Fermentation – fad or fab?

Along with plant based diets and alcohol free drinks, I think it’s safe to say that fermentation is one of the top food trends in 2018. From kefir (a fermented yoghurt) to kimchi (fermented vegetables) to kombucha (fermented tea), fermentation is everywhere you look. So should you be having kimchi with your breakfast whilst sipping some ‘booch’ (yep, kombucha is so popular that it even has a nickname) or is it all just a fad?

Fermentation is nothing new. It’s a natural process by which organic molecules, such as sugars, are broken down and transformed by the action of enzymes to produce lactic acid. This helps to preserve the food, without the use of chemical additives. The by products of this process are naturally occurring enzymes and probiotics which may contribute to healthy digestion in humans. People have been fermenting food since prehistoric times (the concept is at least 10,000 years old!), with beer, wine, leavened bread and cheese being some of the first foods created in this way. Other foods such as yoghurt, pickles, sauerkraut, butter and other alcoholic drinks were soon to follow.

If it seems like everyone is in on fermentation these days, it’s probably because they are. People are more health conscious than ever and most of the big ‘health’ brands have at least one fermented product in their line up. Even my favourite organic dairy brand, Yeo Valley, now makes an organic fermented natural yoghurt with live kefir cultures which claims to be “packed with billions of live bacteria from 14 different culture strains.”

So that begs the following questions:

  1. Do I actual want to eat billions of live bacteria? That actually sounds a bit gross to be honest.
  2. What is this phenomenon and why is it happening in an age where natural food preservation is no longer necessary for survival? I mean, most everyone has a fridge now, right?

The answer to question number 1 is simply, ‘Sure, why not? Most people are probably eating these to some extent already, whether or not they realise it. According to the NHS website,

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts promoted as having various health benefits. They’re usually added to yoghurts or taken as food supplements, and are often described as ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria.

Probiotics are thought to help restore the natural balance of bacteria in your gut (including your stomach and intestines) when it’s been disrupted by illness or treatment.

Probiotics may be helpful in some cases, but there’s little evidence to support many healthy claims made about them. For example, there’s no evidence to suggest that probiotics can help treat eczema.

However, it does appear that for most people probiotics appear to be safe. If you wish to try them – and you have a healthy immune system – they shouldn’t have any unpleasant side effects.

And to answer question number 2, it’s no longer really about the preservation, although this is still a bonus. If you like the tangy taste of fermented food products, then go for it. I for one am a big fan of half sour pickles, kimchi and yoghurt (and beer, wine and cheese too if I’m being honest!), so I will enjoy these anyway and if they happen to improve my health in any way, then that’s a bonus! So here’s a rundown of some of my favourite fermented foods:

Kefir

Kefir is a cultured, fermented milk drink that is teeming with friendly bacteria and tastes very similar to normal yoghurt. So similar, in fact, that you might be wondering how this differs from regular yoghurt at all – most brands claim their yoghurt contains gut friendly probiotics.  The difference is in the type of bacteria produced when using a starter of kefir grains and what those bacteria are able to do. According to kefir.net, the main difference is:

Yoghurt contains transient beneficial bacteria that keeps the digestive system clean and provide food for the friendly bacteria that reside there [in the digestive system]. But kefir can actually colonise the digestive tract, a feat yoghurt cannot match.

Kefir contains several different major strains of friendly bacteria not commonly found in yoghurt, Lactobacillus, Leuconostoc, Acetobacter species and Streptococcus species.

It also contains beneficial yeasts…

Kefir may also be easier for people who are intolerant to lactose to digest as, similar to probiotics in yoghurt, its probiotics help to break down lactose. So make smoothies with it, pour it on cereal, or eat it in place of normal yoghurt and you may or may not notice that you feel a little bit healthier.

Kimchi

Kimchi has been enjoying a surge in popularity for quite some time now. I had my first taste of kimchi in a vegetarian Korean restaurant in NYC back in 2008 and I LOVED it. I am someone who loves that tangy, pickled flavour anyway so it really appealed to my palate. I have continued to enjoy the occasional kimchi at my local Korean restaurant and have also sampled it served in various manners at trendy restaurants in London and New York, the most memorable of which were as part of a breakfast ‘Buddah Bowl’ and as a topping on a burger.

