One Simple Change: Add Some Culture

Welcome to Week 6 of One Simple Change!

If you are not familiar with my OSC series, here’s what it’s all about: I’m giving you a new and different healthy lifestyle tip just about every week in 2012. These tips are holistic, and if you practice them and cultivate them into habits, they’ll improve the quality of your life and help make you a healthier person.

Today I’m going to talk about cultured foods: I want to encourage you to introduce them into your diet, if you haven’t already. If you are familiar with cultured foods and you like them, I’m going to suggest you consider increasing the amount you consume.

What do I mean by cultured foods exactly? Well, another name for these is lacto-fermented foods.

Lacto-fermentation is the act of creating a lactic-acid rich environment that enables natural preservation. Before there was refrigeration and before the advent of “canning” foods to extend their shelf life, lacto-fermentation was the way foods were preserved. It just so happens that lacto-fermented foods are quite good for you: the lacto-fermentation process increases the vitamin content of certain foods…it also makes them more digestible because it fosters the growth of natural probiotics.

I have been interested in the health benefits of cultured foods for years: I first learned about them from the book Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon; three of my other favorite references on this subject are Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, and Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation.

I believe that regular consumption of cultured/lacto-fermented foods is an integral part of a healthy diet. Everyone can benefit from adding cultured foods to their diet, particularly those with immune system issues and digestive disorders. Cultured foods are also suggested during pregnancy and when trying to balance blood sugar, yeast overgrowth, and problems with weight. You should try to include at least one serving of cultured foods in your diet every day, and try for each meal if your digestion is less than perfect or if you are on antibiotics.

Some of the better known examples of cultured foods include:

Yogurt: organic plain whole milk yogurt is best. It is important to eat whole milk dairy because the saturated fat in the yogurt help with absorption of the calcium. A nice thing about yogurt is that you can drain it to produce the whey needed to make other cultured foods such as cultured veggies.

Kefir: an “ancient” cultured dairy food high in amino acids, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and B vitamins. Unlike yogurt, kefir cultures at room temperature so it can easily be made at home with high quality (raw, if possible) milk and kefir powder or grains. If raw milk is unavailable, look for pasteurized but not homogenized milk or organic, grass-fed milk. Kefir powder can be purchased at natural food stores or online; kefir grains can also be purchased online.

Cultured cream/all natural sour cream/crème fraîche: delicious additions to recipes in small amounts. Try making homemade crème fraîche.

Kombucha: Made from fermented tea and organic sugar, the result is a fizzy drink with many health benefits. Kombucha can be purchased at natural foods stores or made at home. Some individuals may need to build up a tolerance to kombucha; this can be accomplished by drinking small amounts daily for a few weeks. Carrie Vitt has great instructions for making homemade kombucha on her blog Deliciously Organic.

Soaked grains: Soaking grains at least 7 hours before cooking makes them more nutritious and digestible. Add a little whey if possible for additional benefits. Soaking oatmeal the night before you plan to eat it is a good practice. Eating traditionally produced sourdough bread is also recommended. I will admit that I don’t soak my grains all that often, but it’s something I’d like to do more: this excellent post over at Nourished Kitchen discusses soaking grains, nuts, beans, and legumes at length.

Cultured vegetables: common in cultures around the world; real “live” sauerkraut and kimchi are probably the best known. While you can certainly purchase high quality versions of these at natural food stores, vegetables are easily lacto-fermented at home by mixing them with a salt water solution and allowing them to sit in an air-tight container (a glass mason jar works well) at room temperature for several days before moving them to the refrigerator. Note that cultured vegetables contain exceptional quantities of enzymes, B vitamins and vitamin C.

The recipe below is like sauerkraut, but it’s got a little Asian thing going on due to the addition of the garlic, ginger and cilantro. I love it straight from the jar, over eggs, stirred into chicken soup, etc. I’ve been making batch after batch and eating small amounts of this almost every day this winter. I have not gotten sick once: I can’t help but think the immune-boosting properties of this sauerkraut might have something to do with that.

You will need a very clean, quart sized, wide mouth Mason jar with a screw-top lid for this recipe.

homemade asian sauerkraut

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More cultured foods from my archives:
Basic Sauerkraut
Cortido (Salvadoran Sauerkraut)
Red and Green Kraut
Kimchi
Pickles with Garlic Scapes
DIY Creme Fraîche
Homemade Organic Cultured Butter
Homemade Yogurt

For more cultured food inspiration, make sure to check out Delicious Obsessions’ 52 Weeks of Bad Ass Bacteria Series.

homemade asian sauerkraut
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Asian Sauerkraut

Servings: 1 quart

Ingredients

  • *1 medium cabbage preferably organic, washed, dried, cored, and shredded (a food processor is great for this, but you could also do your shredding by hand with a sharp knife)
  • *2 tablespoons sea salt
  • *1/2 cup finely chopped carrots
  • *1/4 cup loosely packed cilantro chopped
  • *3 medium cloves garlic sliced
  • *2 tablespoons minced fresh ginger

Instructions

  • 1. In a large non-metal bowl, mix the shredded cabbage with the sea salt. Use clean hands to really massage the salt in to the cabbage, then allow to rest at room temperature for 30 minutes-1 hour (or longer) so the cabbage wilts and a salty brine develops.
  • 2. Add the carrots, cilantro, garlic, and ginger to the cabbage, and mix well.
  • 3. Spoon the cabbage mixture into a quart-sized, wide-mouth mason jar, and as you do so, press down firmly with the back of a wooden spoon until the juices come to the top of the cabbage. You will be able to fit all (or at least most) of the cabbage into the jar as long as you press down hard with each spoonful added. Stop when the cabbage is 3/4- 1 inch below the top of the jar (there will be some expansion while it is lacto-fermenting and you don’t want it to overflow out of the jar).
  • 4. If there is not sufficient brine/liquid to come up a bit above the cabbage, add filtered room temperature water to the jar until the liquid comes just over the cabbage (this is very important- if there is exposed cabbage above the liquid, it won't culture properly and will spoil.
  • 5. Screw the lid on the jar (don't make it so tight you won't be able to open it again), and keep on the counter for about three days: you should see small bubbles in the jar at this point- this means your lacto-fermentation was successful! After the three days, you can put the jar in the refrigerator. You can eat your homemade lacto-fermented sauerkraut right away, but the flavor gets even better over time (it will keep a few months in the refrigerator).