Fermenting Food at Home

Fermentation is a hugely popular method of food preservation which involves the chemical breaking down of the carbohydrates within foods such as starch and sugar by bacteria and yeast. Fermenting creates some very nice flavors that go great with everything.

Fermenting is a great way to preserve food at home and also delivers a number of health benefits. The fermentation process is used to produce a host of different products including alcohol, yogurt and sourdough bread. It’s a process that has been used all over the world for centuries, from Korea to make “Kimchi” to Germany for it’s fermented cabbage dish “Sauerkraut”. There are three distinct types of fermentation used in the production of fermented foods and drinks; Lactic Acid, Alcohol or Ethanol and Acetic Acid, each of which are further outlined in this article.

What are the Different Types of Fermentation?

There are three different types of fermentation which include:

  1. Lactic Acid Fermentation Used to make sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, yogurt, sourdough bread.
  2. Ethanol or Alcohol Fermentation Unsurprisingly this type of fermentation is used to make alcohols such as wine and beer
  3. Acetic Acid Fermentation Used to make vinegars and condiments such as apple cider vinegar, red and white wine vinegar and the tea drink known as kombucha.

How does Fermentation Work?

Two key things are required for fermentation;

  1. The absence of oxygen
  2. The presence of beneficial microorganisms such as yeasts, bacteria and moulds

The fermentation process provides these microorganisms with the energy they need to grow and thrive. During the process the microorganisms break down the sugars and starches within foods and convert them into acids and alcohols. This not only adds to the nutritional content of the foods but also preserves it so they can be stored and kept for extended periods and consumed at a later date.

What are the Benefits of Eating Fermented Foods?

Fermented foods are rich in probiotic bacteria which are hugely beneficial to your gut health, digestive system and your immune system.

In one word, health but more specifically, fermented foods benefit both your bodily health as well as the health of your bank balance. Fermented foods are rich in probiotic bacteria which are hugely beneficial to your gut health, digestive system and your immune system. In turn, fermenting your own food is a great way to save money. It not only cuts down your spending in the supermarket but also cuts down on your food waste which as we all know, particularly with the global events of 2020 is vitally important. The simple fact that you can gain both physically and financially from consuming fermented foods proves them to be a fantastic and simple step to becoming self sufficient.

What are the Most Popular Fermented Foods That I can Make at Home?

Some of the most popular foods to ferment in your own home include:

  • Kimchi - Korean dish of shredded chinese cabbage, similar to sauerkraut. See our full article for more information. What are the Health Benefits of Kimchi
  • Kefir - A cultured yogurt style dairy drink
  • Sauerkraut - A German staple of shredded cabbage
  • Kombucha - A sweetened tea drink
  • Tempeh - A dense, nutty, savoury soybean cake, closely linked to tofu

What do I Need to Ferment my Own Food at Home?

If we use vegetables as an example, below is a basic outline of how you would go about the fermenting them at home:

  1. Storage: Decide on what you’ll be storing the vegetables in and make sure they’re properly sterilized (A great and easy option for Fermentation is a Kilner Fermentation Set (opens in new tab))
  2. Veg Prep: Decide if you’re going to keep your veg whole or if you want to shred, grate, chop or slice them.
  3. Method: Salt fermentation (sea salt being the better option) is the most popular method but you can also chose from whey or starter culture
  4. Brine: This is what you will be submerging your veggie in. It’s simply the mixture of water and salt. Your water must be filtered so it’s worth investing in a ceramic water purifier with a flouride filter. You’ll need 2 grams of salt for every 100g of veggies.
  5. Weight: Once your veggies are prepped and in your chosen vessel, they’ll need to be weighed down under the brine eg. a small glass or plate.
  6. Time: The veggies will then need to be left to ferment at room temperature for 3 days before you move them to a cool dark place. Fermentation time comes down to three main things including temperature, the amount of salt and the type of vegetable you’re using so it’s important to be fully clued up on all of these things related to the specific item you’re going to ferment before you begin the process.

Why are Fermented Foods Good to Eat & what are the Health Benefits?

The fermentation process promotes the growth of the “gut friendly” or “good” bacteria known as probiotics and they are the main reason why fermented foods have such a high profile. Probiotics are a pretty hot topic due to their amazing health benefits, all of which stem from the improvements that these friendly bacteria have on our gut health which in turn lead to better overall health and well being, inside and out.

