The Joy Of Bacteria

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.)

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.
  3. It’s got more Vitamin Bs (due to the bacteria) than the raw food alone.
  4. It stimulates stomach acid which helps digestion – which is why its ideal to consume fermented foods at the beginning of a meal.
  5. 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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  • BrownSok

    All I kept thinking when I read this post is, you must have some kind of farmer’s market nearby! I could only wish that mine sold fermented foods. Alas, my local Polish deli is my source for kapusta (sauerkraut is the German word as my Polish father-in-law likes to remind me!) and fermented pickles. But your DIY instructions might inspire me to try my own hand at it, although my last attempt at making fermented rye soup ended up in a mass of mould…

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

      The key when making it on your own is to be absolutely certain that the vegs are 100% submerged. If not, mold will absolutely be the outcome. (At least this is the advice I keep hearing and reading.) Time to try it again! Good thing cabbage’s cheap.

  • alimak

    I’m so lucky to live in Seattle where fresh and fermented food are a way of life. I buy Bubbies raw fermented sauerkraut at my local co-op market and my favorite way to eat it is with 2 fried eggs. Yummy!

  • Fred

    Really nice article, Michelle….thanks. I eat/drink some sorta probiotic/”live” substance(s) at pretty much each meal and it has benefited me tremendously.

    I will mention that “vinegar” can be categorized into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ just as salt can be when comparing commercial, processed table salt (deadly junk) to real sea or himalayan pink salt crystals……world of difference!

    “Doc” Hippocrates raved about raw, unpasteurized and (probably} organic apple cider vinegar (which is fermented) and used it extensively. There are ka-zillions of time proven (even back to the Egyptians) ways to use this wonder product for our health.

    I use Bragg’s and Spectrum also has a nice brand……both are raw and organic with the “mother” float’n eerily around in there!

  • http://6512andgrowing.wordpress.com/ 6512 and growing

    I’m hooked on the book Wild Fermentation. I made my first batch of farmer’s cheese and apple cider vinegar from his instructions.
    This winter our sauerkraut stood in for raw salad many nights.
    Yay bacteria!

  • http://6512andgrowing.wordpress.com/ 6512 and growing

    I’m hooked on the book Wild Fermentation. I made my first batch of farmer’s cheese and apple cider vinegar from his instructions.
    This winter our sauerkraut stood in for raw salad many nights.
    Yay bacteria!

  • http://www.KombuchaKamp.com Hannah Crum

    If you love fermented foods, check out the Freestone Fermentation Festival – coming up in May in Freestone, CA. Sandor Katz (who wrote “Wild Fermentation”), Michael Pollan (“In Defense of Food”), me, the Kombucha Mamma and several other fermentation lovers will be on hand to revel in the bacteria!

    http://freestonefermentationfestival.com/

  • Emily

    A Harsh brand fermenting pot is super handy. It’s ceramic, has stone weights and an inventive water lock rim where the top goes. This allows air (CO2 from the fermenting) out but no air back in. This prevents that white scum from forming on the top of the brine that you need to skim off. Timing can be a bit tricky depending on the time of year and the amount of salt you use. The warmer it is the faster it ferments, the colder the slower. The more salt, the slower it ferments, the less salt the faster. There is so so so much conflicting information out there regarding the amount of salt to use and some people reference it in weight, some in volume..it makes no sense. I was told by a totally amazing local pickled place in Berkeley called “cultured” that a good rule of thumb is 2% salt in weight of the total weight of vegetables. I’ve done pretty good with this. About 4 weeks seems to be good in our mild Bay Area climate. I’ve done several successful and several unsuccessful batches. Actual cucumber pickles are tough as they get mushy really quickly. I’d love tips!!! Also, a digital food scale is really handy so that you have a better idea of the amount of salt and veges you’d working with. Take good notes too so you can try better or do just as good next time. It’s a fun adventure that is totally worth it. And what’s great is that most unpasturized kraut costs about $8 for 12 oz container and you can spend the same money can make about 2 gallons worth!

    • Fifty

      I agree, Emily, a good post. Some salt problems, but it does work. Know your climate and your storage place, and experiment (we have a daylight basement). Fermenting pots are available on many websites, compare price. They’re expensive, $100 a 10 kilo pot (mine) – don’t pay $150. But they work GREAT (the airlock thing makes it). I got local cabbages at the local natural foods store, and made fine kraut. A side benefit was that our kids (13 and 15) were interested in it.

      Another positive is that this works in your ‘burb bungalow, as long as you have a cabbage source and a relatively cool place. I’d also recommend buying the smallest pot you think you need. They’re really heavy (I mean really heavy), and cost a lot. I wish I’d bought the 7.5 liter size. They don’t look big, but hold a lot. I plan to buy a smaller one.

