As homesteaders we have canned, frozen, dried, and smoked a lot of food. However, many of us have not yet tried the ancient art of fermentation. That is a shame because not only is fermenting foods at home easy and fun, it is one of the best nutritional therapies you can do on your own. Of course, it is easy to see why fermenting foods was—and is—popular in cultures where refrigeration and fuel for cooking is at a premium. But why would we be interested in fermenting food?
Fermentation has several benefits. First, fermented foods increase probiotics (good bacteria) in your gut. Research has proven how a good balance between good and bad bacteria in your digestive tract is the foundation for physical, mental, and emotional health. Mice that were lacking in probiotics behave differently than normal mice, engaging in high-risk behavior. This behavior came with neurochemical changes in the brain. Your gut is actually your “second brain”, producing more serotonin than your brain produces.
Fermented foods also benefit your immune system. An estimated 80% of your immune system is in your digestive tract. Probiotics have been found to help your genes act in a positive, disease-fighting manner.
Fermentation increases the number of nutrients we are able to absorb—especially B and K vitamins. Compounds, natural or synthetic, that interfere with nutrient absorption are called anti-nutrients. Anti-nutrients are destroyed by fermentation.
Research has also shown that the bacteria in the digestive tract of diabetics is different than in the tract of non-diabetics. Type 2 diabetes is linked to changes in the microbiota of the intestines.
Fermented foods are a cost-effective technique for detoxification. The bacteria is able to pull out a wide range of heavy metals and toxins. Adding fermented foods to your diet can add 100 times more probiotics than a supplement. If you vary the fermented and cultured foods you eat, you will get a much wider variety of probiotics than you ever could from a supplement. Another benefit is the way in which fermented foods can assist with weight loss.
“That’s all well and good,” you may be saying, “but what does it taste like?” Fermenting foods does change the taste. It gives it a pleasant sour or tangy taste that compliments other foods. Chances are, you know the taste because you have eaten faux-fermented foods. Sauerkraut, yogurt, and pickles are at the top of the list. Unfortunately, the fermented food you buy at your local grocery store doesn’t have the same benefits. Fermentation is a fairly inconsistent process. Commercial products must adhere to fairly strict standardization. One of the processes used to achieve this standardization is pasteurization. Pasteurization destroys naturally occurring probiotics.
For our first recipe, we will start with kefir, a yogurt-like drink. Kefir alone contains the probiotic Lactobacillus kefir, which inhibits the growth of several harmful strains of bacteria, including Salmonella, Helicobacter Pylori, and E. coli. Kefir made from dairy is an excellent source of calcium. Kefir can actually increase the calcium absorption by bone cells, leading to improved bone density. If kefir is made from full-fat dairy, it is also a great source of vitamin K2, which plays a key role in calcium metabolism.
If you are lactose intolerant, you may be able to tolerate kefir because the lactose has been pre-digested by the lactic-acid bacteria. If using cow’s milk is still a problem, goat’s milk can be used. This milk is often more digestible for people with dairy intolerance.
To make your own kefir, add one to two tablespoons of kefir grains in a glass jar. The more grains you use, the quicker it will culture. Kefir grains can be purchased online or in grocery and health-food stores. Add approximately two cups of milk, leaving a one-inch head-space. Put the lid on and leave, at room temperature, for 12 to 36 hours. When it starts to look clabbered, it is ready. Simply strain off the liquid to drink and put the kefir grains into a clean jar to start your next batch.
Another food that is touted as being good for us is yogurt. The benefits of yogurt, made the way it has traditionally been made throughout time, does have powerful health benefits. It is denser in protein, mineral, and vitamin content than just about any other food. Sadly, most of the yogurt we buy at the grocery store has undergone a very short fermentation process, sometimes fermenting no longer than one hour. They are also high in sugar and have artificial flavorings. The high-quality yogurt is also high in price. Fortunately, you can save money and make a healthier yogurt at home. Best of all, it is one of the easiest things to make so there is no need to be intimidated.
- 3 ½ c. milk, organic and raw or non-homogenized
- 2 T. high-quality yogurt (the label should say “contains live cultures”). After you have made your first batch, you will be able to use it to act as a starter culture for your next batch.
Warm the two tablespoons of yogurt to room temperature before beginning. This will wake up the cultures.
In a medium saucepan, heat the milk until it reaches 180 degrees. This will sterilize the milk. Pour the milk into a large bowl and cool to 110 degrees. Once it reaches 110 degrees, add your starter yogurt and stir thoroughly. Pour into a quart-sized mason jar, cover, and place in a warm location. The ideal temperature is between 95 and 100 degrees. I like to put mine in the oven with the pilot light on and the door open. Keep warm for 12 to 24 hours before storing in the refrigerator.
Now, we will move on to vegetables and fruit. If you are new to fermentation, radishes are the easiest place to start. Not only are fermented radishes delicious, they offer a double health benefit. Fermentation will produce natural probiotics and radishes are a natural prebiotic. Radishes are high in magnesium, vitamin C, calcium, folate, and vitamin B6. It is a great way to preserve radishes from your garden, but, if you didn’t plant radishes, this recipe is well worth buying some. Because you are not going to peel them, organic radishes are recommended.
