Fermentation has a rich history that runs hand-in-hand with human history. Fermentation charts the progress of countless societies whose survival depended on bread, one of the oldest fermentations, and of Johnny Appleseed traveling up the Mississippi River spreading the gift of cider. It tells the story of humans seeking to both preserve and enhance the foods they have cultivated from seed to sprout to fruiting body, and tending to their garden with care for all living beings affected by them. For centuries fermentation has been helping us get more of what we grow.
Soybeans and miso are a great example of fermentation that has all of these incredible attributes! Without fermentation, soybeans offer a light flavor; however, after being fermented with koji (the process of making miso), the soybeans develop a rich and complex flavor structure as well as millions of beneficial bacteria, or probiotics, that help balance the microbiome in your gut. These beneficial bacteria then live with us and the by-product of them metabolizing in our gut has shown to manufacture vitamins, primarily K and B12, once in our microbiome . Compared to fresh soybeans, which have a shelf life of a couple weeks at most, miso can potentially last for years and years if handled and stored correctly. Some misos ferment for three years and can be stored far longer. Fermentation has evolved alongside us because of these beneficial properties: preservation, unique flavor development, and bacterial/enzymatic development.
While fermentation is quite special for these attributes, miso does not stand alone in providing the benefits of fermentation. Fermenting cacao develops the flavor, lengthens the life of storage, and increases nutrition, which is what gives us chocolate! Kimchi is another fermented food that provides preservation, develops the flavor, and creates health benefits that the raw ingredients don’t have. Lesser known ferments have been produced in various places all around the world for thousands of years such as masato, a lightly alcoholic, fermented beverage made from yuca root that indigenous Peruvians will steam, peel, and chew the yuca root to be fermented by the yeasts in saliva . With ferments such as sauerkraut the fermentation brings a development of acidic flavor, whereas for miso the fermentation causes a rich, nutty flavor to grow over time. Fermentation can bring vastly different flavors to a food. Fermentation experimentation is your way to discover them.
With the appliances we have these days, fermentation doesn’t fill the deeply crucial role it once did. For many of us, the decision to ferment does not decide if we will make it through winter, but that does not mean that we are in any less need of fermentation and the unique benefits it provides. So much of the food we consume carries fewer nutrients than the same produce grown decades or centuries prior. This is from growing in chemically amended soils, so receiving the nutrients our bodies need from the food we buy is becoming more difficult. This is a point already on many people’s minds, which may have been what brought you to us here at Grow Your Own Vegetables in the first place.
Because of the average Western diet, increased use of antibiotics usage, and a wide array of other factors that can damage your gut’s microbiome, we as a society are seeing a steep rise in gut-related health issues. The science on the brain-gut connection is young, so actually knowing how many conditions poor gut health may cause is near impossible with our current knowledge. According to Mental Health America (MHA), “research in animals has shown that changes in the gut microbiome and inflammation in the gut can affect the brain and cause symptoms that look like Parkinson’s disease, autism, anxiety and depression.”  Because most fermentation methods produce enzymes and bacteria that benefit our gut health, these methods can help restore balance to our gut. By preserving nutrients and increasing our body’s ability to access the nutrients in our food by breaking them down more effectively, fermentation can help make sure our bodies are getting as much as they can out of what we do have.