By VARDA BRANFMAN
Fermentation is a mode of food preparation that will have instant appeal for people who are looking to benefit their health through diet and are adventurous enough to explore beyond the standardized fare served on most people’s tables.
Fermented foods have been around for a few thousand years. Before the age of refrigeration and canning machines, fermentation ensured that a bountiful harvest would provide a food supply for the lean winter months. In addition to its role in food preservation, fermentation also contributes to the production of many popular foods we eat — without most of us even knowing that fermentation was involved.
If you’ve ever had a slice of bread, a bar of chocolate, a carton of yogurt, a glass of beer or wine, a cup of coffee, a wedge of cheese, or an olive (and who hasn’t?), then you’ve already been introduced to this age-old process.
The “Magic” of Fermented Foods
Foods that are naturally fermented, by a process which can take from a few hours to months or even years, never come out exactly the same. A reasonable question you might be asking is: Why is it that one jar of homemade sauerkraut never tastes the same as another jar of sauerkraut if they have exactly the same ingredients?
For those of us who are seasoned fermented food fans and producers, the answer comes quickly to mind: Fermented foods aren’t “cooked” in a controlled environment. Even if the measurements are exact, there are other factors like the surrounding temperature, the natural bacteria in the air, and the amount of “cooking” time. For naturally fermented foods, the “cooking” time means the length of time that the jar and its fermenting contents will be sitting in the cupboard and/or the fridge before you eat it.
The waiting that the ferment does in the cupboard is not the passive waiting you do while standing in line at the bank. The fermented brew hosts an array of healthy bacteria, i.e. probiotics, and enzymes that interact and make things happen inside the jar. Sometimes I imagine them dancing together to the sounds of the carbon dioxide bubbles popping. Or rambunctiously playing together and bouncing off each other like a bunch of nursery school kids.
Whatever you imagine your ferment to be, it’s constantly transforming and growing more complex flavors, as well as more enzymes, vitamins, and minerals. All those zillions of tiny particles of energized life add up to a living ecosystem.
If you are a frustrated magician, research scientist, or food artist, fermenting offers you one of the best ways to be a creative alchemist in the kitchen. For example, one of my most recent experiments was making what’s called “fruit shrubs,” a fermented beverage that combines any fruits and spices that you have on hand. Since the mixtures of fruits — from pineapple to mango, from plum to red grapes, and spices — from star anise to cinnamon stick, are just about endless, your fruit shrubs can be variations and permutations from nature’s cornucopia.
Just make sure you have enough jars of all different sizes to contain the scope of your experimentation. They are needed to process the pickles, krauts, and kimchis, where each one is a unique creation using the magnificently diverse vegetable kingdom with its almost endless combinations providing vigorous flavor for your palate and outstanding benefits for your health.
Sourdough bread is another naturally fermented food that has become popular in recent years. Sourdough baking is definitely an art that employs only three basic ingredients — water, flour and salt, and yet, there are entire bakeries devoted to bringing you the best of sourdough loaves.
With such a fertile subject as our focus, where do we begin?
How Fermentation Works
The process of fermentation requires no particular kind of climate, no cooking, and no outlay of fuel. When it comes to making fermented products, the only requirement is a container and perhaps some salt (or sweetener for drinks like kombucha, which is made from fermented black or green tea). While we use as our containers glass jars of all sizes, ethnic cultures from around the world sometimes do their fermenting in pits dug into the ground.
Preserving fruits and veggies by fermentation relies on the fact that plants are the natural home of certain benign microbes which will flourish in the right conditions, primarily the absence of air. These lactobacilli are plentiful on the surface of all living things and especially thrive in large quantities on leaves and roots of plants growing in or near the ground.
The lactobacilli suppress the growth of other microbes that cause spoilage and disease. They overpower the bad guys by being the first to consume the plant material’s readily metabolized sugars. They also produce a variety of antimicrobial substances, including lactic and other acids, carbon dioxide, and alcohol.
At the same time, these good bacteria leave most of the plant material intact, including its vitamin C, and they also add significant amounts of C and B vitamins. The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented veggies enhances their digestibility while increasing vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous beneficial enzymes, as well as antibiotic and cancer-fighting substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only preserves the fruits and veggies but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.
