"Let Food Be Thy Medicine" - Lacto-Fermented Legends: The Sauerkraut Sagas
Welcome back to month four of the “Let Food Be Thy Medicine” blog series. I hope by now you’re taking in extra leafy greens (through food and supplementation) and working some form of curcumin into your daily regimen. I’m very excited for the next several posts as I’ve been interested in home fermentation for a while and this is the perfect opportunity to take all of you through some kitchen and health experiments with me. In case you have never heard of fermentation, it is the process that changes sugar into some other substance (i.e. acid, gas, or alcohol). Fermentation occurs in yeast, bacteria, and oxygen starved cells. Think about the yeast that’s used to make bread for a minute. Yeasts are microscopic organisms that like to eat sugar. As they eat sugar they start to release carbon dioxide gas (basically they burp) and that’s why bread rises. Pay attention to the fact that the organisms are producing carbon dioxide, not oxygen. Now consider what happens when you exercise and your muscles start to burn. When exercise is strenuous enough to deplete oxygen, the body then converts glucose (or blood sugar) into lactic acid. The burning in your muscles is a buildup of lactic acid. So when oxygen is deprived, the body uses up sugar to make an acid. Why do I care about this? Because a wide variety of bacteria preferentially grow in this oxygen depleted environment. The bacteria are called lactic-acid bacteria (LAB), they grow in lacto-fermented foods, and they may very well be the healthiest thing a person can eat.
Our adventures with lacto-fermentation begin with cabbage. That’s right we’re going to make sauerkraut. Sauerkraut has been around for hundreds of years throughout Central Europe as a means of preserving cabbage. Fermented cabbage can actually be traced back to fourth century B.C. as an important food source. As noted earlier, the type of fermentation that makes cabbage sour is lacto-fermentation and the end result is millions of bacteria in the form of probiotics. Probiotics in food don’t die when they reach your gut, rather they hang around and line the intestinal walls where they form colonies and actually communicate with your brain via vagus nerve. Let’s talk about some of the things the vagus nerve is responsible for:
The vagus nerve aids in preventing and alleviating inflammation
It helps you make memories
It helps you breathe
It initiates the relaxation response
It helps control your heart rate
So I’m expecting you to believe that there are ways of making food that fills your gut with bugs (gut bugs) that may actually help your brain receive signals to reduce inflammation, relax, and make memories? Yes! In fact, a 2006 report published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology stated that the benefits of probiotics from fermented foods included lowering the risk of
brain disorders and mental illness
digestive disorders like leaky gut syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and IBS
mood disorders like depression and anxiety
metabolic conditions such as diabetes
various autoimmune diseases
All of this is due to probiotics’ influences on various organs and systems. Dr. Josh Axe put it best stating that, “The good bacteria living in your gut might as well be considered an organ in their own right because they’re so critically important”. Research shows that probiotic rich foods may help:
Improve immune function -- Remember that over 70% of your immune system lives in your gut. When good bacteria line your stomach it forms a protective barrier against invaders like pathogen, parasites, and fungi (Oh My!)
Aid in digestion and nutrient absorption -- Sauerkraut in particular is high in fiber which help move waste along, but probiotics will also work to remove waste as part of preventing the development of bad bacteria
Detoxify the body -- Probiotics will work to remove toxins from their home
Handle stress -- the “gut-brain” connections can have an important influence on your endocrine (hormonal) system which may help control the release of cortisol (the stress hormone)
Control Inflammation -- when the vagus nerve gets wind of the markers of inflammation it alerts the brain and elicits the release of anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters. I encourage all readers to look at neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey’s work on inflammation and stimulation of the vagus nerve
We’ll talk more about the benefits of gut bugs in next month’s post. Let’s get into eating more probiotic rich foods. I’ll admit that the idea of lacto-fermentation intimidated me at first because if things go wrong it is possible for mold to grow which we don’t want. However, mold that can grow on sauerkraut is very visible and you can compare your sauerkraut to images online to make sure you’re on the right track. Should you decide you don’t want to take your chances, you can purchase good sauerkraut in most supermarkets, but don’t waste your money on the stuff that’s in a can or a plastic bag. Remember that what you want here are bacteria so anything that’s had heat applied to increase shelf life has had all of the bacteria killed off. When buying sauerkraut, make sure the word “Pasteurized” does NOT appear on the label and the ONLY ingredients should be cabbage, salt, and water. Bubbie’s is the only legitimate brand I’ve found, but I think you’ll find homemade to be much more economical even you have to waste a batch or two.
To start, you’ll need some hardware:
A mason jar with a tight fitting lid
Something to mash the cabbage into the jar.I used a muddling stick which you can find just about anywhere that sells bar supplies.You could also use the end of thick wooden spoon.
A big bowl
A knife or food processor
A cutting board
A kitchen scale
1 head of cabbage
Start by washing all of your hardware with soap and warm water. We want our tools to be clean so bad bacteria don’t have a chance to grow. Wash the cabbage and remove the outermost layer. Cut the cabbage into quarters and then slice or process into shreds. Weigh your cabbage as you add it to the bowl (subtract the weight of the bowl). The recommended ratio of salt to cabbage is 2-3 tablespoons for every 5 pounds. I say start on the low end and just let it ferment a bit longer. 2 tablespoons is 6 teaspoons. So 5 pounds of cabbage would need 6 teaspoons of salt and 1 pound of cabbage would need 1.2 (round to 1 and ¼) teaspoons. If you have 1 pound of cabbage, add 1 and ¼ teaspoons of salt and toss until the cabbage starts to become wet. Salt pulls moisture out of vegetables so you’ll know when water is starting to be pulled out. Once the cabbage is damp, begin putting it into your jar and mashing it down. As you go through this process you should start see liquid begin to cover the cabbage. Leave about an inch of room at the top of the jar to allow for expansion. Make sure the cabbage is submerged (you can actually save one of the outer leaves and use that to help keep the kraut submerged). Then cover the jar with a dish cloth and let it sit in a pantry or on your kitchen counter to ferment.
You can start tasting your sauerkraut after three full days and let it continue to ferment until it tastes good to you. Once the taste is right, take the towel off, put the lid on, and move your kraut to the refrigerator to stop the fermentation process. I let mine ferment for 5 full days and the end result was something far crunchier and fresh tasting than any kraut from a can.
Sauerkraut is a great addition to grilled meats and vegetables or just by itself. A few bites a day will you have you well on your way to populating your gut with the right bacteria to help you reach a better level of wellness. I hope you will give home fermentation a shot, but even if you don’t I encourage all readers to start incorporating probiotic foods into your diets. Next month we’ll talk about tomatoes, garlic, and onions and we’ll make lacto-fermented salsa!
Yours in good health,