Five reasons why fermented foods are the future
Fermented foods and drinks are definitely having a moment. While it might seem that the likes of kimchi, kombucha and kefir are exploding lately, naturally fizzy foods have actually been around for millennia. Archaeological records show we’ve been intentionally employing microbes in drink preparation for at least 8,000 years, from a time when Neolithic villagers were fermenting hawthorn and chrysanthemum rice wine in central China - perhaps it's unsurprising that we started with booze first!
Nowadays though, fermentation is a part of our everyday life and has permeated food culture, history and folklore - from coffee to chocolate and olives to cheese, it’s integral to our eating habits. In most of these ‘invisible’ forms, however, the microbes have been dried, pasteurised and essentially neutered by industrial processes and the demands of global supply chains. The foods that most interest me are instead the ones that arrive at our lips still brimming with life, effervescent and vital - and I’m far from alone, as chefs increasingly exploit microbes to wring exciting new flavours out of ingredients. Unlike restaurant techniques like sous vide, however, fermentation is something anyone can do at home with little to no equipment.
There are so many good reasons to make your own fermented food too:
- It’s therapeutic - falling somewhere between cooking and gardening, as you are not only making delicious food, but also bringing something to life (and indulging in a little delayed gratification while you wait for it to be ready).
- It’s brilliant for using up fruits and vegetables when they’re in season, preserving them for weeks or months, thus reducing food waste. One of my favourite ferments, tepache - a fizzy Mexican pineapple drink - employs only the skin of the fruit that would otherwise be destined for the bin.
- It can elevate quick weeknight suppers into feasts. While making fermented foods might not feel like 15-minute meal territory, once the jars have bubbled away, you can use things like kimchi, hot sauce and sauerkraut as ingredients to bring complex flavours to simple dishes like roasted vegetables and rice. And with relatively little effort, you can create some really special dishes - a couple of favourites from my book are kefir panna cotta with orange blossom and thyme, and chilled radish noodle soup (made using the brine from radish kimchi).
- It’s almost certainly very good for our microbiome! Research into gut health is very much an active area, but our gut microbiome is phenomenally complex - the human colon contains one of the highest microbial densities recorded in any habitat on Earth, and these bacteria affect everything from obesity to mental health. Therefore, the exact pathways and processes by which they improve and invigorate us are still under investigation. One study from Stanford in 2021 showed that a diet rich in a variety of fermented food boosted microbiome diversity and improved immune responses. Shockingly though, only 5% of the new microbes that were found in participants’ guts seemed to actually come directly from the fermented foods. So, the best current advice is to try to include a broad portfolio of ferments in your diet. A word of warning though - the microbes in fermented foods won’t provide much benefit or fizz if they’re killed via pasteurisation - but this does stop jars from getting too fizzy, so it’s tempting for some producers - so caveat emptor if you’re buying them ready-made.
- It’s definitely high in vitamins. One of the things that’s clear from fermented food research is that the very act of fermenting certain fruits and vegetables can unlock more of the nutrients. Some plants contain chemicals called ‘antinutrients’ which block absorption of vitamins and minerals, but fermentation helps to break them down, allowing our bodies to access the good stuff.
About James Read
James Read's mission is to smuggle bacteria back into our kitchens, and to make home-fermenting as approachable as home-baking. He is the founder of Kim Kong Kimchi (two Great Taste stars), Chief Trading Officer at the Fermenters Guild and his first book, Of Cabbages & Kimchi: A Practical Guide to the World of Fermented Food, is out on 2 March. It's full of stories about the surprising history and microbial wonder of fermentation, alongside over sixty recipes ranging from sauerkraut pierogi to soy sauce caramel dark milk chocolate tart, and is packed with Marija Tiurina's gastro-surrealist illustrations.www.jamesreadwriter.com / @jamesreadwrites