In last week’s guest blog from Summer Bock, you learned about the many (many!) benefits of functional ferments like water kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha. From helping modulate the immune system to neurotransmitter production, inoculating the gut with fermented foods is one of the most important keys to a Happy Gut (and “happy brain”).
This week, I’ll be chatting with Summer — a friend, fermentationist, and the creator of her own course on fermentation (which is available for anyone) — about how to get started with fermentation.
Getting started with fermentation
If you’ve read Happy Gut®, you know that I wouldn’t be able to share this content about fermentation with you without showing you the practical ways you can get started fermenting at home. This is especially true with fermentation because it can be intimidating at first. Even for me, one of the world’s leading gut health doctors, fermentation can feel like a science experiment that might go awry.
Summer knows this better than anyone. As she explains it, “fermentation really is an acquired taste.” For most people, it takes a few tries before they learn to love fermented foods. “But once their body gets exposed to microbes in the ferment, that communication through the gut-brain axis helps to change their taste buds and they start to crave them,” she continues.
That’s one of the reasons I jumped at the opportunity to ask Summer my burning fermentation questions. Let’s jump in!
Dr. Pedre: Last week you mentioned that Kombucha was a good gateway ferment. What does that mean?
Summer: A gateway ferment is a ferment that allows you to acquire the taste for fermented foods — because fermented foods really ARE an acquired taste. For most people it takes a few tries.
When I started my sauerkraut company, I was living with three roommates. I was making extra sauerkraut all the time and people would come over and buy it on an honor system, leaving money in a jar. At the time there was no other way to get raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut. One out of twenty people would try it and say “Eh, no thanks!” but without fail, a week later, those same people would come back and buy a jar. They would tell me: “I know I took a bite and didn’t want it, but I have not stopped thinking about this since I tasted it.” It helped me understand how the body really does tell you what you need.
That’s what happens with gateway ferments.
Dr. Pedre: If you want to try fermented foods from the store before you make them at home. What are some things to keep in mind while shopping?
Summer: With any ferment, you want to make sure it’s fermented in glass, food grade stainless steel, or a crock, which is a container specifically designed for safe fermentation. A lot of industrial companies are fermenting in plastic barrels. And even though they are mostly BPA-free, there are a lot of other chemicals in plastic to be concerned about. One of the 5 ways to leach chemicals out of plastic is acid. You want to ask the manufacturers: Does this touch plastic at any point in the process?
You should also not be buying a ferment if it has vinegar added because that will kill off probiotics. There’s a time and a place for vinegar but it’s not in your ferment. You also want to avoid any added sugar in any products, especially kombucha, water kefir and dairy ferments, like yogurt.
Dr. Pedre: What about companies that add probiotics to their kimchi or sauerkraut? Is that ok?
Summer: With many ferments, if they are adding probiotics to it, it changes the flavor and longevity of the ferment. It can affect shelf life and it’ll change the crunchiness over time in a bad way. Why? Because fermentation is an intricate process and involves many steps of bacteria production and each one is critical to the health benefits of the final product. In other words, you can’t skip ahead by just adding probiotics. Plus, why would you add starter culture to a process that doesn’t need it? You’re putting a bandaid on top of a cast.
Dr. Pedre: Where should you shop for ferments?
Summer: One of my favorite ways to buy ferments is to go to a farmer’s market because then you can ask the producer questions about the process. Ask them what kind of vessel they used. Did they ferment or store it in plastic at any point during its production? If you don’t have any ferments at your farmers market, and you’re buying from a bigger company, check their website. A great fermentation company will be transparent about the process and the equipment they’re using. And they’d definitely understand the detriment of plastic and acids!
Dr. Pedre: Is it normal to be anxious about trying fermentation at home?
Summer: Yes! You have to break through your social upbringing. We were raised to be very sanitary. We are very afraid of germs and we are always trying to KILL off the germs. When you make a fermented food and let it sit on your counter — for anywhere from 7 days to 9 months or even 9 YEARS for certain misos — while bacteria grow in it, you are pushing every cultural boundary you’ve been taught.
It’s normal to feel totally out of your comfort zone. I still experience it the first time I ferment anything new. I call it the “terror barrier.” You’re like: Okay, I’m going to put this in my mouth, even though I was taught not to. You have to bust through this, but once you do it changes the way you see the world. You’re no longer afraid of bacteria. Understanding fermentation allows you to have a relationship with bacteria instead of a fear of them.
Dr. Pedre: I couldn’t agree more about not being afraid of symbiotic bacteria. Next question: Why are homemade ferments better than the ones in the store?
Summer: Big fermentation companies have changed the ferments and made them less beneficial for the sake of mass production. For example, the dairy kefir you buy in the store is not actually kefir. It’s a “dairy kefir-like” beverage. You’ll get some benefits, but it’s not true kefir. There are much greater benefits in real kefir, with a naturally occuring balance of yeast and bacteria.
Dr. Pedre: I’ve definitely seen the healing benefits of homemade kefirs for my patients. So, then it’s better to make ferments at home?
