What is fermentation?
Fermentation is a natural process that foods and beverages undergo when they are left to their own devices. We humans can use this process to our advantage by controlling the fermentation conditions to produce edible and delicious foods and beverages. You can buy many fermented products in the grocery store, but they are often shockingly expensive. Fermentation is fun to do at home, and you will end up with something flavorful and unique. Yeast and bacteria that are always naturally present in the air contribute to this process. Every environment has its own unique mix of microscopic organisms, so fermented foods made the same way in two different states (or even different houses) will have slightly different tastes.
You have most likely eaten fermented food even if you didn’t realize it. If you enjoy chocolate, coffee, cheese, olives, beer, wine, or any alcohol, you are enjoying the results of fermentation. Coffee (most coffee), chocolate, and olives all need to go through fermentation at the beginning of processing; cheese is fermented, and alcohol is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process.
We love refrigeration in our society, and it’s very useful. But some people are so reliant on cold temperatures to preserve food that the idea of leaving something sitting out on the counter for weeks before eating it terrifies them. If you keep in mind that the common foods and beverages listed above have all gone through fermentation, and that fermentation was one of the main ways to preserve food in the past, the idea may not seem so scary.
Why do we need fermented foods?
Fermented foods are easier to digest. If left uncooked, they provide beneficial probiotic bacteria, which help to balance the microbiome in our bodies. Our gut bacteria play a role in many processes, and it is very important to keep that system balanced and healthy. Did you know that our gut bacteria actually influence our thoughts and emotions? A large amount of serotonin, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, is produced in the digestive tract. Having healthy gut bacteria is also important to digestion. Vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are absorbed during digestion, and nutrient deficiencies can occur when this system is not functioning well.
What can you ferment at home?
The possibilities are endless! Sauerkraut, sourdough bread, pickles, kimchi, kombucha, beer, tempeh, yogurt, cheese…these can all be made at home. Almost any fruit or vegetable can be fermented successfully, alone or in combination. Some projects are easier than others; some are one-time creations, and others are ongoing. Kombucha, for example, is an ongoing fermentation. It uses a mother culture called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast): a spongy disc that grows every time it is used to make a new batch of kombucha. Pieces can be sliced off the SCOBY and given away, and it will continue to live on as long as it is cared for. Fermenting kombucha is more like doing a science experiment than preparing food. This would be a good project for someone who loves store-bought kombucha but wants to create their own flavors or use lower amounts of sugar.
Sauerkraut is a great one to start with. It’s cheap, easy, hard to mess up, and very low maintenance. See this article on our blog for step-by-step instructions on how to make crunchy, tangy sauerkraut at home.
Fermented foods are a fun and easy way to improve your gut bacteria and support overall wellness. Sample different fermented foods from the grocery store or farmers’ market, and then look online for instructions on how to make your favorite one at home.