There are mufti-faceted health benefits of fermentation and even the history and process are facinating. The process is very simple. Mixed with any variety of grated, sliced, or diced vegetables, you simply add salt. Mash and mix well, jar it tightly, leaving 1-2″ space between the veggies and lid, and let it sit for a few days or weeks for the fermentation process to occur. The salt preserves the food initially, keeping bad bacteria out until the lactic acid begins to take over and thereby preserve the food. Lactobacilli are lactic-acid producing bacteria which cover every living surface around us.
The process of lacto-fermentation is cross-cultural and cross-generational (until now when we have lost this type of food in our diets). From Japan’s pickled plums, ume boshi, to Korea’s kimchi, to Europe’s sauerkraut, to India’s pickled chutneys, the practice is wide-spread and has been used for centuries as a method of preservation before the relatively recent incorporation of electrical refrigeration.
Store bought pickles and sauerkraut are no longer fermented, but instead preserved in an acidic solution (usually vinegar and/or other preservatives) and then pasteurized. This detracts from the nutritional content, as well as from the wide-ranging benefits of incorporating healthy living bacteria (flora) into our digestive system.
Fermentation turns the carbohydates in the vegetables into lactic acid. Ingesting this lactic acid makes digestion easier and stimulates proper digestive functioning. It may even increase metabolism. The beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes are very important for digestive health. Not only does the lactic acid enhance digestibility, but it also increases vitamin levels. Fermented foods have powerful medicinal properties and can potentially cure a range of maladies, such as arthritis, diabetes, indigestion and cancer. These fermented foods contain anti-carcinogenic and antibiotic substances.
So why have we lost touch with such a richly nutritious food? Partly, this is due to the difficulty this process poses for industrialized techniques. The process can’t be done in huge quantities and the results are necessarily variable. Some consider this to be more of an artisanal craft than a strict science.
The fear of bacteria in our culture is partly to blame. Unfortunately, in ridding of all the bad, toxic bacteria, we have also rid of all the good bacteria and thereby created weakened systems, whether that be digestive or even the functioning of our bodies as a whole.
Increased ability to preserve things through refrigeration and chemical preservatives has likely had an impact on the loss of this technique, as well.
Kombucha is a fermented tea that has a certain culture or bacteria strain, referred to as the “mother.” Add sweetened, room temperature, black tea to the culture, wait 1-2 weeks and the product is ready. The bacteria grows to cover the surface area of the tea, allowing for the anaerobic fermentation process to take place. Fermentation takes place in the absence of oxygen, so when fermenting things such as sliced cabbage (sauerkraut), it is important to just barely cover the top with water, making sure the fruits or vegetables are submerged in the liquid.
Here is a great fermented cabbage recipe using salt, cabbage and other veggies and spices:
In addition to sauerkraut and kombucha, there are endless other possibilities to try, such as fermented salsa, fermented bean dip, fermented pickles and fermented jams.
One great book to learn more about the process, recipes and health benefits of fermentation is “Nourishing Traditions,” by Sally Fallon. Fermentation is but one of many topics discussed in her book with recipes included. She is often referenced on internet sites promoting the benefits of lacto-fermentation. Some other sites with recipes and information include:
The possibilities are endless, the process is very simple once you understand it, and the health benefits are unbeatable! You will surely be satisfied by the complex flavor profiles, as well as the numerous long term health benefits.