The Amazing Benefits of Lacto-Fermented Foods
Updated: Aug 18, 2021
Long before there were refrigerators and Ball canning jars, people everywhere preserved much of their food using a largely forgotten method, lacto-fermentation. This method is enjoying a renaissance of late, and with good reason.
Lacto-fermentation is a very simple method of food preservation utilizing a naturally abundant and beneficial bacteria called lacto-bacillium. First identified in dairy products (hence the prefix, “lacto”), these tiny workhorses of the microbial world are responsible for the total transformation of a vast array of foods which are not only preserved in terms of edibility, but also nutritional value, taste, and texture. Some examples of common foods which were traditionally fermented, but now are processed using vinegar and pasteurization, are: sauerkraut, pickles, ketchup, mustard, salsa, corned beef, and chutney.
Fermentation utilizes these bacteria in a marvelous way. First, the bacteria produce an acid, “lactic acid”, which works to prevent putrification. This is an obvious big advantage, but the other benefits are also quite beneficial.
The fermentation process causes an explosion of nutrients, taking a (presumably) nutritious food and transforming it into a powerhouse of nutrients! For instance, Vitamin C in cabbage increases exponentially, while the fermentation process also pre-digests proteins and other components of our food and makes them far more bio-available so that our bodies can fully utilize more of what we eat.
Another exciting advantage of fermented foods is that the process also produces enzymes which not only pre-digest that which is fermented, but other foods in the digestive tract as well. Thus meats do not putrefy in the gut but break down into more digestible amino acids. Vegetables, fruits, grains, etc. are all pre-digested and the nutrients far better absorbed.
The lactic and also acetic acids found in fermented foods act like a clean-up crew, helping the body to detoxify while the potent beneficial organisms take hold in the gut, aiding in overall gut health. What’s not to like?!
One additional aspect of lacto-fermented foods which my family, like millions of others around the world, enjoy is the taste. The process creates an exciting culinary adventure with every bite! Cabbage is just cabbage until you pack it into a crock with some salt and leave it for a week or two and then-Pow! What a flavor sensation! Chutney simply is not chutney with just vinegar and sugar, but when you ferment fruit it creates an amazing, effervescent flavor that excites your tastes buds! Dill pickles? Incredible! Salsa? Divine! Beet Kvass? Glorious, healing, cleansing, good!
With all of these benefits, why not give fermentation a try? It is one of the simplest methods to preserve foods and enhance health, so there’s really no reason not to give it a go! Here are the particulars:
Lacto-bacilli are naturally found on the surface of fruits and vegetables, particularly those which grow close to the ground such as cabbage, beets, etc.
Other foods can be fermented with the addition of dairy whey, drained from plain yogurt or from cheese-making. My rule of thumb is 1/4 cup whey to 1 quart of product.
There are many sources for powdered cultures to jump start your fermentation should you choose to use them. Cultures for Health, Radiant Life Catalog, Gem Cultures are but a few.
You should always start with fresh, clean, and chemical-free produce or meats. Conventional agriculture’s heavy chemical input destroys much of the soil’s otherwise naturally-occurring organisms, including our friends, lacto-bacillium.
No special equipment is required, but crocks and glass jars are your main tools. I use a Harsch Crock for larger quantities (available from the Radiant Life Catalog), Pickl-it! or Fido jars for many others. Corned beef needs a larger, flat glass container with a lid.
Experiment with various spices, herbs, and length of “culture” time.
Basic Kraut Recipe:
2 medium sized heads of cabbage
Optional: shredded carrots, grated tart apple, garlic, onion, whatever you wish to try!
Shred the cabbage and toss into a bowl with the salt and optional ingredients. Mix well, squeezing hard with your hands to extract juices. (You may use a pounding tool for this if you desire, but it is usually not necessary). The fresher the cabbage, the more moisture you will find. Pack this tightly into a crock or jar, being sure to leave plenty of head space for expansion and release of CO2.
Use a glass disc or cabbage leaf to push the solids beneath the brine adding cooled, sterilized filtered water if necessary to create at least a 1” layer of liquid above. Cover loosely with a lid and set in a warm place, 65-78 degrees, for 3-5 days being sure to release the gases daily (a proper crock or Pickl-It! container will have a gas-releasing lid or air lock, making this “burping” unnecessary). Leave the kraut out longer, up to 4 weeks, for a stronger ferment. Refrigerate or root cellar to store.
Recommended Reading & Resources:
Traditional Food Preparation Techniques by Maureen Diaz