You can eat some foods raw. Other foods you can expose to heat. But cooking with fire or peeling an orange are just the basics. If you’re curious about alternative ways to make food, you’ve got to try fermentation. Fermentation is a science experiment that’s good for you. Fermentation is Food 3.0. Not only that, but fermented food is delicious, and there’s more of it out there than you think!
Best Fermented Foods
Depending on your culture, you may already know a lot about fermented foods. If not, then prepare to expand your world!
Alcoholic beverages like wine and beer gain their intoxicating effects through fermentation, so if your culture embraces the party life, you’ve probably encountered fermentation quite a bit!
Kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, and miso are all fine examples of the power of fermentation.
Sorghum, cassava, and teff are often fermented to keep them from going bad in the warm climates of sub-Saharan Africa.
Fermentation adds acerbic complexity and depth to the flavor of your food, from the refreshingly zingy to the mouth-puckeringly sour.
This is because fermentation happens thanks to bacteria or yeast that chow down on the simple sugars in your food. These helpful little bugs secrete the mild acids that give your yogurt zing while removing the sugars that can harm your health.
The particular flavor your fermented food ends up with may depend on the species of microbe that’s helping you accomplish it, or how long that microbe has been left alone to thrive.
Fermented Foods List
Maybe you’re still scratching your head about this whole fermentation concept. Do you really want to eat something made by germs?
Actually, yes you do! I’ll talk about how fermented food is good for your health later in this article, but for now, let’s get you excited about the concept. All of the following foods are fermented and fabulous:
Fermented Foods List
1.Yogurt. Derived from milk, this healthy treat is the product of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, two buddies who gobble up the sugar in milk and excrete lactic acid. Additionally, they eat up most of milk’s lactose, which is why you can usually still eat yogurt even if you, like more than half of all adults, are lactose-intolerant.
2. Kefir. Another milk-derived food, kefir’s story begins in the Caucasus Mountains of Russia with a nourishing drink shared by friends. It’s made by introducing a starter culture to milk.
3. All alcoholic beverages. Whether you drink wine or beer, you have fermentation to thank! In fact, while I can’t recommend an alcohol-heavy lifestyle, a glass of wine now and then has been shown to be beneficial for your heart.
4. Kombucha. This fizzy tea has recently become a darling of health nuts worldwide. It probably originated somewhere in east Asia, possibly Manchuria, but nowadays you can find it on tap at many hip coffeehouses.
5. Tempeh. If you’ve never had tempeh, then do yourself a favor and give it a try! This fermented soybean loaf is nutritious and flavorful, as well as satisfyingly chewy in a way that tofu isn’t.
6. Sauerkraut. Historically, northern Europeans loved this stuff because it kept for ages without the need for refrigeration. Nowadays, people just like the taste!
7. Miso. If you’ve ever had miso soup, then you know why this soy-salt-mushroom broth base is so popular. If you haven’t had miso soup, well, you’ve never lived! Miso goes into sauces, too, and can even be used as a spread. Actually, it goes very nicely with tahini.
8. Sourdough bread. In traditional sourdough bread, the dough is fermented prior to baking by the powerful yeast that the baker cultivates themselves. Accept no substitutes: without the fermentation process, sourdough bread just isn’t sour!
9. Kimchi. There are lots of different vegetables that can go into kimchi. Recipes call for the preparer to add a sugary solution and a variety of spices to the ingredients, but don’t be scared off by that. The sugar isn’t for you! It’ll all get eaten up by the bacteria that will turn those raw vegetables into healthy delicacies.
10. Natto. Here’s another fermented Japanese food that everyone should try! Like miso and tempeh, natto is made from soybeans. Unlike miso and tempeh, natto contains nattokinase, a natural chemical which can dissolve blood clots.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
Fermentation started out as a great way to preserve food for a long time, which was important before refrigeration was invented.
Later, people kept eating fermented food because they liked the taste. But today, there’s a growing body of evidence that fermented food is actually very good for you.
When I mentioned that fermented food is generated by bacteria, you might have wondered if it contains any probiotics.
These are helpful germs that live in your gastrointestinal tract and aid you in the digestion of your food.
