Beginner's Guide to Fermented Foods
Never mind an apple — a pickle a day may keep the doctor away. Find out why fermented foods are so good for you and see how easy it is to make your own.
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When I was growing up, a few times a year my parents would take us to the old Jewish neighborhood on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The highlight for me, of course, was the food. And the highlight of highlights was a visit to the pickle vendor — a guy with a dozen or so barrels of various vegetables floating in a salty, garlicky brine. My favorite was a half-sour pickle. I’d happily nosh on one from its little waxed paper bag as we walked down Essex Street.
I had no idea I was doing such a favor for my microbiome. All those barrels, you see, held fermented foods.
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What is fermented food?
Fermentation sounds like a science project, and there’s definitely microbiology involved, but it’s an ancient and surprisingly simple method of food preservation. The fact that it boosts the antioxidants in your food and offers numerous other health-promoting benefits is a relatively recent discovery.
To make fermentation happen, you introduce microorganisms like bacteria or yeast to food in an anaerobic environment (one without oxygen). Often, you submerge food in brine and let it sit for days or weeks. While you go about your life, those microbes feast on the carbohydrates in the food, converting sugars and starches into another kind of microbe — probiotics, which offer numerous health benefits.
Vegetables, fruit, and other plants are generally lacto-fermented. That doesn’t mean you use milk! Lacto-fermentation refers to lactic acid bacteria — there are dozens of species, but the one you’ve probably heard of is Lactobacillus — which kick-start the process. They exist naturally in plants and thrive in an oxygen-free environment, like a sealed jar of cucumbers in salt brine.
Sourdough bread is an example of yeast fermentation. You can make your own starter by simply mixing flour and water with a bit of pineapple juice, then leaving it to capture wild yeast from the air.
Other fermented products include sauerkraut, Korean kimchi, kombucha (fermented tea), yogurt, kefir, miso, and tempeh.
Why is fermented food good for you?
It’s all about probiotics, the trillions of microbes that live in your gut microbiota and promote health. (Don’t confuse them with prebiotics — those are food for probiotics.) The lactic acid bacteria I mentioned just now? Big-time probiotics.
Thanks to those microbial critters, fermented probiotic foods benefit your health in multiple ways. Studies have found that eating fermented foods:
supports your immune system
boosts your overall gut health and digestion
lowers your blood pressure and cholesterol, which helps prevent cardiovascular disease
helps control blood sugar and reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes
acts as an anti-inflammatory
And if that’s not enough, research suggests fermented foods may help fight obesity, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Fermented food list
There are probably thousands of fermented foods in the world, but some of the most popular include the following. If you're buying these at the store, be sure to look for words like "fermented" and "live cultures" on the label:
apple cider vinegar
Fermented food recipes
Ready to get started? Several of these recipes don’t need anything more complicated than salt to get going, while others use some kind of starter culture. The easiest starters are whey (the liquid you get when you strain plain yogurt), or brine from existing fermented vegetables, but you can also buy starter.
The fermentation process doesn’t change the flavor of condiments like ketchup and mustard a tremendous amount — it just makes things a little zingy. If you’re already eating any of these in their traditional form, fermenting them is a no-brainer.
Got a kid who’ll eat anything, as long as there’s ketchup for dipping? Start here. This recipe includes instructions for making ketchup from scratch first, or just adding a starter culture to store-bought. This could not be easier!
No starter culture needed here — you’re fermenting whole mustard seeds in nothing but a saltwater brine. Once they’re good and tangy, drain them and combine with vinegar. (Bet you didn’t know it was that easy to make mustard!) The flavor is pretty sharp in the early days, and mellows slightly as time goes by.
Some people I know (looking at you, husband and big brother) douse pretty much everything they eat in hot sauce. A fermented version gives them a healthy shot of probiotics while they’re doing it. This recipe is especially handy because it lets you control the heat — it’s got instructions for using milder poblano chilies vs. jalapeños, habaneros, and even ghost peppers.
Taco night provides an opportunity to support your gut microbiome, thanks to this easy salsa. It takes no more effort than your usual recipe, though the jar does need to sit on the counter a few days to get all the fermentation going.
Vegetables count as some of the OG fermented foods — the first documented pickles date back to 2,000 B.C. And because many of them naturally contain the microorganisms needed for fermentation, you may not need anything more than salt water to get going.
The name of this recipe doesn’t lie: It really is simple. Sliced radishes, carrot sticks, and cucumber spears each go into their own jar. You pour a saltwater brine on top, cover the jars, and let them sit on the counter for a week or so. That’s it.
A gorgeous, Italian-accented combo of fermented vegetables, giardiniera usually includes cauliflower, carrots, red bell peppers, and onion in a bracing salt brine. Once everything’s perfectly pickled, you can chop it fine and use it as a relish for sandwiches and salads, or include it as-is on an antipasto tray.
