With the ever-increasing fascination in the Western world with all things health and fitness, the wellness trade has become one of the fastest-growing industries on the market. In particular, it is diet and nutrition that takes centre stage and the word ‘superfood’ has become an all too familiar phrase.
More recent obsessions lie in one particular area, that of fermented foods and the benefit of eating a diet rich in such will result in increased gut health, in turn, promoting a better looking you, be it skin, hair or more satisfactory toilet movements (all hail to that!), the list is endless. But how beneficial are fermented foods? There is no doubt that many other nations across the globe have included them as a staple part of their daily consumption. We delve deeper to find some real answers.
Fitness and wellbeing movers and shakers, particularly those social media influencers we see lying on sun-drenched desert islands have been championing the benefits of fermented food as being responsible for their enviable physiques and all-round happy glow. Whether it be kimchi, sauerkraut, yoghurt, kombucha or even sourdough bread, they have become an ever-present in big city food scenes from London to LA and everywhere in between.
What exactly is fermentation? Fermentation is if it can be described simply, a chemical process in which an organism transforms a carbohydrate such as sugar or starch into an acid or indeed alcohol. It is essentially a process whereby microorganisms can grow and flourish in the absence of air, or oxygen if you like.
It is, as many of you will be aware of the age-old process by which beer or wine is produced, which indeed themselves have certain health benefits when consumed moderately. As far back as the mid-19th-century scientists of the time were aware of the process of fermentation and furthermore during these times, it was a means by which cheese or leavened bread was made.
As is so often the case these days when it comes to the latest fad diet or food trend, it is not the discovery of some new ingredient but in fact a return to more traditional methods and approaches to producing food. In our increasing desire to avoid foods that contain a raft of chemicals and what seem to be unnecessary additions, many are looking to a time before mass production, consumerism and consumption.
And of course in those societies where fermentation continues and always has been a method by which food is produced they share in common the fact that they are not afflicted by so many of the health problems we have in the UK, parts of Europe and the US for example, with heart disease, obesity and even certain mental health disorders.
The Koreans eat kimchi with practically every meal, in Poland and Germany sauerkraut is an ever-present at the dining table and in France, all manner of pickled vegetables are eaten. Across Scandinavia there any number of examples of what could be classed as fermented foods, be it hung meats or dried fish, as in Spain for that matter.
What do all these nations have in common? Well a greater life expectancy than us Brits and our friends across the pond. But can it simply be due to these very specific types of food? Or is it maybe a more realistic and respectful approach to food consumption? It could be argued that in Britain and the US that it is not so much what we don’t eat as much as what we do. Let’s not forget that in the UK we have a strong tradition for pickled foods, from beetroot and onions to chutneys and preserves.
A study conducted by the NCBI highlighted the increasing movement away from traditional lifestyles and the link between this and increased rates of depression and other mental health disorders in certain areas of the Western world. The study goes on to highlight that,
“Traditional dietary practices, often exemplified by Mediterranean and Japanese models, are typically characterized by (relative to Western practices) higher intakes of fruits and vegetables, fish and seafood, cereals with limited processing, fiber, and only modest amounts of dairy and lean meats … Among the more convincing of these studies are the recent prospective investigations showing that stronger adherence to traditional healthy dietary patterns is associated with a 25 to 30% lower risk of depression. Traditional Japanese dietary practices, where fermented soy products are specifically linked to adherence, have also been associated with lower rates of depressive symptoms. Alcohol has deservedly received much attention in the link between problematic consumption and a higher risk of depression. However, when consumed in modest amounts (5 to 15 g per day) as part of traditional dietary practices, alcohol (red wine in particular) has been associated with a lower risk of depression. Indeed, light to moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with lower systemic inflammation, a finding not evident in those with depression.”
It’s maybe not so much in our case suddenly eating a load more fermented food as much as it is consciously trying to eat far less processed foods.
The irony that indeed nowadays it is the overtly processed products in the supermarket that are less costly, and yet in many communities around the world it is these traditional inexpensive techniques for food preservation that they rely on to survive.
