A beginner’s guide to fermenting foods


By Rachel Thoo

Vegetables, fruits, herbs, legumes, nuts, meats and diary were first fermented as a means of preserving perishables. To get the most out of a harvest, people had to find a way to make the perishables last. From sauerkraut, cheeses, sauces, and vegetables buried in earthen pots, these foods have been sustaining humans in various cultures and civilizations for thousands of years. Fermentation not only prolongs the life of the foods in a healthy, sustainable way, the food is preserved without the use of chemical preservatives, relying on microbes to do the job for us.

Fermented foods are whole foods that, with the help of microorganisms, go through a process called lacto-fermentation. The natural good bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food converting it to lactic acid, which is what gives fermented foods the sour taste. This form of preserves creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotic powerhouses. This boosts levels of good bacteria to improve your overall health and balance your body’s collective microbiome, which in turn will aid your digestive system. A healthy microbiome will also increase immunity, prevent disease, reduce blood pressure and help maintain a healthy weight.
The typical modern North American diet is actually one of the only diets in the world that doesn’t include fermented foods. Traditional foods such as miso and sauerkraut help to aid our gut and digestion. Even root beer started out as a fermented medicinal drink. Ginger ale and root beer were so popular that the food industry caught on, and manufactured soda pop was born to replace what was once a naturally effervescent health drink. Our ancestors learned the benefits of fermentation early on, but for some reason, we’ve gradually replaced a nutritious diet with “better living through chemistry” in the last century.
You probably know that brined pickles, soy sauce, wine and yogurts are fermented, as well as cheese and sourdough bread. Did you know that chocolate is a fermented product as well, or that dry aged beef and other meats are, in a sense, fermented products, allowing microbes to break down the enzymes in the meat to enhance the flavour and texture of the meats? There are literally thousands of fermented foods across the globe: natto, tempeh, rejuvelac, kvass, marmite, ginger beer, brined cucumbers, miso, doenjang, lukfish, dosa, water kefir, and braga to name a few.
When a food is fermented, it encourages the growth of good bacteria, while preventing the growth of spoilage-causing microorganisms. Fermentation helps to improve the biological value of your foods, therefore increasing the nutritional value for your digestion. In the fermentation process, the food is broken down or predigested as it ferments, which makes it easier for the body to process. It also has a unique ability to ease stomach discomfort from too much or too little stomach acids by adjusting the acidity of gastric juices; this helps to produce acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter for facilitating the transmission of nerve impulses, which aids in bowel movements and constipation.
Overuse of antibiotics and antibacterial soaps can cause resistance, killing other good bacteria, but will allow this resistant subset to proliferate. Antibiotic use destroys the normal balance of gut flora and leaves an open field for bad bacteria and fungi to move in. Moreover, over-consumption of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates will feed the bad yeast. Once the immune system is weakened, or there are not enough good bacteria to combat the bad yeast, then it begins to grow unchecked and cause symptoms, such as “leaky gut.”

With a diet of sugars and over-processed foods, people today are also struggling to keep their bodies as healthy and happy as those who lived before us!

When there aren’t enough good bacteria to aid digestion, poorly digested food can lead to putrefaction (rotting) which would encourage the growth of unwanted organisms and eliminate good bacteria.
The great thing about the lacto-fermentation process is that the tough cellular walls of vegetables are broken down, allowing for much easier absorption by the body. During fermentation, the vitamin levels actually increase along with enzyme levels, often by two to three times, while the levels of beneficial probiotics can exceed the numbers of any probiotic supplement. These great lacto-bacilli help to build the flora, good bacteria in the digestive tract, which in turn builds and supports the immune system.
Adults have approximately two kilograms of bacteria in the lining of the gut and bowel wall. Those two kilograms are compiled of approximately 85 per cent beneficial bacteria and 15 per cent harmful bacteria. Just like your vegetables in your garden, or harmony in your work or personal life, we can function well with this balance of bacteria. However stress, poor diet, malabsorption, antibiotics, or environmental and chemical pollutants, viruses or parasites can disturb this delicate balance. This condition is called dysbiosis.
Dysbiosis is an imbalance in your gut flora caused by too few good bacteria and an overgrowth of bad bacteria, yeast, and/or parasites.
You may have heard of the gut/brain connection. I am convinced that the wisdom of our ancestors, who coined the terms “gut feeling’ or “trust our gut instinct,” understood the true meaning of an emotional body response and respected their natural radar, having been hunters and gatherers. Your gut tells you when you are hungry, lovesick, stressed or have eaten something that has gone bad. Scientists call this little brain the enteric nervous system (ENS).
Studies suggest that 95 per cent of serotonin neurotransmitters and feel-good hormones come from our gut rather than our brain, and 85 per cent of our immune system is manufactured in the lining of our gut wall. Serotonin carries signals to the nerves. It is a chemical that is responsible for mood, and low serotonin levels can lead to depression. Therefore, a compromised gut does more than interfere with digestion. It may also alter your immune system and upset your hormonal balance. A dysbiosis will also cause mental fogginess, anxiety, depression and mood swings, an increase in colds, allergies, autoimmune disorders, skin problems, fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal upsets and a slower healing process.
Fermented foods are easier to digest because they’re already partially broken down by the bacteria.
When fermented foods are consumed in your daily diet you will notice the health benefits including lower cholesterol, less inflammation, healthy weight, better mood and brain function, proper digestive functioning. This may help with back pain due to stress on the lower abdominal muscles besides releasing toxicities, and building a stronger immune system. In fact, Saccharomyces boulardii is used in hospitals to treat diarrhea and infections and Kombucha is loaded with this particular strain of yeast.

