Fermentation is a natural way to preserve foods while making them more delicious. Many cultures have used fermentation as a preservation method for centuries. (See this list of fermented foods from around the world.)
Our fermented foods are simply vegetables, salt, water, and spices. We put everything in a barrel and create an anaerobic environment, i.e., devoid of oxygen. For pickles, the cucumbers are submerged in water. Everything else, like kimchi, kraut and salsa, is covered in the barrel so the vegetables do not come into contact with oxygen. And then the process begins.
Carbohydrates, sugars like glucose, in the vegetables are converted into cellular energy and lactic acid by naturally occurring bacteria in the vegetables. For this reason, we can’t use irradiated vegetables. (Not like we’d want to!)
Lactic acid is a good bacteria that naturally sours and preserves the vegetables. The natural byproducts of fermentation is why our pickle brine is proudly cloudy. The correct salt concentration kills bad bacteria and encourages the reproduction of good lactic acid bacteria.
We ferment our kimchis, krauts and pickles for a few days to a few weeks. The length of the fermentation process depends on the temperature, type of vegetable and desired end product. Half sour pickles take a few days while very sour pickles can ferment for months.
Fermentation never stops. Refrigerating the product significantly slows the process. If you left your kimchi in the fridge for a year, you would find a spicier, likely softer, food. Flavors complexify over time, spicy gets spicier, while the texture will also change. This is part of the beauty of fermentation. Additionally, carbon dioxide is another byproduct of fermentation and so you may notice your container top start to pop up. If this happens, simply “burp” the container lid.
The end product is a delicious living food. The big difference between fermented pickles and canned vinegar pickles is the bacteria. We embrace good bacteria. The canning process eradicates all bacteria to create a sterile environment. According to a USDA microbiologist, there are no documented cases of food-borne illness from fermented vegetables.
Probiotics are good bacteria that you eat. Yum! Our bodies host many millions of microorganisms, known as our microbiome. Microbes living in and on us outnumber our cells ten to one. Friendly bacteria, like lactic acid, outnumber the bad bacteria. These microbes have many health benefits, especially in maintaining a beneficial colony of bacteria in the gastrointestinal system. For more on probiotics, read here.
In conclusion, eat fermented foods and supercharge your microbiome. Or at the very least, enjoy delicious food and have a healthy gut.