Recent research suggests that good gut bacteria is very important, not just to your digestion, but to your overall well-being.
Your mental health may well be a result of the kind of bacteria in your gut!
Since fermented foods contain live cultures of bacteria and yeast, they can provide you with plenty of healthy bacterial cultures.
In fact, they may be your best source of good microbes! If you’ve recently taken antibiotics, then fermented foods are ideal for replacing the good germs that you’ve lost.
If you just want to get healthy, then upping your yogurt intake is still a fine idea.
The feats that different probiotic bacteria can accomplish are both astounding and diverse, ranging from reduced flatulence to enhanced cellular immunity to lower cholesterol levels.
But wait! There’s more! Evidence suggests that fermented foods are good for your heart as well.
Some of the compounds found in this kind of cuisine, especially within the large group of fermented foods from eastern Asia, are very effective against blood clots. (I mentioned natto earlier, but that’s just one of many.)
The upshot is that fermented foods may protect your heart. That’s in addition to all the other good things probiotics can do for you! Think of it as the fermented tart cherry on top.
Healthy Fermented Foods
Now you’re probably wondering about what fermented foods you should eat to get those delicious health benefits I was just talking about. Here’s how to start eating fermented foods:
- Try tempeh! Seriously, try it. The Javanese people, who invented this food and consume it in volume, enjoy less cardiovascular disease, breast and prostate cancer, and bone density reduction thanks to this food.
- Kimchi will boost your immune system, make your skin shine, and potentially protect you from cancer and obesity. It’s ludicrously healthy and very widely available. Koreans tend to eat kimchi every day, sometimes at every meal. Also, you can make your own!
- Yogurt allows lactose-intolerant people to enjoy dairy again, and it may have more benefits, too. But be careful! Many consumer brands of this now-popular food are loaded up with sugar post-fermentation to disguise the strong taste. If your yogurt is strawberry-flavored with little chocolate bits, then its net nutritional benefit to you will be limited.
- Kefir is excellent for people with bowel problems. Whether you suffer from flatulence, constipation, or diarrhea, consuming this beverage may put your intestine right again. Aside from that, it’s loaded with vitamins!
There’s one fermented dairy product we haven’t talked about yet, and you may be wondering (perhaps hopefully) if it falls into the category of healthy fermented foods. Wouldn’t it be great to have an excuse to eat more cheese?
In fact, cheese is a fermented food. Some varieties have even been studied and found to be excellent probiotic carriers!
I have a feeling that there are some cheese-loving scientists out there who are enjoying their work a little too much!
So there you have it: cheese can be good for you! Here are the most probiotic varieties:
- This cheese’s flavor comes in part from all of its happy bacteria!
- Cheddar was found, in one study, to be a better carrier of probiotics than yogurt! Aged cheddar turned out to be the best.
What Foods Can You Ferment at Home?
While whipping up a wheel of gouda at home might not be in the cards for most of us, there is a surprising range of fermented food that you can create in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Remember, people around the world have been using fermentation to preserve food for thousands of years!
The key is to separate the food you’re trying to ferment from the air. Fermentation only happens in an environment free from oxygen. As you begin to enjoy fermented food, try these recipes:
- Sauerkraut! This recipe suggests using fermentation weights to keep the cabbage below the surface of the brine. That’s fine if you have them; otherwise, you can use anything heavy to make sure your soon-to-be-sauerkraut doesn’t float to disaster.
- Spicy pickled cabbage kimchi. Why all the pickling of cabbage? Well, maybe because it’s got a reputation for being of limited use. Not when it’s been fermented, though! That’s when cabbage really shines.
- Yogurt. You – yes, you! – can make your own yogurt! In fact, it’s super easy. You can also customize your yogurt if you make it at home. Want more of a solid result? Use some cream. Low-fat or skim milk makes a runny, but healthy, yogurt.
- Kombucha is often made at home, and many people swear by it. Fans claim that the bottled kombucha in stores contains dead cultures and additives meant to make it taste more like traditional juice or soda. Though making kombucha at home is fairly safe, there are some health concerns over this beverage that you should be aware of before you try making it yourself. I’ll talk a little bit about that later.
