As I mentioned in my last article – fermenting has become my obsession. It started with making wine and beer (although I didn’t think of that as fermentation in the same light) and then I moved on to ‘pickling’ vegetables to preserve them in the fall (cucumbers, carrots, squash, beans, beets and radishes, and – of course – cabbage into sauerkraut) and now my kitchen includes fermented drinks like kombucha and ginger bug; all our pancakes and bread are from sourdough; any beans or grains are soaked and sprouted; and our condiments like ketchup, mayo and hot pepper sauce can be added to the list. I’m not listing this to brag or boast but to illustrate how it is a very steep slippery slope.
But why? Here are the reasons given in any reading or studies done about the benefits of fermenting.
- Preservation. Fresh foods don’t stay fresh for long so unless we do something with them. Eat them, cook them, freeze them, pasteurize and ‘can’ them, dry them, put them in a root cellar… or ferment them. That list was shorter before electricity: freezing wasn’t as option when you are putting up fresh food from harvest in September. The understanding related to pasteurization that is the basis for most of the canning that happens in kitchens all over North America was made popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. (Pasteurization – after Louis Pasteur, he gave us more than vaccinations). If you look at traditional foods from all over the world, in nomadic cultures and agricultural, fermentation was a key part of their food storage systems.
But if it was just about preservation, would people still be choosing to use this technique now that we have so many other options available, like fridges and freezers? Yes – because eating fermented foods is about so much more than storage.
- Predigestion. Many foods are contain nutrient dense compounds that are not easy for humans to digest and fermentation makes the nutrients more bio-available: easier for our bodies to use. Examples of this are soy and dairy products. Many people who find that fresh dairy upsets their stomach have no trouble eating yogurts, butter, and cheese made via fermentation. The bloating and gas can come from the body trying to break down compounds that are hard to use and that creates discomfort. Fermenting breaks down the lactose sugars in the dairy and allows the body to use the other nutrients in the food with greater ease.
- Detoxing foods. This is an aspect of predigestion however it goes a step further. Many foods are toxic to us (in levels of extremes) unless they are fermented. Root foods like manioc and cassava are highly toxic and yet fermented, were key in traditional diets. Closer to home – most legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds are found to be high in phytic acid which actually blocks the absorption of many minerals by both binding the minerals so they can’t be digested and also by inhibiting the enzymes our body uses to break food down and digest it. The practice of soaking grains, beans, nuts and seeds has been lost in our focus on cooking foods quickly and conveniently but it also means we are consuming the natural toxins these foods have that are removed during the process of soaking.
- Nutrient Augmentation. Since fermentation is a process carried out by microorganisms, like any organism that digests food – those microorganisms release metabolic bi-products that when consumed are nutrients to us and without fermentation, those nutrients would not be present in the starting ingredients. An example of this is brewer’s yeast. This bi-product of brewing beer is is high in B vitamins, chromium, and protein and is used in treatments for diarrhea, influenza, colds, and many other ailments. Many people who make their own beer use the thick, cloudy liquid at the bottom of the keg in their breads or soups or simply drink it. It’s a ‘free’ vitamin boost.
- Live Bacterial Culture – aka ‘probiotics’. I’d be surprised if anyone who has read this far has not heard of ‘probiotics’ or at least heard a product promoting itself because it has them added. Probiotics are basically live bacterial culture in food that are beneficial for our digestion, immunity and even for reproduction. These live bacterial cultures that are part of fermentation are also these great probiotics so by eating various ferments, regularly – you are regularly consuming probiotics that replenish and support our intestinal bacteria. This is important for two reason: we are living through the ‘war on bacteria’ – pasteurization and irradiation are not selective weapons, they kill beneficial bacteria as well as the few bad; everywhere are products that claim to kill 99.9% bacteria. Our digestion and immunity rely on the good bacteria that are killed out alongside the bad and so unless we keep reintroducing them to our system, we can have a compromised digestive system.
And I can’t forget
- Taste! Cucumber pickles and dill carrots are as important to have on the table at our family feasts as mashed potatoes and gravy. Olives and coffee and chocolate are all products of fermentation. Cheese! Chorizo sausages! And the list of foods could go on – – many foods that would be considered gourmet and on the top list of foodies are the products of fermentation.
So why do I ferment? I’d sum it up as I am cheap and I like to play with my food.
I am cheap: we are eating our supplements; I don’t need to buy new jar tops each year because I can reuse vessels again and again and don’t need airtight seals; the main inputs I have to purchase to keep up my fermenting practices are salt and sugar and even those, in most cases, are mostly for taste than need. I have a hard time paying for fresh vegetables in the winter when I know I’ve jars and crocks teeming full of good tastes (alongside our root cellar vegetables) that I didn’t have to pay (much) for during the summer.
I like to play with my food: for the same reason I like to cook and not bake, I can’t seal something up or stick it in the oven and wait to try it. I live to taste and smell and adjust as I go along. Fermenting means that every day I interact with one thing or the other to see if it’s ‘done’ or needs something more; some require ‘feeding’ daily or weekly; others I can use a mixers in drinks or condiments in many ways.
This piece has gotten long but I guess my point is that there are many beneficial and many fun reasons to get fermenting – most of us involved start with one and keep going.
The following piece is part of a regular column in the local newspaper that Brenda writes, often inspired by our farm journey and adventures. It first appeared in The Chautauqua in 2013.