- 2 small bunches of radish bulbs (about 8 oz.)
- ¾ t. coarse salt
- ½ c. filtered water
Wash the radishes and cut off any soft or unattractive parts. Do not peel. Trim the ends and slice into uniform discs. Place radish rounds in a wide-mouthed pint jar.
Mix salt in water until the salt is dissolved. Pour this brine over the radishes, leaving at least a half-inch head-space. Make certain all of the radishes are submerged. You may have to use some kind of weight (check Amazon, Etsy, or get creative) or a smaller jar filled with water to hold the radishes under the brine. Cover with a clean cloth and secure with a rubber band. Leave at room temperature for six days to two weeks. Once you are satisfied with the taste, store in the refrigerator.
Fermented Winter Veggies
- Kale and broccoli leaves, washed, rib removed, and chopped into thin slices
- 6 to 8 turnips, washed, trimmed, and grated
- coarse salt
- filtered water
This is a general outline of a recipe, and the measurements depend on how much produce you have on hand.
Put your prepared greens in a large container. In a separate container, dissolve salt in water. You need enough water to cover the amount of greens you are using. For every quart of water, you will add one tablespoon of salt. Stir until salt is dissolved. Pour this brine over your greens and let soak overnight.
Strain the produce, reserving the brine. Mix the grated turnips into your greens. Stuff vegetable mixture into widemouthed quart jars. With your fist or a wooden spoon, compress vegetables as tightly as you can. Pour the brine over the vegetables, submerging completely. Cover with a cloth or coffee filter and secure with a rubber band. Leave at room temperature for seven to fourteen days. Once it is ready—and you can only tell by tasting—transfer to the refrigerator.
Preserved lemons are an amazing compliment to almost every dish you can think of. They are salty and sour, but the sourness is mellowed through fermentation. Shop online and you can buy a jar of these lemons for $15… or, just make them at home. These will last up to two years at room temperature, but their flavor will continue to change over time. When you really like the way they taste, move them to the refrigerator for long-term storage.
- 2 ½ lb. organic lemons (I have also used key limes as well as kumquats, both with great results)
- ¼ c. unrefined sea salt
- filtered water
Trim the ends off of your lemons and mostly-quarter, leaving them intact at the bottom.
Sprinkle the inside of each lemon with salt. Layer the lemons into your widemouthed glass jar. You want to have a layer of lemons and a sprinkle of salt. Mash each lemon layer until they release their juices, sprinkle with salt, and repeat. Continue until your jar is almost full. Add filtered water to ensure the lemons are submerged. Cover and leave at room temperature three to four weeks before tasting.
Another fun thing to ferment are herbs. Herbs ferment quickly, so you will be able to enjoy the fruit of your labor in no time at all. These recipes are gently adapted from the February 2015 issue of Herb Quarterly. For more fermented herb ideas and recipes, it is an excellent resource.
Fermented Herb Paste
This adds a ton of flavor to pastas and salsas. It is also nice spread on crackers.
- ¼ lb. fresh herbs, stems removed, washed and dried
- ¼ t. coarse salt
Put the herbs in a blender or food processor and pulse until it is a thick paste. Add salt and mix thoroughly.
Transfer the paste to a small glass container and pack it down tightly. Seal and place in a dark cabinet. Check the container every day. If the herbs have expanded, pack them down again.
Perform a taste test in three to four days. Once you are happy with the taste, lay a piece of plastic wrap directly on the paste and store in the refrigerator. Add to foods towards the end of cooking. This paste will last up to two months in the refrigerator.
Fermented Herb Tea
- 4 c. boiling water
- ¼ c. fresh herb leaves, washed
- 3 T. honey
- 3 T. whey
Put herbs in a pitcher. Pour the boiling water over the herbs and steep for fifteen minutes. Strain out the leaves and pour liquid into a quart sized canning jar. Add the honey, mixing well, and let cool to room temperature. Stir in the whey and close the jar.
Place the jar in a cabinet and leave undisturbed for two days. On the second day, add another tablespoon of honey and mix well. Let the tea rest for another day.
Serve this fizzy herbal tea over ice. Leftover tea will keep in the refrigerator for two or three days.
The last recipe I am going to leave you with is something you can start tonight and eat tomorrow morning for breakfast.
Many people suffer from allergies and indigestion stemming from grains, as well as gluten intolerance. Fermenting the grain before eating it can alleviate, even eliminate, these problems. Fermenting the phytic acid–the protective covering around the grain–also enhances the absorption of zinc, calcium, iron, and magnesium.
- 1 c. grain (I like oats or quinoa, but any grain can be used)
- 2 c. warm water
- 1 T. yogurt or kefir
- pinch of sea salt
Pour water over grain. Add yogurt or kefir and a pinch of salt. Soak overnight. Lightly boil in the morning for a delicious and nutritious breakfast.
There you have it—plenty of recipes to get you started experimenting with fermentation. It is fun to think how much control over your health you have in your own kitchen. By using this simple preservation technique you can improve your immune system, increase your metabolism, heal and protect your digestive tract, elevate your mood and brain function, absorb more vitamins and nutrients, and maintain a healthy weight. What’s not to love?