Many Americans can be uncomfortable with the idea of fermented food. The reasons differ -- some say they are turned off by notion of bacteria in their food, while others are uncomfortable with foods they suspect will taste sour, rotten or spoiled. But the reality is quite different: Adding fermented foods to your diet is good for your palette, your body and your pocketbook. They are quite common around the world and come in a variety of flavors.
Fermentation is the process of converting sugars to acids, gases and/or alcohol through use of yeast or bacteria. Odds are, fermented foods (or foods that take advantage of fermentation as part of the cooking process) are already part of your diet. Jenny McGruther, food educator and author of "Nourished Kitchen: Farm-to-Table Recipes for the Traditional Foods Lifestyle" and the website of Nourished Kitchen, says, "Cheese, bread, yogurt, miso, chocolate, wine, beer and kefir are all foods that we commonly consume in which fermentation has played a role." Sandor Katz, author of "The Art of Fermentation" and the Wild Fermentation website, also adds coffee, tea, cured meats, olives, soy sauce, fish sauce, sauerkraut and kimchi to that list.
Fermentation is one of the oldest food preparations known to man, dating back to the Stone Age. Katz explains, "Sauerkraut and kimchi, and all the other variations of fermented vegetables, really are strategies for preserving the harvest to feed people through the rest of the year and deliver to them essential plant-based nutrients that would be otherwise unavailable. So fermentation equals survival in many parts of the world." Similarly, fermentation was used to extend the usable life of milk and meat before refrigeration. Accordingly, fermented foods can still be found in cuisines around the world.
But fermentation is not simply about helping foods last longer. There are several nutritional benefits that result from fermentation. McGruther explains, fermentation releases "various acids and B vitamins like folate and B-12. ... Fermented foods are higher in various micronutrients than their raw counterparts. ... Consuming fermented foods also means that you're consuming beneficial bacteria, which help to populate the digestive tract." Folates are extremely beneficial to women who are considering getting pregnant. And fermented foods naturally contain the same types of beneficial bacteria that are now added to several products to make them healthier.
Many grocery stores now carry a variety of fermented foods, both traditional and exotic, including fermented fruit drinks like kombucha and kvass. But if you would like to try making some fermented foods at home, it is quite easy and inexpensive. Katz suggests starting with fermented vegetables. "You don't need any special equipment or starter cultures. You can just use any jar in your kitchen. And it's intrinsically safe: there has never been a documented case of food poisoning in the United States from fermented vegetables, according to the USDA." Katz says, "All you do is chop up vegetables, lightly salt them or season them and spend a couple of minutes squeezing or pounding them to start breaking down cell walls. The objective is that when you stuff them into a jar, you submerge them in their own juices." If you have previously tried sauerkraut or other fermented vegetables and didn't like them, Katz reminds readers that fermentation changes the texture and taste of the vegetables. Lightly fermented vegetables will be crunchier and milder in flavor, but days later the fermented vegetables will be softer in texture and have a stronger taste. "Let your vegetables ferment for few days at room temperature. After three to four days, refrigerate and start tasting them at intervals to familiarize yourself with the spectrum of flavors."
Alternatively, McGruther suggests making your own yogurt. She says, "You simply need to whisk one-quarter cup of plain yogurt into one quart of milk and let it sit in a warm place in your kitchen for 8 to 12 hours. Then reserve one-quarter cup of that yogurt to make a future batch."
Fermented foods are healthy, inexpensive and a great way to introduce umami flavors into your diet. McGruther says, "Venturing into food fermentation can be challenging or it can seem exotic, but it's very easy to begin." Try a few new foods and you'll see there's nothing to be uncomfortable about or fear.