Fermented, probiotic foods, filled with beneficial bacteria, have been common in many cultures and are an integral part of a healthy diet. Yet, as we’ve become more modernized, it has become less convenient to ferment our own foods. We eat shelf-friendly, lifeless, pre-packaged foods that have been sterilized, pasteurized, and denatured, and we live in sterilized environments. As a result, the gut biome is suffering, which makes it more difficult for people to fight off bad bacteria and creates a variety of health issues.
The importance of a healthy gut flora cannot be underestimated. An unhealthy gut can manifest into many physical and psychological ailments, partially because about 85% of the immune system is in the gut. Only when the good and bad bacteria in the digestive system are balanced can the body function normally, without any digestive dysfunction.
Probiotic Pre-packaged Foods and Supplements
The topic of probiotics and gut health has become quite popular, and hence certain food producers are keen on promoting the probiotic content of products such as yogurts, kefirs and Kambucha tea, to name a few. But often, prepacked and shelf-friendly foods are also packed with sugar and additives that might diminish the benefit of their probiotic content. Pre-packaged fermented foods such as sauerkraut and pickles are often sold off-the-shelf at room temperature, so the health benefits of the probiotics are gone by the time you eat these foods.
Probiotic supplements have also become quite popular. Certain brands, such as BioImmersion and Klaire Labs, offer high-quality and high count probiotics for people who seek to attain and maintain good gut health, especially if they do not like to eat fermented foods or do not have the time to prepare them. But if you are looking for a low-cost and delicious way to increase your probiotic intake, making your own fermented foods is your best option.
Preparing Your Own Fermented Foods
There are many types of probiotic-rich foods that you can make at home that have far more beneficial live bacteria when compared to foods that have been sitting on a store shelf. Once you get started and become comfortable with the preparation process, making your own fermented foods can also be more economical, in addition to benefiting your health.
Here are some important notes when fermenting your own foods:
- Consider the importance of cleanliness of your prep space, tools and storage containers, as well as hands; clean everything with hot water, or disinfect in the dishwasher.
- Chlorinated water can inhibit fermentation, so use spring, distilled or filtered water.
- Use salt that is free of iodine and/or anti-caking agents, which can inhibit fermentation. Sea or Himalayan salt are recommended.
- You may choose to use gloves when using your hands to mix cabbage with salt and spices, although this is optional.
- Keep fermenting food containers about 3-4 feet apart, to prevent cross-contamination of the cultures.
Below you’ll find more about preparing three common fermented foods: pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi.
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Making your own pickles is one of the easiest ways to make a probiotic-rich food. Home-made pickles are also more flavorful and crispier than what you will find in store-bought jars, and, of course, they will lack the artificial food coloring which is often added to most pre-packaged brands to give pickles a shinier, fresher look.
The reason why making pickles is so easy is that you jar them, let them sit, and that’s it. After about 3 days, they are ready. No cooking or equipment required! You can try a different variety of spices in your jars to find out what flavor works best for your taste buds. You can also try the same process and variety of spices with okra, bell peppers, asparagus, cauliflower, and other vegetables.
Tools – 1-quart jars with tightly-fitting lids (you can buy regular mason jars, or recycle your old jars from store-bought pickles).
Ingredients per jar – About 2-4 pickling cucumbers (depending on their size); 5 sprigs of fresh dill (or 1 Tbsp dry dill); 2-4 cloves of garlic, crushed and minced; ½ – 1 Tbsp sea salt, to taste; filtered water – enough to top off jars; you can also add two or three other spices such as peppercorns, pinch of red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, cloves, coriander seeds, horseradish root, and/or cinnamon bark.
Process – You will need to decide if you want to ferment whole cucumbers or cut them into spears or sandwich slices. If you are fermenting whole cucumbers, poke them several times on all sides with a fork, so the brine can penetrate them more quickly. Add the cucumbers to a clean jar with the dill and other spices, packing the cucumbers in tightly. Then, fill the jar with filtered water so all cucumbers are covered by at least 1/2 an inch of water, and screw on the lid. To distribute the spices, shake the jar lightly. The jar is now ready to sit on your counter top, out of direct sunlight, for 3 days or until the bubbles in the brine subside. At this point the pickles are ready to eat, although some recipes will suggest that you let the jar sit for up to 6 weeks in a cool dark place for a richer flavor. Once opened, the pickles should be stored in the refrigerator for up to one month.
The Joy of Pickling: 250 Flavor-Packed Recipes for Vegetables and More by Linda Ziedrich
Asian Pickles 101: Delicious Pickles from across the Asian by Gordon Rock
Sauerkraut is a particularly effective way to heal your gut, especially if you ensure the product goes through all three stages of fermentation. Often you’ll feel the need to refrigerate sauerkraut after a week or so, and some recipes may even suggest you do so, but this will slow down the fermentation process and bacterial action. The sauerkraut must be left at room temperature for at least four weeks. As your cabbage is fermenting, you want to ensure that it is completely submerged in the brine and that oxygen is kept out. If you notice browned cabbage, yeasty odor, pink cabbage, slime or mold, your jar is probably not keeping out enough oxygen, and you will need to start over with fresh cabbage. Additionally, due to CO2 activity during the gaseous stage of the ferment, CO2 gasses must have an outlet. You want to use jars with a combination of an airtight seal and the ability to let out gas.