Making a real effort to eat far less processed food would be enormously beneficial to all in Western civilisation and if at the same time you add some fermented products into your diet in its place, you will not be surprised to see a healthier, happier you staring back in the mirror.
We’ve picked out a simple traditional sauerkraut recipe that’ll get you on the road with the fermentation fad:
Sauerkraut: Recipe by kitchn
1 medium head green cabbage (about 3 pounds)
1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon caraway seeds (optional, for flavour)
2-quart wide-mouth canning jar (or two-quart mason jars)
Canning funnel (optional)
Smaller jelly jar that fits inside the larger mason jar
Clean stones, marbles, or other weights for weighing the jelly jar
Cloth for covering the jar
Rubber band or twine for securing the cloth
- Clean everything: When fermenting anything, it’s best to give the good, beneficial bacteria every chance of succeeding by starting off with as clean an environment as possible. Make sure your mason jar and jelly jar are washed and rinsed of all soap residue. You’ll be using your hands to massage the salt into the cabbage, so give those a good wash, too.
- Slice the cabbage: Discard the wilted, limp outer leaves of the cabbage. Cut the cabbage into quarters and trim out the core. Slice each quarter down its length, making 8 wedges. Slice each wedge crosswise into very thin ribbons.
- Combine the cabbage and salt: Transfer the cabbage to a big mixing bowl and sprinkle the salt over top. Begin working the salt into the cabbage by massaging and squeezing the cabbage with your hands. At first, it might not seem like enough salt, but gradually the cabbage will become watery and limp — more like coleslaw than raw cabbage. This will take 5 to 10 minutes. If you’d like to flavour your sauerkraut with caraway seeds, mix them in now.
- Pack the cabbage into the jar: Grab handfuls of the cabbage and pack them into the canning jar. If you have a canning funnel, this will make the job easier. Every so often, tamp down the cabbage in the jar with your fist. Pour any liquid released by the cabbage while you were massaging it into the jar.→ Optional: Place one of the larger outer leaves of the cabbage over the surface of the sliced cabbage. This will help keep the cabbage submerged in its liquid.
- Weigh the cabbage down: Once all the cabbage is packed into the mason jar, slip the smaller jelly jar into the mouth of the jar and weigh it down with clean stones or marbles. This will help keep the cabbage weighed down, and eventually, submerged beneath its liquid.
- Cover the jar: Cover the mouth of the mason jar with a cloth and secure it with a rubber band or twine. This allows air to flow in and out of the jar but prevents dust or insects from getting into the jar.
- Press the cabbage every few hours: Over the next 24 hours, press down on the cabbage every so often with the jelly jar. As the cabbage releases its liquid, it will become more limp and compact and the liquid will rise over the top of the cabbage.
- Add extra liquid, if needed: If after 24 hours, the liquid has not risen above the cabbage, dissolve 1 teaspoon of salt in 1 cup of water and add enough to submerge the cabbage.
- Ferment the cabbage for 3 to 10 days: As it’s fermenting, keep the sauerkraut away from direct sunlight and at a cool room temperature — ideally 65°F to 75°F. Check it daily and press it down if the cabbage is floating above the liquid. Because this is a small batch of sauerkraut, it will ferment more quickly than larger batches. Start tasting it after 3 days — when the sauerkraut tastes good to you, remove the weight, screw on the cap, and refrigerate. You can also allow the sauerkraut to continue fermenting for 10 days or even longer. There’s no hard-and-fast rule for when the sauerkraut is “done” — go by how it tastes. While it’s fermenting, you may see bubbles coming through the cabbage, foam on the top, or white scum. These are all signs of a healthy, happy fermentation process. The scum can be skimmed off the top either during fermentation or before refrigerating. If you see any mould, skim it off immediately and make sure your cabbage is fully submerged; don’t eat mouldy parts close to the surface, but the rest of the sauerkraut is fine.
- Store sauerkraut for several months: This sauerkraut is a fermented product so it will keep for at least two months and often longer if kept refrigerated. As long as it still tastes and smells good to eat, it will be. If you like, you can transfer the sauerkraut to a smaller container for longer storage.
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