Research indicated that fermented foods or more specifically the gut friendly probiotics found within fermented foods can help to improve and manage:

  • Heart health (reducing heart disease and lowering blood pressure)
  • Digestion
  • Weight loss and weight management
  • Immunity
  • Skin complaints such as eczema

We all know the effects that food has on our overall well being. It’s just like that age old saying “you are what you eat” and whether we like it or not, it really is true. What you put in, you get out, so if we eat crap we feel crap and visa versa. Being more considerate with what we put inside our bodies and following a healthier diet will ultimately lead to us feeling good, inside and out. Unlike so many things in life, the great thing about our diet and our related gut health is that we are the ones in control. By eating probiotics rich foods, or more specifically fermented foods, you’re taking a huge step towards improving your health and the way you feel on multiple levels.

What are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts or microorganisms. They are the beneficial bacteria found in certain foods (eg. fermented foods) and or supplements. Probiotics have long been praised for the benefits they can bring to our gut health, especially after illness which is why they are commonly described as the ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria.
Our bodies are made up of both good and bad bacteria. When we catch an infection, it simply means there is more ‘bad’ bacteria in our body, hence why probiotics are a great way to boost the good bacteria and return the balance to our systems.
There are hundreds of different species of probiotics but the two main groups are; Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.

Bifidobacterium vs Lactobacillus

Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are the most common form of probiotics.
Lactobacillus is the more popular probiotic. It is the one that is found in fermented foods. It’s been shown to be especially beneficial to people suffering from diarrhea or those who are lactose intolerant (i.e unable to digest milk sugars). Bifidobacterium is found naturally in the large intestines and in essence help to fight bad bacteria, boost our immunity, help our bowel movements and prevent constipation. Bifidobacteria are also found in a number of dairy products and can help ease symptoms related to IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and other similar conditions.

What is The Best Source of Probiotics?

Probiotics can be consumed by eating certain foods (eg. fermented foods) and or through nutritional supplements. It’s a given, at least in my mind that the best way to add probiotics to our diets and bodies is through food and there are a host of different options to choose from. If you do prefer to go down the supplement route, all I’ll say is do your research because there are so many out there and it’s important you know exactly what you’re going to be taking and particularly the probiotic percentage it contains and relative dosage.
In terms of specific food sources that are rich in probiotics, as I’ve touched on, fermented foods are the obvious ‘go to’. Kefir is a fantastic source of probiotics due to the fact it contains high levels of the main probiotics known as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Live yogurt and sauerkraut are also great sources, both rich in probiotic bacteria which are directly fed into the colon. On a whole though, foods that are produced through the process of fermentation are all going to be packed full of probiotics, albeit on varying levels but nonetheless all beneficial to the health of your gut and wider body.

What are Prebiotics?

Prebiotics are special types of plant fibres that feed and fertilise the good bacteria (probiotics) in our guts. Prebiotics are found naturally in lots of different fruits, vegetables and whole grains, particularly ones that contain complex carbohydrates. Prebiotics cannot be digested so these complex carbs basically pass straight through our bodies and into the lower digestive system and act as food for the good bacteria (probiotics) and other microbes.

What Foods are Rich in Prebiotics?

Foods that are high in fibre tend to be high in prebiotic fibre. Here are a few examples or foods that are high in prebiotic fibres:

  • Chicory root (contains a whopping 65% of prebiotic fibre)
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Oats
  • Asparagus
  • Wheat Bran
  • Apple peel
  • Barley
  • Jerusalem Artichoke
  • Soybeans
  • Peas and Beans
  • Tomatoes
  • Barley

You may also have heard of some food products being ‘fortified’ which means they have had prebiotics added to them such as yogurt, bread, baby formula and cereal.

What is the Difference between Probiotics and Prebiotics?

Probiotics are live bacteria, and more significantly, good or beneficial bacteria that naturally occur during fermentation of foods such as yogurt, kimchi or sauerkraut.
Prebiotics are the non-digestible fibres found in foods such as apple peel or bananas. They are a form of fibre that quite simply feeds the probiotic bacteria.

Probiotic bacteria are only effective if they are alive. Heat or stomach acid may kill the bacteria or they can simply die over time. Prebiotic bacteria however are not affected by any of these conditions.

Can I take Probiotics and Prebiotics in Supplement Form?

Taking probiotics supplements simply means you’re adding to the good, live, friendly bacteria in your gut. Taking prebiotics supplements in turn feeds that good bacteria, encouraging it to grow. There are so many different options out there, especially online and in truth, the best way to supplement your diet with pre and probiotics is through your diet.
That being said, supplements shouldn’t be thought of as harmful. If you can’t sufficiently supplement your diet through foods rich in these bacteria that supplement pills are a great alternative.

Can I take Prebiotics and Probiotic Supplements Together at the same Time?

