The Ancient Art of Fermented Foods

Fermentation is a miracle of nature and a treasure for your diet.

Cheese, pickles, olives, sauerkraut, cured meats, cultured butter, sourdough bread, fermented pie crust and the wine that goes with it — all fermented foods.

For thousands of years and around the world, naturally fermented foods and beverages have existed in nearly every culture. And the reason is clear. Fermentation makes food longer lasting, tastier, safer, healthier and, in some cases, intoxicating. 

Wild fermentation is a natural process that has the extraordinary power to turn flour into bread, grapes into wine, wine into vinegar, milk into cheese, grains into beer — and perishable vegetables into foods that last all winter. 

Fermentation is a universal part of human culture. Like the control and use of fire, fermentation is one of the things that makes us human. 

The evidence for fermented foods dates back to at least 6,000 B.C., but it's likely that food fermentation goes back well into the Paleolithic era. 

I had the pleasure of chatting about the world of fermentation with revivalist Sandor Katz right after he published his first book, Wild Fermentation. He can be credited with popularizing the ancient art of fermentation. Since that book, fermented foods have gone mainstream, as part of a conscious effort to re-introduce healthy gut microbes into the diet. 

Fermentation is also an essential element of food safety. When we lived in Kenya a few years ago, we learned that Kenyans love to eat a fermented gruel called uji, which was commonly and widely eaten by Kenyans and traditionally used as the first solid food for babies. It’s made from millet and, optionally sorghum, which contains natural cyanides and phytates that if not properly fermented can be toxic. And fermentation destroys the toxins and replaces them with bioavailable nutrients and beneficial probiotics.

As Katz points out in his book, there has never been a single case of food poisoning relating to fermented foods. Ever. The reason is that when fermented foods go "off," they are inedible. If fermented foods look healthy and smell and taste good, they're safe to eat. 

Dangerous pathogens and harmful bacteria are destroyed in the traditional fermentation process. That's what lactic acid fermentation is — it's when the healthy yeast and bacteria that thrive on and also produce lactic acid destroy all other microbes, including any dangerous or unhealthy microbes, through acidification.

Lactic acid fermentation is the anaerobic process of converting sugar into lactic acid through the cultivation of lactic acid bacteria, mainly the Lactobacillus species in the preservation of food. Lactobacillus along with other beneficial bacteria can offer protection against food-borne pathogens including Listeria monocytogenes. Salt is an essential ingredient in traditional or wild fermentation to favor good microbes over bad ones, and extracting water and nutrients from the substrate of the fermented vegetables or fruit.

One of the single most important food components in the dietary foundation of the Spartan Diet is naturally fermented foods. As one of the basic tenets of the Spartan Diet, we believe that eating fermented foods feeds the gut flora with beneficial bacteria that is essential for optimum digestive function. A healthy gut or microbiome is the foundation of the immune system and overall well being.

The wonderful world of live-culture foods and beverages can add variety and balance to everyday meals. In addition to exciting flavors and delightful textures, wild fermentation is the ultimate and most ancient form of food preservation. Home fermentation is an efficient and inexpensive way of extending the shelf life of food and expanding the bounties of the season, while adding more variety to every meal. 

Besides all the culinary enjoyments, eating fermented foods significantly improves our digestive system, immunity, gut health and overall well being. Consuming fermented foods enhances our ability to digest more efficiently and absorb nutrients more readily, which in turn helps improve our microbiome by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria for protection against chronic illnesses. 

This is especially true of whole grains. While the fiber in grains is a huge boon to the digestive system — fiber is the ultimate food for the microbes that live in the large intestine — unfermented or unsprouted grains are incompatible with the human gut. Fermenting grains makes them highly digestible and the nutrients therein more bioavailable. 

Fermented fruits, vegetables and beverages are the result of taking fresh fruits or vegetables and giving them the environment necessary to cultivate beneficial microorganisms while destroying harmful bacteria. Fermenting vegetables and fruit is a wonderfully rewarding process and in essence, an extremely simple technique for food preservation. 

