The Curious World Of Fermented Foods

A nutritionist recently sparked my interest in fermented foods – after six years of caring for my  babies/small children, I felt exhausted and prone to catching whatever illness came near me. I had a chat with her about what I could change in my diet in order to gain my strenghth back. Amongst other things she mentioned probiotics, which can either be ingested through probiotic tablets or through fermented foods. I’ve heard of fermented foods before but never made any myself nor have I tried many of them before. I tried to Google how to make Sauerkraut, Kombucha or Kefir but I found all the instructions highly confusing and, having been raised by a medical laboratory assistant and a doctor, the dangers of bad bacteria were always in the back of my head, so creating good bacteria without creating bad bacteria made me slightly anxious. I decided, therefore, that this is a topic that requires hands-on instructions, and I was excited to find them in the form of the fermentation workshop by Claudia and her venture Swisscultured. I attended her workshop today as a complete newbie to fermented foods, and here’s what I learned.

What are fermented foods?

Fermented foods are foods that have been through a process of lactofermentation in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food. People all around the globe have been using fermentation for preserving food for thousands of years; Sauerkraut in Germany, Kimchi in Korea, Kvass in Russia, Dosa in India, Miso in Japan, Kefir in Eastern Europe, Kombucha in the Ukraine and other countries, the list could go on and on and on. Back in the olden days people fermented food to preserve it, mostly unaware of the amazing health benefits. Slowly, the fermentation started to take a back seat in most Western countries due to the modernisation of our diet and the lack of time for foods that take several days to prepare, up to a degree that most people my age, including me, have completely removed fermented foods from their diets and often are even unaware of it.

The benefits of fermented foods

Fermentation preserves the food and creates beneficial enzymes, B-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids and various strains of probiotics. All of this has a beneficial impact on the digestion. But it doesn’t stop there. Gut health is crucial to so many health aspects; it is said that 90% of the immune system takes place in the gut. Also, scientists have found out the the brain’s serotonin production is regulated by some bacteria in the gut. Serotonin is one of the neurotransmitters responsible for our mood. There’s a lot of other health claims about fermented foods; I’m not a medical doctor so I can’t vouch for them, but you can Google yourself and see what comes up that’s of interest to you. Fact is, good bacteria are good for us, and the increasing scientific findings about the human microbiome point to this knowledge even more. To get the most out of probiotics, it is recommended to eat fermented foods with each meal. But even if you only manage to do it once per day it’ll be good for you.

How to start your fermented foods journey

One of the easiest foods to ferment is Sauerkraut; all you need is a jar, white cabbage and salt. For fermenting vegetables, you need to mix the vegetables with salt and let it ferment for several days. The food doesn’t turn bad as long as it’s all covered in water and no air touches it. After a few days to weeks at room temperature, the foods are fermented and can be kept in the fridge for months. Cabbage is just one idea, you can also ferment cauliflower, carrots, chillies, or even grains such as rice.

You can also get water kefir or milk kefir grains and grow these at home. Kefir grains multiply each day and most kefir grain holders are more than happy to share their grains with others, just ask around, you might be able to find someone amongst your friends or neighbours who passes some on to you. Water kefir grains are used to ferment water; a bubbly drink will result from the fermentation which can be mixed with fruit or any other ingredients to add some taste. Milk kefir grains are used to ferment milk, after fermenting the milk for 24 hours at room temperature you have a yoghurt drink which you can either drink plain, mixed with fruit as a smoothie or use it in cooking.

Once you know the basics, you can start experimenting with fermenting other foods, or creating fermented drinks such as Kombucha.

Fermented foods workshop

If, like me, you appreciate some hands-on help at the start of your fermenting journey and you live in the Zurich area, I can highly recommend Claudia from Swisscultured. In the 1.5 hours long workshop she introduced us to all the important fermentation basics, we learned how to make Sauerkraut and how to look after milk kefir grains and we got to taste a great selection of her own, delicious fermented foods. And, most importantly, we had the chance to ask all those questions people have when they’re new to fermenting. Claudia is from Mexico and suffered from severe allergies when she moved to Zurich. After several years on antihistamines she looked into improving her gut health through fermented foods and had great success with it for reducing her allergies. If you’d like to learn more about her workshops, send her a message or visit her Facebook page.

A great thank you to Swisscultured who invited Little Zurich Kitchen to the fermentation workshop. The thoughts and ideas are entirely my own.

6 Replies to “The Curious World Of Fermented Foods”

  1. I tried making sauerkraut a year or so back and it was OK but tasted a bit funny… I didn’t chop the cabbage thin enough! I love fermented foods. One of our best friends is Polish and he was always saying basically what you said here – people used to eat them all the time and now it’s been forgotten but they’re so good and good for you! Are the workshops in German or English (or Spanish?!)

    1. Little Zurich Kitchen says: Reply

      Oh I forgot to add that info – it’s in English. Will update it accordingly. Thanks! And yes, def something we should introduce again into our diets. Did you know that some of those bacteria in the gut are responsible for the serotonin production in the brain, which affects our mood? It’s fascinating!

  2. I can’t go past good old Polish sauerkraut. A Polish friend of mine offered to pick up a jar from his Polish grocer, which is a few hours away. I hadn’t realised just how much sauerkraut they must eat! It was a huge 3 kg or so jar which barely fit anywhere in my fridge! I managed to use all but a cup or so down the bottom! I found some very nice ways to use it but still like it best with pork and apples. I have made some myself since, in much smaller amounts and it is very tasty and fun.

    1. Little Zurich Kitchen says: Reply

      That sounds like a lot! My Croatian friend told me the same, her parents have huge pots of fermenting cabbage in their garage.

  3. I do have a question which I have been wanting to ask for years about Swiss food. I often get a mixed salad when visiting, I remember inparticular visiting the Hergsli glass factory and lunch at their cafe, and eating a huge salad. The mixed salad always has these tasty salads which I think are fermented or pickled along side. I think one was celeriac, another may be carrot, then cucumbers in a sauce of some sort. Would you have any idea what they use in the mixed salads and how to make them? It’s usually quite a mix of different sorts. Thank you!

    1. Little Zurich Kitchen says: Reply

      If it’s just the normal Swiss mixed salad (which it probably is according to what you describe), then it’s probably not pickled but just left in the salad dressing for 1-2 hours before it is served – the salt from the dressing extracts the juices from the vegetables. The carrot salad is usually made in a salad dressing containing yoghurt (plus vinegar, oil, salt and pepper), and the cucumber in a vinaigrette, often with dill. The celeriac was this one http://www.littlezurichkitchen.ch/celery-root-and-apple-salad/ . And just add some other salads, for example cooked beetroot salad, corn salad,… I’m just realising that I should write down some recipes for all these salads. Thanks for asking!

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