Fermentation is an incredible thing. Through the magic of bacteria, food is transformed. Lacto-fermented, also called cultured, foods are rich in vitamins, enzymes and lactobacilli bacteria. Better yet, because these foods have been partially digested for us by the bacteria, they are easier to absorb, meaning that we assimilate more of the goodness into our cells. I've shared one of my favourite recipes below! Did you know there are more bacteria in your gut than there are stars in the universe? Over 100 TRILLION bacteria are living in your intestines! So, why are these bacteria so important to our health? In terms of digestive health, gut bacteria break down nutrients for us and they manufacture vitamin K and B vitamins. In terms of our immune health, the health of our gut bacteria is closely tied to the optimal functioning of our immune systems by outcompeting foreign invaders and by stimulating immune cell response. But digestive and immune health are just scratching the surface of the many roles that our gut bacteria play. More and more research is connecting the link between gut bacteria and mental health. A recent study found that imbalanced gut bacteria in mice led to higher levels of stress hormones and inappropriate behaviours. This article explores the intersection between psychiatry and gut bacteria if you'd like to delve deeper.
Why do so many of us have imbalances in our gut bacteria? We are an unfriendly society to our bacterial friends. They do so much for us and we do so little in return for them! For starters, we over-prescribe antibiotics. One course of antibiotics can alter your gut bacteria for years. We also use anti-bacterial everything — from soaps to toothpastes to cleaners, we like to kill bacteria and that wipes out the good guys along with the bad. In North America, our diets lack a variety of fermented foods. By not eating healthy bacteria, we don't repopulate them in our guts. Further, we eat a lot of sugar in North America and this feeds the bad bacteria in our guts.
How can we restore balance in our gut bacteria?
- Avoid inappropriate use of antibiotics. If you must take them, which happens, try to use a strain specific one instead of a broad-spectrum.
- Don't overuse antimicrobial products. We need to let the good guys live and allow our body to build its resistance to the bad guys.
- Avoid eating excess sugar, this includes refined carbs, as well as high amounts of natural sweeteners and fruits.
- EAT A VARIETY OF FERMENTED FOODS!! Your gut bacteria is an ecosystem, just like a forest, and the strength of an ecosystem is in its diversity. Different fermented foods contain different types and amounts of beneficial bacteria, so eat a wide range of fermented foods and aim to eat one EVERY DAY! This includes miso, tempeh, raw apple cider vinegar, kimchi, lacto-fermented pickles, sauerkraut, tamari, kombucha and kefir, to name a few.
Here's an easy recipe for Cultured Cabbage to get you started!
Cultured Crunchy Kraut
1 head purple cabbage (green is fine too)
3 small or 2 large carrots
1 tart organic apple
1-1 1/2 Tbsp high quality sea salt (I like Celtic or Himalayan)
Optional: mustard seeds, black peppercorns, dried dill, celery seeds or any other spice or herb you love!
Grate or cut cabbage, but set aside a few whole leaves. There are no rules here, if you like crunchier kraut, keep pieces bigger, if you like soft kraut cut or grate it more finely.
Layer cabbage into a large bowl. Sprinkle layers with a bit of sea salt. The salt helps to pull the water out of the cabbage which will create the anaerobic (no oxygen) environment we need for safe fermentation. Salt also helps to keep the vegetables crunchier and creates a favourable environment for the lactic acid bacteria to thrive. You can experiment with how much salt you like to add, more will slow fermentation and less will speed it up and make softer krauts.
When you're bowl is full, it's time to use your hands!
Roll up your sleeves and start massaging your kraut. This is my favourite part and a good time to get friends and children involved, but make sure they wash their hands first, with natural soap! Massage the cabbage until it becomes soft and translucent. You should have a puddle of water on the bottom of the bowl. This may take some time. Feel free to take a break and come back, letting the salt do some of the work.
Coarsely grate your carrot and apple and mix it into the cabbage. Add any optional spices. Now it's time to stuff everything into a large glass jar (I usually find 1 head of cabbage fits a 2 liter mason jar). Really pack it down, use the handle of a wooden spoon to help you cram it in. Pour any water from your bowl into the jar. As you push down, more and more water should release from the cabbage. This is important, we want the 'brine' to cover all of the cabbage. Once you have enough liquid, place your reserved cabbage leaf on top to weight the veggies under the brine. The leaf may be enough, or you may want to place an additional weight on top. You can use a scrubbed and boiled flat rock or a smaller jar filled with water.
Next, place your jar into a bowl or shallow dish to catch any liquid that may bubble over in the first few days of fermentation and place in a warm dark spot to ferment. During the first 24 hours, I like to check on it, and push my weight down to squeeze out the extra liquid from the cabbage. You may notice bubbling happening or some smaller pieces of veg floating to the top or even surface scum forming. This is all okay. Simply spoon off any scum.
After about a week, you can start tasting (this is the really great part). When you reach your desired softness and taste, you can remove the weight and leaf, top with a lid and transfer to a fridge where it will keep for several months.
I include a variety of fermented foods in my diet to keep my gut happy. I like to enjoy my kraut with meals to help my overall digestion and I add extra brine to my diet when I'm fighting off a cold or infection. Hope you find it therapeutic and tasty!
Thanks for reading and happy fermenting!