Healthy eating is all about variety; from the range of produce you eat, to the kinds of proteins you enjoy. Besides the actual foods you eat, how they are prepared can add even more beneficial nutrients to your body. The three main ways you can prepare your food is by eating it raw, cooking it, or fermenting it.
So What are Fermented Foods?
Fermentation is an old and traditional way of preserving foods. It involves putting food into an environment where the sugars and starches create lactic acid. From there, healthy bacteria is created.
You can ferment foods in a variety of ways, from introducing a bacteria to a food (like how yogurt is made) or creating a brine that the food cultures in and allows healthy bacteria to flourish in (like kimchi and sauerkraut). Fermenting and pickling are similar, but not entirely the same. Pickling relies on acidity as well as heat. The heat will kill any bacteria, good or bad. Fermenting doesn’t involve heat, keeping the bacteria intact.
Benefits of Fermented Foods
Besides tasting great, adding fermented foods to your diet can add help bolster your health.
Easier Digestion: The bacteria that’s growing in fermented foods break down certain parts of the food, which makes it easier to digest. If you’ve had issues digesting foods, fermented foods might be a less stressful option for you. Fermenting milk into yogurt breaks down the lactose that can be tough for lactose intolerant people to digest.
It can be common for a lactose intolerant person to be able to handle yogurt better than milk.
Good Source of Probiotics: Fermented foods are filled with probiotics. They are healthy, living bacteria that aid in digestion, fight off bad bacteria that can mess with your digestion and beyond, and produce vitamins. Having probiotics in your system can help with other issues as well, such as IBS, yeast infections and UTIs, diarrhea, and help fight infections.
Supports your Digestive System and Immunity: Your small and large intestine thrive on healthy bacteria to absorb nutrients and maintain a healthy immune system. Without it, unhealthy bacteria can multiply and cause problems throughout your body. 70% of your entire immune system is found in your intestines, so if your digestive system isn’t it’s healthiest, that can affect your immunity as well.
Fermented Foods to Try
There are many fermented foods to try in your diet to get all of the benefits above, and these foods can be used in variety of different dishes and enjoyed at all times of the day.
Sauerkraut and Kimchi: At the very basic level, sauerkraut is finely shredded cabbage that’s soaked in a simple brine of salt and water until it has a tart flavor. There are infinite variations you can take with sauerkraut, additional vegetables can be added, the kind of cabbage can change, and additional seasonings can be added to it, all to be adapted to your taste.
Sauerkraut is the German name for fermented cabbage and kimchi (with the addition of red chili powder) is the Korean variation.
How to Try It: Kraut and kimchi are great toppings in salads and sandwiches, and great on top of omelettes, a finishing touch on a soup, and paired with sausages. They would also be great as taco toppings. To get the most benefits out of your kraut or kimchi, enjoy that at room temperature or cold, as heating it will kill off some of the beneficial bacteria.
Miso: More than just a soup, miso is a Japanese paste made from fermenting soybeans with salt and the fungus koji. Other grains could be added for taste variety and will affect the color. If you have any grain sensitivities, check the package before buying. If you Miso is sold in a container of paste and you can dilute it with water, sesame oil or rice wine vinegar to make it more spreadable. Miso is more on the salty side, so keep that in mind while cooking and flavoring your foods.
How to Try It: In addition to being a great addition in broths and as a soup, miso can make a great sauce to glaze meat and vegetables in, as well a great salad dressing. Swap out the mayonnaise in your next batch of tuna salad with miso to give it a little salty kick. If you’re more adventurous, you can try adding it into sweeter things like desserts or ice creams.
Tempeh: Originally from Indonesia, tempeh is a cake of soybeans (and sometimes additional grains) that has a healthy mold growing over it that binds the beans together. It comes in a small, flat square and should be heated up before eating. It has a strong nutty flavor and is a common meat/bacon substitute for vegans and vegetarians. Tempeh is also high in protein and minerals.