This natural pickling process also enriches and deepens the flavor and aroma of the fruits and vegetables so that it results in a product that is both healthier and more flavorful. Interestingly enough, the chemical changes in lacto-fermentation are also responsible for turning milk into yogurt, kefir, and cheese and for making other fermented foods, like fermented bean paste, which is a staple of Chinese cooking.
Fermented Foods in Ethnic Cuisines
It’s an age-old practice in ethnic cultures that a modest amount of some raw fermented food is served to help the digestion, especially when the meal is a bit heavy. In Japan, products like miso, soy sauce, and pickles are ubiquitous at every table. In India, they drink a fermented dairy product at practically every meal. In Indonesia, they eat a fermented soy dish called tempeh, and in Korea they eat kimchi, a kind of sauerkraut made from a variety of raw vegetables and spices.
In 2008, when the South Koreans sent their first astronaut into space, three top government research institutes went to work creating a “space kimchi,” since it was unthinkable that kimchi would not be included in the astronaut’s diet. “If a Korean goes to space, kimchi must go there too,” said Kim Sung Soo, a Korean food scientist.
Fermented foods are not only staple fare in these more exotic places far from home. In case you’re wondering which fermented veggies our forefathers were eating during those cold Russian winters, it was probably sauerkraut and pickled herring, washed down by a tall glass of beet kvass, a fermented drink made from raw beets.
Recently, beet kvass has been enjoying a well-deserved comeback. Beets are loaded with nutrients that have a regenerating effect on the body, as many scientific studies are demonstrating. They become a powerful superfood when fermented.
An excellent blood tonic, beet kvass promotes regularity, aids digestion, alkalizes the blood, cleanses the liver, and contributes to the treatment of kidney stones and other ailments. It’s the first fermented beverage I tried making, and it is still my all-time favorite because of its tangy taste, plus its many beneficial properties, the simple method of preparation, and the short waiting time during the fermentation process (two or three days in the summer or a week in the winter) before it’s ready.
Not to be mistaken for borscht, which is also a traditional beverage made from beets, beet kvass relies on the fermentation process for its sweet and sour, gently carbonated flavor. I find it wonderfully refreshing and almost unbeatable as a digestive aid. Drinking a glass or two a day has been one of the best healthy habits I’ve cultivated in recent years.
Sauerkraut and Scurvy
Sauerkraut is another fermented superfood that has been around for a very long time. Early records show that workers on the Great Wall of China were given rations of sauerkraut when fresh fruit was unavailable. Made by fermenting thinly sliced cabbage in its own natural juices, sauerkraut is especially rich in vitamin C and certain B vitamins that are produced as by-products during the fermentation process.
You may already know this story from your high school studies, but it’s worth repeating to fully appreciate the role that humble sauerkraut played in naval history. The disease known as scurvy was responsible for an estimated two million deaths between 1500 and 1800 on sailing ships during long voyages.
Scurvy is caused by extreme vitamin C deficiency. By the middle of the 18th century, it was known that citrus fruits could prevent scurvy, but the problem remained as to how to keep fruits fresh during sailing expeditions that lasted many months and sometimes even years.
When Captain James Cook left England for the South Pacific in 1768, he took along 7,860 pounds of sauerkraut in barrels. After 27 months at sea and 15 days before docking again in England, Captain Cook opened the last barrel and served it to some Portuguese noblemen who had come on board. The kraut in that last barrel was perfectly preserved, but more than that, not one death from scurvy had been reported on Captain Cook’s ship during that whole time. From then on, sauerkraut established its reputation for combating scurvy and became a staple food on all sailing ships.
Why Not Just Eat Pickles From the Store?
An artisan is a person skilled in an applied art, and when something is called “artisanal,” it means that it is a distinctive product made in small quantities, usually by hand or using traditional methods. Lacto-fermentation is an artisanal craft that does not lend itself to industrialization. As we already know, the results are not always predictable and the products are not standardized.
When the pickling process became industrialized, many changes were made that caused the final product to be more uniform and commercially viable, but at the expense of nutritional value. In most commercial products, vinegar is used for the brine, which results in a more acidic product, while pasteurization effectively kills all those great probiotics with their lactic acid-producing bacteria. The elevated temperatures and pressure involved in manufacturing destroys the nutrients that would otherwise be cultivated during the fermentation process.
