By Joanne Camas
There are plenty of high-tech ways to be healthy, but some ancient simple practices remain relevant and effective. Cases in point? Bone broth has been all the rage, and fermentation is enjoying a fresh moment in the spotlight yet again. Though it’s trending now, fermentation actually dates back to 6,000 B.C. and has been used in cultures around the world.
“Ancient or pre-industrial methods in many areas of life can still be beneficial today as they are low-tech, energy-saving, and more natural,” says Kyla Titus, founder of fermented-cabbage company Cabbage Cove and author of Secrets From the Cabbage Cove. “People for thousands of years have made fermented food because of the great flavor, but mostly because of the way it made them feel—energized, healthy, stronger, and resistant to disease.”
Titus notes that fermentation methods haven’t changed much over time. “Fermentation is a biological process that occurs when the right conditions are created for the overgrowth of certain beneficial bacteria,” she explains.
At the heart of fermentation’s lasting power is the all-important flavor-healthfulness combo, says Austin Durant, founder and chief fermentation officer of Fermenters Club. “I believe that humans have an innate affinity for these types of foods as if our bodies have a ‘knowing’ that it’s good for us. Our tasting sense of ‘sour’ probably originated this way.”
Fermentation owes some of its resurgence in popularity to a more recent scientific interest in gut health and probiotics, especially now that researchers are discovering all the ways our microbiomes affect our overall wellness. The health and diversity bacteria in the gut is directly connected to immunity, metabolism, digestion, and even mood.
“The human gut harbors a vast number of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, archaea, and fungi. Each of us hosts 10 times as many microbial cells for each human cell,” British Gut reports.“The composition of the microbiota has been correlated with, and may play an important role in, a range of diseases and conditions,” the researchers explain. “These are as diverse as autoimmunity, IBS, allergies, diabetes, and obesity.” No wonder there’s a greater variety of fermented items on store shelves, such as yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, and miso.
“I feel my digestion and my overall mood have improved since incorporating fermented foods into my diet,” Durant says. “I think it has also reduced my cravings for some of the more indulgent foods like sugary snacks and alcohol. And when I do stray, my body bounces back a bit more.”
One of the best sources of probiotics, besides a supplement such as Biohm? “The home kitchen, freshly made and used every day,” Titus advises. “It takes a while to build up a decent colony, especially if there is ill health or overuse of antibiotics, but gradually, over time, people will experience for themselves a noticeable change in their health for the better.”
So how does a novice begin fermenting his or her own foods? “It’s easy to start fermenting veggies,” Durant says. “If you can mix salt and water, you’re halfway there. The most drop-dead-simple recipe is fermented carrots or beans.” Here, Durant’s simple starter recipe:
- Cut 2-3 medium carrots into pieces 5 or 6 inches long pieces, then into halves or quarters.
- Top a jalapeño, quarter lengthwise, and remove seeds and membrane.
- Pack all veggies tightly into a jar.
- Dissolve 1½ teaspoons salt into 2 cups filtered water to make a brine.
- Pour brine into jar; add a small weight such as a plastic zip-top bag filled with water on top of the jar to keep veggies submerged.
- Wrap jar and weight with a dish towel and rubber band.
- Let sit on the counter at room temperature for 5 to 14 days.
- Remove weight, add jar lid, and move to the refrigerator when you like the taste and texture. This will keep in the fridge for several months.
He also recommends a recipe using cabbage. “You don’t even need water because it makes its own brine.” Brine is a key factor in fermentation. As long as you keep what’s fermenting submerged in liquid, very little can go wrong.
Full disclosure: What can go wrong does sound nasty. “Fermenting veggies can attract mold and yeasts on the surface of the container,” Durant explains. “But there’s no need to throw the whole thing out! Simply wipe, scoop and scrape off the top layer. Do your best—you won’t catch every last yeast cell, but stir it up and it will kill any residual mold or yeast in the acidic brine.”
And there’s also the important matter of your salt balance, says Durant. “Too little, and you may attract bad (putrefying) bacteria and molds. It won’t smell sour, but rotten.” On the other hand, he says, “Too much salt acts as a microbial inhibitor, and it may never ferment or will take much longer than expected.”
Temperature is also crucial. “If a ferment dries out, it can also collect mold and yeast,” Durant explains. “Or if the room temperature is too warm (more than 85F), then molds and other putrefying microbes can take hold and dominate the helpful fermenting microbes, creating mushy or rotten ferments.” And nobody wants that.
Titus, whose business is cabbage, also has a few tips to share with people just starting out: “One of the distinctions between my fermented cabbage and others is that I chop my cabbage very finely,” she explains. “This makes my product a kind of ‘living’ salsa —a consistency that a majority of people prefer to shredded sauerkraut, for example.” She suggests serving this salsa with chips as a snack or putting a spoonful on a green salad. Other options: “Mix with mashed avocado for an instant guacamole or with diced chicken or tuna fish and add a little mayo for a fast chicken or tuna salad.”