Jarisch–Herxheimer reaction, Healing crisis or Die-off

Knowing exactly what is happening in your body is key to your healing journey. When you consume fermented foods for the first time, especially if you have many ailments, pay attention to what your body is telling you. A reaction may arise when large quantities of toxins are released into the body as the bad bacteria die-off. It can occur during antibiotic treatment or too rapid detoxification. Toxins are released as the “casualties” die off faster than the kidneys and liver can process. Gastrointestinal issues may initially worsen. You may also find you have flatulence, bloating or diarrhea. Some of us may develop flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, muscle pain, hives and headaches, or a worsening of allergies. You may want to introduce these foods slowly into your system.

The Many Benefits of Fermented Foods

Fermented foods are Mother Nature’s probiotics. They contain many live bacteria along with many other crucial nutrients.

• Nutrient Laden
Fermentation helps to increase the micronutrients of food, such as vitamin K2 (potassium), which help prevent arterial plaque buildup and heart disease. Fermented foods also create beneficial enzymes like vitamin Bs, vitamin A, vitamin C, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various other probiotics. Fermentation also eliminates anti-nutrients that interfere with absorption of nutrients. Phytic acid found in legumes and seeds can be broken down via fermentation so the minerals become available.

• Strengthened Immune System
Your gut is your largest immune organ in your body. A proper balance of gut bacteria with digestive enzymes helps to absorb nutrients in the food, which in turn, strengthens you with natural supplements and vitamins. It is your top defense system against all disease.

• Detoxification
The beneficial bacteria in fermented foods are highly potent detoxifiers, capable of drawing out a wide range of pesticides, toxins and heavy metals. Fermentation breaks down the nutrients in foods by the action of beneficial microorganisms and creates natural chelators that are available to bind toxins and remove them from the body. Kimchi is known to be a powerhouse detoxifier.

• Cost-effectiveness
Fermenting is an ideal way of preserving your summer harvest as well as maintaining your overall health, from making vinegars, yogurt, kefir, kombucha and preserves to making your own fermented sauces. It is also low tech and low energy consumption to boot. All you need is a knife, a chopping board, some earthernware or glassware, and food from nature!

• Natural Microflora
Incorporating a variety of fermented and cultured foods into your diet will ensure you’ll get a much wider variety of beneficial bacteria than you could ever get from a supplement.

• Healthy Gut Flora
You cannot reap the benefits of raw vegetables if your gut flora is imbalanced due to the fact that you can’t absorb the nutrients. Fermentation pre-digests food, making certain nutrients more available for absorption. The lactic acid produced during fermentation promotes the growth of healthy flora in the intestine. This would ensure you get the most nutrients out of all foods you ingest. Fermentation also reduces anti-nutrients. Phytates, present in grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, bind to minerals, making those nutrients unavailable for absorption. Fermentation breaks these molecular bonds so the body can absorb them easily.

6 Common Fermented Foods and Drinks

1. Sauerkraut: Sailors, including the crew of Captain Cook ate sauerkraut as a way to get enough Vitamin C and prevent scurvy. Sauerkraut consists of mainly cabbage and salt, with variants of carrots, horseradish, caraway, corn, and other herbs and spices. It is full of dietary fibre, as well as vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K and B vitamins, not to mention manganese, copper, magnesium, iron and calcium. Naturally fermented sauerkraut can be purchased in the refrigerated section of a grocer, labeled “unpasteurized” or with “live cultures.”

2. Yoghurt or yogurt: There are almost as many different strains of yogurt culture (starter) as there are different cultures in the world, as well as different methods to culture them. When you combine that with its versatile ability to take on flavours and uses, yogurt is one of the greatest food trends of the 21st century!
Filled with protein, packed with probiotics, and loaded calcium, yogurt is one of the most nutritious foods to help aid digestion. Yogurt labeled with the “Live & Active Cultures” seal, according to the Canadian Dairy Commission, must have the Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus bacterial strains to bear the name “yogurt.”

