This is the perfect time to learn more about fermented foods. Our gardens and our CSAs are a blessing at this time of year. I know for myself, I usually have more food than I know what do to with and never want it to go to waste. So, an ancient way to keep foods from turning bad is to ferment them.
Fermentation is thought to have been used in pre-human times. The first fermented drinks were recorded 7,000 years ago in Babylon and bread-making was probably first started in Egypt over 3,500 years ago. The definition of fermentation is the "slow decomposition process of organic substances induced by micro-organisms, or by complex nitrogenous substances (enzymes) of plant or animal origin.”
There are several ways to ferment--the use of salt or brine, sugar and microbes such as bacteria, yeast and mold. The results of fermentation can be alcohol, lactic acid or a mixed acid fermentation. Lactic acid fermentation (or lacto-fermentation) causes a sour taste and is used in creating cheese, kombucha, yogurt and pickled vegetables. Alcohol fermentation is used in alcohol creation, of course, and in the gases created to cause bread to rise.
Fermentation, besides being economically and ecologically beneficial, is also healthy. Fermentation increases the levels of vitamins in a product as well as adds probiotics. In addition, the microbes have helped to break down the foods that have been fermented, making them easier to digest. Please note that fermented foods must be unpasteurized to maintain their levels of beneficial flora (i.e., no canned sauerkraut!!).
So, the big question is how healthful are fermented foods? Well, one thing to note is that fermented foods, like soy sauce, miso and kimchi, are used daily in Asia and they tend to be healthier than westerners. One study has shown that increasing probiotics, which can be achieved with eating more fermented foods, can help with obesity; another shows that it can have positive effects on people with metabolic syndromes.
There are many sites that supply all you need to ferment. One that I have found very helpful is CulturesForHealth.com. They have the supplies needed for all sorts of fermenting with books and information as well.
Sally Fallon, a fermenting expert, raises the question of health today and lack of fermented foods in the diet. Her question is: “Could it be that in abandoning the ancient practice of lacto-fermentation and in our insistence on a diet in which everything has been pasteurized, we have compromised the health of our intestinal flora and made ourselves vulnerable to legions of pathogenic microorganisms? If so, the cure for these diseases will be found not in vaccinations, drugs or antibiotics but in a restored partnership with the many varieties of lactobacilli, our symbionts of the microscopic world.”
Image courtesy of SeriousEats.com.