Those pickles I grew up on? Here’s how you make them. Kirby cukes get cut into spears and packed into jars along with whole cloves of garlic and plenty of dill (plus a secret ingredient or two), then doused with a saltwater brine and left to ferment. The longer they sit, the more sour they’ll get: After a few days you’ve got half-sour. After a week, you’ve got a mouth-puckering punch.
At its most basic level, sauerkraut is just fermented cabbage. The store-bought kind typically gets pasteurized, which kills all that good bacteria. Now that you know how easy it is to make your own, why wouldn’t you? This version adds caraway seeds, and if you like you can stir in some grated carrot and ginger.
How does a Korean mom make kimchi? With napa cabbage, plenty of garlic and coarse red pepper powder (gochugaru), and sea salt. Oh, and in large quantity — this recipe makes 1 gallon!
Fruit may not come to mind when you think fermentation, but once you try these recipes you’ll want to ferment everything.
If you’ve eaten foods from the Middle East, North Africa, or South Asia, odds are you’ve come across the distinct, deep-lemon tang of a preserved lemon. Sure, you can buy a jar — but it’s much more fun (and much less expensive) to make your own. The recipe only has two ingredients, lemons and kosher salt.
Think of these as a tangy-sweet condiment, almost like a jam. Trust me, you’re going to want to put the soft, luscious berries in everything — granola, ice cream, waffles, oatmeal, yogurt, even salad dressing.
Hate throwing away perfectly good food scraps? You’re going to love this. Here, you’re not fermenting pineapple chunks to eat. You’re turning the peel and core into a tangy, fermented liquid that’s great for smoothies. The recipe includes a few options: watermelon-cucumber-mint, mango, and strawberry-basil.
I always include a little apple cider vinegar in my apple pie filling. It takes the flavor up a notch. These sweet-and-sour cinnamon apples remind me of that effect, but with much less added sugar. They’re kind of hard to stop eating, once you start.
Beer-type beverages were the first fermented foods in history, invented way back in 7,000 B.C. The following fizzy concoctions have no alcohol, but they sure are fun to drink. And because the fermentation process devours sugar, they’re less sweet than your average juice.
This will take you all of five minutes to throw together plus around a week of waiting. And for your (very little) trouble, you’ll get a bright pink, tart, naturally fizzy elixir, perfect for sipping, adding to cocktails and vinaigrettes, or using as the base for a sophisticated ice cream soda.
The live microorganisms in fresh whey feast on the carbs in this mixture’s honey, leaving behind a lemonade that’s lightly sweet, perfectly tart, and downright effervescent. It might spoil your enthusiasm for ordinary lemonade forever.
When concord grapes hit my farmers’ market and the bees are buzzing from all that sweetness, I know exactly what I’m going to make. Bubbly grape juice makes my entire family so happy.
Kvass is an ancient Russian drink made from fermented beets and sometimes a bit of rye bread. (According to this recipe’s author, “kvass” is literally the Russian word for “ferment.”) It’s earthy — imagine that deep beetiness — with a layer of sweet tang and a bit of fizz.
Recipes that use store-bought fermented foods
Fermenting food isn’t exactly hard, but it takes time. If you’d like to get some of those beneficial bacteria in your belly ASAP, there’s no shame in buying food that’s already fermented, like kefir, kombucha, tempeh, or miso paste.
Kefir, one of several fermented dairy products, softens steel-cut oats in the fridge overnight. In the morning, you just stir in some vanilla extract or warm spices like cinnamon, and top with fruit, chopped nuts or seeds, or cacao nibs. Between kefir’s protein and the oats’ fiber, this will keep you feeling full straight through until lunch.
Tempeh is a plant-based protein made from fermented soybeans, which you’ll find in the refrigerated natural-foods section of larger supermarkets. Because it’s already cooked, it doesn’t take long to prepare. Here, the pieces soak up a yummy sauce made with soy sauce, sesame oil, brown sugar, rice vinegar, garlic, and ginger. Served over rice with broccoli florets, this dinner is on the table in about 20 minutes.
The umami-rich fermented soybean paste is good for so much more than miso soup! In this recipe, it adds a salty, savory depth to a classic Italian recipe. You won’t necessarily taste the miso outright — you’ll just slurp up the strands of spaghetti and marvel at how you’ve just made the best carbonara of your life. (Looking for more ways to use up a tub of miso paste? Check this out.)
Kombucha makes a perfect base for these easy popsicles — all you do is pour it over fruit in your popsicle molds. Some shopping advice: Many store-bought kombuchas overload the tea with sugar. Some pasteurize the drink to extend the shelf life, which kills the probiotics. Buy kombucha from the refrigerator case, not the shelf, and read the labels. You want a short ingredients list with relatively low amounts of sugar, and wording like “raw,” or “unpasteurized.”
Keep exploring fermented foods
Once you discover the world of fermented foods, you may find it hard to stop! Read on for more ways to feed your new obsession.