Making sauerkraut using wild fermentation is easy and far cheaper than buying store bought sauerkraut that’s never going to be as good or delicious as your own homemade version. In terms of ingredients, all it takes is shredded cabbage (plus carrots, onions, garlic and herbs when desired) and sea salt (sometimes some added filtered water). 

Another important aspect of the wild fermentation process is creating and maintaining the right environmental conditions including the right temperature, clean air and darkness to cultivate and help friendly microbes thrive. As microbes flourish, they convert sugar in the cabbage and other veggies into lactic acid and other compounds that give fermented foods their tangy umami flavor.

There is a similar process that takes place when making other naturally fermented foods and beverages including bread, vinegar, kombucha, yogurt, cheese, kefir, olives, wine, kimchi, pickles, cacao, miso, tempeh and many others. The majority of these types of foods sold at grocery stores are usually not naturally fermented but industrially manufactured to simulate the true versions made with wild fermentation.

While you can buy naturally fermented foods at the grocery store, the quality, texture and flavor of most commercially produced versions are inferior to homemade versions, generally. When you start with the freshest and highest quality ingredients to make food, the results tend to be superior in taste and nutrition. It’s also far more expensive to buy already made fermented foods. And most packaged foods, even when they’re BPA free, come with PFAS, which are man-made chemicals known negatively impact the immune system.

All food preservation methods involve killing or slowing down the microbes that cause food spoilage and decomposition. Refrigeration simply slows everything down, enabling a food that would spoil at room temperature in a couple of days to last months. Freezing mostly stops the fermentation process, but can damage the texture of some foods once defrosted. 

Canning — whether in jars or cans — involves killing all microbes, including the good ones, and sealing sterilized food in an oxygen-free environment. This process is mostly safe, although botulism can occur only in such an environment. The problem with canning is that the texture and flavor of foods are degraded. Foods can absorb chemicals from the plastic lining of cans. And a diet of mostly sterile foods (canned, boxed, packaged, instant or fast) robs the human gut of the environmental microbes it needs for gut health and immune system health.  

Knowing the difference between canned and fermented foods at the store isn't always easy. For example, pickles are a traditionally fermented food. But industrially made and mass produced pickled foods are generally washed in a chlorine based solution that destroys all pre-biotics or dormant microflora. The flavor or preservation of the foods in canning is achieved by using acetic acid present in vinegar. Additionally, the vinegar most commonly used for preservation is distilled vinegars, which also lack live cultures. The same goes for ketchup, mustard, olives, buttermilk, sauerkraut and other supermarket staples. They exist as a food because they used to be fermented, and the fermentation preserved them. But the industrial version is a fake sterile — essentially canned — food. 

Our recommendation is to choose truly fermented live foods when you must, but make them when you can.

Recipe: Spartan Pink Sauerkraut

Homemade sauerkraut is fun to make. It's also a fantastic family project to work together on. You can see it become alive and witness a simple but intrinsically awe-inspiring natural process. And while it seems time consuming, it’s actually pretty easy when you use a food processor. And once your sauerkraut is finished, you can enjoy it for weeks or months to come with little additional effort.

Nothing brings you closer to an in-depth understanding of food or provides you with better nourishment and enjoyment than creating food from scratch with every ingredient chosen by you.  

The other wonderful thing about my Pink Spartan Sauerkraut is that you can also turn it into sauerkraut salad by touching it up with fresh herbs, leafy greens, spices and adding a little extra virgin olive oil and raw red wine vinegar or raw apple cider vinegar. It’s so delicious and so nutritious! You can eat the sauerkraut salad as a salad by itself with added cooked beans and brown rice or quinoa plus some nuts or seeds or a piece of cooked fish or meat or eggs.

But right out of the jar, you can use Pink Spartan Sauerkraut as a condiment or side dish with any meal — including and especially tacos! The possibilities are endless!

Let’s learn to make Spartan sauerkraut!

Get the recipe!