In the last ten years, studies of the human microbiome, which is defined as the collective genetic identity of the microbes (composed of bacteria, bacteriophage, fungi, protozoa and viruses) that live inside and on the human body, have exploded. These bacteria help to balance pH, to maintain immunity, to aid in the absorption and synthesis of nutrients, to neutralize harmful compounds, and to produce short chain fatty acids that play a role in the digestive process as well.
We’ve understood that gut bacteria aid in digestive balance and in women’s health for some time (while you were growing up, your mother might have encouraged you to eat yogurt if you were on antibiotics to prevent UTIs or candida albicans), but scientists are only beginning to comprehend the profound influence that the approximately 400 species of bacteria residing in our gut, on our skin, and on other epithelial linings have upon our health. Research suggests that obese and slender people have different numbers and varieties of intestinal bacteria, as do people with digestive disorders and those without them, diabetics and non-diabetics, and so on. As some of you may have read, Michael Pollan has volunteered to have his microbiome mapped, and it may be that home testing of gut microbiota is soon available to us all.
I hope that these tools will create a sense of empowerment and consciousness, rather than confusion, because the truth is that we don’t yet know precisely how gut flora work. Because gut flora vary widely according to culture and geography, it’s hard to create a standard of what microbial bacterial populations “should” look like. Furthermore, studies of over-the-counter probiotic supplements have yet to yield much in the way of conclusive data. One particular probiotic blend, VSL #3, has been shown to aid in the management of IBS, among other digestive disorders. But because we’re not totally sure how probiotics function, there are few standards of dosage, and to some extent the fashioning of a therapeutic blend is a matter of guesswork.
What we do know for sure is that our Western fixation on sanitation may have some disadvantages. Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and colitis), asthma, and autoimmune disorders are far more common in ultra-sanitized nations. There is one hypothesis–the “hygiene hypothesis”–that suggests that less childhood exposure to bacteria and parasites in the US and Europe may actually interfere with immune development. Because of antibiotics, antibacterial products, and overall hygiene, we don’t have as much interaction with the bacterial species that may help to keep our guts balanced. Of course, this isn’t the only reason that Western nations display more signs of dysbiosis (imbalanced gut flora): medications, artificial foods, diets high in refined sugar and saturated fats, stress, constipation, and deficient dietary fiber are also associated with the condition.
We also know that the fermentation of food–which creates the very bacteria that is so helpful in maintaining our health–is a part of traditional diets around the world. Fermentation is especially prevalent in Asia, where foods like miso, soy sauce, kimchee, and tempeh are dietary staples. But sauerkraut, kefir, and lacto-fermented vegetables abound in Europe, while injera and fermented millet are traditional foods in Africa. In the Americas, sourdough bread, pickles, and cultured milk are all parts of the culinary landscape. A number of fermented foods are also shared between a number of cultures globally: wine and beer and other types of alcohol (of course), vinegar, yogurt, bread, and cheese. Fermentation has historically been an efficient way to store and preserve vegetables, sure, but it is surely no coincidence that these foods may also contribute substantially to our well-being.
Having struggled with digestive conditions for most of my life, I realize how crucial balanced intestinal flora is to my personal health. Fortunately, I happen to love fermented foods, so I’m happy to eat them frequently. I confess, though, that fermenting at home has always scared me. A few years ago, my friend Elizabeth sent me a copy of Sandor Katz’s wonderful book, Wild Fermentation, and I learned to make homemade sauerkraut. The process by which one makes ‘kraut is called “lacto-fermentation,” so called because sugars in the foods one uses feed bacteria that grow from the fermentation process, and that sugar is converted into lactic acid. This acid, along with added salt, preserves vegetables for extended periods of time. The process is shockingly easy, and you can use it to make a wide variety of tart, salty, and belly-friendly veggies. Today, I’ll show you how.
