Including fermented foods in your diet seems like a no-brainer, but with so many food and beverage options available, it can feel overwhelming.
Are the health claims true? And what are the best fermented foods for a beginner? It’s time to explore just what fermented foods are, consider their science-backed benefits, and gather a great list of delicious and versatile fermented foods that can be shopped for and incorporated into your diet easily.
What are fermented foods?
Fermentation is, put simply, the process of letting natural foods age so that their sugars and starches are eventually eaten by beneficial bacteria. Fermentation occurs when a food or drink is exposed to yeast or another bacteria either intentionally through inoculation or passively in cases of exposure to naturally-occurring airborne organisms.
Fermented food is everywhere and chances are you’re probably already eating or drinking something fermented without even knowing it. If the thought of eating bacteria on purpose sounds unappealing or challenging, it’s well worth considering the many health benefits of consuming fermented food and drink before you make up your mind.
The Many Health Benefits of Eating Fermented Foods
Fermented foods are often portrayed as “miracle foods” that have limitless health benefits. While many of these claims need to be studied more in depth, there are definite perks to eating these foods regularly. One of the most exciting is the affect of fermented foods on brain and gut health.
Kirsten and Christopher Shockey are fermentation experts who sell homemade cultured vegetables and krauts through their company Mellonia Farm and co-authored the comprehensive fermentation cookbook Fermented Vegetables: Creative Recipes for Fermenting 64 Vegetables & Herbs in Krauts, Kimchis, Brined Picles, Chutneys, Relishes & Pastas. They’re quick to point out the numerous health benefits of including simple fermented foods in your diet.
“When we ferment say, a vegetable or a soy bean, we are setting up the perfect environment for the microbes to transform these ingredients into nutrient-dense foods. In the case of the vegetables, the lactic acid bacteria is breaking down the carbohydrates that we cannot digest into a usable form. This makes the nutrients in the vegetables now more bioavailable for our bodies to uptake. At the same time some vitamins, like C increase and vitamin B12 and vitamin K2 are created,” Kirsten tells HealthyWay.
Even more important is the positive effect the healthy bacteria, or probiotics, from fermentation have on our gut health, which in turn strengthens our immune and anti-inflammatory responses. Although fermented foods have been made and praised for their health benefits for several millennia in cultures all over the world, they are just now being rigorously studied by Western scientists to determine how far-reaching the benefits of their probiotics actually are.
What’s the difference between pickling and fermenting?
Both pickling and fermenting are methods used to preserve and extend the life of food. It’s hardly surprising that uncertainty arises when comparing these two methods of preservation. Fermented foods can be pickled and pickled foods can be fermented, which definitely lends to the confusion. The pickling method involves letting food soak in an acidic liquid (such as vinegar, which is made using both alcoholic and acid fermentation) so that it takes on a sour flavor.
True fermentation’s distinctive sour flavor, on the other hand, is actually a reaction between the naturally-occurring sugars in the food and the bacteria. Fermentation is a longer process than pickling and relies on the presence of the lactobacillus bacteria that gives fermented food its tangy and sour flavor.
How often should you include fermented foods in your diet?
Since chocolate is technically a fermented food, it’s important to specify that when we refer to fermented foods that will benefit your gut and overall health, we’re talking about certain healthy choices.
Kirsten suggests trying to include fermented foods in your diet every day. “These foods have digestive enzymes that help us process all the food, so just a little dollop can boost any meal. The live probiotics that make it through to your gut are fairly transient so it is a good idea to keep sending some down regularly. Having a varied supply of fermented vegetables can make this easy and you aren’t eating the same thing over and over.”
This can be as simple as adding a few tablespoons of sauerkraut to your dinner, topping your baked potato with natural yogurt or sour cream, or even making your own homemade fermented hot sauce to use as you like throughout the day.
