In a few weeks I have the pleasure of partaking in a fermented foods culinary class, open to the public, here at Sunrise Springs with our brilliant and lovely Chef, Rocky Durham. Specifically, we will focus on vegetable fermentation by bacteria, not the fermentation of fruit, grains, and honey by yeasts—aka the kingdom of alcoholic drinks.
While black tea is one of the loves of my life, and differs from green tea by fermentation, I have in the past treated the idea of fermenting my own food with a certain unconscious fear of letting food age on my countertop and then eating it. This is a byproduct of the perception of bacteria as contamination, and of a life spent with a refrigerator where food was kept “safe.” This perception is unfortunate! Fermenting vegetables is incredibly safe and the truth is, as I wrote about in the May 2016 blog piece on our gut bacteria, while we may have some foes in the bacterial world, they are, relatively speaking, rare. The larger truth is that we coevolved with bacteria—the first form of life on the planet— and they are essential to our lives. Our gut harbors 100 trillion types of bacteria, and their health determines ours. The art of making food with bacterial cultures began in prehistory, is still done by hand in homes worldwide (it is estimated that 90% of fermented food production is still done at home using traditional methods passed down through generations), and can be a fun, delicious and health-replete way to connect with food, nature, and the bacterial “microcosmos.”
There are fundamental reasons why fermentation has been used by humans. It preserves food from the season of bounty, where harvests may yield too much to promptly eat, through to the scarce winter. The bacteria do several things to preserve food: they acidify the food (by definition, fermentation is the production of acids from carbohydrates, especially lactic acid, by bacteria that are often called lactic acid bacteria), making it inhospitable to disease-producing bacteria; and they produce “bacteriocins” that kill the bad guys as well. Fermented foods have enhanced or more-intense flavor and texture. Traditionally, cultural delicacies were not the fresh foods but rather the fermented foods. Think of sauerkraut compared to cabbage. Fermented foods contain probiotics, defined by the World Health Organization as “live organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” We have evidence for benefits in virtually every realm of health: for the immune system, gastrointestinal health, cardiovascular health, mental health, cancer prevention—the list goes on. Fermented foods modulate the incredibly crucial activity of our gut bacteria. Fermented foods are more digestible, as the bacteria have done some of the breaking down for us, including of so-called “antinutrients” which impair absorption of nutrients. Fermented foods also have antioxidants and nutrients not present or less present in fresh food.
So if you can join us, let’s ferment some food together now or in a future event. If not, consider buying some refrigerated fermented vegetables (not the same as foods pickled in vinegar), or better yet, try making some at home. Other true fermented foods are kimchi, live cultured sauerkraut, tempeh, and yogurt with live cultures. Try to have a little bit every day—traditionally these were not foods to binge on, but rather intensely flavored foods often used as condiments and even small amounts will supply massive numbers of our bacterial friends.