Fermented Food for Beginners
Are you interested in knowing more about fermented foods? In this post we get into the history of fermented food / drink, its role today, and the many health benefits of fermented foods and their probiotic values. We also take a quick look into what is entailed in making your own fermented products at home.
Fermented foods have been experiencing a rise in popularity. Kombucha is making headlines, and ferments such as kvass and rejuvelac also seeing the limelight. If you are interested in what fermented foods are, and why you need them in your diet – read on!
History of Fermented Foods
Humans have been harnessing the preservative power of fermentation to store food and drink for thousands of years. Examples of this are yoghurt, cheese, beer, wine and sauerkraut.
With the advent of chemical preservatives and the industrial revolution, fermented foods fell out of use in the Western world. To the point where the word ‘fermented’ has a negative connotation akin to rotten!
Ironically, ‘fermentation’ is the opposite of rotten or spoiled. A food or drink which has undergone the process of fermentation is naturally in a preserved state. And in some ways is even more nutritious than the original unfermented product.
After falling into disuse for part of the 20th century, fermented foods are now regaining popularity. Where products of fermentation were produced in previous times for making longer term food storage possible, they are now being made and eaten largely for their health boosting probiotic qualities.
Modern research has revealed that the probiotic benefits of fermented foods are enormous. This ties in to many age old beliefs in certain fermented products being able to boost vitality, strength and health.
The Probiotic Content of Fermented Products
Thanks to lab testing and modern methods, scientists have revealed that fermented foods can contain surprising levels of probiotic microbes. In some cases enough to equal taking a whole bottle of over the counter probiotics in one go!
What are Probiotics
Before we go on, let’s take a quick look at what exactly are probiotic microbes, where they come from, and how they ‘get into’ fermented products.
Probiotics are tiny species of bacteria and yeasts which are naturally occurring in nature. They reside on the surfaces of plants, fruits and vegetables. They also line our digestive tracts and are found in high quantities in breast milk.
The Role of Probiotics in the Body
At birth we ingest probiotics from breastmilk. They replicate in the gut and help us to digest new foods. Because they also occur on the surface of plants, fruits and vegetables, we will inadvertently stock up on any new species we encounter by eating these foods.
The probiotic microbes within our digestive systems form a sort of living work force which assist the body to convert and absorb food. They are crucial to the uptake of nutrients, gut health and general digestion.
The probiotic communities within our digestive system also make up about 80% of our immune system. The reason for this is that they protect the body from invasive pathogens which try to enter in and take hold.
These two roles of digestion and protection from disease make the probiotic populations within us absolutely vital to health.
Unfortunately these colonies can be easily damaged by things like wrong eating, chlorinated water, antibiotics, contraceptive pills, artificial sweeteners and other chemicals.
If you wish to know more about what can damage gut microflora – and what to do to rectify this, check out How to Improve Your Gut Health.
Fermented foods can play a major role in boosting these probiotic populations. To the point where they can operate at full power. This is because fermented foods are a concentrated source of the probiotics naturally found in plants and other foods. Let’s take a look at why this is so.
Why Fermented Foods Contain Probiotics
Fermented foods are usually made out of either milk, vegetables, grains or meat. In order to preserve the food the probiotic microbes need to be given conditions in which they can multiply and take over the ferment. Which are also such in which microbes which facilitate decay cannot take hold.
These conditions are either achieved through altering the ph – or simply adding a culture, or both. Cultures are concentrated sources of certain species of probiotic microbes, which will kickstart the fermentation process.
Once the ferment is set up, the probiotic microbes – whether from the culture or those found naturally occuring within the food – colonise the ferment and become in control of the environment to the point that pathogens and microbes responsible for decay cannot enter.
Once the food is fully fermented it is a veritable powerhouse of probiotic bacteria. If you then consume these foods, the probiotic bacteria will pass into your gut, and if needed will take up residence there.
Incorporating Fermented Foods Into Your Diet
If you are thinking of making unpasteurized fermented products part of your diet – then you are probably making an excellent decision. However, there are some guidelines you might want to follow when beginning to eat fermented foods. Particularly if you know you are deficient in probiotics, or you have suffered from something like Candida.
The reason for this caution is something known as a ‘healing Crisis’.
What is a Healing Crisis
If the beneficial probiotic microbes are somewhat low in one’s digestive system, theses low levels can make it possible for pathogenic bacteria to take hold. This can be something like a Candida infection, or even salmonella!
When people repopulate their gut with beneficial bacteria, this can cause any overgrowth of unwanted bacteria (such as Candida Albicans) to die off. Of course undesirable bacteria dying off is a good thing. However this can release toxins into the bloodstream. This in turn can manifest as unpleasant detox symptoms such as rashes, headaches nausea etc.
How to Avoid a Healing Crisis
Fortunately, it can be possible for you to avoid healing crises. A healing crisis only occurs if the repopulation of the gut (and subsequently the release of toxins) is too rapid. High levels of toxins from the dying pathogens will cause unpleasant detox symptoms. However if the repopulation of the gut is a slow process, then the toxin release will be gentler on you and your body.
The way to do this is to start off with ingesting merely a small amount of a fermented food or drink per day. As little as a teaspoon to a tablespoon. If you notice any unpleasant reactions, stop for a day or two and then continue with a further reduced amount.
Slowly increase the amount you consume per day, stopping or decreasing if you start to feel detox symptoms, until you can have as much as you want without adverse results.
If you your probiotic levels are severely low in number and perhaps you have a serious candida infection, then this can be a slow process.
If however on the other hand your gut is in pretty good shape, and probiotic levels are not severely low – then you might find that you can consume regular servings of fermented products straight off the bat with no adverse reactions. This is because there is little or no die off of pathogens.