3. Milk Kefir: Kefir is a slightly creamy, naturally effervescent fermented milk drink, like drinkable yogurt. Kefir is a living culture of complex symbiosis to which many microflora form from a culture called kefir “grains” added to milk and left to ferment for a period of 24 hours or more. The lactic acid bacteria turn the lactose in the milk into lactic acid giving it a delicious effervescent tart taste. Kefir contains numerous strains of bacteria and yeasts, making it a very rich and diverse probiotic drink, while other fermented dairy products have few strains of bacteria, and do not contain any good yeasts.

4. Kombucha: Called Hong Cha Jun in Cantonese, it is better known in North America as Kombucha. This ancient traditional Chinese form of fermented tea is a tangy, slightly sweet, effervescent drink usually flavoured with fruits or herbs.
Kombucha is typically brewed with black or green tea, but can be made with anything high in tannins such as hibiscus, nettle, butterfly pea flower or rooibos. Kombucha brew involves tea, sugar and a symbiotic process of yeast and bacteria culture called SCOBY, an acronym for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast.
The yeast contributed is the microbe saccharomyces, while the bacteria gluconacetobacter xylinus helps oxidize alcohols produced by the yeast, and convert them to various acids, such as glucuron acid, acetic acid, lactic acid, vitamins, amino acids, antibiotic substances, and other products. Russian studies have proven kombucha to be an effective overall detoxifier through the binding of the organic acids to toxins present in the body. Once tightly bound to the organic acids, the toxins are then rushed to the kidneys for excretion. The yeasts in kombucha are beneficial yeasts, and not pathogenic ones like candida. A Jarisch–Herxheimer reaction or healing crisis may confuse someone with candida who drinks kombucha for the first time when there is a flare up of symptoms, due to the fact that beneficial yeasts are rebalancing the gut environment.
Many commercial kombucha products have an unhealthy amount of added sugars to please the masses, which may add a candida overproduction or diabetic risk.

5. Kimchi: Also spelled kimchee or gimchi, kimchi is any Korean pickled or fermented vegetable eaten in every meal in South Korea. Chinese cabbage Kimchi, similar to sauerkraut, but spicy, is the best known kimchi in North America. Consisting of various pickled vegetables and other foodstuff preserved in earthenware pots, kimchi is a delicious powerhouse detoxifier that will go a long way towards re-establishing your gut health. Korean kimchi can be radishes, cucumber, turnip, eggplant, (and) flavoured with spices, herbs, shellfish, fish and fruits. Kimchi made of Chinese cabbage
is prepared at the end of autumn.In winter, daikon kimchi is used to make “white kimchi.” In the summer heat, short-term cucumber kimchi with garlic chives, and spices is a refreshing addition.
Kimchi is rich in vitamins A and C, and is loaded with very beneficial bacteria called lactobacilli. The health benefits of kimchi are numerous, from helping digestion, lowering cholesterol, reduce inflammation, aiding in weight management, controlling diabetes, protecting against colds and flu, and antioxidants to help shield the body to name a few.

6. Miso Miso is a flavouring agent, fermented with soybean, sea salt, koji (a culture starter inoculated with rice mould spores), and can be blended with barley, brown rice, buckwheat, or white rice. It is traditionally aged in cedar kegs for six months to three years. Miso soup is often consumed for breakfast in Japan. It is a complete food with all the essential amino acids, beneficial bacteria, enzymes, protein, vitamin B2, vitamin B12, vitamin K, vitamin E, tryptophan, choline, lecithin, and linoleic acid. It alkalizes the body and helps lower LDL cholesterol, not to mention stimulating the digestive system. It is said that Japanese women’s skin is flawless due to the linoleic acid in miso soup.
This humble soup is credited with saving the lives of Japanese victims when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August, 9, 1945. Dr. Tatsuichiro Akizuki is credited for saving the lives of these patients, 1.4 kilometres away from ground zero by feeding them wakame seaweed miso soup daily. Studies also show that, according to different fermentation stages (early, medium, and long-term), the long-term fermented miso had “significantly increased” the rate of survival. To retain all the nutrients in miso and preserve living microorganisms, do not subject to high heat.
Rachel Thoo studies plant-based medicine. E-mail rachelthoo@gmail.com for details about her fermenting workshops.



Tips for fermentation
Beginners are advised to grate, chop or shred the vegetables they plan to ferment because vegetables such as carrots and beets are dense enough that it’s difficult for the lactic acid to penetrate larger pieces.

