They’re Alive! Fermented Foods, Part 2
In our Fermented Foods, Part 1 post, we talked about what fermented foods are, reviewed a little bit of the science behind them, and discussed what some of the research says about their health benefits. Now let’s talk in more detail about some familiar—and perhaps not-so-familiar—fermented foods, and go over some great ways to add more of them to your diet.
Dairy Products: Yogurt and Kefir
You probably already recognize yogurt as a fermented milk product, but one of the fastest-rising stars on the scene is kefir. Usually sold as a plain or flavored drink, kefir has a similar tartness but a thinner consistency compared to yogurt. It also has as much as three times more live active cultures than yogurt since it is fermented with both bacteria and yeasts (the latter gives kefir a unique carbonation and small amount of alcohol, which is usually removed in commercial kefir). Both yogurt and kefir are good sources of probiotics, calcium, and protein, and can usually be well-tolerated by people with lactose intolerance. But kefir has the nutritional edge, with more live cultures, B vitamins, phosphorus, and other functional properties that are increasingly being linked to improved health outcomes.
Wine and beer may be the most classic examples of fermented beverages, but there are many others that people around the world have been making and drinking for centuries. Kombucha is gaining popularity as the mother of fermented drinks for many health-conscious people. The process of fermenting sweet tea with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts (a.k.a., a “SCOBY” or “mother”) yields a slightly carbonated, acidic, and refreshing probiotic beverage that is relatively low in calories and sugar and contains high levels of B vitamins. While clinical studies of the health effects on humans are lacking, anecdotal evidence and animal studies suggest that kombucha may have powerful immune- and energy-boosting effects and digestive health benefits.
Vegetables: Pickles, Sauerkraut, and Kimchi
If soured milk products or kombucha scoby don’t strike your fancy, perhaps you would be more inclined to stick with the humble pickle or other traditional fermented vegetable dishes such as sauerkraut and its spicy Korean counterpart, kimchi.
An important clarification: not all fermented foods are pickled and not all pickles are fermented. Keep this in mind when you’re shopping and seeing manufactured versions of traditionally fermented foods that are heat processed and pasteurized—and devoid of virtually all nutrients and health-promoting properties. Ketchup, for example, a formerly fermented and universal condiment of the ancient world, lost any of its original benefits with large-scale production and the addition of high fructose corn syrup. Homemade or carefully selected fermented vegetables offer a far superior probiotic, enzymatic, and nutritional bang for your buck.
Soy Products: Miso and Tempeh
Fermented soy products, such as miso, tempeh, natto, and soy sauce, are all foods used regularly in Asian cuisines. Miso, a umami-packed paste that can be added to soups or stir-fries, contains many essential minerals and phytonutrients for an added health boost. Tempeh is another fermented soy product that is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. market as an inexpensive meat alternative since it is a complete protein and texturally comparable. Fermentation increases the digestibility of and nutrient absorption from soy, and it’s best to choose certified organic soy products when possible.
Adding More Fermented Foods to Your Diet
Hopefully you have been convinced that fermented foods are quite literally alive with compelling health benefits. Ready to get them into your tummy? The key is to eat a small portion of them on a regular basis so you’re constantly feeding your system with all those beneficial bacteria.
Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Pour kefir over cereal instead of milk, or add it to fruit smoothies.
- Try swapping meat for tempeh in a dish each week, such as tempeh tacos or in an Asian stir-fry with veggies.
- Look for naturally fermented vegetables and condiments in the refrigerated section of your grocery store or at your local farmers’ market.
- Make your own! Find recipes online or in books like The Art of Fermentation or Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, or Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.
A different take on the traditional sauerkraut, this kraut can be used in all the same ways.
Makes 1 1⁄2 quarts
6 1⁄4 pounds turnips, peeled and thinly sliced
1⁄4 cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon coriander seed, coarsely ground
In a large bowl, toss the turnips with the salt and coriander until evenly dispersed.
Line a large bowl, bucket, or fermenting jar with cheesecloth. Place the salted turnips into the container and cover with cheesecloth. Press the turnips down to obtain a firm, even layer.
Weigh the turnips down with plates, and cover the container loosely with plastic wrap.
Allow the turnip kraut to sit at room temperature for 5 to 6 days. At this point, remove the weights and cloth and make sure the turnips are fully submerged in the liquid they produce.
Continue to ferment for 5 weeks total, occasionally skimming the foam that appears on the surface of the kraut. The turnips will become slightly translucent. Transfer the finished turnip kraut to storage containers and refrigerate until ready to use. Lightly rinse the turnip kraut before using to remove excess salt.
Note: The turnip kraut will keep in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 6 months.
Recipe Source: The CIA’s Preserving book
Article by Allison Righter, MSPH, RD
Allison Righter is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and lecturing instructor of nutrition and food safety in the Culinary Science Department at the CIA.