Bread, cheese, yoghurt, tea, wine and beer; most of us already consume lots of fermented food and drink on a daily basis. Fermentation has been used all around the world for thousands of years (we haven’t always had fridges and freezers to store perishable foods!) initially as a method of preservation that then developed as the various benefits of fermentation became apparent (to health, flavour, and so on).
Fermentation involves allowing naturally occurring or introduced bacteria (the good sort, known as probiotics) or yeast to develop in the food or drink. These microbes convert the starches and sugars present into acids or alcohol, which are natural preservatives. In many cases, this action improves the taste and or the texture of the product. There are also, in most cases, multiple health benefits to including more fermented food and drink in your diet.
Ahead of our upcoming Fermentation course on Sunday January 16th we caught up with guest tutor Caitlin Walsh of Delea Fermented Foods to find out more about this ancient technique, and why we all need to be giving more consideration to our gut health.
Can you tell us a little about the different types of fermentation?
There are two main types of fermentation. Firstly, you have wild fermentation where you’re allowing the naturally forming bacteria that’s found on the vegetables and fruits anyway to grow and thrive. All you’re doing in that situation is manipulating the environment to promote those desirable bacterias and yeasts to grow. With the second form of fermentation you’re adding a starter culture to a substance to kick-start fermentation. For example with kombucha, a fermented sweet tea, you’re adding what’s called a scoby to the sweet tea to inoculate it with the bacteria and yeasts to allow it to ferment. Scoby stands for “symbiotic cultures of bacterias and yeasts”. It’s the same with milk kefir where you’re adding milk kefir grains to milk to kick-start the fermentation process. You can find it in bread making and yoghurt making as well. There are of course crossovers with wild fermentation and starter cultures, so sometimes you can use a bit of brine from a previous wild fermentation ferment to kick start another batch, but essentially those are the two main ones.
Why are fermented foods good for our gut health, and why is this important?
All humans have what’s called a human microbiome. These are bacteria and yeasts that live on us and in us, and they carry out a lot of functions that we wouldn’t be able to survive without. The majority of this microbiome is found in our gut. The gut microbiome helps us to digest our food and get nutrients from our food, and it also helps our immune system – 70% of which is found in our gut. There’s also ongoing research to show the relationship between the gut and the brain, called the gut-brain axis, and there’s research to show that a good gut microbiome can help with things like depression and anxiety. The gut microbe composition can actually determine how much weight you put on, how you metabolise sugars, how you deal with food intolerances and things like that. So the gut microbiome is very, very, important. All the knowledge of the human micro biome and the health benefits of fermented foods is still developing. It’s a very new field of study so there’ll be more research as time goes by.
This relates to fermented foods because live unpasteurized fermented foods contain a lot of these beneficial bacteria that live within our gut or can help our gut. These are called probiotics. When you consume raw unpasteurized fermented foods you’re introducing live bacteria into your gut that can act as a blueprint for other beneficial bacteria to grow and thrive within your gut as well.
Not only are these bacteria great probiotics, they also help to break down the foods that you’re eating. For example in a jar of kimchi of sauerkraut or other fermented vegetables, the bacteria within that jar of ferment has almost predigested a lot of those foods, making nutrients more bio-available to us. So when we’re consuming those fermented vegetables they’re easier for us to digest and easier for us to get the nutrients from, in comparison to cooking, where you are perhaps boiling the vegetables and a lot of the nutrients are leached out and you’re not getting them. Also some of the enzymes aren’t broken down in traditional cooking so we can’t access a lot of those nutrients either, whereas fermented foods are a really good source of nutrients because they have been broken down for us so we can digest them more easily.
Another great example is milk kefir. A lot of people have a dairy intolerance where they can’t break down the lactose within milk. What happens with milk kefir is once you introduce the milk kefir grains to the milk those bacteria feed on the sugars – the lactose – within the milk so a lot of that lactose is broken down. Many people with milk intolerance can actually drink milk kefir because the lactose has been broken down for them.
I’d say, health benefits aside, another benefit to fermented foods is that they taste great. They’re packed full of flavour, especially if you’re on a vegan diet. It’s something different. They’re so, so flavourful… it can be a flavour that people need to get used to, but they taste great! They’re vibrant and when you’re eating them you can feel the life within them.
Fermented food is also a great way of saving on food waste – it’s an amazing way to save on food waste because fermenting improves the longevity of food. It’s an ancient form of food preservation. It’s such an easy and simple tool to have if you have too many vegetables that you’ve grown in your garden, for example, it’s a quick and easy way to preserve them.
What’s the difference between shop-bought fermented products, and making them yourself?
It’s really key when you’re buying fermented foods that you look out for raw, unpasteurised, or live, written on the label, and they need to be found in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. If they’re just on a shelf, it means that those beneficial bacteria have either been removed or they’ve been pasteurised, or there were never any live microbes in there to begin with. A lot of kimchi, a lot of sauerkraut, and a lot of even kombucha, sits on the shelves in health food shops and people buy them thinking that they’re getting beneficial fermented foods that are going to be full of probiotics, but in actual fact they’re not getting any of those benefits at all.
Even ferments that are raw and unpasteurized and found in the refrigerated section – in particular milk kefir – you’ll find that the bacteria and yeasts that are in there have been kind of standardized, because the manufacturers want certain bacteria in there that they know have benefits, so they’ll make sure that they’re the only bacteria that are in that product. In a bottle of milk kefir purchased in a shop there may be six different strains of probiotic bacteria, but in homemade milk kefir there can be as many as 40 different bacteria, so you have a lot more diversity in homemade milk kefir that the bottles from the shop.
When you make at home, you know a little bit more what you’re getting. You know that they’re raw, unpasteurized vegetables full of those live microbes, because you can see it for yourself. You can feel the process and watch the process. When you leave a jar of fermented vegetables like sauerkraut on the side you can see the bubbling jar over the three weeks that you leave it for, and it’s alive. It’s really fun to watch. You can also get a wider variety of microbes, as I mentioned with the milk kefir. It’s a lot more beneficial to make from home, and it’s so simple to do. It’s just having the confidence to know what the process should look like. I think we’ve been so scared of bacteria, we use a lot of anti-bacterial sprays, especially now since the start of the pandemic with hand sanitisers etc. We’ve become very afraid of bacteria but they’re not all bad and we need them to be able to survive. We’ve also become very reliant on best before dates and use-by dates. As soon as something is out of its use-by date we’re told to discard it even if our instinct would say, “that looks ok”. That’s another aspect – people think of bacteria as a sign of something having “gone off” and I really want to reconnect people with their senses – their sense of taste, their sense of smell, and their sense of sight, to know when something has gone off. I want the workshops to be a space for people to reconnect with their food reconnect with their senses, and gain confidence in working alongside these live microbes and that live microbes are not all bad – we need them!
What sort of things will attendees learn to make, and take away, from your course at Philleigh Way?
Within the workshop we’ll be doing both of the two forms of fermentation that I outlined. We’ll use wild fermentation to make kimchi and sauerkraut and a brine pickle ferment. We’ll also delve into the world of using starter cultures to ferment things as well – we’ll learn how to make kombucha using a mother or scoby, we’ll learn how to make milk kefir and also water kefir and how to flavour those. There’ll be lots of tasters to that attendees can try them all for themselves and know what they should taste like and we’ll talk about what to look out for. There’ll also be live cultures to take home, so attendees can take away some starter cultures like the kombucha mother and kefir grains to make more at home.
I’ll also be demonstrating how to use the ferments, like how to turn kimchi into kimchi ketchup and how to include ferments in their meals, because often people don’t know what to do with them and how to use them in day to day cooking.