A Fear of Fermentation

Andrea Fabry

Andrea Fabry › Andrea is a former journalist, a radio host, and the mother of nine children. She is ...


And How to Conquer It.

I’ve always been wary of food that’s left to sit out on a counter. After all, I’m a baby boomer raised in an era of canned and frozen foods. My upbringing tells me that food left to itself will rot and breed all sorts of ugly organisms. Our family’s bout with toxic mold only added fuel to my fear of intentionally breeding bacteria, yeasts, and fungi in the form of fermented food.

I was forced to re-think my position, however, as I searched for solutions to my family’s compromised health. Everywhere I turned I saw something about fermented food. With great trepidation I continued my research, always asking, “What’s so great about fermented food?”

My findings were startling. Contrary to today’s brief history of processed foods, fermented food finds its roots in ancient cultures. For thousands of years humans have preserved food by aging them with yeasts and/or bacteria. In ancient Egypt apple cider vinegar was used as an internal and external antiseptic. In the 1500s sailors discovered that sauerkraut, loaded with vitamin C, could prevent scurvy during their long expeditions. Asian countries have relied on fermented soy for years in the form of natto and miso.

These cultures intuitively understood the health benefits without fully understanding the microbiology behind fermentation. Modern science has shown that bacterial cells in the body outnumber human cells by a factor of 10 to 1 (see this Scientific American article for more information). These cells comprise our microbiome and offer a rich source of protection for the human body. The bacterial physiology goes something like this: Beneficial microbes produce numerous metabolites. Lactic acid found in sauerkraut, fermented milk, and other food is one of these metabolites. The metabolites help crowd out harmful bacteria, essentially offering a self-regulating, safe antibiotic. Introducing lacto-fermented food is like sending in military reinforcements.

Since more than 70 percent of our immune system lies in the digestive tract, it makes sense to build up our microbial army.

Once convinced of the value of fermented food, I faced my fear of preparation. I can chop vegetables for a salad, but can I pound cabbage, add salt, and trust that it will turn into something edible? Can I handle sour milk?

I began with dairy kefir. Drawing on our local farmer’s goat milk, I purchased kefir grains online. I combined the two, and voilà! Goat kefir. The sour taste was a bit of a shock, but I slowly adjusted and (to my surprise) so did my taste buds.

Gradually I built up the courage to try sauerkraut. After a couple of botched jobs, I quickly learned there are no shortcuts when it comes to fermentation. It’s far better to use the proper equipment and follow directions. Creativity comes later.

Soon I mastered yogurt. Twelve months later I tried fermented fruit leather. In time I tried water kefir. Most recently I dazzled my family with lacto-fermented ketchup.

It’s been more than two years since I embarked upon my fermentation journey. I see the difference in my family’s health as well as my own. I find great reward in my at-home pharmacy and love the feeling of satisfaction every time I place a freshly-made ferment on my pantry shelf.

If you’re on the fermentation fence, my suggestion is to start small. Choose something that feels manageable. Does something sound good to you? Choose that one. A little goes a long way with fermented food, so be sure to eat or drink small amounts to allow for possible healing reactions. Before you know it, you may find yourself launching your very own fermented frontal assault.

Have you tried fermenting at home? What was the first thing you attempted?

Photo Credit: Andrea Fabry