Foods that have gone through a process of fermentation offer enormous health benefits by fueling the gut microbiome, the second brain of our bodies, that has an influence over virtually every system in the body, including brain health.
Many countries have a traditional fermented food ? sauerkraut (fermented cabbage) in Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe; H?kari (fermented shark meat) in Iceland; Kimchi (fermented spicy veg) in Korea and many counties have fermented forms of dairy. Yet in the UK, we don?t have a national fermented food that is stronlgy synonymous with British culture, other than beer may be! Although cheese is a fermented food, the pros and cons of which I?ll discuss later on, and of course, we eat lots and lots of yogurt in the country, and if made well, it is a beneficial fermented food.
Fermentation, like pickling, developed as a means to preserving an abundance of foodstuffs to avoid waste and ensure food was available during leaner times. What was likely unknown then but hugely researched today, are the enormous health benefits that come from eating fermented foods. Different foods contain different stains and volumes of beneficial bacteria. Some are far more potent than others, so below you?ll find a crash course in what?s what when it comes to imbibing fermented foods and drinks.
Fermented foods offer great health benefits due to the live beneficial bacteria they contain. Most people are familiar with the idea of live yogurt containing ?friendly? bacteria but commercial live yogurts contain relatively few good cultures. However, if you can make your own yogurt and allow it to ferment for a minimum of 24 hours, then it becomes far more beneficial.
There is a yogurt-type alternative that offer oodles more strains and number of hugely healthful bacteria and yeasts, that is cheap and easy to make but not well known in the UK. It is a staple of other countries but dairy kefir is only just beginning to become commercially available here. However, once you have some live dairy kefir culture, you can make your own for a fraction of the price of the commercial stuff as all you will ever need to buy is fresh milk!
Assuming you don?t have a strong intolerance or allergy to dairy, I cannot stress enough how much good this sour, fizzy, runny yogurt type stuff will do you. It comes top of my poll for fermented foods. Add to breakfast, use in dressings or just drink. There?s loads of instructional info elsewhere online on how to make kefir, but you literally just add milk to the culture (called grains) ? they look like slimy cottage cheese (yum!), leave at room temperature and after 24 ? 48 hours, depending on amount of culture and temperature of your room, you will have dairy kefir. Strain it off, put fresh milk in, and off you go again. The reason kefir is sour is because the bacteria feed on the sugar in milk and in return produce lactic acid and CO2, hence the slight fizz. The lactic acid, combined with the beneficial bugs that grow profusely while the milk is fermenting, provide the gut with the correct environment for the bacteria to thrive within.
As far as what milk to use, organic is just a given, full fat and non-homogenized is preferable, raw is not great for fermenting though as the bacteria in raw milk will conflict with the kefir bacteria. You can use cow, sheep or goat and even coconut milk, although that requires a more complicated process.
There?s another form of kefir, this time made with water, which contains different types of bacteria, slightly less strains and amounts, but still definitely worth making part of your daily routine. Again, you?ll need to get the initial culture. As with sour dough starter, kefir of both kinds is something that is often shared and passed on, so you might be able to get some free. If not, go online and order some water kefir ?grains?. These are different to dairy kefir. They look like little crystals and can turn water in to a hydrating, energizing, tasty drink. However, these grains also need to feed on something and as there?s no sugar in water, you need to add in your own sugar. This horrified me at first, but as with dairy kefir, the sugar gets eaten up and the water becomes sour, fizzy and full of goodness as a result.
You simply place the ?grains? in water (I use filtered, boiled and cooled to room temperature as you want to ensure there?s no chlorine in the water) and add raw sugar and a little dried fruit for minerals ? I add two prunes. After about 48 hours you have a non-sweet water full of live lovliness. You drain off the water, which keeps fine in the fridge and start the process again. This will keep going indefinitely and once you know what to do it only takes a few minutes every few days to make.
Sauerkraut is another easy one to make at home or can be bought ready made, but you MUST ensure it?s raw, unpasteurized in order to get the benefit from the bacteria and lactic acid in the sauerkraut. A tablespoon a day is a great habit to get in to, or add to salads. Don?t heat, as again, you?ll kill off the good stuff. To make, simply finely chop a cabbage head, add a heaped teaspoon of a good quality, natural salt and bash a bit until the juice of the cabbage starts to run. Pack tightly in to a jar until full, press down so the juice is above the level of the cabbage and leave for 10 days plus. The longer you leave it, the better it will be for you but the sourer it will get. Once you have fermented your cabbage, pop in the fridge and it will keep for ages. Many vegetables can be used. Adding chopped onions helps it to get going and you can also flavour with herbs and spices. In my experience, adding garlic makes it a bit harsh. Again, loads online about this.
Another easy fix for a fermented food is a raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar. Use as a digestive tonic ? 1 teaspoon in water just before eating, or add to food / salad dressings liberally.
As I mentioned above, cheese is fermented, so there can be some benefits to eating cheese, but it needs to by non-pasteurized to be of real benefit. I far prefer goat, sheep-based cheeses and look for aged cheeses to ensure the sugars have been fermented out. There are not high levels of culture in most cheeses, but I do think cheese has rather unfairly developed a reputation of being an unhealthy food. A good quality cheese is a low sugar, high protein, high fat food, so great for blood sugar regulation, and along with a few good cultures to keep the gut flora fed, what?s not to like!
There are other options for fermented foods, so look up kombucha, a fermented tea very popular in America, kimchi is a really tasty mix of mildly spiced vegetables, available online and in heath food shops ? but again, must be unpasteurized. But a word of caution to finish with. Despite the immense positives associated with fermented foods, for some people having these bug-filled foods can cause terrible pain and bloating, This is a sign that the gut bacteria is not well balanced, so if you react badly, get some professional advice.