Whether gracing your favorite gastropub menu or appearing in superfood supplements, fermented foods are quickly gaining popularity. While fermentation might seem more like a science project than a food preparation technique, it has a long history in kitchens around the world, plus some health benefits, too. Here’s a closer look at this growing food trend!
What is fermentation?
Fermentation—originally used to help preserve raw foods—involves mixing ingredients with a salt-based starter, and then letting everything steep in a controlled environment until the sugars and carbs convert into probiotics (aka good bacteria).
Types of fermentation
There are many types of fermentation processes and a variety of fermentation kits to choose from if you want to try this technique at home. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Lactic acid fermentation: Lactic acid fermentation is the primary method for fermenting milk and producing yogurt, and it’s also the process that takes place during most pickling. Lactic acid fermentation may also have a positive effect on gut health thanks to the production of “good bacteria” that occurs. It’s also what gives yogurt and pickled veggies a distinct sour taste.
- Alcoholic fermentation: Also known as ethanol fermentation, alcoholic fermentation is one of the oldest fermentation procedures and occurs when sugars (glucose) are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide when various yeasts, molds, or bacteria interact with certain carbohydrates (think grapes for wine or grains for beer or hard liquor).
- Malolactic fermentation: Not technically fermentation since it doesn’t use yeast, but malolactic fermentation occurs when the malic acid in wine is converted to “softer, creamier” lactic acid. Malolactic fermentation is how some wines get their “buttery” finish.
- Yeast fermentation: Yeast is a key ingredient in the fermentation process, especially in alcohol fermentation like winemaking. In the absence of oxygen, yeast converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
- Anaerobic fermentation: The elimination of oxygen is necessary to anaerobic fermentation, as oxygen is toxic to the organisms that are forming. This is why most fermentation takes place in airtight containers with little-to-no oxygen present.
8 Popular Fermented foods
Fermented foods are probiotic powerhouses, and are known for boosting the healthy bacteria ratio in your digestive tract. In fact, you’re probably enjoying more fermented foods than you think!
- Kimchi: Typically made from cabbage, radish, and garlic fermented with salt, sugar, water, and a variety of spices, kimchi is a traditional Korean fermented dish. It was actually invented in the 12th century to preserve vegetables for the winter. For years, kimchi was sealed in containers and buried in the ground to keep the temperature cool and consistent, but now many Koreans have a designated kimchi refrigerator.
- Pickles: Whether on the side of a burger or a companion to your tuna salad, pickles are always a good idea and quite simple to make. A little vinegar, salt, sugar, and water is pretty much all you need for a basic pickling brine (plus your favorite herbs like dill). And if you want to pickle something quickly, try this method.
- Kombucha: Making your own kombucha is easier than you think. This fizzy probiotic beverage is fermented with a SCOBY—or symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, and it’s actually super good for you. To make your own brew, all you really need is time. Once you obtain a SCOBY, you can use it again and again for endless batches.
- Miso: You probably didn’t realize you were enjoying a little fermented treat every time you went for sushi, but miso is actually made from fermented soybeans, which give it its complex flavor and popular “umami” taste.
- Kefir: This fermented milk drink is cultured at room temperature using milk kefir grains that provide good bacteria and yeast. The culture can be used more than once, provided it’s transferred to a fresh batch of milk every 24 hours.
- Sauerkraut: German for “sour cabbage,” sauerkraut is just cabbage fermented in salt and surprisingly simple to make. Typically a topper for hot dogs or sausages, sauerkraut was actually invented by Chinese laborers who built the Great Wall of China over 2,000 years ago.
- Tempeh: Often used as a vegetarian protein, tempeh is an Indonesian dish made from fermented soybeans through a controlled process that eventually binds them into a dense cake.
- Yogurt: Fermented using a starter culture of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus to produce lactic acid, yogurt is home to healthy-gut-supporting probiotics.
Fermented ingredients are the unsung heroes of recipe prep, and can add big flavor to a variety of dishes. Here are a few of our favorite fermented recipes.
Feel a cold coming on? Switch things up with an Elderberry Switchel. This feel-good fermented elixir combines elderberry syrup, apple cider vinegar, ginger, and water.
“Quick pickling” is tough to say but easy to do when you’ve got this foolproof recipe for pickled carrots (or any veggie of your choosing). A few jars, a little vinegar, and a handful of spices are all you need for this ideal weekend DIY.
If you like the Ayurvedic medicinal qualities of turmeric, you’ll like this recipe a latte. Using Turmeric Boosting Powder that’s fermented with probiotics, this soothing brew also incorporates almond milk, ground ginger, ground cinnamon, and coconut nectar.
These gluten-free, savory scones have a superfood surprise: Fermented Black Seed Powder to help aid in digestion and keep your stress level to a minimum.
Who knew that simply adding Korean fermented veggies and a poached egg could transform basic fried rice from a side dish to the star of the show?
Who needs meat? This vegetarian stir-fry is exploding with flavor thanks to gluten-free kelp noodles, organic tempeh, and a vibrant mix of broccoli, carrots, onion and cabbage.
This warm and comforting soup takes miso to the next level by adding zesty cilantro-lime fish balls and slurp-worthy soba noodles.
Tender and juicy, these kebabs are drenched in a lemon-yogurt marinade infused with vibrant turmeric and garlic for six hours before hitting the grill.
Want bark with bite? This vegan, gluten-free recipe delivers a superfood boost with sweet goji berries and cranberries, crunchy almonds and pecans, and Fermented Maca Boosting Powder.
This take on chocolate bark uses tart and creamy Greek-style yogurt in place of cocoa. The bright sweetness of orange marmalade and luscious dates offset the salty crunch of roasted nuts for a balance of flavors that’s sure to be a hit!