If you love to experiment with bubbling bacterial mixtures on your kitchen counter, try fermented vegetables. Fermenting is a highly nutritious method of preserving foods that has been used for thousands of years.
Fermenting vegetables is easy, requires very little equipment, and just about any vegetable will do.
The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
You probably already eat and drink many fermented foods like wine, sauerkraut, yogurt or sourdough bread. All of these different types of ferments have their own health benefits. One that they all share is introducing healthy bacteria into the intestinal tract. In fermented vegetables lactic acid bacteria, of which there are several different types, is the primary micro-organism that is produced.
A normal human intestinal tract contains about one hundred trillion bacteria, or enough to weigh in at three pounds. The bacterial cells actually outnumber our own cells containing our unique DNA by ten to one. However our modern diet with its highly processed and super pasteurized foods, and the exposure to antibiotics from many sources, has decimated our intestinal health.
Eating lots of fermented foods can help to restore this balance of good bacteria. This is also important because there are plenty of malevolent bacteria that will move into your intestinal tract if they get a chance.
Removal of Toxins from the Food
A dramatic example of the way that fermenting can remove toxins is cassava. Raw cassava contains cyanide, but when you soak and ferment this vegetable, as is the custom in tropical countries, the cyanide is removed. There are a variety of other tannins and bitter substances in foods that can be neutralized by fermentation.
Phytates are not technically a toxin but they are a substance which is present in many plant foods. Phytates bind minerals so that you cannot absorb them. Fermentation releases these minerals from the phytate, making things like iron, zinc and calcium available to your body.
When you ferment vegetables they are submerged in liquid and deprived of oxygen. This, along with the acidic and alcoholic properties of the liquid, can kill many harmful bacteria or pathogens that might be harboring there.
Nutrients are Increased
The changes that take place while vegetables ferment unlock vitamins and other beneficial compounds, greatly increasing the nutritional value of the food. The B vitamins and some amino acids are increased in fermented foods. Fermenting slows down the loss of vitamin C in vegetables.
In cruciferous vegetables, glucosinolates are broken down into the compounds which have chemopreventative properties in our bodies.
Why Ferment Your Own Foods?
You could just eat lots of pickles, sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables from the grocery store. However many of these products have been pasteurized, literally, to death. They no longer have the beneficial live bacteria. When you make your own fermented foods you are getting the full benefit of all the good bacteria and nutrients.
There is room for a lot of variety here, since any vegetable has the bacteria necessary to start the fermentation process. All you need to do is chop or grate the vegetable. Pack it tightly into a jar or crock and make sure it is submerged in its own juices, with some water added if necessary, so that it has no contact with the air. Sturdy vegetables like cabbages, cauliflower or any kind of root vegetable are going to hold up to fermentation better than delicate things like lettuce.
The picture above is of various kinds of hot pepper slices which fermented for about two weeks on my kitchen counter. After they reach the point where you want the fermenting to stop, you can just move the jar to the fridge where it will keep for a long time. This will generally happen faster if you are in a warm climate.
I became interested in this process when I read The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. He discusses the fine points such as containers, whether or not to add salt, spicing, what to do about mold, and many other details of fermenting vegetables. I highly recommend this book if you want a glimpse into the world of fermenting, not just vegetables but grains, dairy products, fruits, beverages and much more.
Fermenting vegetables is a fun and creative process that yields very healthy results for anyone who loves to experiment with foods.
How about you? Do you ferment?