Believe it or not, the most dangerous appliance in your kitchen is the refrigerator. Not because it omits deadly radiation or undetectable fumes from the motor, but because it has single-handedly taken people away from fermenting foods; a mainstay of life for literally thousands of years.
As far as recorded history tells us, most cultures across the globe fermented foods primarily to preserve them. Just like how we use the refrigerator today, fermentation was a means to keep their fresh vegetables from spoiling. Magnificently, our ancestors were actually manufacturing probiotic-rich SuperFoods and enjoyed healthy, long lives because of their labors. Once again, it just goes to tell us that necessity is the mother of all genius!
(scroll down for an amazingly simple fermented vegetable recipe!)
Whenever bacteria, yeast or other microorganisms chemically breakdown a substance there is typically an effervescence and some heat that are emitted. This is known scientifically as “fermentation,” the process of converting natural sugars to acids, alcohols and gases. (1)
Fermentation is generally an anaerobic process, meaning that it takes place in an environment where oxygen is not present. However, with enough glucose, various yeasts can produce ethanol in the presence of oxygen. This is known as the Crabtree effect. (2)
Dating back to 8,000 B.C., fermentation techniques to make alcoholic beverages and cause bread to rise are as old as the development of agriculture itself. (3) When it comes to beer, wine and baked goods, yeast microbes are used as the fermenting agent. When it comes to fermenting vegetables, bacteria are used and generally include at least one of the “lacto” species:
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Lactobacillus reuteri
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Lactobacillus salivarius
Essentially, as long as they have naturally occurring sugars in them, any vegetable can be chemically broken down through a process known as “lacto-fermentation.”
Because most plants contain at least one of the lactobacillus strains of bacteria, “lacto-fermentation” is simply the fermentation of vegetables caused by one of these species. There are a plethora of books out there and websites on the Internet that specialize in fermentation tips, recipes, and trouble-shooting solutions. If you jump on the fermentation bandwagon, you’ll quickly discover that one or two of these sources will be your best friend in your journey!
One resource that is extremely helpful and cost-effective to get folks up and running is Cultures for Health. This is how they explain the lacto-fermentation process: (4)
Lacto-fermentation really is more art than science. The science part is simple: lactobacillus (from a prepared culture, fresh whey, or just naturally occurring) plus sugar (naturally present in vegetables and fruits), plus a little salt, minus oxygen (anaerobic process), plus time, equal lactic acid fermentation.
- The length of fermentation can vary from a few hours to two months or more.
- The temperature of the room where fermentation occurs will determine the length of time.
- The ideal temperature is around 72°F, but warmer or cooler temperature will still work. (Some strains of bacteria require specific temperature ranges.)
- The length of time is dependent more on the flavor you prefer than anything else and since the flavor level of lacto-fermented vegetables increases with time you will want to sample often until you are experienced enough to know what works for your tastes.
Just keep in mind that you don’t want to introduce a lot of oxygen to the fermentation process as this increases the chance of spoilage. Lacto-fermentation is generally done in an airtight container or a crock with a water seal that prevents air from contaminating the culture. If you have a reliable recipe to follow, you can make minor adjustments as you see fit.
And this final word of advice is so crucial to remember:
The important thing is not to be intimidated by lacto-fermentation. You are not going to make your family sick by giving them home-fermented foods. Unless it smells unmistakably putrid (in which case common sense says throw it away), fermented foods are some of the safest foods you can eat. They are easy for even a beginner to prepare and it doesn’t take long to gain enough confidence to venture beyond basic yogurt or sauerkraut to an endless variety of vegetable and/or fruit combinations.
Americans have become germaphobes and the thought of living with (let alone eating) bacteria is repulsive to us. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth!
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Traditionally known as probiotics, “good” bacteria help protect their host and prevent disease. (5) Instead of taking supplements, our ancestors regularly ate probiotic-rich foods such as: (6)
- Miso soup
- Raw cheese
Closely knit with probiotics, prebiotics are indigestible fibers that literally act as probiotic food.
Some of the most prebiotic-rich foods include: (7)
- Raw chicory root (64.6% prebiotics by weight)
- Raw Jerusalem artichoke (31.5%)
- Raw Dandelion green (24.3%)
- Raw Garlic (17.5%)
- Raw Leek (11.7%)
- Raw Onion (8.6%)
- Cooked Onion (5%)
- Raw Asparagus (5%)
Essentially, without prebiotics, probiotics are unable to flourish and your immune system will be compromised. The reason for this is because:
More than 70 percent of your immune system is housed in your digestive system! (8)
Fermentation and Strong Immunity
Literally trillions of “good” (probiotic) microorganisms compete against the “bad” (pathogenic) microorganisms in a constant battle to keep you alive and well. According to health authorities, “The primary benefit of probiotics and prebiotics appears to be helping you maintain a healthy digestive system.” (9) However, this explanation doesn’t give justice to the significance that pre/probiotics truly deserves.
For example, in the words of Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine & Digestive Center:
“Because 70 percent of the cells that make up the body’s immune system are found in the wall of the gut, what we eat also may affect the body’s immune response.” (2)
Subsequently, if your gut wall is destroyed because of chronic stress, toxic foods, and drugs that destroy your microfloral balance then 70 percent of your immune systems will be affected! This is why pre/probiotics are infinitely more important than what most people believe them to be.
Another key point is that probiotics are also effective at boosting immunity because they are strong anti-inflammatory agents. (3) Arguably the #1 cause of all disease today, this list just touches the tip of the iceberg of health conditions that are caused by chronic inflammation:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Ankylosing Spondylitis
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Celiac Disease
- Dental issues
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal conditions
- Pain conditions
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Thyroid disorders
- Type 2 diabetes
Chronic inflammation literally has the potential of affecting every aspect of our health. (4) And this is why it’s so important to eat pre/probiotic rich foods like homemade fermented veggies like our ancestors did!
Top 5 Vegetables to Ferment
Although there is no hard and fast rule on which vegetables are “the best” to ferment, when you look at the list of prebiotic-rich foods above and the types of foods that our ancestors traditionally fermented, these five typically stand out:
- Garlic & Onions
And when you combine all five, you’re well on your way to creating a tradition dish Koreans have enjoyed for hundreds of years. Kimchi!
Super Easy Kimchi Recipe
- 1 head napa cabbage, shredded
- 1 bell pepper (any color), chopped
- 1 cup radish or carrot matchsticks or combination of the two
- 1 clove of garlic, minced
- 1/2 green onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons finely ground sea salt
- purified water
- Rub sea salt into vegetables and mix in large bowl
- Let them sit for 6 hours to help draw out the juices.
- Pack contents (vegetables and juice) into Mason jar.
- Make sure vegetables are completely submerged by adding water.
- Screw on lid and let sit for 24 hours on the counter
- For the next 7 days “burp” jar every 12 hours by opening up the lid quickly and closing immediately so that air can come in and feed the aerobic bacteria that are fermenting the veggies.
- Let kimchi sit for another 2-3 weeks making sure that enough liquid is covering the vegetables.
Refrigerate after use. Can keep up to several months.
photo credit: osseous August 13, 2016 (license)