Are Fermented Vegetables Good For You?
Based on the research, fermented vegetables may be among the healthiest foods out there.
People who enjoy them regularly also enjoy a decreased rate of heart disease and an overall improved level of gut health.
While the immunological and anti-cancer effects of fermented vegetables are still being studied, there’s a lot of promise there.
And after all, aren’t these vegetables? The cabbage you’d barely choke down otherwise becomes a spicy, succulent treasure after being fermented, and it doesn’t lose a bit of its nutritional value!
If carrots don’t inspire you, try them after a week in brine, and don’t even worry about their sugary starch content. Remember, those friendly bacteria eat sugar. No matter what you’re fermenting, it’s going to be flavorful, unique, and free of that sweet stuff.
What Happens When You Ferment Food?
Now that we’re talking about fermentation removing sugar from food, let’s talk about what’s actually happening when food ferments. First of all, fermentation can happen as a result of a few different microorganisms, most of them bacteria and a few of them yeast.
You may be wondering why fermentation happens instead of, say, mold or rot. The key is in understanding why organic matter breaks down the way it does.
Mold needs air, just like people do. It’s aerobic, which means “of air.” The microorganisms that cause rot need air, too. But not all microbes need oxygen, and the ones that don’t, also called anaerobic microbes, survive using different biological processes.
They consume sugar instead of oxygen, and through a little chemistry magic, they can convert that sugar into acid and carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide makes your kombucha fizzy or your bread fluffy.
The acid gives your food a healthy-tasting zing. The bacteria live on even after you consume the food they so thoughtfully made for you, and in return, they get to live in your gastrointestinal system and make you healthy. Isn’t it great when everyone wins?
How Do You Make Fermented Vegetables?
The key to fermenting any vegetable is to submerge it in a low-oxygen environment, where the bad bacteria will die and the good bacteria will flourish.
In the case of vegetables, this often means brine. Sometimes, a recipe calls for a little sugar so that the fermenting bacteria can get a good head start.
There are fermentation starters, or nuggets of good bacteria, available online for vegetables, and some people like to use whey to kickstart the process for fermentation.
But you don’t need to do that unless you really get serious about this cooking method.
The bacteria you want to encourage are already present on your vegetables.
When you remove the food from oxygen, those bacteria will go wild and the stuff that causes rot and mold will fade away.
Large jars are best for fermenting, especially since you’ve got to hold those vegetables under the surface of the brine for fermentation to work.
Make sure that whatever you’re fermenting in has a wide enough mouth to allow for that kind of even weight! Allow for off-gassing, too.
The same bugs that are making your food are getting rid of carbon dioxide, and all that gas has to go somewhere.
Special equipment is available to siphon off the CO2, but you could also brine the way your ancestors did: in a container with an open top.
If you do ferment something without a lid, be aware that some mold may form on the top of your brine. As long as all your veggies are submerged, just skim that mold right off.
It shouldn’t be a serious problem as long as the food is still safely immersed in a briney environment. It’ll take a while for your vegetables to ferment, though, so be patient!
Taste your creation every few days to see if it seems right to you. Once it does, put it in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation process. Your pickles, carrots, sauerkraut, or kimchi should be good for months!
Here are a few recipes for fermented vegetables:
- Salsa is a great way to use tomatoes, and this healthy salsa is fermented to boot!
- Carrots with dill make a great, kid-friendly alternative to pickles. (Be honest: you’ve raided the pickle jar once or twice! Who doesn’t like a nice, crisp pickle?) Speaking of which…
- Pickles! Some pickles are just cucumbers in vinegar and those aren’t fermented. These pickles are true fermented vegetables, probiotic and completely delicious.
- Banh Mi Pickles. Yes, that’s right: you get two pickle recipes in the same list! These pickles are made from daikon radish and derive from Korean cuisine. Ever wondered what to do with a radish? Ferment it!
Indian Fermented Foods
Fermented foods exist all over the world, deriving from every known culture. While east Asia is famous for its fermented food culture, India is also known for its delicious and very healthy fermented dairy and grain cuisine.
