Fermented Food Fest

Simply delicious and easy to makeā€”and so good for your health.
By Gretchen Roberts

When most of us decide to add “good” bacteria to our diet, we typically turn to probiotic supplements and yogurt. Good choices to be sure, but not the only ones available. Look beyond the dairy aisle to fermented foods, which teem with healthy, good-for-you bacteria.

Why focus on bacteria-rich foods? Because they do everything from helping to promote optimal digestion to allowing our bodies to absorb more vitamins and minerals from foods. Digestive issues affect an estimated 60 million to 70 million Americans, and fermented foods can help combat problems like irritable bowel syndrome and lactose intolerance. “Good digestion is a key part of overall health and immunity,” says Nancy Lee Bentley, a holistic health expert and author of Truly Cultured (IBJ Custom Publishing, 2007), a fermented-foods cookbook. “And fermented foods can help set the stage for healing.”

How? It’s the classic good-guys-versus-bad-guys scenario: Our digestive tract is chock-full of bacteria, and if the good kind don’t balance out the bad, we can get sick—think constipation, diarrhea, and irritable bowel syndrome.

“We have more microorganisms inside our digestive system than we have cells in our body,” says Daemon Jones, ND, a naturopath in Washington, DC, and author of Delicious! Recipes for Vibrant Living (Healthydaes, 2007). “The probiotics in fermented foods actually reproduce themselves in the digestive tract, crowding out the bad bacteria.”

But there’s more. Not only do fermented foods work to offset the bad bacteria in our gut, they actually help unlock important nutrients within the food they inhabit—vitamins and minerals that might otherwise pass through our system unabsorbed. For example, the bacteria in the starter culture of sourdough bread weaken the walls of the starch cells in the wheat, setting free a healthy dose of vitamins for the body to absorb.

In fact, because of the way these bacteria unlock nutrients, most nutritionists agree that the fermented version of any given food is generally more healthful than its progenitor. Take fermented cabbage or sauerkraut as an example.

“Cabbage has a lot of nutrients and fiber, plus glutamine, which is good for the digestive tract,” says Jones. “But once cabbage is fermented, it’s more easily digested, because it’s predigested by microorganisms.” Sauerkraut also increases the healthy flora in your digestive tract, has more isothiocyanates (anti-cancerous substances) than regular cabbage, and helps you better absorb vitamin C. “So cabbage is good for you,” says Jones, “but sauerkraut is a stronger health food.”

A surprising number of foods have fermented alter egos, each with its own healthful properties. For example, kefir, a fermented milk drink popular in Eastern Europe, may fight allergies and improve lactose intolerance in adults. Fermenting black beans reduces flatulence and increases nutrient absorption. Yogurt that contains live cultures can help relieve constipation in patients with irritable bowel syndrome, boost overall immunity, and help prevent vaginal infections. Studies show that the isothiocyanates in miso help prevent breast cancer, and in moderation, alcoholic beverages protect against heart disease and decrease the risk of stroke, some cancers, and diabetes. The message, say nutritionists, is clear: Incorporate a wide variety of fermented foods in your diet to take advantage of all the good things they have to offer.

Make your own
Not all fermented foods are created equal, however—nor do they all contain the full range of health benefits. “There’s a difference between homemade fermented foods and commercial fermented foods,” says Jones. “One big concern is that the healthful qualities—the good bacteria—are diminished in commercial fermented foods because of mass production.” Some commercial products, like sauerkraut and cheese, undergo pasteurization, which kills the good bacteria as well as the bad. And some also contain loads of sugar, the perfect food for trouble-causing yeast bacteria.

To avoid these issues, check product labels for the words organic and contains live and active cultures, says Bentley. They give you the best shot at getting a pure, unpasteurized product. Even better: Make your own. “Culturing is easier than you might think,” says Bentley. “Some recipes—like hard cheese or artisanal beer—are complicated. But many fermented foods, like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha tea, are simple and convenient to make at home.”

Making your own generally costs less, too. Homemade yogurt or sauerkraut costs a fraction of the amount you can spend each month on good probiotic pills. “People are intimidated by the idea of culturing their own food,” says Bentley, “but most fermenting is really about waiting. The process takes care of itself.”

Gretchen Roberts is a Knoxville, Tennessee, freelance writer.

 

Finding fermented foods
Many fermented foods—cheese, pickles, microbrewed beer, wine, sauerkraut, prosciutto, and yogurt—are easily found at the grocery store. Want to make your own or track down a hard-to-find item? Try our resources here:

Kefir: A fermented milk drink; buy the grains at www.happyherbalist.com.

Kimchi: A spicy Korean fermented cabbage; make your own or buy a fresh jar in your grocery store or Asian market.

Kombucha: A fermented tea beverage; buy a starter at www.happyherbalist.com.

Miso: A Japanese soy paste that takes 6 to 12 months to ferment; buy it at Asian stores. A rule of thumb: the lighter the paste, the less pungent the taste.

Sourdough: Buy a starter at www.kingarthurflour.com.

Tempeh: A fermented soybean staple in Indonesia; buy a starter at a natural or Asian store, or in the refrigerated section of your grocery store.

