The phrase "fermented food" might not immediately conjure the most appetizing imagery, but there's good reason for its rise in popularity these past few years.
Quite simply, fermentation is the chemical breakdown of food by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms. Though this process can accidentally result in some not-so-pleasant chemistry experiments at the back of the fridge, when deliberate, it creates an environment to promote the growth of positive bacteria, and to keep the less desirable ones at bay (a side effect of which is the tangy flavour associated with most fermented food).
These days, mounting evidence suggests that consuming naturally fermented foods can have a positive effect on our gut microbiome (i.e. they may help us absorb more nutrients from, and more easily digest, our food). In fact, it's highly likely that you already enjoy fermented foods on a regular basis—after all, wine is fermented, as is salami, yogurt, sourdough bread, pickles and many cheeses. That being said, natural ferments from around the world are becoming increasingly available in local grocery stores, so there's no better time to introduce more of these gut-healthy wonders into your meals this year.
FERMENTED FOODS TO TRY:
Miso is an incredibly versatile Japanese ingredient, used as a seasoning to add saltiness and depth to any dish. It's made from fermenting soybeans with salt and koji (a kind of friendly fungus) until the mixture becomes a thick paste. Miso comes in different grades of varying flavour notes and intensity, but the most common types are white (or shiro) miso, yellow (shinshu) miso, and red (traditional) miso. The most common use for miso is the light broth that uses it as a signature ingredient, but it also works wonders in sauces, spreads, and as a marinade ingredient for meat. Miso adds a wonderfully complex savoury note in the dressing for this gingery steak salad.
Affectionately referred to as "booch," kombucha has recently graduated from being “that fizzy drink your hippie roommate used to make” to a serious grocery store staple. It's made by adding a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (called a "SCOBY" for short) to sweetened tea to begin the fermentation process, resulting in a tangy, slightly effervescent drink. Kombucha is every bit as refreshing as a traditional soda, and it comes in a wide variety of flavours. Be mindful, though, that it's still a drink with plenty of added sugar, so consume it in moderation just as you would any other soda. Swapping in kombucha for sparkling wine is a great way to lighten up a cocktail or punch; try it on these pomegranate ginger sparklers and you won't even miss the booze.
Kimchi is the name for Korea's most popular naturally fermented pickle, used almost universally there as a kind of condiment-companion to savoury meals. The popularity of this piquant pickle is easy to understand: Kimchi has the perfect balance between salty, spicy, and sour elements, and is often given a boost from fresh herbs and garlic as well. The most common type of kimchi is made from napa cabbage (called baechu), but just about any vegetable can be kimchi-ified using the same fermentation process. In fact, it's estimated that there are over 200 varieties of kimchi, with different types of kimchi being eaten depending on the season, and also on what best compliments a particular dish.
Though kefir resides decidedly in the dairy aisle, it has a surprising amount in common with kombucha. Kefir is made by soaking kefir grains in room temperature milk—except that the "grains" aren't really grains at all, and in fact are another kind of SCOBY, whose origins have been traced back to the Caucasus Mountains (near modern-day Georgia). Milk has been a dietary staple in that region of the world for thousands of years, and it's likely that kefir emerged as a way of preserving it in times of scarcity. Kefir milk is a tart, slightly fizzy beverage, and if you aren't used to drinking it straight, consider cooking it into this nutrient-packed seeded rye bread.
Sauerkraut is very simple—comprised of just shredded cabbage and salt— but eventually a brine forms, developing into a complex and versatile sweet-and-sour condiment. In Eastern Europe, they use kraut to cut through the richness of heavy dishes, often serving it with pierogies, pork or sausages. One of our favourite examples of this pairing of fat and acidity comes in the form of the French dish choucroute garnie. Sauerkraut is easy enough to find in grocery stores, but make sure your product is labelled as “naturally fermented;” otherwise, it's been produced with vinegar like commercial pickles, and won't have the same potential digestive benefits.