As fermented foods grow in popularity, here's why this traditional method of preserving food is not only a tasty way to add flavour to dishes but a good way to improve your gut health too
For thousands of years, people have been preserving food using microorganisms, known as fermenting. More recently, interest in fermented foods has grown, as people in the UK begin to discover just how delicious and beneficial to health these dishes can be.
From kimchi to kombucha, sauerkraut to pickles, we are currently rediscovering the interesting new flavours and textures fermented foods can bring. Tempeh, for example, offers a ‘nuttier’ alternative to tofu, while kimchi can bring a moreish umami note to almost any meal.
In addition, we’re seeing more fermented food products reaching the supermarket shelves, such as Vadasz’s range of kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles – which is sold in major retailers including M&S, Waitrose, Co-op and Ocado.
What makes fermented foods so good for us?
Dr Sunni Patel, the expert behind gut health website, Dish, Dash, Deets, and a clinician-scientist whose research has specialised in diabetes, explains how fermented foods work: “They provide an array of probiotics to the digestive system, which is home to around 30-100 trillion microorganisms! It’s important to keep these in check; one way of which is by adding fermented foods to your diet, as the beneficial microorganisms neutralise the harmful ones. This protects the barrier in the intestine, and helps improve the chance of nutrients reaching the rest of the body.
“A well-maintained gut, supported by fermented food, is an important part of keeping our brains, bowels and metabolic systems healthy, and can boost immunity. On top of that, fermented foods such as kimchi are also often high in fibre, Vitamin B12 and folate – making them excellent dietary allrounders.”
For people who suffer digestive health symptoms, fermented foods have been seen to reduce symptoms. Dr Sunni knows this from personal experience: “I really struggled to get my own symptoms of Crohn’s disease under control, even with steroids. I became very fearful of food, but eventually found that if I stuck to a plant-based diet that made the most of fermented and whole foods, I could reduce many of the symptoms and begin to explore a wide range of flavours again.”
Finding the right ferments
While many of the foods we associate with being fermented are tasty, not all are equal. To reap the health benefits, look for foods which are labelled ‘fermented’, or as containing ‘live cultures’ or ‘probiotics’.
Because fermentation is a natural chemical process, many foods can be used, and the taste can vary. Some vegetable ferments are fresher than others, meaning you’ll get a wonderfully crunchy experience eat time you bite into them. Experiment with different brands to discover one you love.
It’s also important to look at the salt content of fermented foods, as recipes can vary from containing none at all to much higher levels. Nutritionist Elena Holmes explains: “Different methods of fermentation require different amounts of salt. For example, some kimchi recipes require rinsing the salted cabbage before adding other ingredients.
“If fermented foods are added to or eaten alongside other foods, such as salads or dips, the overall amount of salt could be balanced by not adding any additional salt to that meal.”
How to introduce fermented food to your diet
Although food was first deliberately fermented more than eight thousand years ago, many of us are trying these recipes for the first time. This means it can be tricky to know how to integrate them into our diets.
Elena advises: “Fermented vegetables can be eaten as starters, on their own or with dips and other vegetables, added to salads or Buddha Bowls, or as sides to main dishes. One can also blend them in savoury smoothies, turn them into flavoursome and refreshing dips or add them to sandwiches or wraps.”
When introducing fermented foods to your meals, keeping them cold or just above room temperature is best. Elena says: “Unfortunately, heat kills bacteria and probiotics are not an exception. Gently cooked fermented foods still retain some of the vitamins and prebiotic fibres, taste nice and are easily digested.”
Those looking for a simple lunchtime recipe that uses fermented food, while retaining much of its goodness, can try this traditional Korean recipe.
Recipe: Easy kimchi pancakes
(Makes eight pancakes)
These warming pancakes are a wonderfully spicy lunchtime option and turn a beautiful golden brown in the pan. A traditional dish, they are known as kimchijeon. For an authentic serve, top with spring onions and serve with a dipping sauce.
- 200g Vadasz kimchi
- 150g buckwheat flour
- 175ml plant milk
- 2½ tsp baking powder
- 2tsp apple cider vinegar
- 1tbsp vegetable oil
- Mix the dry ingredients together
- Fold in the plant milk and apple cider vinegar and stir until well combined
- Chop the kimchi coarsely and stir into the mix
- Rest the mixture for around 30 minutes in the fridge
- Heat a frying pan and warm oil on a medium heat
- Add a dollop of the mixture to the pan
- Fry until bubbles form on the surface of the pancake (this should take around five minutes), flip, and cook on the other side for around 1-2 minutes
- Remove pancake from frying pan, rest on a piece of kitchen roll, and continue frying process for remaining batter mix