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The Truth About Fermenting Foods

The Truth About Fermentation and Why You Should Do It

Lacto-fermentation of food is a process that is getting a lot of press lately. But the question I get the most from people is:

“What exactly is this fermentation craze about and how does it work?”

I totally understand the confusion.

You might know about fermenting BEER… but CARROTS? Not so much.

Most people did not grow up fermenting food. It is an old practice that fell by the wayside with processed foods.

So, the idea of fermenting food sounds tricky, intimidating and honestly… some of the projects on my kitchen sink can look a little creepy to my uninitiated friends.

But let me tell you the truth about fermentation…

  • It is EASY — so, so EASY!  (Really, truly it is)
  • It is FUN.
  • And it is SAFE. (In fact, it is a very healthy thing to eat)

You can make things like homemade yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and even kombucha!

And fermentation requires no special equipment!

Sure, you can buy some fun tools and some things require a starter to get the ball rolling, but the truth is that you can do many fermentation projects with just a clean jar, water, veggies and some salt.

So in today’s mini-lesson, I break it down so that you:

  • Understand the basics of fermenting
  • See some of the incredible health benefits (Probiotics!)
  • Learn about the different types of fermenting you can do at home

Let’s get started…

The Truth About Fermentation and Why You Should Do It

What is Fermentation?

Fermentation is one of the oldest forms of preserving food. To do it properly, I think you need to understand just the basics of what is happening inside the jar. (Don’t worry, this is not a full chemistry lesson)

There are two ways to start a fermentation process:

  • Wild /Natural: Where the bacteria, yeast or mold is in the environment or on the food naturally.
  • Starter: Where a bacterium, yeast or mold is introduced to the food

From that, one of two different ferments takes place:

  • Alcohol fermentation: where yeast converts sugars (glucose, fructose or sucrose) into alcohol. (Like wine, beer, hard cider)
  • Acid fermentation: where bacteria converts starch or sugars into either acetic or lactic acid (Like yogurt, fermented veggies)

Now some ferments involve both yeast and bacteria and so you end up with a little mix of lacto, acetic and a tiny bit of alcohol (Like homemade vinegar and kombucha).

So there are a lot of crossovers between bacteria, yeasts and what is produced. But that is basics of what is happening on a cellular level.

The Truth About Fermented Foods and Why We Should Do It.But this is what you need to know:

Although there are many different ways to ferment, ALL the processes involve bacteria and/or yeast coming in contact with some food and converting carbohydrates (sugar and/or starch) into acid and/or alcohol.

The result is a food that is:

  • More nutritious (full of beneficial bacteria)
  • Can be stored for longer periods of time
  • Is easier to digest.

But What Is Lacto-Fermentation?

What you are probably hearing about the most within canning circles is “lacto-fermentation”.

It is just where a common species of bacteria (Lactobacillus) converts sugars into lactic acid. In milk products, it converts lactose, (the sugar in milk), into lactic acid.

Lactic acid is a natural preservative and that is why it falls under the “food preservation” category. It is the type of fermenting that converts cucumbers into pickles and cabbage into sauerkraut.

Lacto-Fermentation is sort of the umbrella under which most people are putting ALL home fermentation.

So when someone says “lacto-fermentation” they generally are talking about anything from fermented veggies, to yogurt, kefir, etc.

BUT just know that many of the ferments we do involve much MORE than just the Lactobacillus bacteria.

Some projects are really a combo of some of the processes I described above. (For example, kombucha uses a combo of yeast and bacteria) And that is why we sometimes talk about yeasts, alcohol or even molds in some projects.

Fermented Foods Are Everywhere:

You are actually already familiar with fermented foods without even realizing it. Of course sauerkraut is fermented…but there are so many other fermented foods you have probably eaten without realizing they were fermented!

Fermented grains are used to make sourdough bread and beer. Fermented meats create salami and pastrami. Fermenting dairy gives you cheese, yogurt and kefir. And don’t forget other fermented foods such as vinegar, soy sauce, wine and those delicious old-fashioned pickles that sit in a jar (unrefrigerated) on the counter.

Heck, even chocolate is fermented!  Seriously – it is!

What Are The Benefits?

Aside from the fun of playing like a mad scientist, there are some benefits to fermented foods.

