Dill pickles

Photo credit: Rebecca Siegel, via Flickr.

Fermented foods are foods that have been exposed to beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts, which eat up carbohydrates and produce a variety of organic acids in their place. This process results in novel flavors, a little tart, often complex and interesting.

In some fermented foods, the bacteria have already died off before we eat them. For example, chocolate and coffee. In others, the bacteria are still alive when they get to us. For example yogurt and sauerkraut. These latter are especially good for us, because some of the healthy bacteria can move into our gut and continue living there.  You’ll notice with living cultures, the flavors strengthen and deepen.

So why eat fermented foods?

  • Flavor!
  • Especially fermented foods with live bacteria. Especially when paired with hard-to-digest foods. There’s a reason Germans (and Americans) eat sauerkraut with sausage.
  • The organic acids and other metabolites produced by probiotic bacteria are used by the liver in what’s called hepatic phase II, i.e. the liver function that neutralizes toxins.
  • Probiotics that weren’t there before produce vitamins and other healthy compounds.
  • This is probably why our ancestors started. If you let good bacteria in, they keep bad bacteria out. It’s why yogurt spoils more slowly than milk.

What’s the difference between fermented and pickled? Fermented is cultured with beneficial bacteria. Pickled is soaked in vinegar and salt. Pickling is faster, easier, and cheaper, especially in large batches. It ends up tasting the same – sort of – minus a lot of the benefits

How can you tell the difference? Look for an ingredient list that includes live cultures.

Want to add fermented foods to your diet? Here are my top six in no particular order.

Yogurt, Kefir, Lassi are all fermented milks. Kefir is like liquid yogurt, originally from Bulgaria. Lassi is like a liquid yogurt, originally from India – sometimes salty, sometimes sweet with mango or other fruit.

Sauerkraut & Kimchee are both forms of cultured cabbage – one German and the other Korean, each with its own distinctive flavor profile.

Chocolate, Coffee, and Tea are all produced via natural fermentation, which deepens the flavor of the leaves and beans. Actually, green tea isn’t fermented, but black tea is. They’re actually the same leaves – just produced differently. Can you taste the difference?

Fish Sauce: This traditional Southeast Asian and Roman condiment is made by fermenting fish entrails for 6 months or a year. Doesn’t sound delicious. But it is.

Tempeh is a soy food, but very different from tofu. This one is fermented into a somewhat meat-like texture. As a fermented food, it’s easier to digest than tofu. Good in stir-fries, stews, etc. Don’t believe it’s delicious? The “Happy Vegan” sandwich our kitchen makes outsells our turkey and tuna every day.

Kombucha is fermented tea with sugar. The live yeasts and bacteria eat up most of the sugar, and produce a tart, fizzy, soda-like beverage.

Want to Ferment Your Own? Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz, is a great book to start with.

Adam Stark