Most pickles on the supermarket shelves are not produced through fermentation and do not give us the probiotic and enzymatic value of homemade fermented veggies. If you’re looking for naturally fermented veggies, you will probably only find them in certain health food or specialty stores.
When you keep in mind that a two-ounce serving of naturally fermented sauerkraut contains more probiotics than a whole bottle of expensive, high-potency probiotic supplements, you just might be inspired to get out your chopping board and knife and start slicing that cabbage for your own homemade sauerkraut.
The Gut/Brain Connection
Fermented foods may affect our neurological health as well. On our skin, in our gums, but mainly in our gut live 100 trillion organisms which together comprise what’s called our “microbiome.” Only recently have researchers been able to study these organisms using modern scientific tools, and they have made a startling discovery.
It turns out that the gut and the brain are constantly communicating back and forth through neurotransmitters that the microbiome releases as it “speaks” to the brain via the vagus nerve. This nerve is the longest and most complex of the 12 pairs of cranial nerves that emanate from the brain, and it reaches from the neck all the way down into the abdomen.
Not only do the gut and the brain communicate through the nervous system, but they also converse through hormones and the immune system, and keep in mind that around 80 percent of the immune system is located in the gut.
The gut/brain connection has opened up new ways to think about diseases. Medical researchers who are studying depressive symptoms, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, autism, multiple sclerosis, pain, anxiety, learning disabilities, and other “neuro” conditions are starting to look at what is going on in patients’ digestive systems. At the same time, medical researchers in the treatment of digestive issues now have a reason to focus on aspects of brain functioning.
Although it is only recently that scientists have been able to prove the connection between the microbiome and brain function, this hypothesis was made 200 years ago by the French psychiatrist Phillipe Pinel, who is known as the father of modern psychiatry. After working with mental patients for many years, he concluded: “The primary seat of insanity generally is in the region of the stomach and intestines.” However, long before Dr. Pinel’s pronouncement, Hippocrates, who is known as the father of modern medicine, declared: “All diseases begin in the gut!”
One of the modern-day pioneers in bringing attention to the gut/brain connection is Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, who developed the GAPS nutritional protocol (Gut and Psychology Syndrome/Gut and Physiology Syndrome). She maintains that any child or adult with a learning disability or neurological or psychiatric problems should be thoroughly examined for gut dysbiosis, which means an overabundance of the bad guys — those harmful bacteria, parasites, and yeasts that can unfortunately take up residence in the gut. Re-establishing a healthy balance in the gut flora and treating the digestive system of the patient is the number-one priority in the GAPS protocol, and daily consumption of fermented foods is a key component of the program.
For a balanced perspective, I went looking for opponents of the gut/brain research findings. Surely I could find some doctors or other experts who deny that there is any significant connection between these two organs of the human body. In the end, I couldn’t find any dissenting voices. Everywhere in mainstream publications such as the one from Harvard Medical School, articles are being published which support the gut/brain connection.
Dr. Jay Pasricha is the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Neurogastroenterology, whose research on the enteric nervous system (located in the gut) has attracted international attention. Dr. Pasricha points out: “The enteric nervous system doesn’t seem capable of thought as we know it, but it communicates back and forth with our big brain — with profound results.” The article about his research goes on to say: “Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this ‘brain in your gut’ is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health, and even the way you think.”
The Taste Test
Okay, it’s pretty much agreed that fermented foods improve your gut bacteria, and now that the gut/brain connection has been established, they can be having a positive effect on your brain function. However, with all their wonderful nutritional benefits, if these foods were unpalatable, only a few brave souls would hold their nose and take a swallow. But that is far from true.
A loaf of naturally fermented sourdough bread has rich taste and aroma that beats out any yeasted bread competitors. Sauerkraut achieves a succulent gourmet bouquet that even the best coleslaw never has. If the fermented condiment known as kimchi, with all its savory flavors, weren’t so tasty, the average South Korean would not be eating a quart of it every week.
Your first foray into fermented foods can start with an item which most appeals to you. You can purchase your loaf of sourdough bread or jar of naturally fermented sauerkraut at a health food store or bakery, and if you find yourself enjoying the taste and the digestive benefits, then you might take the next step and learn about how to “cook up” those ferments in your own kitchen. There are numerous books and videos designed for beginners.
Fermented foods are an acquired taste, but once acquired, you might just get hooked — as I did.