Tools – A large bowl or pot; jars with lids that keep out oxygen, but allow CO2 to escape (you can use mason jars, recycled pickle or salsa jars, or opt to purchase fancier Fido jars with a vulcanized rubber gasket); knife and cutting board; a mandolin is nice to have, but not necessary.
Ingredients – 2 medium cabbage heads, cored and shredded finely (this amount will make about 4 quarts of sauerkraut); and 2 tablespoons of sea salt.
Process – Mix cabbage and salt together in a large pot; you can use your hands to massage the salt into the cabbage. After about 15 minutes, the cabbage will become limp and watery. You can mix for a longer time or let sit for a few more minutes to create more brine. Next, pack the cabbage tightly into the jars. Once your jars are full, you have to create an airlock for the cabbage. Some options that work well are using a layer of olive oil on top of the ferment or a plastic baggy liner (saran wrap works) to hold fermenting cabbage under its brine. Some recipes recommend placing a smaller jar with marbles or stones on top of the cabbage to weigh it down. Another option is using jars with a white or metal lid with an airlock already installed. You will need to leave the sauerkraut at room temperature – ideally 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit – for a minimum of four weeks. As long as the jar can keep out oxygen with a tight seal, and the cabbage remains submerged in its brine, you should be able to avoid spoilage. After 4 weeks, you can refrigerate the sauerkraut, and it will keep for at least two months.
Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home by Klaus Kaufmann
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This traditional Korean food can be made many different ways, and some might say it is an acquired taste. The many varieties of kimchi include mild, hot and spicy, tangy and tart, seafood-laden, and more. The simple kimchi recipe provided below is a good place to start and will make about 1 quart of kimchi, although I would recommend buying a good book to get a variety of recipe ideas.
Ingredients – 1 head of napa cabbage (about 2 lbs) cored and cut into 2-inch wide strips; 1/4 cup sea salt; about 5-6 cloves of grated garlic; 1 tsp of grated ginger; 1 tsp raw sugar (optional); 2-3 Tbsp of seafood flavored water (you can use water mixed with fish sauce or kelp powder); 1-5 Tbsp of Korean red pepper flakes (gochugaru); 4 scallions, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces; 8 oz of Korean radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks.
Process – You begin by putting all of the cabbage and salt into a large bowl and mixing throughly for about 15 minutes using your hands. When the cabbage starts to soften, press down into the bowl and cover with water. Place a plate on top with something to weigh it down, and let stand for 1-2 hours on the counter. Next, rinse the cabbage in cold water 3 times, draining it in a colander for about 15-20 minutes after each rinse. You will need the large bowl again, so clean it and set it aside. The paste preparation comes next: in a small bowl, combine garlic, ginger, sugar, seafood flavor (or just use 3 Tbsp of water instead), until it creates a smooth paste. Then mix in the pepper flakes (1 Tbsp for mild kimchi, and up to 5 for really spicy). Once the paste is made, squeeze out all remaining water out of the cabbage, and once again place cabbage into the large bowl and add the other vegetables and seasoning paste. Mix everything together thoroughly using your hands (here gloves are highly recommended because the spicy ingredients might sting and stain your hands). Pack the kimchi into the jar, ensuring that the brine rises to cover the vegetables and leave about 1-inch of headspace in the jar, then cover with the lid. The jar needs to stay at room temperature for up to 7 days, during which you will see lots of bubbles inside the jar. You may need to use a plate under the jar to catch any liquid that overflows. Each day, open the jar and press down with a spoon or clean fingers to ensure the kimchi stays submerged, and feel free to taste it to see if the taste is to your liking (but don’t double dip!) Once you’ve reached your desired ripeness, place the kimchi in the fridge where it will continue to ferment, although at a much slower pace. You can eat it immediately, but some recipes suggest you let it sit for a week or two in the refrigerator first, allowing the flavors to blend more.
Kimchi: Essential recipes of the Korean Kitchen by Byung-Hi Lim
General resources about fermenting your own foods at home:
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz
Fermented: A Four Season Approach to Paleo Probiotic Foods by Jill Ciciarelli
Read more articles by Anna Hunt.
About the Author
Anna Hunt is writer, yoga instructor, mother of three, and lover of healthy food. She’s the founder of Awareness Junkie, an online community paving the way for better health and personal transformation. She’s also the co-editor at Waking Times, where she writes about optimal health and wellness. Anna spent 6 years in Costa Rica as a teacher of Hatha and therapeutic yoga. She now teaches at Asheville Yoga Center and is pursuing her Yoga Therapy certification. During her free time, you’ll find her on the mat or in the kitchen, creating new kid-friendly superfood recipes.
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