Wine, beer, chocolate, cheese, kimchi, coffee, dark tea—basically all the best stuff in life is the result of fermentation. And it’s not just a delicious flavor that’s imparted by letting bacteria get a taste of our fresh foods first, but, as a spate of studies have recently shown, ensuring fermentation plays a part in your diet could put you on the path to good health.
We spoke to Drew Ezrell, whose traditional food preservation business Bubba’s Pantry has been providing the denizens of Beijing with top-notch fermented foods for a while now, to get an insight into the dark and smelly world of fermentation.
Bubba’s Pantry came from an interest in the fermentation process—Drew started with that student staple, home-brewed cider, before graduating onto healthier projects like kombucha. Fermenting has been around forever, Drew tells us. “It was originally used to preserve vegetables—you have a big harvest coming up, you can’t eat all your vegetables and you don’t want them to go to waste.” Fermenting allows the natural nutrients to be preserved while preventing food from going bad.
Despite fermentation's long history, in recent years bacteria have been cast as the bad guys. “In a lot of ways, we live in a very septic world; we put antibiotics in our meat and pasteurize everything, all surfaces you touch have been wiped down. You can’t really wage war on bacteria. It’s something we’ve always had; it’s in us,” Drew enthuses.
This sterile world has, according to some studies, had a dramatic effect on our health. For a long time, the accepted wisdom of weight loss has been a formula of calories into calories out, with scant regard for the source of those calories. In recent years, however, researchers have become increasingly interested in the hidden forces shaping our health, weight and even, perhaps, personalities; billions of gut microbes, lurking in the human bowels. Fermented foods are probiotic, full of good bacteria that can help replenish your internal flora and fauna. Drew is adamant that his diet of live probiotic foods leaves him feeling well and energized. “It’s a good idea that we should be replenishing all the damage that we do, especially after we take antibiotics. They destroy your immune system, they don’t differentiate between good bacteria and bad bacteria.” In fact, the importance of a strong gut microbiome is now so well recognized that the mainstream medical advice is to compliment your antibiotics with the replenishing power of probiotics.
So how do you get from a fresh cabbage to the probiotic goodness and sour tang of sauerkraut? “Basically, the whole idea is that bacteria exist on everything—you go to the grocery store all the veg you buy is covered in natural bacteria and natural yeast. What you’re trying to do while fermenting is harness those bacteria,” Drew tells us. “You put salt on the cabbage to bring out the moisture, and all of that natural bacteria that’s already on the cabbage is going to do its work—it’s going to start eating and digesting the cabbage and grow.” This process is called lacto-fermentation because it produces lactic acid, which is what gives fermented foods their addictive sour taste. Once the natural bacteria have got to work, you just let it sit, but the key, Drew tells us, is that “it has to be under a barrier of water, otherwise you’ll get mold.” Once your vegetables have reached an appealing level of tang, you simply pop them in the fridge to put the bacteria in a dormant state and preserve the flavor. Drew also highlights the importance of not pasteurizing your home-made fermentations; “the whole point [of fermented food] is to eat something that’s alive and when you put it under the insane degrees of heat that is pasteurization you kill everything, so you get the flavor of, for example, kimchi but none of the health benefits.” Here’s where home-made comes into its own—you might be able to pick up a kimchi in the supermarket, and it will still taste good, but it’s likely that you won’t be getting any of the probiotic benefits of eating fermented foods.
Is it dangerous?
Fermenting foods can be a scary prospect, and people are rightly concerned that it could be a dangerous move. It’s true that there are some health risks to eating fermented foods, but they are very slim. Drew emphasizes the importance of preparing your food in a sanitary way. “If I didn’t have a water wall, and my food got all moldy and I mixed it in, that would be dangerous.” The water wall is key to preventing harmful bacteria entering your fermentations, and kombucha hit the news a few years back with a related death in the U.S. when a woman drank her home-brew that was infested with mold. “If you are going to start fermenting on your own—kombucha and sauerkraut are very easy to do—make sure you look up what bad mold looks like. Fermenting your own stuff is very easy, and it’d be fantastic if more people would, but the key is to practice discretion.”
Ferment at Home
Ingredients: One head of cabbage, salt tablespoon salt, water, and optional spices (e.g. cumin, caraway seeds)
1. Cut up a cabbage to your desired thickness.
2. Mix in the salt and any optional spices. Let the salted cabbage sit for a few hours in a bowl, mixing every half hour.
3. Pack the cabbage and any liquid that was pulled out of the cabbage into a glass jar. Pack as tight as you can.
4. You will see the liquid rising to the top, if there isn't a layer of liquid above the cabbage add water until there is a water barrier between the air and your cabbage. Air encourages the cabbage to rot. We want to encourage it to ferment, so it's important we keep air away from it. Place something heavy on top of the cabbage to make sure it stays packed down tightly and the water stays above the cabbage. For example, I use a smaller jar filled with water.
5. Let sit for one or two weeks. Mold may grow on the surface of the water. If this happens simply skim it off.
6. Once it gets to your desired state, you may halt fermentation by placing your jar in the fridge.
Kombucha — One
Ingredients: One Kombucha SCOBY (Mother), two tea bags or one and half teaspoons loose leaf tea, quarter cup sugar, two-thirds cups of water, and half a cup starter kombucha or white vinegar
1. Combine hot water with sugar. Stir to dissolve.
2. Add the tea and let steep until the tea comes back down to room temperature. We are looking for a very strong brew. Your brew must cool to room temperature as a hot brew can kill your SCOBY.
3. Remove the tea bags or strain out the tea leaves.
4. Add the starter kombucha to the cooled tea. If you do not have unflavored kombucha, you may use distilled white vinegar as a substitute. This step is important as it lowers the PH, discouraging mold growth.
5. Add the SCOBY.
6. Cover the jar with a paper towel affixed with a rubber band. This gives the kombucha the ability to breathe but keeps dust and bugs out.
7. Let the kombucha sit and do its thing for about ten days (taste it every few days if you like a sweeter/less sour kombucha). If you see slime, that is normal, but, if at any time if you see fuzzy mold growth on the surface you need to toss everything as it can make you sick!
8. You should have two SCOBYS now. You can use both to make two separate batches. Remember to keep some starter kombucha for these next batches!
9. Bottle the kombucha and let it sit outside of the refrigerator for two days. This will carbonate your kombucha.
10. Store the bottles in the fridge and enjoy!
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