Did you know the number of bacteria in your body outnumber your cells by about 10 to 1? These bacteria are comprised of both beneficial ones and harmful ones, with the ideal balance of about 85% good bacteria and 15% bad ones. Maintaining this ideal ratio is what it’s all about when we’re talking about the importance of probiotics.
While there has been a lot of talk about the importance of supplementing your daily regime with an intake of probiotics, probiotics are not a new concept. The only thing that’s new is that while in the past good bacteria used to enter our bodies through certain forms of food, now most of us take them in the form of a pill.
Historically, mankind has consumed large amounts of probiotics in the form of fermented and cultured foods, which were a way to preserve food in the days before refrigerators and pasteurization became a part of daily life. Even thinking back to my childhood, I remember what important role fermented food played in our diet – especially dairy (kefir) and vegetables. When the cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes etc ripened over the summer / early autumn, we would first enjoy them fresh and then spend days preserving them in preparation for the winter ahead. So for a large share of the year, back in the days when food used to be a lot more seasonal, a large percentage of all the foods that people consumed on a daily basis were fermented. And with every mouthful of these fermented foods we consumed trillions of good bacteria.
Unlike taking your probiotics in a form of a pill, fermented foods not only give you the probiotics, but also the pre-biotics – which is essentially the fiber that good bacteria feed on. Furthermore, you get a wider variety of beneficial bacteria and far more of them: often one serving of fermented vegetables can equal to a whole bottle of a high potency probiotic. So it is not only better for your gut, but also for your wallet – fermented foods are a much more cost-effective alternative to probiotic pills.
So what are the fermented foods are how easy it is to recreate them in our daily lives?
Fermented foods are typically raw foods, but some can also be cooked after fermentation (think sourdough bread). Most of the time fermented foods require little but vegetables, salt and time. However occasional recipes require the use of a starter culture – for example consider kefir and kombucha.
All organic fruit and vegetables (and all plant matter) are populated with Lactobacillus – the lacto-fermenting bacteria. To ferment foods, you don’t need to really do anything – lactobacillus does all the work. Lactobacillus are a major part of the lactic acid bacteria group, named as such because most of its members convert lactose and other sugars to lactic acid. The process of lactofermentation – in which natural bacteria feed on the sugar and starch in the food creating lactic acid – is what gives us fermented products.
The process is very simple: you just chop up your vegetables and add some salt. The salt-tolerant lactobacillus species feed on natural sugars found in the vegetables and produce lactic acid. You will find that lactic acid is one of the most powerful antiseptics – it kills off lots and lots of bacteria. Hence, the resulting mix of salt and lactic acid is a hostile environment for other microbes, all those putrefactive and pathogenic microbes, to survive in. As these microbes are killed, food is preserved and can last for a very long time. But this fermentation process does more than just preserve the food. It makes the nutrients inside the food more bioavailable (by “pre-digesting” them) and creates beneficial enzymes, b-vitamins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and various strains of probiotics.
You can find fermented foods and beverages in every culture around the globe – from kefir which was originated in Caucasus mountains and since spread around the world, to Kimchi in Korea, miso in Japan, sauerkraut in Germany, gundruk in Nepal, douche (fermented soybeans) and kombucha in China, kvas and a magnitude of fermented vegetables in Eastern Europe and so on. All of these foods have one thing in common – as a result of the process of fermentation they are enriched with essential amino acids, vitamins, mineral and bioactive compounds.
Pickled vegetables are one of the easiest dishes to put together at home. Remember that most modern pickles that we find on the supermarket shelves are made using vinegars and/or heat processing, which limits or eliminates the beneficial bacteria and enzymes that result from lacto-fermentation. Hence often making pickles at home is a way to ensure your final product delivers not only on the flavor, but also good bacteria levels.
The process is very quick and simply requires some patience while you wait for the foods to ferment. My favourite quick recipe is that for pickled cucumbers. We used to make pickles using tiny cucumbers and leaving them whole. However, often these days it is hard to source anything other than the long cucumbers that we often see on supermarket shelves, so I cheat and cut up the cucumber into little rounds – which also speeds up the fermentation process. And while salt and water are enough to ferment the vegetables, I like to add a few spices to jazz the end result up a little.
1 large organic cucumber cut into rounds
300ml of hot water
2tbsp sea salt / pink Himalayan salt
a bunch of dill
2-3 large garlic cloves, unpeeled and lightly crushed
1 bay leaf
1 dried chilli
a few juniper barriers
a few cloves
a few black peppercorns
½ tsp mustard seeds
½ tsp fennel seeds
Bring the water to boil and stir in the salt until dissolved.
Quickly sterilize your jar by pouring boiling water over it and then letting it dry naturally.
Place all the spices, dill and garlic at the bottom of the jar and pack your cucumber slices on top of them, pressing tightly until they fill the jar. Top with the salted water solution until it covers all the cucumbers. Cover the jar with a lid and let it stand outside in cool dark place for a few hours before transferring to the fridge for a few days.
Your pickles will be ready to eat in about 3 days and will get more intense the longer you leave them.