“I don’t want a pickle, I just want to ride on my motorsickle,” sang Arlo Guthrie.
To each his own. Some of us would take the thrill of a juicy pickle over the thrill of the open road any day. For that matter, a dish of sauerkraut, glass of buttermilk, a hunk of sourdough bread, or a bottle of kombucha, the fizzy fermented tea.
Those are only a few of the countless umami-exuding foods and drinks that come under the heading of fermented foods. The list is long and universal. It would seem that every culture has its own fermented favorites – from the fish sauce of Vietnam and oyster sauce of China to the kvass of Russia, the tempeh of Indonesia, and the sour pickles of the Netherlands. And the list keeps growing. There is even a cultured coffee on the market now which offers lowered acidity, less caffeine, a lowered concentration of the pesky molecules that often cause discomfort for coffee drinkers, plus higher levels of B3 (niacin) and other nutrients.
The process of fermentation has been around formally since the 17th century. There are three types. The first is lactic acid fermentation where yeast and bacteria convert starches and sugars into lactic acid. (Think yogurt and buttermilk.) The second is ethyl alcohol fermentation in which sugars and starches are broken down into alcohol and carbon dioxide to produce wine, beer, and sourdough bread. The last is acetic acid fermentation in which grains and/or fruit are converted into condiments. (Think vinegar, kombucha, and kefir.) Technically speaking, fermented foods and pickled foods are not the same, but there are a few foods that are both pickled and fermented including fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi. As well as Swedish sour herring, if you’re a smorgasbord fan.
Why do we care?
Since 70% of the immune system is located in the gut, what we put into the gut meal after meal matters. The 10 trillion live bacteria that colonize our guts are responsible for assimilating nutrition from the foods we eat and carrying it through the permeable intestinal wall into the bloodstream. According to Dr. David S. Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, fermented foods which contain living flora provide the prebiotic compounds that protect the digestive system. (In contrast with the sugars and processed ingredients in our diets which do just the opposite).
Fermented foods not only help rebalance the health of the biome, but the vitamins A, B12, and K2 they provide help build bone density and prevent IBS, colitis, constipation, and related intestinal disorders. In fact, commercial fermentation firms claim microbes are the future of healthy sustainable food. An added attraction? Fermented foods have a long shelf life. That mason jar of sauerkraut you bought will last a lot longer than that potato salad you made last night. Maybe months if properly refrigerated. On the other hand, sauerkraut and other fermented/pickled foods are off the menu if you have mold/yeast allergies or suffer from histamine intolerance in reaction to red wine, fermented foods, aged cheeses.
Eating fermented/pickled/cultured foods daily (for most of us) – whether it’s your yogurt smoothie or your sourdough hero—provides an invaluable daily dose of prebiotic bacteria.
So once you have them–store-bought or homemade –how do you use them? A few suggestions plus a do-it-yourself pickling recipe.
- Try topping your soup with a spoonful of sauerkraut or kimchi
- Stir sauerkraut (or kimchi if you like it hot) into tossed salads
- Use cubes of raw, baked or fried tofu or tempeh in place of croutons on your soup
- Toss sauerkraut into your stir-fries or scrambled eggs
- Make a healthier bouillon using miso and hot water
- Mix pickled vegetables into your coleslaw
- Stir a spoonful of miso into the tomato sauce topping for your pizza
- Use sourdough to make French toast
- Crumbled tempeh can replace ground beef in your meatloaf or meat sauce
- Try kefir instead of the usual yogurt in your smoothies
- Forget the mayo. Mix plain yogurt with olive oil, lemon juice and your favorite chopped herbs. Whip in a specialty salt like Pink Himalayan.
PICKLED FINGERLING POTATOES (2 quarts)
- 2lbs fingerling potatoes, scrubbed, (peeled or no)
- 8 medium-sized carrots (peeled and sliced in half longwise)
- 1 red onion
- 1-1/2 Tbsp brown mustard seed
- 4 cups apple cider vinegar
- 2 cup water
- 3 Tbsp pickling/kosher salt
- In a large deep pot, bring enough water to a boil. Add potatoes to the pot and boil 5 minutes. . Briefly steam the carrots to al dente.
- Meanwhile, combine vinegar, water, mustard seed, and salt in a medium-sized, non-ionized pot such as stainless steel or cast iron. Bring brine to a boil.
- Remove potatoes from water, let partially cool, then slice about halfway through- longwise.
- Divide prepared potatoes, carrots, sliced onions, and mustard seeds between 2-quart jars.
- Pour brine over jar contents, making sure the vegetables are all covered.
- Cap and store in the fridge for a least 1 week before using.
Note: Feel free to substitute other vegetables (turnips, cabbage, peppers, etc) for the carrots, and add sprigs of thyme, rosemary, cilantro, or parsley.