8 Fermented Foods to Fall in Love With
Cultured yogurt is widely praised for its health benefits and creamy taste, but did you know it is actually a fermented food? Yogurt is made when a starter, usually lactobacillus bulgaricus, is added to milk and gently heated. This heating process implies that the yogurt is thermophilic, which means that heat is needed to begin the culturing (or fermenting) process. Unfortunately many popular brands of flavored yogurt are loaded with sugar, fillers, dyes, stabilizers, and preservatives in order to make them more palatable and dessert-like.
Whenever possible, choose plain regular or lower-fat yogurt and add your own fruit or a drizzle of honey for sweetness. Ideally, you want your yogurt to have only two ingredients: fresh milk and lactobacillus bulgaricus. Because commercially made yogurt is sometimes heat-treated after fermentation to ensure a less-tart flavor and more shelf-stable product (a process which effectively destroys live probiotic cultures) the Natural Yogurt Association has developed a seal that lets you know whether or not the yogurt has been subjected to heat treatment, so study up and opt for yogurts that have retained their full probiotic glory.
Sauerkraut is more than just a delicious topping for sausages and hot dogs. This popular condiment is thought to have originated in China, although Americans most commonly think of it as a German food. Made of fermented cabbage, sauerkraut is rich in probiotics that are highly beneficial to gut health and your body’s immune and anti-inflammatory responses.
Sauerkraut has a strong tangy flavor that can be overwhelming if you’re just beginning to include fermented foods in your diet. Kirsten recommends tweaking the taste of sauerkraut by putting “lemon, garlic, and dill in [it], or [using] smoked salt instead of regular salt [to change] the flavor completely.”
With a few tweaks, she says, “Suddenly you’ll want to put in your wrap [or] your macrobowl all the time.”
In addition to being a great source of probiotics, sauerkraut is also high in vitamin K, fiber, and vitamin C.
When buying sauerkraut, make sure to check whether or not it’s been pasteurized, since the pasteurization process destroys all of the product’s beneficial bacteria. Look for unpasteurized sauerkraut in the refrigerated section of the grocery store as anything shelf stable will have undergone heat treatment. Sauerkraut is also relatively simple to make, requires no special equipment, and can be a good introduction to home fermentation.
If you’re a fan of dining at Japanese restaurants, then you’ll definitely be familiar with miso soup as a starter before your meal. What you might not be aware of is that your small bowl of soup is teeming with beneficial bacteria and tons of protein!
Miso translates to “fermented beans” in Japanese and the paste is usually made of soybeans although miso can also contain fermented grains such as millet or wheat. An excellent example of the hard-to-define umami flavor, miso pastes vary in complexity and strength and come in several different colors: red, yellow, and white.
Red miso has the most intensely salty flavor and can stand up to big flavors as a marinade for hearty vegetables and gamey meats. Yellow miso is made of fermented soybeans and barley and is the perfect choice for soups, glazes, and salad dressings. White miso is the mildest of the three and is a good choice if you’re just beginning to experiment with miso. You can use it for soups, light marinades, and salad dressings.
When making miso soup it’s crucial that the miso is stirred into your stock or water after it’s been taken off the heat as adding it directly to boiling water will kill off the miso’s probiotic benefits.
A staple in Indonesian cooking, tempeh is tofu’s incredibly flavorful fermented cousin. Made of fermented soybeans, tempeh is sold as a compact and nutrient-dense cake that can be used in many of the same dishes that call for tofu. Tempeh is drier than tofu and has a more complex flavor that is often described as nutty due to the fermentation process it undergoes.
This fermentation makes tempeh easier to digest and also helps with the absorption of important nutrients such as calcium, zinc, and iron. Tempeh is a versatile ingredient and can be prepared any number of different ways including steaming and marinating, crumbling it into soups and sauces, and thinly slicing it.
Kimchi is a super-flavorful and versatile Korean condiment made of fermented cabbage, red chili pepper powder or paste, garlic, salt, and vinegar. Kimchi is high in fiber and vitamins A, B, and C. It also contains an abundance of healthy probiotics for gut health. The process of making kimchi can be broken down into four fundamental steps: brining, seasoning, fermenting, and storing.
