Fermented Foods: What They Are & How to Enjoy Them
Ever wonder, “What are fermented foods?” You’re not alone. Some of our favorite parts of everyday meals — like yogurt, pickles, kimchi or kombucha — just so happen to be fermented. Touted as being among the world’s healthiest things to eat and drink, fermented foods are great for digestion and filled with “good” gut bacteria. They’ve become a popular additions to many restaurant menus, as well as the latest diet trends, including Paleo and Whole30, because of all the positive health (not to mention flavor) boosts.
Not sure if you’re on trend? From miso to kefir and sauerkraut, here are seven of the hottest fermented foods that have found their way onto restaurant menus and into our daily diets.
Fermented Foods List
Kimchi – This Korean condiment has been made in some form since 57 BC. It has become incredibly important to the population of South Korea, and it’s estimated that they eat 40 lbs per person each year!Many think of kimchi as only being made with cabbage, but white radishes, mustard greens, scallions and even cucumbers can also be used. The fermentation process results in a product that is high in vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, iron and lactic acid (which is great for digestion).
Sauerkraut – Another cabbage-based food, sauerkraut first popped up in Ancient Rome and later in China. But it really took hold in Eastern European countries about 1,000 years ago when it was brought to Europe by Gengis Khan. Fermentation is introduced naturally through salted raw cabbage leaves, with the natural sugars present in the vegetable kickstarting the process. Delicious on its own, it’s also great alongside sausage or potatoes.
Kombucha – Originating from Japan, kombucha has become a popular drink that can be found in many flavors in restaurants, juice shops and grocery stores. To create this drink, black or green tea is fermented using a colony of bacteria and yeast. The potential health benefits from drinking the fermented beverage include stimulating the immune system, boosting the libido and even reversing gray hair!
Pickles – Pickling has been around for centuries, with vinegar, salt and sugar being key ingredients in the process. Though we usually think of pickles as cucumbers, these days nearly every type of vegetable can be pickled.
Photo provided by L&W Oyster Co. in New York City.
Along with the base solution, other spices and flavorings can be added to create a unique pickled product. Their tart, tangy flavor complements fatty, rich flavors (like dill pickles with burgers) or can cleanse the palate for fresh bites (like pickled ginger with sushi).
Kefir – While it has long been a staple of the Eurasian diet, kefir — a fermented milk beverage — has been growing in popularity in the U.S. over the past several years. Traditionally, cow, goat or sheep milk is combined with kefir grains, which act as a yeast and bacterial fermentation starter. The mixture sits for a period of 24 hours before the grains are removed, and the remaining product ferments for several days. The eventual consistency is similar to a thin yogurt and can be used in place of buttermilk due to its sour flavor. Kefir also makes a great breakfast drink or mid-afternoon snack.
Yogurt – Perhaps the most well-known fermented food, yogurt relies on specific “yogurt cultures” which produce lactic acid when mixed with milk. Cow’s milk is most common, but the milk of water buffalo, goats, ewes, mares, camels and yaks can also be used. Different cultures make yogurt in their own unique ways. Greek methods, for example, involve straining most of the liquid off and results in a thicker, richer product — the perfect base for fruit smoothies or companion to granola.
Miso – Many of us have experienced miso as an accompaniment to sushi, starting our meal with a cup of steamy miso soup with seaweed and cubes of tofu. This essential ingredient is created by fermenting soybeans with salt and a fungus that is commonly known as koji (another important fermented ingredient that is becoming more widely used) and some type of grain — typically rice, barley or soybeans. The result is a salty, sweet, earthy and fruity paste that is combined with dashi broth for miso soup or used in other ways, such as a pickling agent.