Fermented foods have made a big comeback recently and for good reason. They’re packed with flavor and health benefits. My parents used to ferment kimchi when I was a kid and I grew up enjoying the powerful tang and spice that kimchi provides, so I’m happy that these foods are becoming popular again.
I’m also pleased to learn that what I thought was just something tasty is actually very good for you. It’s a rather easy, inexpensive, and fun way to include a variety of probiotic bacteria in your diet. These foods keep for a long time and once they’re prepared they’re very easy to include in a meal. There is something deeply satisfying about producing your own food in this way, and many ferments included her are ideal for an omnivorous, vegan, or raw diet. What more could you ask of a food?
Fermented cabbage

Currently my main ferments include dairy yogurt, dairy kefir, water kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi.  Since I’ve included these foods in my diet several times a day, I’ve noticed a significant boost in my mood, energy, skin and hair health, as well as my digestive health. My wife seems to experience similar benefits. Although this is hardly a peer-reviewed study on the benefits, several have been done. A good summary of this information and the science behind it can be found in the book The Good Gut, by Stanford biomedical researcher Justin and Erica Sonnenburg.
Since my wife and I drink dairy and water kefir daily, this is what we prepare most often. There is a slight learning curve at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty easy. It’s just a matter of timing and recognizing when it’s finished, which is really a matter of taste. Longer time will yield more sour, a shorter time will be milder. You just need to get a hold of quality kefir grains, which aren’t actually grains at all but a symbiosis of various beneficial bacteria and yeasts, and then add them to dairy milk or sugar water depending on the type of grains you have. The frequent ingestion of these foods have shown to boost the immune system in most people, though there can be individual variability.
Home fermentation requires a little bit of work, but it more than pays for itself in the sheer numbers and varieties of the beneficial microorganisms found in home-fermented foods, which have been shown in laboratory tests to vastly outnumber what can be found in store bought varieties or supplements. But store bought is a good place to start if you’re just beginning to acquire a taste for these strongly flavored foods.
Once you’ve got the ferment ready then it’s very easy to add them to smoothies, make fresh cheeses, salad dressings, sauces, or refreshing drinks with fairly little effort. Currently we like to add dairy kefir, home-made yogurt, and water kefir to our healthy smoothies that include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. I can’t think of a healthier way to start off the day.
It’s important to note that in the body the probiotics work most of their magic when taken with a healthy amount of fiber, or prebiotics, which aid in the colonization in the gut of the the beneficial microorganisms, for certain species of microbes. Many of the microbes just pass through tuning immunity in the digestive track as they move along. As a refreshing and healthy replacement for sweet drinks and sodas, water kefir is perfect. We ferment the water kefir in sugar water, the beneficial microorganism digest the sugar, so there is no need to worry about excess sugar intake if its fermented properly, and they convert it to vitamins and increase the number of these friendly microbes. Once you have the finished product, after eight hours to a full day or so depending on how hot the weather is, I add lemon or lime to it to give a smooth refreshing flavor that is better than the kefir flavor alone, and way better than commercially produced beverages. This is a sort of water kefir lemonade and is perfect for introducing probiotics for kids.
Kimchi is another culinary powerhouse we like to keep in the fridge. It takes a couple of days to ferment the Napa cabbage, what we frequently use, and it goes well with most any dish, particularly heavier meaty or fatty dishes and aids in the digestion so that you reduce that full heavy feeling after such a meal. But it’s also a perfect accompaniment for a light vegan dish as well. We sometimes make a Korean kimchi tofu soup called kimchi jiggae from it. You do lose the beneficial microbes through heating, but none of the flavor.
Kimchi and sauerkraut are a little more complicated to do than the kefirs, because more can go wrong, mostly due to air exposure. It’s important to know that the beneficial microbes are anaerobic and require an oxygenless environment for them to dominate the unhealthy bacteria that can develop in the air. There is virtually no danger of food poisoning if done correctly and in fact it is a good idea to drink kefir if you suspect food poisoning (Sonneburg, 2015). Anyone knows that setting cabbage out in the open would soon create an unappealing mess after some time, so make sure the salt content is correct and the cabbage is fully immersed in the brine solution with few air bubbles as possible. A top weight may be necessary to ensure immersion depending on the vessel used. The garlic, ginger, and salt also seem to tip the scales in favor of the beneficial microbes, as I’ve had more go wrong with sauerkraut in this regard. Smelling and appearance are the best way to tell if you’ve done it right. If you know what good kimchi or kraut smell like then it will smell good to you and the cabbage will maintain it’s relative crispness as opposed to getting mushy. It should taste tart and should feel good to the stomach when eaten.
As for the yogurt, it’s a good idea to use a yogurt maker and follow the instructions, though it is possible to make in a low temperature oven or a temperature controlled steamer. The beneficial bacteria in yogurt need a higher temperature to ferment properly (about 40ºC and up) than does the kimchi, kraut, or kefir, which can me made at room temperature. Yogurt is a foundation for a lot of dressings, dipping sauces, and makes a good marinade. Homemade tzatziki is out of this world. I haven’t done so, but I look forward to making homemade lassis and researching other traditional Indian uses of this tangy and delicious food.
If you’re new to fermented foods, start by including a little bit and gradually building up as your body adjusts to the new friendly microbes which can create some mild short-term discomfort for some people, particularly for those switching from a heavy meaty or highly processed diet.
So good luck with your fermentation experiments and enjoy the pleasure of producing your own food, the amazing complexity of flavors they provide, and the plethora of healthy benefits.