Clean it: Make sure everything, including your hands, tools, jars, etc., is clean. Never use anti-bacterial soaps which kill any good bacteria you would want to harness from the air. You could also rinse everything with vinegar before rinsing with water.

Weigh it down: Keep your food down under the brine away from air where it can’t pick up bacteria aerobically.

Brine it up: If you have too low a water/brine level, it gives undesirable bacteria and yeasts the food they need to grow on the surface. Keep at least one inch of brine above your ferments. Sometimes a white film will form on top of your brine. That is called Kahm yeast and is harmless. Discard the batch if you see any type of mold. It is an indication your whole ferment is contaminated.

Leave enough head space: If you pack your jar too full, you may not leave enough space for the fermenting reaction to take place without causing an overflow. Pack your jars only 75 to 80 percent full. Chlorine and fluoride both kill microbes, and will not support a healthy ferment. Clean well water and fresh spring water are ideal in ferments, or filtered city water.

Salt it: Salt is an important ingredient in the fermentation process. Salt keeps unwanted bacteria from propagating, adds flavor, preserves vitamin content, and can slow the fermentation process to allow flavor to develop fully. An ideal salt for fermenting is whole, unrefined, without anti-caking agents. Keep your salt ratio to 1-3 tablespoons to each quart of water. Cucumbers and peppers require higher salinity to prevent mold.

Seal it: If your jar doesn’t keep out the oxygen, your yeast in the ferment could be oxidized, forming vinegar. It will also increase risk of mold. Hermetic jars, mason jars, and unleaded pottery and crocks are ideal for fermenting. Metals such as aluminum, copper, and silver will leach into your foods.

Measure it: Temperature is important in the making of fermented foods. The gut-friendly bacteria thrive at certain temperatures, but will die off if the mixture gets too hot.
Keep it acidic: Foods with a low acid level are more hospitable to bacteria and spoilage. Your sauerkraut, for instance, should have a pH of 4.6 or lower. Taste it periodically while fermenting or use pH strips to test.

Check it: If you see mold, start again.

Easy Beginner’s Sauerkraut

• I large head of green cabbage (2 lbs)
• 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of unrefined sea salt or kosher salt
Optional: red cabbage, carrots, beets, turmeric, ginger, horseradish, etc., can be added as well as spices such as caraway and peppercorn.
1. Cut the cabbage in half, and with the cut side down, slice the cabbage, with or without the cabbage heart/core.
2. Place in a bowl and sprinkle salt between layers of cabbage. The salt will pull juice from the cabbage and create a brine in which the cabbage can ferment without pathogens.
3. Let it sit for a few minutes, and then start mashing them together with your hands.
4. Press into mason jars a bit at a time, until the cabbage is tightly packed and the brine is above the cabbage by an inch. Leave at least a couple of inches of headspace for expansion. It will keep making brine while it ferments.
5. Place a clean non-corrosive lid on the jar. If using mason jars, you can use a slice of onion that can be bent to fit, with a couple of carrot sticks wedged under the shoulders of the jar, to keep the cabbage from floating. I would suggest placing a bowl underneath the jar of cabbage just in case of spillage as the brine rises.
6. Leave in a dark place.Temperature should be 18ºC to 22ºC. Check oncei in a while and press down on the weight to help facilitate the brine.
7. Older cabbages may not have enough juice to fill the brine above the cabbage. After a day, check the brine. If there isn’t enough brine to cover the cabbage, add a solution of a teaspoon of salt to a cup of room temperature water to the brine.
8. Let it ferment for at least a month. It maybe tangy and seem ready at 2 weeks, but it still has a higher chance of moulding in the fridge at 2 weeks.

Harvest Vegetables

• 3 tbsp unrefined sea, or pickling salt
• 1 quart/litre of water
• 1 cup cauliflower florets
• 1 cup carrots slices
• 1 cup red bell pepper chunks
• 1 cup banana pepper chunks
• 1 or 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
• 1 bay leaf
• ½ teaspoon coriander seeds
• ¼ teaspoon black peppercorn

Combine salt and water until salt is dissolved. You can heat the water, but it’s not necessary. Let it come to room temperature, before adding to pickles.
Place the remaining ingredients in a clean, large, half gallon jar. Poor the salt brine over the vegetables, leaving at least 1 inch of headspace for the top of the jar. You could place a slice of onion or a piece of cabbage leaf on top to keep the vegetables submerged. Cover the jar with a noncorrosive lid and let stand at room temperature. Open the jar once a day to help release the gasses produced during fermentation. Ferment for at least two weeks. When you like that taste, transfer the jar to the refrigerator.

Rachel Thoo studies plant-based medicine. E-mail rachelthoo@gmail.com for fermenting workshops..