Making kimchi at home is relatively simple and requires only a handful of fairly easy-to-find ingredients. The only ingredient that can be difficult to track down is gochugaru, the Korean red pepper powder or paste that gives kimchi its signature fiery bite. Luckily, gochugaru can be purchased online.
Kimchi’s tangy and spicy flavor makes it an ideal addition to all kinds of recipes. Use it to top your bowl of noodles, crispy rice, or ramen, or as a topping for hot dogs and grilled sausages. It’s even great in grilled cheese sandwiches if you’re looking for a twist on a classic.
Kefir has been enjoying some well-deserved exposure and a surge in popularity in North America over the last couple of years. Kefir is essentially a drinkable yogurt-style fermented beverage that can be made from cow, goat, sheep, coconut, soy, or rice milk. Kefir boasts many of the same health benefits found in other fermented foods, including plenty of gut-healthy probiotics that support improved immune responses.
One of the main differences between kefir and cultured yogurt, though, is the method by which it’s made. Creating a batch of kefir involves adding milk to kefir grains (combined yeast and dairy strains) and letting it ferment for at least 24 hours. Kefir may be a good option if you suffer from lactose intolerance, although digestive responses will vary from person to person, so it’s advisable to begin by ingesting only small amounts of kefir if you’re worried about an adverse reaction to lactose.
Kefir is available plain as well as in fruit and other flavors. As with cultured yogurt, it’s important to make sure kefir hasn’t had excess sugar, preservatives, or fillers added before deciding it’s a healthy addition to your diet.
It may surprise (and delight!) you to learn that sourdough bread is actually a fermented food with many of the same health benefits as the others on our list. The sourdough method of baking bread is an ancient one. It began with the observation that when flour and water are combined and left to sit, they’ll eventually begin to ferment. Nowadays, sourdough starters (which can easily be made at home) are left to ferment for several days before being added to a bread recipe.
Fun fact: Sourdough starters are sometimes passed down for generations and can survive to be well over 100 years old! Even more importantly, sourdough bread is easier for your systems to digest because the bacteria in the starter predigests the starches in the grains and breaks gluten down into more easily-digestible individual amino acids.
Another example of fermentation that’s been around for thousands of years, kombucha is made of green or black tea that has had bacteria and yeast added to it. The tea is allowed to ferment for at least a week, during which time a mushroom-like SCOBY—which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast—forms. Small pieces of SCOBY can be broken off and added to more tea so that the fermentation process can begin all over again.
Kombucha has similar gut-health benefits as other fermented foods and boasts an impressive level of antioxidants because of its tea content. Kombucha has a pleasantly tangy taste and soda-like effervescence that it makes it perfect for people just getting into fermented foods. Its huge increase in popularity over the past decade has made it just as likely that you’ll find kombucha at a gas station as a natural foods store.
What to do if You Find the Taste of Fermented Foods Too Strong
Fermented foods absolutely have a distinct tanginess that you might find overwhelming if you’re just beginning to explore the world of fermentation. Before writing off fermented foods for good, Kirsten says her biggest advice is not to be scared or intimidated. “We’ve grown up with germ theory and refrigeration so it natural that it is uncomfortable for folks to leave things on their counter to get bubbly on purpose.”
It’s also important not to get fixated on a certain type of fermented food. If one doesn’t work for you, there are plenty of other options to consider. She says, “Maybe you will never like sauerkraut but you do like fermented mustard, or hot sauce is your game and you put it on everything anyway. Trade out Sriracha for a fermented version and all the flavor is there combined with all the enhanced individual benefits of the ingredients. How cool is that!”
It’s also possible to include fermented foods in your diet by masking their flavor in a recipe. For example, kefir is an amazing addition to smoothies and is virtually unrecognizable when blended with other ingredients. Halve or completely replace the mayonnaise used in dips and chicken salad sandwiches and add cultured yogurt in its place. If you’re making a meat-based chili, substitute a third or half of the ground meat with crumbled tempeh. No one will even notice it’s there in the midst of all the other ingredients.
The bottom line is that—regardless of your taste or experience with foods that are full of healthy bacteria—fermented foods are for everyone.