The Fine Art of Fermentation

April 2, 2013

Fermentation is quickly becoming one of the hottest new trends in the food industry. Perhaps it is the health benefits, the complex and deep flavors, the energy boost fermented foods and drinks offer; or maybe it is that you feel like you have stepped into your own science lab when you are making them.

Watch this Fox 5 Segment about The Health Benefits of Fermentation

What is fermentation?

Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeast, or other micro-organisms; the process of fermentation converts carbohydrates into lactic acid.  The process of fermentation is a method of preserving foods that not only keeps the minerals and vitamins alive, it can even manufacture new ones!  Foods that have been fermented contain beneficial bacteria, enzymes, and vitamins that can improve our digestion, boost our immune systems, and provide energy.  Fermentation can turn regular foods into superfoods!

In contrast, much of the food found in today’s big grocery stores is basically dead.  When food is processed most of the natural minerals, fibers and vitamins are removed, so it is then “enriched” to put back some vitamins and minerals. Processed foods are often filled with other things our bodies do not need such as chemicals, preservatives, colorings, and additives.

The Health Benefits

The process of fermentation creates foods and drinks that are filled with bacteria, and sometimes yeasts.  Why would we want to eat foods that will introduce bacteria into our bodies?  The human body has more bacterial cells than human cells, with over 3 pounds of bacteria in the digestive system alone.  According to this article, “The human body should have 20 times more beneficial bacteria than cells to maintain a healthy intestinal tract and help fight illness and disease.” Read The Importance of Good Bacteria to learn more.

Fermenting also breaks food down into more easily digestible compounds. For example, some people who lack the ability to digest milk, are able to digest yogurt or kefir – because fermentation turns lactose into Lactobacillius, a type of lactic acid bacteria that assists in the digestion of milk and other foods.

Fermenting boosts some of the vitamin content of that food, creating new nutrients that were not there before.  For example, fermentation can produce vitamin K, which is important for calcium absorption and bone health; it also produces several different B vitamins, which provide energy and are important for manufacturing neurotransmitters.  Fermentation also preserves foods, and can remove some of the ‘anti nutrients.’  Grains, beans and soybeans all contain phytic acids, which block mineral absorption and interfere with digestion.  Fermentation removes phytic acid and breaks them down to improve digestion and absorption.

Rich Cultural History

Fermentation has been around for centuries, it was a natural way to preserve foods.  In 1850, scientist Louis Pasteur was the first to study fermentation. Many different cultures around the world use fermented foods.

  • The Korean Food Research Institute estimates that the average adult Korean eats more than a quarter pound of Kimchi daily!
  • Miso and Natto, both derived from fermented soybeans, are used in Japanese cuisine.
  • Indian cultures use fermented chutneys, and make dosa which are fermented pancakes.
  • Kombucha, a fermented tea, has been around for over 2,000 years.  In ancient China, kombucha was purportedly considered a remedy for immortality. Now it is one of the hottest health food trends around.
  • In the Tropics, cassava root is placed in holes in the ground and left to ferment until it is sweet and soft.
  • Fermented pickles and cabbage are traditions for Jewish cultures from Poland, Lithuania and Russia.
  • Kvass is popular in Russia, it is a drink made from fermented Rye bread.
  • Scandinavian’s eat a fermented fish, called Rakfisk.
  • Many cultures regularly eat yogurt, kefir, buttermilk and creme fraiche, which is generally made from fermented dairy products.

How Are Foods Fermented?

Almost any food can be fermented, and there are several methods for fermenting.  Some methods of fermentation require a starter culture that contains certain strains of bacteria and/or yeasts. Wild fermentation does not require a starter culture, generally it relies on salt and the exchange of air to ferment.  Kombucha is different, as it uses a mother culture called a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), that is sometimes referred to as a mushroom – although my son says it looks like a big flat jellyfish. Each time a new batch of kombucha is made, it produces a new SCOBY, called a baby.  To make kombucha, you brew tea (generally black), and add in sugar.  The sugar is not to sweeten the tea however, it is the food for the SCOBY!  So the longer the kombucha ferments, the less sugar that is left!  I like to also do a second ferment with a little fresh pressed ginger and mango juice, or fresh berries.  The second ferment is put into bottles and sealed and left to ferment about 3-5 more days.  The second ferment is what makes the kombucha bubbly. It creates pressure inside the bottle, so be careful opening it – I have experienced a geyser in my kitchen after letting the second ferment go a day too long (so now I open them outside usually!)!

