Fermenting for health and longevity

by Belinda Robson, 19-Nov-2016

Before the advent of refrigeration, culturing foods was a useful preservation method and many believed that these foods promoted health and longevity. These foods are enjoying a resurgence in the modern era as the importance of probiotics is becoming more widely understood. There are many methods of ensuring you get your daily dose of beneficial bacteria. Here are the foods and drinks I have tried in my own journey.

Kombucha

A very popular drink, “mushroom tea” is having a huge resurgence and is even being made in commercial quantities. I even saw some at the supermarket. It is brewed from black tea and sugar using a starter called SCOBY. This name is an acronym meaning Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeasts. Obviously, as it is made from black tea, it contains caffeine, so it may not be the best choice for small children. It is also potentially mildly alcoholic, between 0.5% and 3% alcohol, although the alcohol content varies depending on the fermentation method. It may not be the best choice for those with yeast allergies. It is possible to grow your own SCOBY from commercial kombucha or someone might give you one as they multiply readily under the right conditions.

Jun

A type of kombucha made with a Jun SCOBY, Jun is made from green tea and honey rather than the usual black tea and sugar. You are less likely to find this as a commercial product. You would need to find a SCOBY and brew it yourself. Jun SCOBYs also multiply readily, so you may find one if you ask around.

Kefir

Kefir starter is similar to SCOBY but it tends to have more bacteria and less yeast. It is known as Turkish Yogurt and is usually used with dairy milk. I find it much easier to digest than regular milk and it is reputed to ‘enliven’ pasteurised milk. It makes a type of runny yogurt which is pleasantly tart. The kefir ‘grains’ look like little cauliflower heads and they will also multiply readily like the SCOBY for Kombucha and Jun, but these are polysaccharides and they are less yeasty. Kefir can also be made with non-dairy milks such as coconut milk, but the grains will not multiply as readily. Kefir is also produced commercially, and you can start some as you would yogurt by keeping some and using it to inoculate the milk. You can also purchase freeze-dried kefir grains. I make homemade sour cream and labne with my kefir grains.

Water Kefir

A fizzy drink made from sugar and water, this is made using water kefir grains which are similar but different from the milk kefir. Suitable for people who wish to avoid dairy milk, they provide some of the probiotic count of the dairy kefir, but not as many strains will be produced. The grains look like little jewels rather than cauliflowers. It’s a cheap drink to make and kids like it. It’s unlikely to be alcoholic unless you do a second fermentation with fruit. It is possible to brew a type of beer with water kefir grains and fruit juice. (I have done this accidentally and made a kind of hard cider… hic!)

Fermented Vegetables

In the past, many foods have been fermented, including meat and fish. The sushi of yesteryear was originally made with fermented fish, and we are all familiar with the Asian fermented sauces made from fish or soybeans. The vegetable ferments are having a comeback at the moment due to their high probiotic count. Sauerkraut is reputed to be one of the best. It is, at its most basic, pickled cabbage. Many other vegetables can be treated the same way, and popular additions include carrots, apples, kale and seaweed along with various flavourings, herbs and spices. You can be as creative as you like.

There are two main methods of culturing vegetables. The slow method just relies on salt and it can take up to two months to mature in cold weather. The fast method involves the addition of culture and takes just days to mature. You can purchase cultures for this, keep some juice from your last batch or use kefir whey. My family hates sauerkraut with a passion, so I make kimchi, which is a Korean version of sauerkraut, using Chinese cabbage or wombok. I am waiting for wombok to come into season again so that I can make a big batch in my fermenting crock.

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