In days gone by, fermenting food for storage was every bit as common as canning and freezing are today. Sadly, the popularity of fermenting foods died out with the easy availability of processed foods off the shelf. It’s too bad, because it turns out that our ancestors were really onto something good with their crocks of fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods in the root cellar. It turns out that fermenting isn’t just an easy way to preserve the harvest, it’s also a great way to support your health.
If the world was perfect, there would be plenty of beneficial bacteria in our food and surroundings to keep our digestive tracts at optimum health. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case anymore. If you’re eating the common American diet, you’re consuming fruits and vegetables that have been sanitized to kill off all bacteria (good and bad), pasteurized dairy, and round after round of antibiotics along with your store-bought meat and produce. Simply put, we need those good bacteria for our gut to thrive, and we’re not getting them.
The Health Benefits of Eating Fermenting Foods
The good news is, if you’re a homesteader who grows your own food, your diet is probably quite a bit better than the average American. But, there’s always room for improvement! And, the health benefits of fermented foods can make a real difference to almost every system of the body.
- Fermented Foods Support Friendly Gut Bacteria: When we eat fermented foods, we are ingesting an actual ecosystem of friendly bacteria that support our gastro-intestinal systems. These beneficial microbes live in the large intestine and kill off bad bacteria that cause illness and disease.
- Fermented Foods are Good for Your Endocrine System: Your GI tract is made up of everything from your mouth to your… ummm… end. It’s the largest endocrine organ system of your body, and it controls everything from your immune system and metabolism to your emotional responses. In the past, there’s been a lot of talk about the thyroid (another endocrine organ), but it turns out that your GI tract has three times more impact on fighting of illness, maintaining your weight, and stabilizing your moods.
- Fermented Foods are Good for Digestion: One of the natural by-products of eating living fermented foods is acid that helps the body break down micronutrients and macronutrients that we get through our food. This digestive acid makes things like lactose easier to digest, while reducing bloating and other digestive issues.
- Fermented Foods Assist in Nutrient Absorption: When you consume fermented foods, the healthy bacteria transform the digested nutrients into a more easily absorbed form. The nutrients are more readily available to the body. For example, calcium absorption is greatly enhanced by healthy gut bacteria, which we all know is crucial for maintaining healthy bones as we age.
- Fermented Foods are Good or Your Skin, Hair, and Nails: Vitamin B12, biotin, and folic acid are all essential for healthy skin, hair, and nails. When your gut contains healthy bacteria, it is more efficient at synthesizing these crucial nutrients.
How to Ferment Your Home-Grown Vegetables
Fermenting is starting to sound pretty intriguing now, isn’t it? You probably don’t need a whole lot of coaxing to give it a try, but we also want to point out that the process is really easy, and you don’t need a bunch of expensive equipment. Not only that, but fermented foods are also incredibly delicious… even though they smell a little funky sometimes! And, did we mention that fermented vegetables can be stored in a cold, dark place for up to eight months? Your refrigerator or a very cold (but not freezing) basement would both be ideal.
The only way to get all the benefits of fermented foods is to eat a little bit of them every day. Here’s how to ferment just about any vegetable from your garden.
1. Start with high-quality, organically grown produce.
Obviously, if you’re growing your own, you’ve already got this covered. However, you may wish to purchase some seasonal produce from a local farmer’s market, so be sure to choose only organically grown vegetables. Pesticides will kill off all that good bacteria before you even make the purchase. If you’re not sure what kind of veggies to start with, some of my favorites are beets, carrots, cauliflower, and cabbage… but you really can ferment just about any vegetable, or even a mix of your favorites
2. Next, you’ll need a vessel for your fermented veggies.
Canning jars make the perfect vessel for fermenting veggies. You can buy special jars for fermenting, but they’re expensive and you really don’t need them. You don’t have to sterilize your jars, you can simply wash them with hot, soapy water and let them air dry. If you want to be extra cautious, you can rinse them with a solution of water and apple cider vinegar.
3. Use a bacteria starter.
Some folks swear you don’t need a starter for fermenting, but I find that I have better success when I use one. Without a good, strong starter, your batch could spoil or become contaminated with dangerous bacteria, including E. coli. If you’re lucky, you might be able to find a friend or an old timer who’s willing to share some of their starter with you, but you can also purchase a powdered starter from a health food store or online.
4. Fill your jars.
All that’s left to do now is stuff your veggies in the jars, add your starter and some seasonings to taste, and then cover the whole thing with filtered water so the bacteria can grow. The process will take one to two weeks. Give them a taste test each day after the first week so you know when they’re just right. I like to do my fermenting in a cool, dark place so the bacteria don’t work too fast, which could lead to a bubbly explosion. When you open the jars, hold them over the sink just in case they bubble up. Once they’ve reached their ideal puckeriness, move them to the fridge or another cold dark place and store them for up to eight months.
Fermenting is an easy way to preserve your home-grown veggies and get some important health benefits at the same time. Experiment with different vegetables and combinations to see which ones your family likes best. You’ll probably be surprised at how good they taste, but be careful not overdo it at first, or you could end up with a tummy ache. I recommend about one tablespoon a day to start with, adding more over time. Before you know it, you’ll be adding them to everything!