Part 2: Reasons to Ferment Food
by Diana Zahuranec
For the second post in this mini series on fermentation, let’s get into the “why” of fermentation.
Cultures from all over the world have fermented a food or drink. The principle reason has been to preserve their harvest. Over the winter months, fermented vegetables last and provide a source of calories, nutrients, and an accompaniment to the endless plates of what I imagine were sausage, jerky, smoked meat, and potatoes.
I like to imagine what the first aspiring fermenters thought when they heaped their extra produce into a large mound in a dark, warm, covered area, poured brine over top (or not), and – fully aware that vegetables rot – left it to stew before digging in with their hands. “Let’s see what this tastes like! Sort of sour but…”
There were, and still are today, other reasons to ferment vegetables or other food products. The cultures from the world’s warm, sunny southern climates had produce available all year long, and didn’t need to preserve their summer and fall bounty; but they made fermented food products, too, such as West African fermented grains like ogi (fermented maize, sorghum, or millet; just one example of ; or South African fermented milk products like yogurt.)
Why did I try my hand at fermenting? I just wanted a Saturday project. Also, I love sour and salty pickles and “fake” pickles (ones soaked in vinegar, spices, and salt and stored in the fridge), so I wanted to make the real thing.
Today, we’re not concerned about storing food for the winter months. And, we can buy the fake pickles, which are (I think) super tasty without the effort, and cheap to boot. So what’s the point of pickling or fermenting by hand today, if not for another Saturday project?
Nourished KitchenIngredients for making a fermented salsa. Clockwise from top: capsicum (bell peppers), garlic salt, chili pepper, ground coriander seed, red onions, fresh coriander (cilantro), tomatoes
Here are two “modern” reasons to ferment:
- Some people have gardens, and these gardens are well-tended. Then, the gardens spill their guts out in thanks for the care you’ve given, and suddenly you have baskets and baskets of kale, green beans, zucchini, and tomatoes that will rot if you don’t do something with them. Garden produce is a blessing and the result of a lot of hard work; pickle or ferment it to enjoy all year round.
- The nutritional value of fermented foods greatly increases over the fermentation process. The fermentation process breaks down the food so that the body easily digests it. The vitamin content, especially Vitamin B, rises considerably; and plus, your body is able to absorb more of it and digest it better because of the increase in enzymes that are produced. It’s a “superfood.”
In fact, I can get even deeper into how fermentation has great health benefits. Jenny McGruther from Nourished Kitchen gave a video during the Real Food Summit week on fermented foods with a great explanation. One of the major positive effects is promoting gut health by exposing it to healthy microbes, thus priming your gut and immune system to deal with the unhealthy microbes when they inevitably come your way. This is part of the “hygiene hypothesis” that contends a bit of everyday dirt is fine, and even healthy, especially for children. If your immune system is never exposed to these microbes in the environment, then when it finally is, it will overcompensate. The increased incidence of asthma is one of many examples; when the hyper-clean immune system finally has its first encounter with a foreign particle, pollen, it overreacts to something that is harmless, thinking it an attack on the immune system.
And finally (although fermented food could write itself a lengthy autobiography on its health benefits), the enzymes in fermented foods are particularly helpful for our digestive system. Enzymes help our bodies break down food. Our bodies produce enzymes, but this takes up energy, eventually tiring out the organs (namely the pancreas and also the liver) that produce them. By introducing natural enzymes into our bodies through fermented foods, we give our bodies a boost and a break.