I can see your blank stare when I tell you to eat more sauerkraut. You’re thinking sauerkraut only goes with bratwurst and I have no idea what to do with kimchi. Kombucha is fine but too expensive to drink every day. As far as the latter goes, it is expensive if you buy it at $4 a pop. Try making it yourself. It’s a piece of cake. More on that here. But I promise this is not about trying to convince you to create a fermentation lab in your house. Please, keep reading.
The basics of what fermented foods actually are: plant + salt = water. water + time = bacteria.
Unlike regular pickles, fermented vegetables are left to “pickle” in their own water, rather than vinegar. Fruits and vegetables have water content ranging from about 75 – 95%, which pulls out via osmosis when chopped and salted. During the couple/few weeks they sit out to ferment, bacteria naturally present in the vegetables use their digestive enzymes (like the ones we have in our guts) to convert the sugars in the plant to lactic acid, giving the tart flavor. In the process, many types of beneficial lactobacillus are produced. This process also lowers the pH to under 4.0 and creates an anaerobic environment, preserving and protecting it against dangerous bacteria.
I recently made my first batch of sauerkraut (pictured) after stumbling upon a fantastic class taught by the owner of one of my favorite New Orleans restaurants – 1000 Figs. I cannot get enough of this little gem – the menu is loaded with brightly fermented treats and the best falafel sandwich I’ve ever had – sorry NYC. The male counterpart of the husband-wife team taught a class based around the taste of fermented foods. Fermented foods do what pickles, olives, or a sprinkling of cheese or toasted nuts do to a dish. The flavor is powerful, pungent, tangy. A few spoonfuls is just what your plate and belly are craving, whether you know it or not. Other worthwhile fermented foods: kefir, sourdough bread from a local bakery, tempeh. There are many. Fermented mango is popular in India – yes please.
Think of fermented foods as your hot sauce or your cheese. Some ideas:
- Diced fermented spicy sauerkraut sprinkled on top of roasted, lemony new potatoes
- Diced fermented lemon-ginger carrots on your giant dinner salad
- A tablespoon of buttermilk and a squeeze of lemon stirred into a side of sautéed kale or other wilted, dark leafy greens
- Chopped kimchi thrown into eggs before you scramble them (this rules)
- Chopped kimchi sauteed it with halved roasted brussel sprouts, then add mint
- Kimchi chicken salad!
- 1/2 cup kefir added to the morning smoothie routine
- Baby fermented veggies onto the after-school snack of cheese and crackers
- Sauerkraut added to the bring-to-work turkey sandwich
While I do love to promote homemade products, there are a TON of amazing fermented foods at the grocery store which can be eaten right now and take zero effort. I was checking out labels recently at my local health food store (it was Whole Foods – who am I kidding I live in New Orleans and there are no other options) and completely endorse all the fermented products in the refrigerated section. They don’t have any dumb added ingredients that take away from their power and are very close to the freshness of homemade. They last forever in the fridge, so you don’t need to worry about them going bad too fast. Plus you’ll be using it all the time.
To sum up, aim to eat fermented foods several times a week. Get them in your fridge. So buy some (or make them) and then experiment. Your body will thank you.
I’d love to hear any comments below! Have you made anything fermented in your kitchen? Or do you have some crazy way you like to use sauerkraut?
Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in intuitive eating, mindfulness-based eating practices, embodiment with food and movement, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps womxn find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her here.