Do You Kombucha? The Fuss About Fermented Foods

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Preserved Food In Jars

There’s nothing new about fermenting food. In fact, it may be one of the oldest food preparation techniques around. Long before we were sipping pricy Kombuchas at the local café, our ancestors were using this process as a means of keeping their food from spoiling in age without refrigeration. "Fermentation was one of the earliest forms of food preservation," says Kathie Swift, RDN, author of The Swift Diet (Hudson Street Press, 2014). "Traditional cultures were intentionally fermenting fruits, vegetables and grains well over 10,000 years ago, but they lost popularity when modern conveniences came into use."

Lately, despite our ability to preserve and refrigerate food, fermentation is all the rage again. So what exactly are fermented foods (and beverages)? And why should we make a point of including them in our diets? We asked Swift — a huge fan of fermenting — for some answers.

Can you give a quick definition of fermented food?

It's when the bacteria in the foods break down the sugars into acids, preserving the food and imparting a distinctively salty, tangy flavor.

What are some of the more common fermented foods (maybe ones we’re already eating and don’t know it)?

Sauerkraut — which is fermented cabbage — is probably the best-known and one of the most commonly eaten fermented foods in our culture. Others that are becoming increasingly popular and easy to find include yogurt, kefir, tempeh, miso, and kombucha.

Why are these foods so good for us?

There's been a scientific revolution of sorts in the past few years as more and more research has been done on the so-called 'microbiome' of bacteria that live in our gastrointestinal tracts. When these healthy bacteria are functioning normally and proliferating properly, our digestion flows smoothly. But when our gut bacteria gets out of whack — from taking antibiotics, eating poorly, or being under a lot of stress — it can result in inflammation, heartburn, intestinal issues, bloating and even weight gain. And that's where fermented foods come in. They are packed with good bacteria called probiotics that communicate and interact with our own resident gut bacteria to boost them and help bolster our immune system.

How do you make fermented foods at home?

It’s actually incredibly easy. I recommend starting with fruits and vegetables. And really any kind can be delicious fermented. I love fermenting beets, carrots, green beans, watermelon, citrus peels. You can just experiment with different foods to find ones you like. But the process is basically the same. Take the cut up veggies or fruit, sprinkle in some spices and cover them with a salt water solution (about 2 tsp of salt to a quart jar of water). Pack the food tightly into a mason jar, leaving about an inch free at the top. I sometimes place a daikon radish at the top to keep the other veggies or fruit submerged. Then you seal them up and wait. Check after a few days and let your taste buds decide when it’s ready.

Pink Sauerkraut (from The Swift Diet)
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Fermenting Time: 7 to 14 days
Yield: 12 cups
1 1/2 tablespoons pickling sea salt (this is a fine sea salt)
1 quart water
1 small head of green cabbage, shredded
1 small head of red cabbage, shredded
1 tablespoon caraway seeds

Make a brine by mixing the salt and water in a clean jar.

In a large bowl, combine the cabbage and caraway seeds. Pack the mixture into a separate, 1-quart mason jar. Keep packing the cabbage down using a wooden spoon.

Fill the jar with brine to 1 inch below the rim. Top with a “plug” slightly smaller than the opening of the container to keep the vegetables packed tightly in the jar. (I find a daikon radish work well).

Tighten the lid on the jar, mark the date, and place in a cool area (65 to 70 degrees) and allow to ferment, checking the fermentation progress every 2 days.

To check the fermentation progress: Hold the jar over the sink and carefully open the lid. You may notice expansion of air from the fermentation process. Skim the surface of foam/scum, if necessary. Refill with additional brine to 1 inch below the rim of the jar. Retighten the jar lid and place in a cool area. Continue to check the sauerkraut every other day until you don’t see bubbles rising in the jar, which means the fermentation process is complete. This usually takes between 7 and 14 days.

Store in the refrigerator for up to 6 months.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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