Fermenting food

“Oh my god, that’s disgusting!” This is typically the remark I get when a visitor sees my two jars of Kombucha on the kitchen bench. The two large jars are full of an amber liquid that is complete with a fungus like growth bubbling away on the very top. While these jars may not be much to look at, they’re full of a health and energy packed power drink, that can really help to invigorate your body.

One of my band members (yes I play music too!) could smell it from across the room and he said it smells just like the mushroom tea his hippy parents used to brew back when he was a kid. The combination of mushroom plus tea is a pretty good guess in fact, because Kombucha is in fact tea that’s fermented with special probiotic bacteria and yeast to turn this tea into a delicious and nutritious supplement. Although you may have just heard of this latest health craze ­ Kombucha, the fact is that it really isn’t that new at all. It’s been around for decades if not centuries, and while the origin is unknown, it started surfacing in China, Japan, Korea and Russia, and became popular in the West in the last century.

So my band member was right. Kombucha is in fact tea with a little ‘mushroom’ of bacteria and yeast growing on top. The proper name for this ‘mushroom’ is a SCOBY, which stands for Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. What that means is that basically our SCOBY is a little community of bacteria and yeast that work together to turn tea into Kombucha.

Once I’ve explained all this to the shocked visitor noticing the Kombucha on my bench, the inevitable next question is “Okay, so why do you want to drink bacteria tea?” And it’s a great question! You may have seen the adverts for manufactured products such as Yakult that contains ‘good bacteria’ and heard of the benefits of cultured yogurts. These products are cultured by bacteria that help our gut and nourish our digestive system. Our intestines are home to up to 100 different species of bacteria that are essential for our health and wellbeing and help us digest our food. These bacteria are so essential to our health, scientists have called our gut bacteria ‘the forgotten organ’. Gut damage, antibiotic use, certain medications and health conditions can all damage the populations of these bacteria, but fermented and probiotic foods help to re­establish these colonies.

Cultured milk like Yakult and yoghurts are a great way to replenish gut bacteria, but there’s some problem. These products are dairy based, often full of added sugar and mass produced, diminishing some of their beneficial problems. That’s why Kombucha is such a great choice as a home made, dairy free option! Once you are good at making Kombucha, it’s a fun and interesting science experiment you get to conduct each week, with the added bonus of huge savings of probiotic products. While Kombucha sells in the health food stores for the high price of as much as $7 a bottle, Kombucha is amazingly inexpensive to make at home, costing less than $5 to create about 20 bottles.

Kombucha is not the only fermented food that can be made at home and possesses fantastic health benefits. There are other home fermented foods that are not only cheap and easy to make, but have incredible health benefits. Fermenting foods helps to make them more digestible, as part of the process of fermentation involves breaking down sugars and difficult to digest carbohydrates. Homemade fermented foods have way more healthy bacteria than commercial yoghurts and probiotics, and help to improve bacteria colonies in the gut as well as the urogenital tract. Better gut flora means less yeast infections and vaginitis for women, reduced effects of inflammatory bowel disease and irritable bowel syndrome, better regularity ­ reducing constipation and diarrhoea, reduced antibiotic and bacteria related diarrhoea, improved immunity and reduced risk of colon cancer.

So what are these wonderful fermented foods you ask? Here are the facts…

Kombucha

You can have your very own ‘mushroom tea’ jars at home as well, providing you with a refreshing, natural and inexpensive source of healthy probiotics. All you’ll need to make this great drink is some big 5 litre jars, tea and sugar and the SCOBY starter culture. You can buy your SCOBY starter culture at a health food store, or get some from a Kombucha brewing friend. You can also make your own pretty easily using a bottle of premade, raw and unflavoured kombucha to start out with.

Brew 5 litres of your favourite tea (green, herbal or black is fine) and add plain sugar to sweeten it. Don’t worry about adding sugar at this stage. The sugar is vital food for the healthy yeast and bacteria in the SCOBY and very little will be left after the fermentation. Allow the tea to cool and add 1⁄2 cup of your SCOBY starter culture. If you are making your own SCOBY, mix your bottle of kombucha with just one cup of brewed, sweetened tea. Cover the jar with a cloth and secure with a rubber band, then allow to rest in a warm place (ie, not the fridge) for 7 days and you’ll have your own kombucha. If you’re making your first SCOBY, wait until the scoby is about 1⁄2 a centimetre thick or more before using ­ this could take up to 30 days.

Sauerkraut

As a tasty, low calorie and vegetable based probiotic food, sauerkraut is an ancient European food that’s increasing in popularity for it’s health benefits. It’s also super easy and cheap to make at home, and here’s how. Once again you’ll need big fermenting jars, but these should be easy enough to find. Take a white or red cabbage, remove the core and finely shred into thin strips. Place into a bowl and add salt, about 2­3 tablespoons per kg of cabbage. The salt is essential to create the brine in which the fermentation will take place, but you can also add flavourings such as garlic, spices or other vegetables like carrot.

Knead and mix the cabbage and salt for 5­10 minutes with your hands to break down the cells and draw the juice out of the cabbage. Cover and let the bowl stand for an hour, then press the cabbage down again with your hands. Weigh down the cabbage mixture with a bowl or plate and non­metallic weights to ensure an even pressure, and cover to leave overnight at an even temperature of around 20­22 degrees celsius. The next day, pack tightly into suitable fermenting jars so that the cabbage is completely covered with the brine. There should be 3 cm of brine and 5 cm of space at the top of the jar. Vegetables that float up to the jar can be exposed to unwanted bacteria that damage your sauerkraut. Sauerkraut needs to be stored in a special way that weighs down the vegetables, prevents oxygen getting in and allows gas to escape, so it’s a good idea to get your hands on one of these set ups if you plan to make a lot of sauerkraut, or understand what to look for if you want to do it yourself, to avoid spoiled sauerkraut.

Kimchi

Kimchi is a traditional fermented Korean side dish that is so popular, it’s known as Korea’s national dish. Made from cabbage and spicy flavourings like red chilli and garlic, kimchi is similar to sauerkraut, with a spicy, flavourful Asian twist.

To make kimchi, chop cabbage and rest in a bowl of warm, salty water for 4 hours. Make a chilli paste from 1⁄4 cup red chilli flakes, 1tbs each minced garlic and ginger, 3­4 sliced green onions and 2 tbs fish sauce and mix with cabbage. Add 1⁄2 yellow onion, 1⁄2 ripe apple and 1⁄4 cup sea salt to the cabbage mixture and toss thoroughly. Add to fermenting jars and seal tightly. Ferment at room temperature for 24 hours and then refrigerate after to keep it fresh.

While to can take some time to make your own fermented products, the cooking and preparation time is very little for the amount of great product you get.

So have you tried fermenting at home? What are you favourite healthy and probiotic fermented foods? Let us know in the comments how fermented foods have helped you live a healthier life.