Summer: Yes. You’ll get higher bacterial counts if you make it at home because you get to eat it at its peak. You also get to control what kind of container it’s in and you can make sure to put it in a safe fermentation vessel. You can also make the ferment more friendly to you if you have food allergies or sensitivities. You can also choose the materials and flavors, making it a more personalized experience.
Dr. Pedre: Yum! I’m already dreaming up different spices I can add to a homemade sauerkraut. Speaking of… what are the best ferments for beginners to try at home?
Summer: No question the best place to start is with lacto ferments. Lacto fermentation is a simple fermentation process that breaks down sugars to produce lactic acid and bacteria, mostly from the family Lactobacillus. It includes functional ferments like sauerkraut, kimchi, cucumber, and other pickled vegetables. I recommend starting with lacto ferments because you can make them to your specifications and they require the least amount of supplies and no starter culture. They have the least amount of allergens and they’re the easiest one to make with the best probiotic profile at the end.
My advice is to start with lacto ferments and get really adept and learn all the different kinds. You can add curry flavors, seaweed, nettle herbs. You can make lacto fermented pickles, beans, and okra.
Dr. Pedre: Ok, let’s dive in. How DO you make lacto ferments?
Summer: I’d recommend starting with a simple one. Sauerkraut is probably one of the easiest places to get started.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A jar
- A rubber band
- A paper towel or clean dish towel
- Cabbage (you can use any kind but usually I like green cabbage)
I’m not going to include a step-by-step guide here, because I always recommend following video instructions instead of written ones. You can check out my amazing FREE Video Workshop for Making Fermented Veggies At Home.
There, I take you through a step-by-step video guide for fermenting veggies, including troubleshooting and commonly asked questions. That way, you can feel totally confident that you won’t miss or misinterpret a step! You want to get started with the right foundation, so you can glean the greatest benefits from ferments. Once you feel comfortable, you can branch out and try these creative sauerkraut recipes.
Dr. Pedre: If you’re not a fan of sauerkraut, is there another option for beginners?
Summer: I’d recommend dairy kefir, which is the easiest dairy ferment. It’s much easier to make at home than yogurt and a great place to start with dairy ferments. Since kefir needs a starter culture, you need to purchase dairy kefir grains. You can get these from a friend, Facebook or Etsy, or my favorite, KombuchaKamp. I do not recommend that you buy dehydrated ones. In my experience dehydrated kefir grains just have way too many issues and require a lot more troubleshooting than is suited for a beginner. To make kefir, you can check out my step-by-step video guide here.
Dr. Pedre: What are some common questions and concerns when someone is starting to ferment?
Summer: The question that most people have is, “Am I doing it right, or am I going to poison myself?” It’s okay to fail the first time; most people do. It’s a learning curve and that’s why I recommend video guides. A demonstration helps prevent missing a step or misinterpreting a step.
Because this is a process that evolved centuries ago before people used labs, it’s actually fairly safe. That said, I still recommend a ‘3-step ferment check’ when you start fermenting:
How To Enjoy Your First Ferments
… it to ensure it smells like food (if it smells like feet, toss it and start again)
… some in your mouth and then spit it out (pretend you’re a sommelier and look out for anything weird)
… and enjoy it if it smells and tastes right!
This helps you feel more comfortable. Don’t just plop it in your mouth or eat half the jar.
Dr. Pedre: Do we need to worry about botulism?
Summer: People worry about botulism. But the bacteria that causes botulism can’t grow in an acidic environment. If your sauerkraut is sauerkraut, it can’t contain botulism.
Dr. Pedre: What if we see mold growing on a ferment? Has it gone bad?
Summer: If it’s got a little bit of mold growing on the top of it, you can usually scrape it off the top layer and still eat what’s underneath. However, if there’s pink mold on your kefir, you need to start over. If you see black mold on anything, don’t eat it. Toss it!
Dr. Pedre: Should we keep ferments away from sunlight?
Summer: I say put it in your pantry or a cupboard or on a countertop; NOT in direct sunlight. I’m less concerned about sunlight and more concerned with temperature fluctuation.
Dr. Pedre: Okay, last question. You told us what the best beginner ferments are. But what is the most advanced, “out of the box” ferment you’ve ever come across?
Summer: Natto is hands down the craziest one that I’ve ever tried. It smells like stinky socks to some people, and it’s very mucousy. And for a lot of people it can take 8 to 12 times of trying to like it. But I love it! It’s incredibly satiating.
Getting started with fermentation at home can be intimidating for some at first. Imagine putting in the time to get started with your first ferment, to have it fail the ‘smell test’ — and that’s why what Summer does is so important!
Following a step-by-step video guide, you can feel secure knowing that you’re doing it right and not missing or misinterpreting any steps. And the best part is knowing you’ll be on your way to no more bloating, no more brain fog, and optimizing your overall gut health — the key to conquering chronic conditions!
Before we go, I’d like to say a big THANK YOU to Summer Bock for being our guest contributor for the month of September. Thanks to her, we are now all mini experts on fermentation. And I can’t wait to get started at home!