  • Fermenting food extends its shelf life. Fermented vegetables last months rather than weeks. Yogurt lasts longer than regular milk, etc.
  • The lactic acid that is formed promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the intestinal track.
  • Fermented foods are incredibly probiotic. Many of the fermented foods in the stores are heat pasteurized, thus killing most of the beneficial microbes. But homemade ferments retain all the good guys in mass quantities so you get maximum benefit in your gut.
  • Since fermentation does not involve heat, more of the nutrition is left in the food. In fact, there is also an increase in B vitamins and many enzymes from the fermentation process.
  • Because the complex foods are broken down into simpler parts, the resulting food is easier to digest.

Water KefirWhat about Safety and Bad Bacteria?

Surprisingly, fermented food is safer than raw food because:

  1. The fermentation process creates lactic acid or alcohol (which both kill and/or suppress bad bacteria).
  2. The conditions needed for the good bacteria to grow (such as a salty brine) are the same conditions that kill or suppress the bad bacteria. The process itself cultivates the good bacteria while discouraging the bad.

The key to being safe with any food project is cleanliness. Always use clean tools and equipment and clean hands. If something smells rancid, “off” or just weird, just throw it out.

As for botulism, it is not an issue with fermented foods. Salty brines are used on vegetables, which prevent botulism from growing and the pH is shifted to high acid during the fermentation process, which again, prevents botulism. So that is not a concern with fermentation projects.

What Kinds Of Things Can You Ferment?

Vegetables: Sauerkraut is the most common but any veggie can be fermented. It involves salt, water and sitting at room temperature. You can buy a starter, but you can also ferment without one. Spices can be added to really make it fun. Fermented veggies are very high in probiotics.

Kimchi: Is sometimes called the Korean version of sauerkraut. It is basically a fermentation of a variety of vegetables – usually including specialty cabbage, some sort of onion and ginger.

Yogurt: Yogurt is made with milk in one of two different ways – with a heated method or a room temperature method. You do need a starter for this one, but it is easy to use. The beneficial bacteria in yogurt will help keep the digestive tract clean and feed the friendly bacteria in a healthy gut.

Milk Kefir: Although it is also made with milk, kefir is very different from yogurt. First of all, it is always made at room temperature and it contains yeasts as well as bacteria. You need a starter (dried or fresh kefir “grains”). Kefir has a larger variety of bacteria in it and some of those bacteria can help colonize the intestinal tract.

Note on “grains”: Don’t let the name fool you. Kefir grains are not made from grain. They are just grain shaped and are white/clear gel-like combos of yeast and bacteria. Kefir grains are used over and over from batch to batch. You should only have to buy them once.

Water Kefir Grains

Water Kefir Grains

Water Kefir: This can be made as an alternative to milk kefir and many people drink it instead of soda. You use water kefir grains to ferment sugar water. Then you can add fruit juice and allow the ferment to create carbonation. You get a fizzy drink that is also good for you. Learn how to make water kefir here.

Kombucha: This is another alternative to soda and is a fermented sweet tea. It is made with a scoby (a gel-like disk of bacteria and yeast) and it does produce a little bit of alcohol in the process. The scoby is used over and over from batch to batch.

Hard Cider, Wine and Beer: As I am sure you know, these are all fermentations where yeast converts sugars to alcohol. It is fun to do, but a big larger in scope than any of the other fermentation projects above.

Homemade Cheese -

Other Fermented Things: You can also ferment sourdough starter for breads or make homemade cheese. You can ferment meats and fish, seeds, nuts and even legumes.

But if you are just starting out, I recommend fermented vegetables, yogurt or kefir. They are the most straightforward and yet, yield great results. Then you can branch off into other fermentation projects.

I will be posting more specific recipes and tips on fermenting going forward. But I wanted you to have an overview before we dive into anything specific.

What Would You Like to Learn to Ferment First?

Leave me a comment below!

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About the Author:

Theresa Loe is the founder of Living Homegrown® and the Canning Academy®. For 9 years, Theresa was the Co-Executive Producer & Canning Expert on the national PBS gardening series, Growing A Greener World®. Theresa homesteads on just 1/10th of an acre in Los Angeles with her husband, two sons and several disorderly but totally adorable chickens. Learn more about Living Homegrown here and about the Canning Academy here.