share it here… After many comments poured in saying,”I am vegan and happy and healthy and you are wrong about there being any “risks”, I wanted to say this: I fully respect everyone’s desire to choose whatever way of eating feels right for them. Just because I have found certain foods that are right for me, they may not be right for you and I respect that and should have made that clearer. What we choose to eat is an extraordinarily personal decision. If what you’re eating is working for you keep eating it and if someone else’s experience doesn’t resonate – push it to the side of your plate and toss it out.
2) I installed a new commenting system called Disqus which allows you, when you leave a comment, to choose (if you wish) to have all comments from that post emailed to you, not only”replies” to your comment. This will allow you to stay in the conversation and hear other’s words. (When a comment’s emailed to you, you’ll see the name Disqus as the sender.) The system also lets you view comments on the site “newest to oldest” so you don’t have to scroll past 50 to see the latest.
3) There’s now a site search box – top right.
4) Congrats to Rivki L. for winning the OXO stainless steel mandoline!
5) And a million thanks to those who have voted for The Sweet Beet for the Webby Award (voting’s still open and we need your vote!)
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