Lacto-fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, are the original superfood.
Here's a rundown of the many ways fermented veggies support robust health and vitality:
- Fermented vegetables are teeming with probiotics, which are critical to the health of our guts. Our microbiome (the collection of bacteria in our intestines) outnumber us 10 to 1. That means that for every lung cell, liver cell, kidney cell and heart cell, etc. there are as many as 10 bacteria living in our guts.
- These beneficial bacteria are mini factories pumping out lots of critical nutrients, immune system modulators, even neurotramsitters! These include serotonin, B vitamins, vitamin K (crucial to keeping bones strong and healthy, and preventing osteoporosis), and short chain fatty acids, which heal and strengthen the gut lining.
- They also contain prebiotics, which is the food that feeds the good bacteria.
- Fermented vegetables contain enzymes, which helps our bodies digest and absorb the nutrients in our food. Every cell in our bodies produces enzymes. The enzymes provided by fermented veggies specifically aid in digestion. Our bodies can produce thes enecessary enzymes, but the process is energy-intensive. When enzymes are provided by the food we eat, we don't need to make as many, saving precious energy for other vital bodily functions.
- The nutrients contained in the vegetables are enhanced and more easily absorbed. Cabbage, for example, is a nutritional powerhouse, but like many cruciferous vegetables can be hard for some people to digest. The process of fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut increases the nutrient profile, especially the amount of Vitamin C, while making it easy to digest, and oh-so-yummy!
What is this magical alchemy that we have come to call lacto-fermentation?
Before there was refrigeration and chemicals to do the preserving for us, salt was used. The salt creates an environment for beneficial bacteria to proliferate while harmful bacteria can't get a toe-hold. Lacto-fermentation is the process of breaking down sugar into lactic acid, a natural preservative. Lactic acid gives fermented veggies their signature sour flavor and aids in digestion. It also helps produce more saliva, which is a crucial first step in the digestive process.
If you take a probiotic supplement every day and think you've got your needs covered, it's important to note the many other benefits of eating fermented vegetables, as listed above. Additionally, probiotic supplements can't come close to matching the diversity of species present in fermented veggies.
So what does it take to work this magic?
Salt, vegetables, a brine, and time. Fermenting is a fun and ideal way to preserve your garden abundance. And kids love making - and eating! - it!
How to choose a starter for fermentation:
There are several different ways to start the fermentation process. Salt, Whey, starter cultures, and brine from a previous batch are great beginnings for your ferments. You can even use finished, unflavored water kefir or kombucha.
The original and simplest method is salt and time. Salt promotes fermentation by inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria, while creating an ideal environment for the growth of Lactobacilli. Lactobacilli give fermented foods their signature tang and sourness, and create lactic acid. Lactic acid is a preservative for the food. Salt also makes for crunchier vegetables. You can add any of the above-mentioned starters along with salt for more biodiversity and different flavors.
⦁ Salt pulls out the moisture in food, denying bacteria the aqueous solution they need to live and grow.
⦁ Salt allows the natural bacteria that exist on the vegetables to do the fermenting. Only the desired salt-tolerant Lactobacilli strains will live and propagate.
⦁ By suppressing the growth of other bacteria and mold, salt provides a slower fermentation process that is perfect for cultured vegetables that are to be stored for longer periods of time.
⦁ Salt hardens the pectins in the vegetables, leaving them crunchy and enhancing the flavor.
⦁ Some starter cultures can be used on their own, without salt. Salt-free ferments, while often more bio-diverse, can result in mushy vegetables and mold. Always follow the instructions included with the freeze-dried starter culture, for best results.
⦁ For a salt-free ferment celery juice or seaweed may be substituted, but they will not prevent a mushy texture.
⦁ Brine from a Previous Ferment: The fermented vegetable juice from a previous batch can be added to a new batch as a starter. Add about ¼ cup brine per quart of vegetables.
⦁ Other Fermented Liquids: Finished, unflavored ⦁ water kefir or kombucha may be used as a starter culture for fermenting vegetables. Add about ¼ cup liquid per quart of vegetables.
MAKING SUBSTITUTIONS IN RECIPES
No matter what the fermented vegetable recipe calls for, substitutions are always possible.
⦁ Any of the starter culture liquids, whey, water kefir, kombucha, or brine from a previous ferment, may be used interchangeably in a recipe.
⦁ In recipes calling for a pre-packaged starter culture, substitute salt only or salt plus a liquid starter culture. Generally speaking, each quart of fermented food requires 1-3 tablespoons of salt and if desired, ¼ cup liquid starter.
Here's one of my favorite recipes:
Luscious Lemon-Dill Sauerkraut
Makes about ½ gallon of kraut
3 lbs savoy cabbage, about 1 medium sized head
½ lb watermelon radish
1 small red onion
3 - 4 tablespoons dried dill
3 - 4 tablespoons sea salt
2 lemons, juiced
Shred the cabbage, watermelon radish and onion using a food processor or sharp knife. Put in a large bowl and sprinkle the salt over the veggies.
Using your (clean!) hands, massage the salt into the veggies until they get juicy. The cabbage should be translucent and have a good amount of juice in the bottom of the bowl.
Add the dill and lemon juice, and mix in well.
Transfer to a half-gallon mason jar or two quart size jars. Pour any liquid in the bowl over the veggies and cover with extra filtered water if necessary. (Chlorine and/or fluoride in the water will kill the beneficial bacteria we want in the ferment.) The veggies must be completely submerged to avoid mold growing on top.
- Cover with a metal lid and let sit 4 - 6 weeks so your microscopic probiotic helpers can work their magic. A longer fermentation time leads to a stronger sour flavor. Try your ferment after 4 weeks and if you like the flavor, transfer to the refrigerator. If you like the flavor stronger, leave out for another couple weeks and try again. Enjoy!