Fermentation has had a steady rise in the ranks of trendy chefs and foodies over the past few years, but it seems as if recently we’ve hit fever pitch when it comes to fermented foods.
In fact, Ocado reported searches for “fermented food” have more than doubled, rising by 139%, making it one of the most searched-for terms so far this month for the online grocer.
Sales of classic fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso and kimchi have also shot up in recent weeks as customers kick their January health reset into gear. Now, most of us have probably heard of these fermented foods and their so-called special powers, but how much do we really know about how they’re made, and what their benefits actually are? That’s where we’re stepping in with our guide to the stinky stuff.
OK, so what are fermented foods?
Fermented foods are basically foods that have undergone something called (and now this is where it gets a bit science-y) controlled microbial growth. Woah – we know this sounds like something that happens in a lab rather than to your pot of yoghurt, but it basically just means microorganisms like yeast and bacteria are breaking down the sugars in your food to create the acids, gases or alcohol that give fermented foods their unique taste, aroma and texture.
Some examples of fermented food and drink are:
Sourdough bread: A bread that doesn’t use ready-made yeast to rise, instead it’s made using a starter, a mixture of flour and water left to ferment, to create wild yeast naturally.
Miso: A paste originating from Japan made from fermented soybeans, a grain like rice or barley, and a mould called koji. It has a super savoury taste known as umami and is found in dishes like ramen.
Kimchi: A Korean dish made from salted, fermented vegetables like cabbage and carrot with garlic, ginger and a Korean chilli paste called gochujang.
Sauerkraut: Finely shredded and fermented cabbage hailing from Germany. It’s rarely flavoured with other seasonings, but you’ll often find it with hotdogs or in a classic Reuben sandwich.
Kombucha: A sour-tasting fizzy drink made with sweetened tea and “scoby”, which is short for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts”. Catchy.
Kefir: A fermented milk drink with a tart taste and slight fizz originally from the mountainous regions between Asia and Europe.
Probiotic yoghurt: It’s basically a yoghurt that contains enough live friendly bacteria to be called probiotic. Look out for the words “live” and “culture” on yog pots in the shops to find it.
Tempeh: Traditionally found in Indonesian dishes, tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and is a great source of protein and an alternative to meat.
Raw cheese: If a cheese is “raw” it means it hasn’t been pasteurised, so the bacteria in the cheese hasn’t been killed off and can contribute to a lovely healthy gut. A good example is blue crumbly classic Roquefort PDO.
Apple cider vinegar: Vinegar made from fermented, pressed apples. Simples.
And what would possess someone to ferment these foods? Well, fermenting enhances food perseveration and boosts the number of friendly bacteria (AKA probiotics) in your gut. Winner winner kimchi dinner.
Next up: what are probiotics?
The first place most people might recognise probiotics from is good old Yakult probiotic yoghurt drinks. But what are probiotics, and why do people go mad for them? Well, probiotics are friendly gut bacteria that benefit our tums by creating a better gut environment for all the other bacteria to live in. A bit like an interior designer coming in and making your house lovely with a good throw or some scatter cushions.
They’ve also been found to support your immune system, which at this time of year is excellent news all round. They can be added in or occur naturally, and they’re often found in yoghurt or on the skins of some fruit and veg, so stop peeling your carrots right this minute!
What are the benefits of fermented foods?
Although they might sound strange, fermented foods can taste great and are mega good for you. As we mentioned earlier, fermenting food improves its shelf life and actually allows us to eat foods that wouldn’t be edible without fermentation, like olives and wine (they’re essentially health foods now, right?).
Other benefits associated with fermented foods like kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut relate to balancing gut health. Rhiannon Lambert, nutritionist and author of The Science of Nutrition says: “research suggests probiotics, like fermented foods, are mainly of benefit when your gut microbiome is out of balance.”
Fermented foods can also have an impact on your ‘noggin. “As our gut and brains are constantly communicating with each other, ensuring we maintain our gut health by consuming fermented foods, alongside a balanced and diverse diet, may help to manage feelings of stress,” says Rhiannon. Some strains of probiotics have even been linked to improved anxiety symptoms, she says, although more research is needed to clarify this.
In general, the specific health benefits will depend on which type of fermented food you’re eating and which of those friendly little bacteria are involved in the gut party.
Sounds great. How can I eat more fermented foods?
You could also go gourmet and give sourdough bread a go at home by creating your own starter.