How to Get Comfortable With Fermented foods
By Michelle Branco
If you’re used to the careful packaging of most processed foods, the idea
of eating something where bacterial growth is actually encouraged requires a
certain amount of faith. Even if you’ve dabbled in canning, or maybe
especially so, replacing the destruction of bacteria with its careful
nurturing is something of a leap. But this article will reassure you of the
safety of fermented foods.
Despite what you could consider a natural wariness, fermented foods
exist in virtually every traditional diet – whether as vegetables, dairy, or
grains. Even without the level of hygiene in our modern kitchens,
lacto-fermentation in particular is effective at long-term preservation
because the lacto-bacteria are extremely effective at killing off other
bacteria and the acid environment they create is inhospitable (but tasty!).
Effective as a method of preserving the harvest, fermented foods are also
nutritional powerhouses, maximizing the availability of nutrients and
nurturing the healthy bacterial flora of the eater. Fermentation breaks down
compounds that are indigestible, making foods edible that might otherwise be
hard to digest. At the same time, research summarized in a 1995 WHO/FAO
report on fermented foods shows that by changing the ph levels in foods,
nutrients that would have been poorly absorbed can be used effectively by
the body – namely, calcium, iron, and zinc. At the same time, vitamin C is
unaffected by fermentation, which further increases the availability of iron
in the food.
The live bacteria does more than just alter the food.
When consumed, it
changes the body as well. In a 2004 review of current evidence, a
researchers group noted several animal studies that indicate that the
consumption of lacto-bacteria in common foods improves the body’s ability to
respond to both infection and inflammation quite dramatically. As we
increase our understanding of the connection between diet, gut health, and
the immune system, it seems increasingly clear that science is figuring out
what peasants have known for generations: Sometimes a little “sour” is just
what the body needs.
While I’m willing to embrace the idea of fermented foods, it does pose
something of a problem to the modern cook. By their nature, live fermented
foods are unpredictable and sensitive to their environment, so distribution
through grocery store supply chains is understandably problematic.
Of course, scale becomes a problem in the other direction when the home cook
considers setting up a nurturing environment for some countertop
fermentation. Recipes that have yields in the gallons and usually include
buckets are probably very close to the original, but may not be realistic
given the size of today’s families and kitchens.
Food Safety & Fermentation
Unlike traditional preserving, you won’t be using high heat
seals to keep food from spoiling, so you need to take special care not to
introduce pathogenic bacteria while you nurture the healthy bacteria.
- Sterilize all utensils, jars, and crocks before using.
- Wash hands and cutting surfaces thoroughly.
- Use healthy, peak-of-ripeness produce, preferably organic.
- This is not a time to skimp on salt – a minimum level of salt and acidity
is needed to inhibit the growth of dangerous bacteria.
- Wash and dry all produce well.
- During fermentation, keep little (and big) fingers out of crocks and away
from excessive heat or cold that might disturb the process.
- Refrigerate or can for longer-term storage.
- “Sour” does not mean rotten; discard food that has turned color, smells
foul, or has become mushy.
Michelle Branco is a freelance writer and
blogger about mothering, breastfeeding, product safety
and, of course, food. She is also an International Board
Certified Lactation Consultant .
word graphic © Kheng Guan Toh/Shutterstock