      If you buy a used crock, inspect it personally before buying. Lots of old crocks are out there with cracks – which make them unusable.

      I’d also recommend using an electric meat slicer if you have one (looks kind of like a circular saw with a small table for the sliced food). It made cutting up the cabbage a (comparative) breeze.

      Haven’t tried cucumber pickles, yet.

  • Belinda @zomppa

    And fermented bean curd! Great piece – thanks for placing attention on the benefits on fermented foods. Foods become so much more complex in flavor.

  • meezermom

    Another great article! My grandfather used to make sauerkraut in a large crock using a wooden disc which fit perfectly inside the crock to press down the cabbage while it was fermenting. I was fortunate enough to inherit the crock, but not the wooden disc. (He used to make root beer in it too) I’ve always wanted to try to make my own sauerkraut. I love the idea of doing this in a Mason jar rather than the huge unsealed crock. Thanks much I can’t wait to give this a try!

    Oh my – I never wash my cast iron pan. I’m obsessive about my cast iron – to me washing one is sacrilege. IMHO the little ridges you see when you get a new one are intended to fill and form a ‘patina’ which flavors the pan. I wipe out excess food after each use with a paper towel, or a soft cloth these days as I’m trying to avoid using as much paper as possible. Then I burn my pan by turning up the flame on my stove top and adding just a bit of vegetable oil. Once everything in the pan is burned black, I turn off the heat. When the pan is cool enough I wipe out the excess oil. My favorite pan is over 35 years old and has never been washed – nor has it ever made anyone sick. This is one of the reasons these pans are the best for taking on camping trips – they don’t need to be washed – just sterilized by fire.

    • Fifty

      Harsh crocks (and other brands) are sealed by an ingenious airlock. The lid sits in an elevated (on both sides) rim. The rim basin is filled with water, and the the lid edge fits neatly into this rim basin. So no air gets into the fermenting crock, other than what’s already there. Also, there’s a heavy disc included, fitted to the size of the crock’s interior. This disc presses the cabbage.

      One has to be disciplined, and careful, not to open the crock lid before it’s time, to not let in air.

  • http://twitter.com/TheFebrileMuse CMDoran

    Thanks for writing Michelle. I know that a lot of people eat raw cheese and drink raw milk and fermented foods….perhaps you could comment on a later post about how to keep it safe…..I don’t want anyone with botulism or brucellosis or camplylobacter….there are dangers [like in anything] if not done right.

  • sandalsgirl

    I love to make curried Indian pickles which are fermented without vinegar. My favorite is lime pickle which is mostly just limes salt and cayenne (Maybe garlic too, I don’t remember) It’s been a few years since I’ve made any but perhaps I’ll pick it back up. There’s a ton of Indian pickle recipes online.

  • Alex

    I make sauerkraut by putting cabbage through my Champion juicer with the blank in. Basically I grind it, and then leave it on the counter with a weighted top for maybe 5 days, and it is sauerkraut. Zero ingredients other than cabbage. I’ve added beets though. Super easy. Not crunchy, but quick easy and ALIVE.

  • Annette

    There’s a huge cliché about bacteria: a great majority of them are beneficial (or at least, indifferent) to us. Those that are baddies and even lethal are just a few of them, even if quite nasty.
    Without bacteria we would not be able to survive in this planet, in the first place!

    Recent scientific studies show that children that grow in traditional farm atmospheres are less prone to develop allergies and certain illnesses. The mechanisms are still poorly understood, but it’s related to the contact with many microorganisms in ther early years. So growing up in a sterilized bubble may not be good for you, after all…

    As for bacteria- fermented food, I love yogurt and sauerkraut.

    I love non pasteurized cheeses too.

    Once I asked a gourmet cheese seller in Barcelona why there were not so many good cheeses from Germany. He answered that it was due to their “too strict” hygiene regulations!!

    • http://twitter.com/cookingwithjane jane casey

      Yum. Everything looks amazing!

  • Nancy

    Love this! I am gathering up my supplies to make my own sauerkraut. I pass this blog along to whomever will listen to me.

  • Juliana

    Great post Michelle. I remember back home, our tub was in the kitchen, and in the fall it would always be filled with shredded cabbage and raw cranberries, and we kids would get in and jump around on it with our bare feet to get the juices flowing. Then my grandmother would put it away and we were set for the winter, and could get clean again.

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

      Love that use of child labor!!