If you have a case of Candida and are concerned about consuming fermented foods – and kombucha in particulary – then you might be interested in this post Will Drinking Kombucha Help My Candida Or Make It Worse?.
Making Your Own Fermented Products
If you are new to the concept of fermentation -then the idea of making your own fermented products might sound preposterous! However, there are quite a few pros with regards to making your own ferments. Let’s take a look.
Most Fermented Products in Stores are Pasteurized
Frustratingly, it can be difficult for one to find fermented food products in stores which have not been pasteurized. Because products of fermentation are essentially ‘alive’ this means that fermentation can continue at very slow rates after packaging. This can then result in products with varying levels of strength, maturity and flavor. For example kombucha, when bottled, will continue to ferment and become more and more tart if one does not refrigerate it directly after you have bottled it. This creates a problem for the person producing it, because it means that the end user could buy a bottle of kombucha which stood for some days at room temperature in the back of a shop before refrigeration – and is now excessively tart in flavor.
To avoid such issues many companies pasteurize their fermented products. Pasteurization makes their fermented product shelf stable, and guarantees a certain user experience every time.
If however you would rather buy a yoghurt which has probiotics in it than one that always tastes the same – then this can be a little frustrating.
If you are able to make your own fermented products, you will not have to pay inflated prices for things like raw yoghurt, kombucha, kefir etc……
….And here is the best part.
It Is Easy
Making your own basic home ferments is easy. Yes – as with everything new there is stuff to learn, but making fermented products at home is pretty hands off and economical on time. It doesn’t require loads of fancy equipment, or very expensive ingredients.
And not only is it easy – it is also fun!
Which Fermented Foods to Make/Eat
Because there is such a plethora of different types of fermented foods and drinks – one can often become confused trying to decided which ones you should be consuming or making. Below is a short list of fermented foods and drinks, with links to posts about them and guidelines on how to make them.
If you already have a favorite fermented food or drink – say you love kombucha – then it might be a good idea to pick on that for your first ferment to make. The more you enjoy it, the more motivated you will be to make it and consume it – which means ultimately you get more probiotics in, than if you were trying to make and eat a ferment which is not your favorite.
List of Fermented Products you Can Make at Home
There are literally hundreds of cultured foods and drinks which have been made by different cultures in the world. Most of them one can make relatively easily. However not all are well known to Western tastes. Some of the ones from unusual places also call for unusual ingredients! Here is a list of some of the popular ferments which you can make at home with easy to find ingredients. For most of them we have guides on how to make them – so if you are interested just click on the highlighted links.
- Greek yogurt
- Water kefir
- Jun Tea
- Spinach kraut
- Other lacto fermented pickles
- Cultured cream
- Cottage cheese
What You Need to Start Making Ferments at Home
You do not need special gadgets to make ferments. However there are some basic things you might require depending on what kind of ferment you want to make.
A Culture or Starter
For ferments like kombucha, kefir, water kefir and yoghurt you will need a culture or a starter. Cultures are colonies of microbes. Different fermentations are matured by different microbes. So each culture is specific to its ferment.
For something like yoghurt, you merely need a small quantity of an unpasteurized yogurt. This you use to colonise your first batch. From there you can use ‘starter’ yoghurt from each batch to colonise new batches.
Where to Get Cultures
If you know of someone who makes a ferment which you want to try your hand at, you can ask to buy a culture from them. Alternatively there are now numerous places online which sell cultures. Here is a short list of some reputable sources.
The Kombucha Shop
Wells of Health
Happy Herbalist (Etsy)
These places sell a variety of top quality fresh cultures which have not been dehydrated or kept for overly long periods of time so that they become dormant. For more info on these places, check out this post.
For most ferments, you will find that you will need some glass jars, cloths, spoons and other kitchen utensils. For more info on equipment, you can check out our equipment guides for making kefir, kombucha and fermented vegetables.
Besides a culture and some basic brewing items, you will also need ingredients. These will differ with each ferment that your make. Milk for kefir and yoghurt, black tea for kombucha etc. The quality of these ingredients is up to you. However if you need to include water into your ferment – such as with kombucha and water kefir, it is very important that you use pure water. Water which is chemically ‘clean’ and contains chlorine is a no no. The chemicals within the water can harm the microbes in your ferment.
What you can do is purchase filtered water, or buy your own filter. If you have access to clean rain or spring water you could also use that.
For more info on water for fermentation, check out Choosing the Best Water for Your Fermentations and What is the Best Water For Kombucha. If you need information on how to treat chlorinated water to use in ferments, have a look at these posts How to Brew Kombucha from Tap Water and How To Deal With Chlorine In Water for Kombucha.
Fermentation and its products have been one of man’s most useful pieces of ‘natural’ technology. Humans have been harnessing microbes unknowingly for thousands of years in order to preserve food stocks. They were also inadvertently reaping considerable health benefits along the way!
Now modern science has revealed the inner workings of fermentation and its super charged probiotic power. Thanks to solid proof of the benefits of fermented foods, they are now once again making a resurgence in our culture, after having disappeared off of the scene for a generation or two.
Fermented products do not lend themselves well to the average buyers of today who want consistency in the tastes of products. Chemicals provide more shelf stable results and are easier to use on mass.
Therefore at this point it can still be difficult to find unpasteurized fermented foods and drinks in regular stores. This is changing slowly, and more and more places like farmers markets now sell fermented probiotic foods. Although usually of high quality, due to their hand crafted nature, these products can be pricey.
However, the great thing is that fermented foods are simple and easy to make at home. Once you get into the swing of things you will find that there is nothing too daunting or complicated involved. In fact, fermentation can be pretty interesting and a lot of fun!