Fermented foods – we're not talking beer and cheese – are a novel way to liven your diet and eat more healthfully.
“Considering many of us struggle to meet our daily quotient of vegetables, including them in a variety of ways is a great way to boost intake,” says Toronto-based registered dietician Shahzadi Devje, RD, owner of Desi-licious RD. “Fermented vegetables offer a different type of taste and texture, compared to what we’re often used to – raw, cooked.”
They're also good for the gut. When food undergoes fermentation, natural bacteria and/or yeasts break down carbohydrates to produce lactic acid. This not only prevents spoilage, but research links the beneficial health effects of fermented foods to the fact they're a source of good bacteria, or probiotics, says Devje, who also has a master's degree in public health. Good bacteria create a protective barrier against germs and viruses, possibly boosting immunity. Certain strains of probiotics also can help alleviate allergy symptoms.
But it's not one-size-fits-all. “Each person’s response to probiotics can vary, and the type of strain, as well as the quantity, can impact results,” Devje says.
There's more. Fermented foods are kind to the digestive tract, Devje says. “For example, when milk is fermented to make kefir, some of the lactose is broken down. This may be helpful to those with lactose intolerance, however more research is needed.” Better digestion also generally means better nutrient absorption.
Incorporating this culinary wonder isn't hard. “Fermented foods offer so much variety and match well with pretty much any dish.” Devje says. A few of her suggestions:
- Add yogurt, kefir or buttermilk to your smoothies or oatmeal
- Top eggs or avocado toast with fermented salsa vegetables
- Add fermented vegetables, like kimchi, to sandwiches, burgers and wraps
- Make a soup with miso paste
- Add sauerkraut to top coleslaws and salads
- Add kimchi to stir-fry dishes
- Use miso for sauces, marinades and dressings
- Make tempeh burgers as a plant-based alternative to animal-based protein
Want to create fermented foods on your own? Start with vegetables. Try this recipe from Devje:
Fermented Vegetable Medley
2 Tbsp. Himalayan salt, sea salt or pickling salt*
1 liter water
1-1/2 cups small cauliflower florets
1 red bell pepper, cut in strips
1 carrot, large, cut in strips
1 cup broccoli florets
10 garlic cloves, peeled, whole
1 Tbsp. black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
- In measuring cup, combine salt and water and stir until salt is dissolved.
- Place remaining ingredients in clean, dry jar.
- Pour saltwater over vegetables, leaving at least 1 inch of headspace at the top of the jar.
- If necessary, add more water to cover vegetables.
- Cover jar tightly, and let stand at room temperature for 2-3 days. If any mold or film has formed on the top of the liquid, simply remove layer.**
- Check for the three signs, below, to assess whether fermentation process has been successful.
- After fermentation process is complete, transfer jar to refrigerator.
* Salt type is important. Don't use salt with iodine – iodine can inhibit fermentation.
** The top is exposed to oxygen, which can promote growth of yeast and mold – but everything below the brine should be fine because of an oxygen-free environment.
Signs of successful fermentation
Look for bubbles
The lactic acid fermentation process produces bacteria that release gases when they feast on the vegetables. These gases are often visible as bubbles after a few days at room temperature.
Trust your nose
Opening the jar after a few days may release a sour, vinegary aroma – which is what you want.
Taste the tanginess
Test your veggies to see if they're ready to be moved to the fridge. They should taste tangy and delicious, thanks to a chemical reaction between their sugars and naturally present bacteria.
Thirsty? You can drink your probiotics, too! Learn all about kombucha – the sparkling probiotic drink we can’t get enough of!
Connect with journalist and wellness writer Mitra Malek at mitramalek.com.