Tamari: A fermented soybean sauce similar to soy sauce; find it in the soy sauce aisle in your grocery store.

 

Recipes

Basic Homemade Yogurt
Makes 1 quart

4 cups (1 quart) milk (skim, 1 percent, 2 percent, or whole)
1/2 cup powdered milk (optional, for thicker yogurt)
1/2 cup plain, live culture yogurt

1. Heat milk and powdered milk (optional) over medium heat in a small saucepan to 180 degrees (use a candy thermometer), stirring frequently. Remove from heat, and let cool to 110 degrees (about an hour).
2. Gently stir yogurt culture into milk, and pour mixture into a clean glass jar. Cover.
3. Choose your incubation method:
• Use a commercial yogurt maker (such as the Salton 1-quart yogurt maker).
• Place jars in a hot water bath in the oven on its lowest setting (temperature should not exceed 110 degrees).
• Pour hot water into a cooler, and incubate the jars in there, changing the water every few hours if necessary.
4. Incubate yogurt at 110 degrees for four to 10 hours or until set. The longer you incubate, the more tart the yogurt will taste. The mixture needs to stay close to 110 degrees for the bacteria to do their job. Lower temperatures deactivate the cultures, and higher temperatures will kill them.
5. Stir in sweetener, honey, or fruit as desired. Refrigerate up to two weeks.
Quick tip: Homemade yogurt tends to be thinner than store-bought, but adding powdered milk to the mix will thicken it. Make sure the plain yogurt you buy to inoculate your homemade yogurt says “live and active cultures” on the label.

Nutrition info per serving (using 1 percent milk and whole-milk yogurt): 121.2 calories; 3.4 g fat; 2.2 g saturated fat; 16.2 mg cholesterol; 9.3 g protein; 13.6 g carbohydrates; 0 g fiber; 121 mg sodium

 

Grilled Salmon With Yogurt Garlic Dill Sauce
Serves 4

For the Salmon
1 pound salmon, about 1 inch thick, cut into four filets
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

For the Yogurt Garlic Dill Sauce
1 cup plain yogurt (see recipe above)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon lemon juice

1. Spray grill with cooking spray, and heat to medium-high. Sprinkle salmon filets with salt and pepper, and grill four minutes a side (skin side up first) or until done.
2. Separate fish from skin by sliding a spatula between them; transfer filets to a plate. Serve with yogurt garlic dill sauce.
3. To make yogurt garlic dill sauce, combine all ingredients. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Nutrition info per serving: 249.3 calories; 9.5 g fat; 2.4 g saturated fat; 68.3 mg cholesterol; 34.3 g protein; 4.8 g carbohydrates; 0.1 g fiber; 394.1 mg sodium

 

Chicken Souvlaki Pitas
Serves 4

1 pound chicken tenderloins
Bamboo skewers
4 whole-grain pitas

For the Souvlaki Marinade
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh (or 1/2 teaspoon dried) oregano
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Tzatziki Sauce
1 cup plain yogurt (see recipe above)
1/2 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded, shredded
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon minced fresh mint leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. In a bowl, combine marinade ingredients. Add chicken, and mix well to coat. Marinate in refrigerator 30 minutes.
2. Soak skewers in water for 30 minutes, and heat grill to medium. Thread chicken onto skewers, and grill four minutes on each side.
3. Combine ingredients for tzatziki in a small bowl. Serve with the chicken in pitas.

Nutrition info per serving: 233.8 calories; 9.4 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 69.4 mg cholesterol; 29.8 g protein; 7 g carbohydrates; 0.5 g fiber; 408.6 mg sodium

 

Basic Kefir
Makes 1 cup

1 tablespoon new kefir grains (rinsed with milk)
1 cup whole milk or plain soy milk

1. If you’re starting with new kefir grains, rinse them with milk in a plastic strainer. Place kefir in a small glass jar, and add milk. Cover with a cloth or piece of paper, and let ferment at room temperature for 24 hours.
2. Stir mixture with a wooden or plastic spoon. Using a plastic strainer, strain kefir into a container. Store in refrigerator.
3. Kefir grains will continue to grow and multiply. To slow down production, ferment them in the fridge for five days, instead of 24 hours at room temperature.

Nutrition info per serving (using whole milk): 162 calories; 8 g fat; 5 g saturated fat; 30 mg cholesterol; 8 g protein; 15 g carbohydrates; 3 g fiber; 125 mg sodium

 

Berry-Banana Kefir Smoothie
Serves 2

1 cup kefir
1/2 cup frozen berries (blueberries, strawberries, or raspberries)
1 ripe banana
1 tablespoon honey (optional)
5 to 6 ice cubes

1. Place all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth.
Quick tip: Too rushed in the morning to take out the blender and whip up a smoothie? Simply mix one part kefir with one part fruit juice in a glass. The banana and berries are prebiotic foods, which help stimulate the probiotics in the kefir to reproduce in your digestive system and create a healthy environment there.

Nutrition info per serving: 185 calories; 4 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 15 mg cholesterol; 1 g protein; 35 g carbohydrates; 4 g fiber; 65 mg sodium