How to Try It: Thinly slice it and heat it up in a skillet to use it as a bacon substitute. Cut the tempeh into strips and brown on each side and enjoy on top of a salad or bed of vegetables or in a wrap. You can also crumble it and spread it across your meal that way. The nutty taste works well with soy sauce or hot seasonings, and can adapt to other flavors very well. It will hold up in a soup or a curry dish, as well, unlike most tofus.
Yogurt: Made from heating milk, cooling it and adding in a culture (a variety of live, healthy bacterias) until it’s set, yogurt is a great way to get probiotics. Yogurt is also high in protein, and if you go for the whole milk varieties, a good source of healthy fat. There are many different varieties of yogurts, that depending on how much they were strained, affect their flavor and thickness.
How to Try It: Besides just eating straight yogurt as is as a snack, you can add some mix-ins into your yogurt (fruit, low-sugar granola). You can use yogurt as the main liquid for overnight oats, where you soak steel-cut oats overnight and enjoy the next day for breakfast or a snack. Yogurt is also great in savory applications. Yogurt dips for vegetables, meatballs (whether vegetarian or made of meat) or other proteins add great flavor to meal. You can also make yogurt-based dressings for salads. Yogurt can be a good thickener in soups, though heating it will kill the healthy bacteria. Chilled yogurt soups are something to try, as well as chilled yogurt drinks called lassis.
Kefir: Kefir is a drinkable yogurt. Though it’s similar to yogurt, they’re made with different cultures and a slightly different process. Because it’s made with different cultures, you can get additional probiotics from kefir that you won’t get from yogurt. Similar to yogurt, it’s low in lactose and whole fat varieties can be a good source of healthy fat and protein.
How to Try It: Because it’s more viscous than yogurt, kefir is great to add to smoothies, lassis, and other cooling drinks. You can also add some kefir to overnight oats as well. Kefir would be a great addition to some fresh fruit popsicles. Much like yogurt, it would make a great dressing or dip. Also consider using it as a marinade for meats. It will add flavor and make it more tender.
Kombucha: The drink that is taking the health food world by storm, kombucha is a traditionally fermented tea that can be a variety of flavors and is a bit fizzy. Kombucha starts with black or green tea, a starter culture called SCOBY, and sugar. The SCOBY feeds on the sugar and converts it to carbon dioxide, which carbonates the tea.
How to Try It: In addition to drinking kombucha and enjoying it straight, you can also add a bit of kombucha to your smoothie. It would also be great to add into dressings and marinades, adding to a cocktail, make popsicles, and some even suggest washing your hair with it.
Where to Find Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are becoming trendy, so it’s easier and easier to find them them at your local health food stores and grocery stores. When you’re buying any fermented foods, make sure they have not been pasteurized. Pasteurizing foods involves heat, which will kill the healthy bacteria in the food. A good rule of thumb is to buy your fermented foods from a refrigerated case.
When you find the fermented foods you like, you can also try making some of them yourself. Kraut, kimchi, yogurt, and kombucha can all be made at home with pretty standard kitchen supplies. There are lots of books, blogs, and websites that dive deep into how to make them at home. You’ll be able to save some money as well as flavor them however you want.
Some Things to Consider
When starting to add fermented foods into your diet, start small and with small amounts. It’s completely normal for your body, especially if your digestion isn’t as good as it could be and you don’t eat a lot of fermented foods, to have some adverse reactions to big amounts of fermented foods. Slowly add some in and see how your body reacts to them. Then you can start building up to larger amounts in your meals.
Have fun adding in these foods to your diet and get creative with how to use them. There are no wrong ways to enjoy fermented foods and your gut will thank you!
Aimée Suen is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who shares nourishing, gluten-free recipes and nutrition wisdom at Small Eats. She is driven to help others enjoy whole foods and empower them to find their own healthy in all aspects of life, one small step at a time. When she’s not in the kitchen, she’s practicing yoga, in the gym, or learning something new. You can find Aimée on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.
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