There’s a very wide range of fermented Indian food, from ildi to dhokla, but I’ve picked a few favorites here. Try these scrumptious foods if you’re looking to spice up your plate:
- If you’re looking for a challenge that pays off, why not try a dosa? These savory crepes require some preparation – the lentils need to ferment for at least six hours – but compared to a week for good kimchi, that’s nothing!
- Malpua rabdi is a real treat, and if it’s your turn to bring dessert, you know you’ll wow your friends with this. Just remember that the batter needs to sit overnight to ferment!
- Thinking about bread? Try siddu! In the Himchali region of India, siddu is eaten with ghee, or clarified butter.
Are Pickles Fermented
Some pickles, like these lacto-fermented dill pickles, are, in fact, fermented. However, many pickles are just soaked in vinegar. That’s OK too! They’re still pickles and they’re still delicious. They’re just not fermented.
Sauerkraut, unlike pickles, is fermented by definition. You can make it pretty easily in a mason jar, too! If you’re looking for some sauerkraut tips, try this wisdom from longtime sauerkraut makers:
- Sauerkraut is so easy to make that it’s a good first step into the world of home fermentation.
- Make small batches until you figure out how to make sauerkraut you like. That way, you won’t be stuck eating a ton of sub-par sauerkraut while you try recipe after recipe!
- Sauerkraut can take three days or several weeks, depending on how you like it. Try a piece now and then to see how it’s coming along. Unlike meat, fermented food is safe to eat throughout its fermentation process.
- Crock pots are good vessels for any fermentation experiment, and sauerkraut is no exception. They’re big enough that you can weigh down your cabbage with a plate, but also convenient to a counter.
- If you’re using an open-top container like a crock pot, drape a towel over it while it sits. There should be airflow so that the escaping CO2 doesn’t build up, but your vessel should be covered enough to prevent curious insects, dust, and pets from getting into your project.
- Never refrigerate your in-process sauerkraut! Cold temperatures will kill the bacteria that are turning your boring cabbage into a zany, awesome condiment.
- Cabbage floats. Check your sauerkraut several times to day to make sure that it hasn’t risen to the surface and gotten ruined!
- Don’t be afraid of bubbles, foam, or white stuff on the surface. (You can skim that off.) Bubbles and foam come from the bacteria’s carbon dioxide byproduct. It just means that you are achieving your fermentation goals!
- Listen to your nose. If something smells rotten, toss the batch. It’s only cabbage. You can try again! (That said, mold on the surface of the brine is fairly common and no big deal. Remove it, toss it, and continue if everything else looks OK.)
Dangers of Fermented Food
Finally, I want to say a few words about how fermented foods can go wrong. I mentioned above that sometimes a batch of sauerkraut will go off and have to be discarded.
That may be because the cabbage isn’t properly submerged or the amount of salt in the brine is somehow out of balance. Always follow a recipe when you’re starting out, and you’ll reduce the possibility of something going wrong.
But at the end of the day, we are dealing with microbes here. We’re playing the friendly ones against the nasty ones to get a good meal for ourselves. It would be a little too good if there weren’t any risk.
The main danger of fermentation is kombucha. This famous tea is an iffier safety proposition than your standard kimchi.
A few people have actually died from improperly made kombucha batches, and many others have gotten sick due to mistakes made by the brewers that encouraged the wrong kind of bacteria to grow.
This is why so much of the kombucha available in grocery stores is pasteurized, killing the microbes within it, which both destroys any probiotic benefits you might otherwise derive and protects you from any rogue germ cultures.
Right now, the FDA says that making kombucha safely at home is possible if your equipment is clean. However, DIY kombucha should be considered an advanced technique, not to be tried by beginners.
Fermentation is an ingenious cooking method that takes advantage of something humans aren’t often aware of: symbiosis with a microbe. After all, when lactobacillus makes us yogurt, we give it a home in our bodies, where it pays us back again by taking care of our health. What a great system! Fermented food is delicious and healthy, and on top of that, it’s just a neighborly way to eat.
Have you tried any of these fermented foods? Comment below.