It is estimated that our body is composed of over 10 trillion cells; inhabiting our skin and respiratory passages and digestive systems are 10 times that number of bacteria. These bacteria are known as our micro flora and many of these organisms are essential to our health, existing in harmony with our bodies in a relationship that has evolved since the beginning of mankind. We provide these bacteria a nurturing environment and they, in turn, perform essential functions we can’t survive without. In a healthy individual, only our internal tissues (blood, brain and muscle) are free of microflora.
Our GI tract hosts 80 percent of our population of microflora. The human gut has the surface area of a tennis court and the average adult gut is carrying around two and a half to three pounds of bacteria! The benefits provided by these “healthy” bacteria include preventing growth of harmful microorganisms, helping us digest many otherwise indigestible nutrients in our food, strengthening our immune system, protecting our intestinal lining, producing essential vitamins and even regulating mood and helping to control depression. Our gut is essentially our “second brain” and produces more mood-elevating serotonin than our brain.
Our modern western diet and widespread use of antibiotics has wreaked havoc on our population of gut microflora. Processed grains, such as white flour and white rice, have had all the beneficial fiber removed.
We know that fiber is essential to good health, but it takes gut bacteria to break it down to an absorbable form. When our diet does not include enough fiber, our gut bacteria can start to feed on the protective mucus lining of the gut, triggering inflammation and disease. Widespread use of antibiotics in medical practice and in livestock and poultry production depletes our bacteria population. Industrial procedures to prolong the shelf life of our foods, such as pasteurization and irradiation, prevent us from replenishing our beneficial bacteria population.
Until the development of industrial food preservation technologies, mankind relied on smoking, dehydrating and fermenting as means of preserving food. Fermentation occurs when bacteria known as lactobacillus convert sugars present in food into cellular energy and lactic acid. This process is known as lacto-fermentation. Lactic acid is a natural preservative that inhibits putrefying bacteria and allows us to store foods for future use. Whereas pasteurization and traditional heat-canning diminishes a food’s nutritional value by killing off beneficial bacteria and enzymes, lacto-fermentation actually increases its nutritional value.
Incorporating fermented foods into your diet has many benefits. In addition to helping populate your gut with beneficial bacteria, fermented foods are high in enzymes that are necessary for the many chemical reactions taking place in our body. The body’s production of digestive and metabolic enzymes decreases with age. The enzymes found in fermented foods replenish our enzyme levels and support good digestion. Fermented foods are also high in antioxidants which are believed to enhance longevity and protect against cancer.
Examples of lacto-fermented foods are sauerkraut and kimchi. However most commercially fermented foods you can buy in jars or cans have been pasteurized or cooked at high heat, killing off the beneficial bacteria. Unprocessed sauerkrauts and kimchis are available but they tend to be more expensive. Because vegetable fermentation is so easy and requires minimal equipment, I prefer to make my own.
Easy Homemade Sauerkraut
• 2 heads of cabbage (approximately 5 pounds)
• 1/4 cup salt (avoid iodized salt- I like sea salt)
• 1-2 tablespoons caraway seeds and/or juniper berries (optional)
• Large mixing bowl or tub
• Clean tea towel or handkerchief
• 2 quart-size wide-mouth jars
Wash jars, work surfaces, mixing bowl and hands in warm, soapy water.
Remove the outer leaves and cores from cabbage, saving 2 of the biggest leaves for later. Cut the cabbage into quarters. Thinly slice cabbage into thin strips.
Place the thinly-sliced cabbage in a large bowl or tub. Sprinkle with the salt. Massage the salted cabbage for about ten minutes until it releases its liquid. There needs to be enough liquid released to totally cover the cabbage in the jars.
Add the caraway seeds and juniper berries if you are using them.
Pack the cabbage very tightly into the jars. Cut the retained outer cabbage leaves into circles the diameter of the jar and place atop the sliced cabbage. Pour any liquid from the bowl into the jar. Make sure the liquid entirely covers the cabbage.
Place a weight on top of the cabbage to keep it submerged. This could be a smaller jar or sterilized river stone or even a resealable sandwich bag filled with a little of remaining salted liquid.
Place jars in a place where the temperature is ideally between 64-67°. Cooler temperatures will slow down the fermentation. Higher temperatures cause the cabbage to ferment too fast and become mushy.
After 2 weeks taste the sauerkraut. Depending on your personal taste, it may have reached its desired tartness. If you like stronger flavored kraut, allow it to ferment 1 to 3 weeks longer. When the desired flavor is reached, store in the refrigerator. It should be good for 6 months to a year.
It is normal to see bubbles, white scum or foam on top during the fermentation. If you see any mold, carefully scrape it off the top, and make sure all the rest of the cabbage is fully submerged. This will not affect the kraut below the liquid level.
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