This post is a contribution to Elenore and Sarah’s wonderful, week long fermentation week. These two ladies, who are blogging heroes to me and wonderful, supportive online friends, had the idea to celebrate bacteria—the good kind, that is!—with a week of fermentation recipes and education. A ton of groovy blogs have participated, including:
Green Kitchen Stories
Two Blue Lemons
Coconut & Quinoa
The Wooden Spoon
Mince & Type
The First Mess
The Holy Kale
Healthy & Hopeful
My Wholefood Romance
Kale and Cardamom
The Conscious Kitchen
Le Passe Vite
I love seeing all these talented bloggers join forces to share delicious, healthy fermented foods!
It’s the last day of this initiative (it’s been a busy week), but I am now delighted to be contributing with an easy, vegan recipe of my own. A lot of folks believe that lacto fermentation must involve the use of whey. No whey, Jose. (Had to.) Lacto-fermentation is as easy as 1-2-3 at home, and it can most certainly be done the vegan way. In addition to Sandor Katz’s book, I owe nearly all of my fermentation know-how to The Whole Life Nutrition Kitchen site, which has a great, helpful post on lacto-fermentation without whey. This post really talks you through it.
What you’ll need to start are super clean, wide mouth mason jars. I use 1 quart jars because I go through my fermented veggies very quickly! I tend to submerge them in boiling water or give them a very hot, soapy wash before getting started, but you don’t have to keep things as meticulously sterile as you would were you canning something for the long haul. I have some plastic lids I got because I didn’t like the way the metal lids tended to get dirty/rusty over time, but then again, plastic is plastic, so the more sustainable choice is to stick with metal.
You’ll also need veggies of your choosing. You can ferment pretty much anything and everything: shredded beets, carrots, cabbage, cucumbers, onions, green beans, shredded dino kale, zucchini, and so on. My favorites are beets, carrots, cabbage, and green beans. You’ll also want any herbs, seasonings, or spices you care for handy, which can include peppercorns, garlic, green onions, dill, rosemary, chilis, and many, many others.
Finally, you’ll need a brine. I use anywhere between 1 tbsp and 1 1/2 tbsp of salt per 4 cups filtered water (adjust this to your tastes). Simply stir the salt with your water till it dissolves, and the brine is ready.
With clean hands, layer your veggies into each jar you’re using. You can add a layer of peppercorns or spices between layers of different veggies; I like to use a few veggies per jar, resulting in a stratified creation! Pack the veggies down very tightly with your hands, and leave about two inches at the top. You’ll be adding liquid, and the veggies may rise up due to gases released during fermentation.
When your veggies are tightly packed, add a top layer to hold them down when you add the brine. I use kale, chard, or cabbage leaves. Zucchini slices may work, too, if they’re big enough!
Add your brine, filling it up and leaving about an inch of empty space in the jar. Screw the lid of the jar on loosely; you want air to be able to escape ad the fermentation process occurs, so it’s important not to have a tightly sealed jar.
Next, you simply want to move the jars to a warm place for the fermentation to occur. I like to stick them on my radiator, which looks sort of funny when I come home from campus, but works like a charm. As with homemade vegan yogurt, you can choose to keep the jars in a dehydrator on a low setting, but this is very energy costly, so it’s better if you can just find a warm nook of the home.
Let the veggies hang out for 3-5 days, checking on them every 24 hours or so. The cabbage or kale leaf may rise from escaping gas, so if it does, push it back down to keep everything submerged in brine. Starting at day 3, taste the veggies: if they’re tart enough for you, go ahead and serve! Day 4 is usually my sweet spot.
You can pile your fermented veggies into wraps, onto salads, mix them up with kelp noodles, mix them in with brown rice or quinoa, or simply snack on them the way they are. No matter how you choose to serve them, you will be treating your body to healthful bacteria and enzymes, as well as the vegetables’ own stores of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants. Cultured veggies are simply so, so, so tasty and great for you.
If you’ve been squeamish about fermenting at home, I really hope this post demystifies the process for you! Making cultured vegetables reminds me of making raw crackers, or anything in the dehydrator: it sounds intense because of the wait time, but really, the process itself couldn’t be easier. And the results will delight your belly and your tastebuds both. I’ve resolved to take on way more DIY culinary projects this year, and home fermentation is a delightfully simple place to start.