  • Anonymous

    I see another comment about raw, unpasteurized apple cider vinegar & was wondering if the negative info in the article applies to it as well? It’s the only kind I use – I realise that distilled vinegar is dead, but what about raw vinegar?

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

      I too use the raw cider vinegar (Braggs) for making dressing (which itself is a fermented food) and I do believe it has all sorts of good enzymes, proB etc …

      My take is that vinegar (of any kind) however is not ideal for “soaking”/fermenting vegs for a longer period of time (weeks), for the reasons I noted (the high acidity can kill some of the good bacteria). So I would consume it with other foods, as say part of a dressing …

      Do you use it for fermenting or for dressings ?

      • Fifty

        I use apple cider vinegar in my meat chickens water. But it’s store bought Heinz.

        In the (personal use) chicken growing world, some people have a problem with tough meat. I don’t know what really works, but I’ve done everything I’ve ever read to get tender chicken meat. And cider vinegar (1 tablespoon per gallon) is what I routinely use, as one of the things that seems to work.

        We have tender chickens, even after a year in the freezer. Don’t know if it’s this, or the other 3-4 things we do.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TSPRAU2ADO4KHFDP76V3V6XB5I Tom

    It may be there is “too much” sanitization in our society. So many people seen to be allergic to something in the environment, perhaps due to their lack of bacterial intake. (Now, I am only speculating, not stating any kind of facts.) I remember going into our garden to pull carrots or radishes…wiping off the dirt and eating. As long as there was not so much dirt as to effect the taste they were “clean enough”. No one every got sick from those un-sanitized vegatbles.

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

      Couldn’t agree more Tom — in fact the antibacterial soaps, and other extreme anti bacterial measures we go to, only lead to stronger bacteria which we then have to fight with stronger antibiotics when we get sick! It’s simple survival of the fittest – we kill off the weaker bacteria and the next generation break new records!

      There have been several articles and opinions expressed about the fact that kids who grow up on farms, tend to have fewer allergies, and sicknesses than non-farm kids. The speculation is that it’s the exposure to bacteria (via dirt, animals etc) that builds up their defenses.

  • Elaine

    I like this article, because it is true that fermented foods do have nutritional benefits. However, you should have mentioned that a HUGE factor in the fermentation process in the use of fungi. And fungi have many contributing factors to the health benefits of fermented foods.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=738695256 Jess Mahler

    I’m so glad you’ll eat via something after dusting it off from the floor. I kiss my dog before bed! :)

  • Karenkaboom

    I’d like to point out that the food does NOT “reproduce it’s own bacteria”. Bacteria are autonomous- they reproduce on the food.

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

      Yes-thx for clarifying that….

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  • http://twitter.com/asianskinny Callie S

    Great post! I eat kimchee before every meal, and I haven’t been sick in ages. I love Kombucha as well but haven’t felt adventurous enough to make it at home…yet.

  • Anonymous

    It is necessary to protect our food from bacteria. Fermentation is a natural process, the bacteria begin to eat or digest food, while inhibiting the growth of bacteria of putrefaction.

  • Anonymous

    Goods for the products of daily use of bacteria convert carbohydrates or alcohol or organic acids, but those weeks were allowed to swim, the bacteria increase the already high nutritional food, I was particularly interested.

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  • Monty Gamble

    Hi Michelle, I see I am somewhat late to this discussion but hopefully not too late.  I just made my first batch of fermented vegetables over the weekend which included culture starters.  I packed the veggies in wide mouth quart jars.  The fermentation activity was just crazy…. bubbles and bubbly everywhere and even though the jars were sealed tight… the liquid inside seeped out of the jars the first couple of days. My question: there was so much pressure building up that I started opening the lids of the jars every 24 hours to let out excess fluid.  Did I destroy the lacto-fermentation process by letting oxygen in? Thank you for your time in advance.  Monty

    • Monty

      Oh by the way…. the vegetables are still covered in juice.

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

      I would not worry about that at all. I am not a pro at this, so others may want to chime in but given as some people will ferment simply with sustained pressure on the veggies and not in an airtight environment, means that the lack of air does not seem to be essential.

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  • Anonymous

    Such a wonderful article is written on the joy of the bacteria. It is correct that we have to take care about our diet otherwise it will responsible for illness.

  • BarbC

    My daughter-in-law soaks her grains before using, makes her own kombucha (and taught me how and I even grew my own scoby from a bottle of her kombucha after researching the making of the tea and realizing I could probably make that happen and did), kefir and sauerkraut. Her kraut is ever changing as she adds various things to each new batch. The latest batch had some kale and carrots in with the cabbage and was absolutely the BOMB! We swap ideas, knowledge and how-to’s which is just awesome. Love this article, thanks for all the info!