The Alchemy of Fermented Foods

The alimentary magic of microbes
sauerkraut in glass jar on a table
Oksana Shufrych/

The process of fermenting makes a food come, literally, “alive”. Cheese, yogurt, wine, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and pickles are all the end products of a basic ingredient (i.e. milk, grapes, cabbage, soybean, cucumber) that have gone through an extraordinary culinary change thanks to encounters with special microbes in the right conditions to produce a magical transformation.

Fermentation—preserving foods to make them more digestible and nutritious—has been a traditional mainstay of cuisine in most cultures. Kimchi in Korea, pickles in Japan and the Middle East, sauerkraut in Eastern Europe. However, this artisanal “culturing” process all but disappeared from mainstream Western diets. Naturally, there has always been a love of the alcoholic ferments: beer and wine (made with yeast) and cheese and yogurt (made with bacteria), but a taste for some lesser known health-enhancing fermented foods like kimchi and non-alcoholic drinks like kefir and kombucha is finally brewing now—let’s look into why and how to do it!

Probiotics for life!

Literally. Pro- means “for” and -biotic means “life”.

Live, unpasteurized, fermented foods deliver beneficial bacteria (probiotics) straight into our digestive tract to support us in a symbiotic relationship. Beneficial bacteria line our digestive tracts in the millions and help to break down and assimilate our food. They also defend us against pathogenic bacteria, yeast (like candida) and toxins. A balanced gastrointestinal tract well-stocked with “good” bacteria--the microbiome--is critical to the functioning of our immune system. It is also vital to improving digestion and preventing food sensitivities, and key to reducing both inflammation and exposure to toxic substances. In fact, each time we eat a fermented food, the bacteria accompanying it enhances the food’s digestibility and improves its vitamin levels. On top of that, these microbes produce enzymes and substances that are both anticarcinogenic and antibiotic so you are getting immediate benefits as well as stockpiling your digestive tract for future health.

Are “regular” pickles and pasteurization the same as fermented foods?

Unfortunately, no. Lacto-fermentation did not lend itself well to the industrialization process that revolutionized our food landscape many years ago. It is a traditional craft – an artisanal activity that does not produce uniform and predictable results. So when the pickling of vegetables became industrialized, a couple things happened that reduced the nutritional profile of these foods. Vinegar was substituted for the traditional brine and the end product was pasteurized, thus killing the beneficial bacteria. Sadly, aside from their sour, salty taste, dill pickles that you buy on the supermarket shelf bear little resemblance to their “cultured” cousins.

Where have all the good bacteria gone?

Antibiotics, chlorine in our water, eating foods from animals that are fed antibiotics and chemicals like pesticides on our food and, of course, stress all reduce the levels of good bacteria in our digestive systems. If this persists, we get out of balance, and show problems like malabsorption of nutrients and digestive complaints: belly aches, gas, bloating, loose stools or constipation. Imbalance can also create a weakened immune system which means more susceptibility to infections, allergies and food sensitivities, to name a few! Eating fermented foods is a way to keep replenishing your gut with the good bacteria that get diminished daily and it keeps the level of probiotics up if your GI tract isn’t already well-stocked.

The science behind fermented vegetables

Lactic acid-producing bacteria like the species lactobacilli (you have likely heard of the common strain found in probiotic supplemental form: lactobacilli acidophilus) convert the starches and sugars in vegetables into lactic acid. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that lowers the pH and thus inhibits putrefying or harmful bacteria. So not only does lactic acid keep the vegetables, it also reciprocates with its benefactors by promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in our intestines!

Why do you use salt to lacto-ferment vegetables?

Salt inhibits the putrefying bacteria for the several days until enough lactic acid is produced to preserve the vegetables for many months. During the first few days of fermentation, vegetables are kept at room temperature (72 F) and then they are kept in a cool place (40 F or less – root cellar or fridge) for long term preservation.

The joy of fermenting at home

What I love about fermenting foods is that it’s a transformative life process, yet you don’t need a laboratory or fancy equipment. This alchemical science experiment that tastes delicious has been practiced since ancient times and your home kitchen and some glass jars are really all you need once you have your initial ingredients. You can certainly buy fermented foods off the refrigerator shelf of your local health food store and even more mainstream groceries stores are starting to carry them, however, creating fermented foods and drinks at home is a very fun “cultured” activity to do with kids.