Fermentation is an ancient method of food preservation that makes foods more nutritious and easier to digest. Fermented foods use live cultures of protective microorganisms to naturally inhibit the growth of disease-causing microorganisms. The protective microbes strengthen our microbiome, the collective community of microbes that inhabit our bodies. They outnumber our own cells ten to one and we wouldn’t live long without them. Friendly bacteria manufacture essential nutrients, help digest our food, influence the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, modulate the immune system, break down environmental toxins, help regulate inflammation, and play an important role in appetite, satiety, energy usage, and even the way we accumulate fat.
The modern world of microbiomes
In the modern world, our microbiomes are continuously under siege. Antibiotics designed to kill disease-causing bacteria also kill protective bacteria and a single course can alter the microbiome for up to twelve months.1 Our protective bacteria are also threatened by low-fiber diets, psychological stress, pesticides, fungicides, chlorine, hand sanitizer, and anti-bacterial products like soap, wipes, and household cleaning products.2
One way to compensate for the harmful effects our environment has on our microbiome is to eat fermented foods regularly. As they gain popularity, more and more grocery stores are stocking ferments like pickles, olives, sauerkraut, kimchi, umeboshi, fish sauce, shrimp paste, tamari (soy sauce made from fermented soy beans), and miso (a paste made from fermented soy beans that when stirred into hot water makes a rich and savory broth). Making your own fermented foods is easy and less expensive than buying them, and there are benefits to doing so. Store-bought products may be fermented only briefly and sometimes they have been pasteurized, which kills protective bacteria. The ones you make yourself can be fermented for as long as you like, ensuring a robust amount of live cultures.
Familiarization with Fermentation
Fermentation happens when microorganisms like bacteria transform carbohydrates into carbon dioxide and organic acids in an environment without oxygen. These microbes are present on our bodies, in the air, in the soil where we grow food, and on foods themselves. Once we get the process started by breaking down the plant cell walls, bacteria that are naturally present will finish the job.
Almost any food can be fermented: vegetables, fruits, grains, beans, dairy products, meat, and fish. This basic recipe is for fermenting vegetables and the only other ingredient is salt. You can also add aromatic herbs and spices to tailor it to your own taste. If you like sauerkraut, use green cabbage and caraway seeds. If you like kimchi, use Napa cabbage, chili peppers, ginger, and garlic. If you like mixed vegetables, use cucumbers, carrots, and radishes with lemongrass and cilantro or dill and mustard seeds. The possibilities are endless.
Materials and Ingredients:
- Clean and dry wide-mouth pint size jar(s) or fermentation crock
- Non-starchy vegetables like cabbage (green, red, Napa, Savoy), carrots, string beans, green onions, cucumbers, kohlrabi, radishes, etc.
- Aromatic herbs and spices like ginger, garlic, lemongrass, cilantro, dill, parsley, fresh or dried chili peppers, dried mustard, coriander seeds, dill seed, etc. (optional)
- Clean cotton cloth
- Prepare your vegetables and any fresh aromatic ingredients by chopping or grating them. The more finely you chop, the more surface area will be exposed, and the easier they will be to prepare, but also consider the finished product. If you want your ferment to be like a relish, grate your ingredients. For sauerkraut, thinly slice them. For kimchi, cut them into wide slices. For pickles, cut them into chunks or leave them whole.
- Add your prepared fresh ingredients and any dried ingredients to a large stainless steel bowl with a teaspoon of salt. Use clean or gloved hands to vigorously massage everything together, bruising the fresh ingredients so they soften and give off liquid that will be the brine. The bottom of the clean pint jar makes a great tool for this. It will take 5 minutes or more.
- Once a good amount of brine has developed at the bottom of the bowl and you have vigorously massaged your vegetables for at least 5 minutes, taste it for salt. If you think it’s missing some, add a bit more. Transfer the vegetables and brine to the wide mouth pint jar(s) or crock and pack down the solid ingredients so they are completely covered with the brine. If you are using a crock, place the weight on top of the solid ingredients to keep them submerged. If you are using a wide mouth pint jar, place a clean glass or glass jar with a diameter slightly smaller than the mouth of the pint jar on top of the solid ingredients. If needed, add some water to the empty glass or jar to keep the solid ingredients submerged. Cover everything loosely with a clean cotton cloth and set it aside at room temperature.
- Check your fermented vegetables every day or two. Bubbles will appear. If you taste them you will appreciate how the flavor, texture, and aroma changes as the fermentation progresses. When you like how the vegetables taste—after a few days, weeks, or months—remove the weight, cover the jar tightly, keep it in the fridge, and eat your ferment whenever you want. For the majority of my patients I recommend eating fermented foods every day.
1 Zaura E, Brandt BW, Teixeira de Mattos MJ, Buijs MJ, Caspers MPM, et al. Same Exposure but Two Radically Different Responses to Antibiotics: Resilience of the Salivary Microbiome versus Long-Term Microbial Shifts in Feces. mBio. 2015;6(6):e01693-15. http://mbio.asm.org/content/6/6/e01693-15.full
2 Phillips ML. Gut Reaction: Environmental Effects on the Human Microbiota. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2009;117(5):A198–A205. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2685866/
Image Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_svetazarzamora’>svetazarzamora / 123RF Stock Photo</a>
Sarah Cimperman, ND is the author of the new book, The Prediabetes Detox: A Whole-Body Program to Balance Your Blood Sugar, Increase Energy, and Reduce Sugar Cravings. She graduated from NCNM in 2002 and has a private practice in New York City. Her expertise has been featured on Fox News and Huffington Post and in Natural Health magazine, Whole Living magazine, and the Well Being Journal, among other publications. Dr. Cimperman also writes two blogs, A Different Kind Of Doctor and The Naturopathic Gourmet.