It never even occurred to me that I could (or even wanted to!) eat or make kimchi at home. But now I realise that I can and I do! I really do! It turns out that it is really quite simple to make your own kimchi or fermented vegetables of any kind. All you need is a fermentation jar (I bought mine at Lakeland and it comes with an air release valve to allow the right amount of gas to escape at the right time. You don’t actually need special equipement but it makes the process even easier and you don’t have to worry about exploding jars!), salt, sugar and vegetables. Pickling weights are also useful to keep the vegetables pressed down beneath the pickling liquid. You can follow a classic kimchi recipe or you can choose which veggies you want to ferment. You then add sugar and salt and seal the jar. Then it’s a waiting game – the jar sits out for two to five days until it’s reached the desired level of fermentation. During this time the vegetables start to release their liquid and once a day you pack them down to ensure they remain below the liquid. Then pop them in the fridge for a further two weeks and your kimchi is ready to eat! I have made my kimchi with red chilli, white cabbage, pak choi, coriander and ginger. It will be ready to eat on Friday and I cannot wait! It will make a nice addition to Saturday morning’s brunch which will consist of avocado on toast, kimchi and a poached egg. And, when the jar is free again, my next fermentation experiment will be fermented spiced winter squash. Yum!

If you don’t want to wait for your fermented vegetables, you can buy them premade and ready to eat! I met Ben of Bottlebrush Ferments a few weeks ago at a farmer’s market and bought a jar of his wonderful fermented vegetables! Ben is an Aussie living in London and is an experienced personal trainer and health coach. Ben’s business partner Hesh was a professional chef in Australia before he moved to London to further his career in food. I listened to Ben talk with passion about all the health benefits of their ferments, but what got me hooked and convinced me to buy a jar, was the taste. Bottlebrush Ferments’ fermented vegetables are probably among the best I’ve ever tasted (although I will reserve final judgement on that until after I have tasted my own!). It’s so bright and fresh, tangy and spicy, that even my pickle hating husband had to admit that he liked it. Bottlebrush Ferments are sold at various farmers markets around London (and if you turn up in person you might just get to chat with Ben or Hesh!). They are also sold at various shops and cafes so check out their website for where to buy or order them online.

So whether or not you believe probiotics have any health benefits, fermented vegetables are a simple and tasty way to add a few more veggies to your diet. And surely that can only be a good thing!

Half sour pickles

I’m a half sour pickle girl. Always have been and probably always will be. I’ve been a fan of these salty, slightly sour but mostly fresh and cucumbery pickles since I was a child growing up in New York and for me they have the comfort factor, especially when served at a New York diner along side an American style tuna melt and coleslaw. Although at this point in my life I can honestly say I consider myself unashamedly British, part of my heart (and most of my stomach hehe!) will always pine for New York.

Dill and half sour pickles aren’t really a big thing here in London and the limited selection you can buy in a UK supermarket just aren’t the same. So I make my own and they are oh so good! My four year old is also obsessed with them, although I try to limit his intake due to the salt content. My favourite half sour recipe is by Brooklyn Farm Girl. I leave my half sours out on the countertop for 8-12 hours, when fermentation has begun to happen and you can start to see bubbles forming, before I pop mine in the fridge. I find this gives them the most genuine New York diner flavour. These take five minutes to make, and then 2-3 days waiting time (or longer if you like a stronger flavour) so they are one of the quicker ferments. And they will compliment any sandwich or burger perfectly, trust me!

Kombucha

Kombucha is a slightly alcoholic (around 0.5%), lightly sparkling drink, which is made by fermenting tea. It contains living probiotic bacteria which is applauded by many for its supposed benefits to gut health. Kombucha is currently popular all over the world, probably most notably in the US and the UK, and is now available in many shops, including supermarkets. It is also possible to make kombucha at home, however to do so you need a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), which can either be purchased online or sourced from an earlier batch of kombucha. The downside to making kombucha at home is that, made incorrectly, it can make you ill. I can’t say that I really understand kombucha – I think it might be an acquired taste, one that at the moment I’m not that interested in acquiring. However, I would definitely be up for trying it as part of a non/low alcohol cocktail! Please feel free to send me a message if you love kombucha and want to try and change my mind – I am open to trying anything!

So once again, fermentation may or may not have all the health benefits lauded by fermentation fans but I don’t think that matters. Fermented foods can be delicious, nutritious and you’ll clearly become part of some sort of health conscious “in crowd” if you eat them. What more could you ask for?! Fermentation is fab in my book!

If you enjoyed my post on fermentation please follow my blog on WordPress or follow me on social media @everlyjaymes. Thanks for your support!

References:

NHS. 2016. Probiotics

Jo Lewin, Associate nutritionist: BBC Goodfood. 2017. The health benefits of kombucha

kefir.net. 2011. Kefir vs Yoghurt

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