The how and why of fermented vegetables

Where do you stand on consuming fermented vegetables? Yay or nay?

It’s a mixed bag, we can agree on that. Some love them and others eat some occasionally because they are supposed to be good for you, right? Then comes the “there’s no way” group.

Also, that’s but one category of fermented foods. There are many others which we will discuss later, but for this post let’s stick with fermented vegetables.

Humans and bacteria go back a long way

Whichever group you identify with, here’s the interesting thing: we’ve been making good use of fermented foods for thousands of years. They are easy to make, and most importantly, easy to keep. Refrigeration is a new thing, but food preservation is not. Drying, fermenting, salting – our ancestors had to be ingenious to make good food available year-round.

From beer dating back to 7000 BC years ago in China, to fermented pickles in the Middle East (around 2000 BC) to yeast-leavened bread in Egypt (around 3500 BC), to today, fermentation has played a big role in helping us stay healthy and well-fed.

Nowadays however, we have words like probiotics, prebiotics, and postbiotics, and that can get a bit confusing.

So let’s clear that out first:

  • Probiotics are health-promoting bacteria, usually present in fermented foods and nowadays also available in supplements.
  • Prebiotics serve as food for probiotics (good bacteria). Fiber, for example.
  • Postbiotics are beneficial metabolites or by-products that are created during fermentation.

Where and how does fermentation start?

That fresh head of cabbage you picked comes (naturally) with a mix of microorganisms: bacteria, fungi, and yeast. Rinsing may remove some but plenty will make it to the next stage. That’s a good thing!

Next step: you slice or shred the cabbage, add salt, massage well until cabbage is softened, and let it sit a while. Your softened cabbage will release juice which will then become brine.

Press the cabbage into a jar, cover it with the brine and add weights to seal everything under a layer of liquid. Now the magic begins!

You have created a briny anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment that will favour the good lactic acid bacteria, while also preventing any mold growth. This is lacto-fermentation and the result is sauerkraut (in this case).

With other vegetables or kimchi, you use a brine made from water and salt, but the process is the same.

Benefits of eating fermented vegetables

  • They help balance your blood sugar levels.

  • They are easy to digest and have enhanced nutritional value (bacteria produce vitamins C, K2, B12 and folate).

  • Improved mineral absorption.

  • Some contain cancer-fighting and detoxification compounds (fermented vegetables from the cabbage family, for example).

  • They contain fibre, which has a plethora of benefits when consumed by the gut bacteria (more on this in a future post)

  • Decreased inflammation when you consume regularly.

  • They contain live beneficial bacteria, which can add to your existing gut population (microbiome) though we still don’t know how many make it in the long-run.

Fermented vegetables are the most natural form of beneficial bacteria you can find, in a package that has it all: probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics.

 

Umm, what about salt?

The usual amount for a head of cabbage is one tablespoon. Using this amount allows for all the good bacteria strains to work their fermentation magic and without spoilage.

The old way… Growing up, we always had a barrel of sauerkraut in the cellar. Come fall, my dad got 25 or so full heads of cabbage ready for the winter. The way he managed to add the perfect amount of salt was by carving out the core of each head of cabbage and then filling the hole with salt. He put them in the barrel, added water to cover and voilà!

Whether you have health concerns or not, please mind your salt intake. Start with as much as your curiosity and taste allow for and work it up as you go. Use your creativity: add to wraps, salads or sandwiches; sprinkle some hemp seeds on top for extra fibre, protein and healthy fats; or add nuts, fresh herbs, finely sliced green onion…the possibilities are endless!

If you have high blood pressure or are generally sensitive to salt, stick to salt-free fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir, either dairy or dairy-free, tempeh (soy-based) or kombucha.

Resources:

  • My favourite team of magicians are Kirsten and Christopher Shockey, authors of ‘Fermented vegetables’ (Storey Publishing, LLC, October 2014). For a whole lot of great fermentation knowledge, books and all, follow this link.
  • Here’s another comprehensive collection of recipes and fermentation how-to.
  • What I use: glass jars, glass fermentation weights and silicone airlock lids.

Feeling inspired? Have fun with it and let me know how it goes.

Happy fermenting!

©2022 NutritionMatters

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