Fermented foods are becoming incredibly popular: And while it’s easy to make a lot of fermented foods at home, fermenting can still be a bit frightening to some people. I’m going to answer some of the most frequently asked questions I get in the hope of taking some of the mystery out of preparing your own fermented foods.
Q: I’ve heard how healthy probiotics and fermented foods are, but I’m not sure I like them, and I have no idea where to start.
A: You heard correctly! The word is finally getting out about the benefits of these traditional, old school foods. Fermented foods can be healthy and tasty addition to your diet. You have probably been eating fermented foods without realizing it. Coffee, chocolate, bread, cheese and yogurt are all examples of fermented foods. Note that most of these foods are not probiotic-rich fermented foods but they are still fermented all the same.
If you want to focus on digestive healing and the probiotic benefits of certain fermented foods, I suggest starting with fermented vegetables like pickles, sauerkraut, or kimchi or a fermented beverage like kombucha. Lucky for us, these types of ferments are becoming more common in health food stores and grocers. Ferments tend to be on the sour or tart side in general, so it might take a bit to get used to. But I promised they will grow on you.
Q: I want to make my own ferments but I’m worried that I am going to get sick or poison my loved ones.
People have been safely fermenting foods at home for a very long time, so don’t worry. Fermented food needs to reach a pH level of 4.6 or lower (which indicates it is acidic enough to be safe). Fermentation, if done properly, will bring food to the “safe” acidity level. This is pretty easy to do.
The take-home message here is that proper fermentation temperature allows for problematic pathogens to be “selected” and destroyed, while also inhibiting the the growth of organisms that can spoil the food. If you are using a true anaerobic system for fermenting vegetables (see my book, Lisa’s Counter Culture: Pickles and Other Well-Bred Foods for the complete story), then it’s likely safer to eat fermented vegetables over raw vegetables since the lower pH caused by the lactobacillus bacteria can keep those pesky bad bacteria in check.
Q: Is “pickling” or “canning” the same as “fermenting”?
A: A common misconception about fermentation is that it is the same as pickling. Initially, this term was more accurate. But now, most “pickled” products are made with vinegar and heated at high heat to preserve them. I refer to these foods as jarred foods. These are commonly found on the unrefrigerated shelves at your grocer or from someone “canning” at home to preserve vegetables such as carrots, sauerkraut, jams, etc. This is a way to preserve food that can certainly be useful. However, a big drawback is that canned or pickled foods often have preservatives added and any live enzymes are killed during the heating process. Therefore, these foods are not living or gut-healing foods.
Q: I can’t eat dairy products, so how can I eat lactofermented foods?
A: You are in luck! Lactofermentation is often confused as being dairy-based because of the prefix “lacto” but this is not accurate. Lacto-fermentation does include dairy ferments, but the term itself refers to the bacteria formed which are known as lactobacillus or lactic acid bacteria (LAB). This is an important distinction because it means that individuals who are lactose or casein intolerant can still benefit from lactofermented foods.
Q: I started eating homemade sauerkraut and I love it. Since it tastes so wonderful, I ate much more then I normally would. Now I feel a bit like I’m coming down with a cold. What happened? I thought ferments boost the immune system?
A: Homemade kraut tastes so much better than store bought and of course it’s easy to think “if a little is good then more is even better.” But here’s the rub. Unless you’ve been eating real food and avoiding all processed foods for a long time, chances are there is some kind of unbalance in your system, even if you feel great.
So it isn’t surprising that our bodies will go through some change when we start ingesting beneficial bacteria. The balance starts to become tilted as the good bacteria start taking over from the other flora in your gut. These cells die and release toxins. It sounds scary, but it isn’t. This is where “die off” comes in. If you ingest a lot of beneficial bacteria, these other bacteria die quickly in large numbers and produce toxins faster than your body can clear them out. This is what causes the symptoms of “die off”.
Hang in there and slow down a bit to let your system adjust. Your immune system will become stronger over time with the addition of your home ferments.
Q: Do I need to sterilize my jars like I do with canning vegetables?
A: Not usually. It’s important to have a clean and completely dry jar before adding your ingredients to ferment so that beneficial bacteria and yeasts have the right environment to grow and thrive. However if you have issues with mold or fungus in your home, or had a previous batch that contaminated your jar, you’ll need to take the extra step of sterilizing it.
Q: Should I peel my veggies?
A: Maybe. If you are using organic, pesticide-free vegetables from mineral-rich soil, than there is no need to peel. As a matter of fact, the outer skin is full of the beneficial bacteria we want to cultivate. If you are using conventional produce or produce of questionable origin, than peeling might be a good choice.
Q: What is Kahm yeast? What does it look like? How do you handle it? Toss? Ignore & eat? What kind of environment favors its production?
A: Yeast plays an important roll during lactofermentation. Kahm yeast is rare in anaerobic ferments but it does sometimes happen. Kahm yeast looks white, velvety, and powdery. Although harmless, Kahm yeast is something you don’t want to overgrow since it affects the flavor of the ferment. Kahm yeast is typically caused by under salting or exposure to air. If your jars are clean, add enough salt so the ferment is sufficiently acid (primarily when it’s started), and use airtight jars then it won’t happen. If it does, you can safely skim it and add more brine (2% salinity). Kahm yeast is often cultivated for a yeast starter for beer, ale, or bread.
Q: Can I use juice to make water kefir?
A: Yes. Straight fruit juice (organic is best) can be used to make water kefir. However, I strongly recommend getting your kefir grains established using sugar water (for at least a few batches) prior to using juice. It’s good practice to keep separate sets of kefir grains for culturing juice and culturing sugar-water. Juice strains the integrity of the kefir grains (it helps to culture them in sugar water every few batches). I’ve found that using water kefir grains in juice and then sugar water doesn’t taste good.