Yes, absolutely you can take both Prebiotics and Probiotic supplements together at the same time, they are in fact often sold in dual capsules for the simple reason, as I’ve touched on already that prebiotics are the fertilizers for probiotics so it’s almost a given that you should be looking at consuming them, in whichever form (food or supplement) together.

How can I Consume Prebiotics?

Just like probiotics, the best way you can add prebiotics to your diet is through consuming certain foods and in this case it means those that are high in fibre. The difference with prebiotics is that they are more stable than probiotics in that they are unaffected by heat and acidity and thus they reach our gut fully intact.
Supplementing your diet with fibre rich foods such as chicory root, garlic, onions, bananas, apples and many many more.
You can of course also take prebiotics in the form of nutritional supplements but just be sure to do your research.

How do Fermented Foods Help the Immune System?

Believe it or not, almost 80% of your immune system is in your gut so it’s no wonder that the best way to improve and maintain your gut health and one of the best and simplest ways to do this is by supplying it with fermented foods which are rich in gut friendly probiotics.

How do Fermented Foods Help Digestion?

Fermented foods help with our digestion due to probiotics which are the live, gut friendly bacteria produced through the fermentation process. These good bacteria help keep harmful bacteria at bay and can help alleviate a number of digestive issues such as IBS, constipation, diarrhea and bloating.

Where should I Store Fermented Foods?

After you’ve sealed them in an air-tight container, treat them as you would most food items and keep them in a cool, dark place, for example in your store cupboard or pantry. A good tip is to store them somewhere you can keep an eye on them to be sure they’re safe. It will remind you to check them; Colour, Smell, Texture. These are the key things to remember when you check your jars.

Before you add your Food to the Jars, make sure they are properly Sterilized. See our Article - Sterilizing Jars for Jams, Pickles, Fermenting, and Canning (Opens in a new tab) for all the information.

Is it Safe to Ferment Your Own Food?

The simple answer is yes but there are a few things to remember to check:

  • Colour - The colour should be the same throughout.
  • Smell - It should smell like it should i.e. you’d know what it is with your eyes closed.
  • Texture - Firm and crisp, not mushy.

How Long do Fermented Foods Keep for and last?

Like all preserved goods, a lot of this depends on the storage as well as the specific food in question. If prepared, fermented and stored well and correctly, they can keep for anything between 4-18 months. Simply be sure to research the individual products so you’re fully clued up.

What if My Preserves go Mouldy?

When it comes to fermented foods, it tends to be a film of yeast that forms as opposed to mould. Either way, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be thrown away so don’t panic, they can be saved! Simply scrape off the filmy layer with a spoon, leave the lid off the jar for a minute or two and then give it a smell and if it smells ok, give it taste. Trust me, you will know if it’s ‘off’ but in most cases it will still be fine to eat, provided you’ve used fresh produce and sterilized containers.

What are the Side Effects of Consuming Fermented Foods?

Some of the common side effects include increased gas and bloating, headaches, breakouts in your skin. Side effects such as gas or bloating tend to be more associated with fibre rich foods such as sauerkraut or kimchi. The important thing to remember is that the side effects aren’t life threatening. They are often simply a sign of your body adjusting and adapting, in a good way by getting rid of the toxins that have been stored up. The new bacteria that will be introduced through fermented foods will slowly begin to show, inside and out and you’ll be looking and feeling better as a result.

Can I Eat Fermented Food Every Day?

Yes but like everything, moderation is key. Little and often is the best way to think about when it comes to eating fermented foods. Many experts suggest anything between two to three servings a day. For example, a shot of kefir each morning, a cup of kombucha or a few tablespoons of kimchi or sauerkraut.
If you’ve never consumed fermented foods before, take it slowly to begin with, notice how your gut is feeling and then take it from there with regards to increasing your daily dose and experimenting with different sources.

What are the Dangers of Fermented Foods, are they Safe to Eat?

For most people there are no real, life threatening dangers associated with fermented foods. They only consideration is with the initial side effects some people might experience due to the high probiotic content such as gas, bloating, headaches but the important thing to remember is that these effects will only be temporary whilst your body adjusts to the new bacteria that is being introduced to your gut and starts to rebalance itself.

Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter - Father of three, based in Southern Sweden. Author and Co owner of Grow Zone and growing Food all winter. See my full About Page here.

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Co written with Hannah Bramley, a Private & Virtual PA and Lifestyle Management Consultant based in the UK. With a background in managing and ensuring the organisation and preparedness of others, Hannah is now a freelance Personal Lifestyle & Business Consultant, with the ability to turn her hand to any task. Self Sufficiency being just one of her new found interests since the events of early 2020. She is a fitness guru, an ardent foodie, a social media wizard and entrepreneur, with a passion and natural flare for organising, bringing people together and making things happen.

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