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.
While grocery stores may give us access to fruits and vegetables, often grown by industrial farms, they often prove to be lacking in the nutrients we need to live a healthy life. Supporting your local, small farms that use regenerative and/or organic farming practices who have healthy soil (and therefore healthy foods) is fundamental in voting with your dollar for healthier systems, but organic produce can be unattainable for many without the financial privilege to regularly access these foods. For so many, growing, preserving, and preparing our own food is the best way to access these benefits: the sovereignty, health benefits, and quality of life it provides.
Growing your own vegetables is the foundation that ensures you and your family will receive the nutrition that you need. Fermentation is one of your best tools to make sure the nutrients from the produce you grow will be more bioavailable! After being picked, most vegetables will slowly start losing nutritional content. Fermentation helps reduce that loss in nutrients and can often actually increase nutrient availability! Cabbage’s conversion to sauerkraut is a great example. Sauerkraut has about 12% of your iron and 11% of the vitamin B-6 needed daily, whereas cabbage only has around 1% of your daily iron and 6% of the vitamin B-6. This increase happens simply with salt and time! Often fresh produce will still be the best source for vitamins and micronutrients, but fermented foods will often provide enzymatic and bacterial support to your gut that fresh foods don’t compare to.
While fermentation is often a practice in patience, it can be one of the most deeply rewarding methods of food preparation. Fermentation is a way to take something you are familiar with and have a brand new experience from it! Fermentation, like so many other culinary techniques, can feel overwhelming at first, but it is a rewarding skill to learn. I encourage you to learn through both doing and studying. Other than ensuring safety, there is no one single “right way” to go about fermentation. Fermentation is alive. As alive as I am writing this, and as alive as you are reading it. Because ferments are alive, they can behave in ways that are difficult for us to predict, so be patient with yourself through your fermentation journey.
You can think of fermentation as a young life. We cannot have control over all elements of a life, just as we cannot expect to control all elements of fermentation, but through tending to our ferments in an informed way we are able to guide them through healthy fermentation and create tasty and unique superfoods!
Culinary Educator and Human, Plant, & Soil Health Advocate
“My food journey began in high school when culinary classes brought me into the world of creating food. I continued on to culinary school before completing a two year apprenticeship with a local sushi chef. This apprenticeship was really where
I learned to care for ingredients; how to prepare them in a way that shows them respect. In order to really take care of your ingredients you need to start with the soil. I haven’t had many memorable meals that were prepared with unhealthy produce from depleted soils,and most of the memorable meals from my life were simple meals made from ingredients that had themselves been nourished lovingly and prepared the same way. I believe high quality food can be prepared by anyone, and it starts with the soil.”