What is the Difference Between Pickling and Fermentation?

Foods that are pickled are cured in vinegar, and must be heated, which destroys the live enzymes of the foods.  Whereas vinegar is created as a by-product of fermentation, and there is no heat applied (with some exceptions such as yogurt – because the milk is heated, and sourdough breads – which are baked).  Because you have to wait for the fermentation to happen, it takes longer than pickling.  So take pickles for example. Most pickles were made by combining salt, vinegar and cucumbers, and heating.  They also sometimes add preservatives, and a surprising number of them also contain artificial colors.  So those pickles do not contain any beneficial bacteria, and are not a health food.  But fermented pickles are extremely healthy, and one of the easiest things to make.

Good things come to those who wait….

In an era of fast food, eating on the go, and processed and packaged snacks; food that takes days (sometimes weeks) to prepare sounds like an oddity.  Fermented foods and beverages take time to create.  Who would want to make something that could not be enjoyed right away?  It turns out that a lot of people are becoming interested in fermentation.  I decided that not only is it good for my gut, immune system, and energy – it is also good for my character, because I have to practice patience while I wait for my kombucha and fermentations to mature.  They are worth the “wait” and their weight in gold.

For devotees that want to go the route of instant gratification – stores like Whole Foods have dedicated whole cases to kombucha and other fermented drinks, and also offer several different brands of raw sauerkraut and fermented cabbages.  But a growing number of people are getting into creating their own fermented vegetables, kimchi, kombucha, and yogurts at home.

Beware of Imposters

Not surprisingly, the processed food industry is trying to get in on all the hype. This recent article in the Wall Street Journal revealed that fermented “flavors” are starting to sneak into snack foods like chips. But trying to recreate these complex flavors in a lab is proving difficult, and even if they can get the flavors close – these processed foods offer none of the same benefit as real fermented foods.

Fermented Cabbage Slaw: Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 4.54.42 PM

For the fermenting “newby”, fermented cabbage is a great place to start, because all you need is cabbage, a jar, some salt, and some time. If you want to make something a little more layered, add some herbs and spices, or try this recipe:

  • 1 large (or 2 small) head of cabbage (about 2 pounds), thinly sliced using mandoline
  • 1/2 onion, grated
  • 2 carrots, grated
  • 1 apple, grated
  • 2-3 Tablespoons of grated celery root (optional)
  • 1 green pepper, thinly sliced on mandoline
  • 5 teaspoons of Celtic sea salt (to taste)
  • 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
  • 1/8 teaspoon dried oregano (or to taste)
  • 1/8 teaspoon mustard seeds (or to taste)

Prepare vegetables, and put into a large bowl.  Put in salt, and stir to combine.  Allow to sit a few minutes, and then begin to massage the salt into the veggies, squeezing and pressing as you go.  They will begin to release water.  Keep doing this for quite a while (about 5 minutes), until the veggies are significantly smaller in volume than before, and a considerable amount of liquid is released, the liquid is your “brine.”  Put the cabbage into a wide-mouthed jar, and firmly press down the veggies for a few minutes.  Keep pressing, you want the brine to be above the vegetables.  I like to place a couple of cabbage leaves on top, and then put one of the cabbage stems on it to help the veggies stay under the brine.  The vegetables should be at least 1 inch from the top of the jar to allow for expansion.  Put the top of the jar, cover with a cloth, and let ferment for 3-8 days (depending on how much fermentation you like).  Check on it periodically to make sure the veggies are under the brine.  You can also test it after a few days to see if it is how you like it.


The above recipe is a variation of Fermented Carolina Slaw from the book Real Food Fermentation. Written by Alex Lewin, it is a wonderful resource for anyone looking to get a good basic understanding of how to ferment foods and drinks, as well as a nice variety of recipes.

More information/sources:

  • Fermentation Supplies:
  • Recipes:

Sara Vance Article written by Nutritionist Sara Vance, author of the book
The Perfect Metabolism Plan A regular guest on Fox 5 San Diego, you can see many of Sara’s segments on her media page. She also offers corporate nutrition, school programs, consultations, and affordable online eCourses. Download her free 40+ page Metabolism Jumpstart eBook here.

*This article is for educational purposes only. The content contained in this article is not to be construed as providing medical advice. All information provided is general and not specific to individuals. Persons with questions about the above content as how it relates to them, should contact their medical professional. Persons already taking prescription medications should consult a doctor before making any changes to their supplements or medications.

©2015, all rights reserved. Sara Vance.

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