Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tasty Tuesday: The Benefits of Fermented Foods

People from all areas of the globe have been fermenting foods for thousands of years.  Most of us are familiar with fermented alcoholic beverages like wine, beer and ciders, and even Kombucha is gaining popularity in the West.  There are also fermented dairy foods like yogurt and kefir, which help to diminish the negative effects of eating dairy products, as well as fermented meats and fish.  Plant-based ferments, however, are the most popular, with dozens of types existing.  Asians make kim chi, tempe, miso, natto and zha cai.  The Germans are famous for sauerkraut and grain brews.  And Americans certainly love pickles, Tabasco sauce, vinegar and wine.

With all the varieties of fermented foods out there, it may be difficult to decipher which ones are healthy.  Many companies use white vinegar, harmful sugars and salts, and poor ingredients.  In fact, most pickles on the market can hardly be considered a health food.  But the benefits of fermented foods are undeniable.  As long as the alcohol is very low, fermented foods provide a host of probiotics, which help keep the gastrointestinal tract healthy and enhance digestion of nutrients.  In addition, they increase the bio-availability of amino acids, vitamins, minerals and fatty acids.  They are also known to decrease certain toxins like oxalic acid, which is found in many vegetables.

The best way to get all the benefits of fermented foods is to learn how to make them yourself.  I highly recommend the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz.  Although this book is not completely vegan, he does give some of the best advice and recipes for making fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kim chi, pickles and miso.  The process takes a while to learn, but it's fun and you can creatively ferment just about any vegetable. Once you learn how to ferment foods, you will be amazed at how much food you can create and preserve for very little cost.  Fermenting foods is a great way to eat healthy and save money.

While I am new to the process of fermenting foods, I've decided to jump right in and try several things.  I have a jar of pickles going in my kitchen right now (I found heirloom gherkins from a local farmer).  I also finished a batch of hot carrots with onions, jalape├▒os and heirloom eggplants.  These turned out okay, but I'm definitely still a novice.  I also have a good-sized batch of sauerkraut going on its third day.  This is the most basic recipe, and I recommend starting with it:

3 heads of cabbage (save some outer leaves)
1 tablespoon of good sea salt (Celtic or Himalayan are the best)
1 glove of garlic

Chop or grate the cabbage finely and place into a large bowl (you can do one head at a time if you don't have a large enough bowl).  Add the salt and begin to mix in with hands.  Continue to do this, squeezing the cabbage firmly.  This will begin to create a brine.  Once you have enough brine, put about a cup of it in a blender and blend it with the garlic and a few cabbage scraps.  Poor the brine back into the cabbage and mix again with hands.  Once you have a lot of brine, place the entire contents into a glass jar and press down with fists.  Make sure enough brine comes to the top to cover the cabbage.  Top off with some of the saved outer leaves of the cabbage and place a plate or heavy item on top.  Set on your counter top for three to seven days.  Check every day for a sour smell.  In the summer, the fermentation will happen faster than the winter.  Also, adding more salt slows down the fermentation process.  Once the kraut is ready, store in the refrigerator and enjoy.

Here is my favorite video on making fermented veggies: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NAdNxTDJ1k

Happy fermenting!

Mystic Merman

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