Get your probiotics with these tasty and well-made fermented foods
I love geeking out about digestion, whether it's sharing tips for optimal gut health or creative ways to get ginger into your diet. One easy way to possibly improve your gut health is to add live probiotic-rich fermented foods into your diet. If the idea of fermenting crocks of sauerkraut in your root cellar seems archaic or terrifying (or just not practical in the moment), I thought I'd share my go-to living fermented foods at the store and how I use them.
Why fermented foods?
Fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut, and yogurt are thought to be more easily digestible and have some nutrients more available for use in the human body. Furthermore the "good" bacteria (or probiotics) that are live and well in your living fermented foods are thought to mimic the "good" bacteria in your gut. Therefore fermented foods can help you maintain a healthy gut flora balance or restore it after a course of antibiotics or an imbalanced or high-sugar diet.
Many foods are fermented for taste and preservation like cheese, wine, and beer, but for this post we will be focusing on the probiotic-rich, living foods primarily made from plant foods because these are believed to be the most helpful for gut health.
Where to find them?
In the grocery store, you'll likely find fermented or pickled foods in 2 places: 1) In jars and cans in the aisles and 2) In the refrigerated section. Refrigerated pickles have been fermented with naturally occurring lactobacillus from the cucumbers, salt (to inhibit bad bacteria and mold growth) and water--that's it! The sour taste you get from them is a natural result of the fermentation process that produces sour tasting lactic acid. Non-refrigerated pickles on the other hand are merely submerged in vinegar and so they taste sour, but they themselves have not been truly fermented. Make sense?
As a rule, I shop for my fermented foods in the refrigerated section because that's where you find "true" fermented foods like the pickles I mentioned but also kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, miso etc. There's nothing wrong with a vinegar pickle if you like the taste, just know you won't be getting those probiotic benefits. (And while the vinegar was once a living fermenting food, the jarred pickles have since been heated and pasteurized so it's no longer a live and active culture.)
One big benefit is that by fermenting a food, you are able to preserve it and make it last longer. It's perhaps the original use and reason for fermentation. Living fermented foods are now stored in the fridge because they are STILL fermenting. The fridge slows this fermentation to a snail's pace meaning so your food won't get unbearably sour or your container burst from building gases locked inside. The good news? Fermented foods in the fridge last a long time so stock up on your favorites and enjoy them for months.
How much to eat?
My recommendation is to start eating 2 tablespoons of fermented veggies a day if possible and go from there. Typically they are salty, so a little goes a long way in terms of flavor but they can really perk up a whole dish. Don't rinse off the pickling liquid as that is where a lot of the probiotic benefit is. Just use less if you find them too sharp or pungent.
My favorite fermented store-bought foods:
These are my go-to picks for fermented foods that are widely available, at least in the Midwest and some nation-wide. But farmer's markets and local retailers are a great place to check out super regional and unique fermented products. Just look for them to be refrigerated or ask if the product is a "true" fermented food.
What: Dill Pickles made from cucumbers are an easy entrance to the naturally fermented veggie world--just start shopping for them in the refrigerated section instead of the aisles. I usually get Bubbies Kosher Dill Pickles for that authentic deli taste.
Serving suggestion: I like 1-2 of these as a snack along with hummus and veggies or as part of a big dinner board with a similar snacky spread.
Sauerkraut and other Fermented Veggies
What: The Brinery's Sauerkraut Storm Zapper. This fermented cabbage has a beautiful hot pink color and a strong gingery zip. The Brinery is Michigan-based and they have a bunch of other really great flavors too including a naturally fermented Sriracha!
Serving suggestion: A big heaping spoonful is a perfect topper to a salad or Asian-inspired bowl meal. The saltiness, sourness, and gingery kick help season the whole thing to if you don't have a great sauce or dressing ready to go.
What: Sunja's has been my favorite widely distributed Kimchi brand--it's a little spicy but not too hot for most people, has good flavor, and is vegan. If you live near a Korean market though, you should definitely check out their house-made options for more variety and often more heat and less tang. One note is that traditionally kimchi is made using seafood products for flavor so check the label if you don't eat fish.
Serving suggestion: I like this spicy saucy fermented cabbage on top of fried eggs and greens in the morning. I also use it for a simple taco topping. You get chiles, garlic, ginger, and sour crunchy cabbage all in one bite so there are very few things I don't like it on top of.
What: Kombucha is a fermented, fizzy sweetened tea drink and I drink it several times a week. If I'm not making my own, Health-Ade is my go-to brand and I love pretty much all the flavors. My favorites are the Blood Orange, Carrot, Ginger; Pink Lady Apple; and Pomegranate. Health-Ade has less sugar than most brands (2-3g/serving) so it's not as sweet and there are no artificial sweeteners either like you find in some brands. My back-up brand and flavor is GT's Gingerade flavor.
Serving suggestion: Just drink! I also love it mixed with spirits for cocktails for a way to add loads of tartness and just a touch of sweetness and fizz.
What: My students know I love miso for so many things beyond miso soup! I add this salty, umami fermented soybean paste to dressings, marinades, and even pesto for flavor and a little probiotic punch. I like Miso Master Organic White Miso because it has a smooth texture that blends into dishes and has a nice rounded flavor. If you shop at an Asian grocery store, check out their brands to find even more variety. If you avoid soy, Miso Master also makes a Chickpea Miso that's deeper in color and more robust tasting.
Serving suggestion: Make a simple single-serve salad dressing with 1 tablespoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon miso, and 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Miso acts as an emulsifier as well so it will hold your oil and acid together somewhat.
Dairy and Dairy-subs
What: I've tried to eliminate most forms of dairy from my daily diet particularly those that are non-fermented. When I do fermented dairy, I like Grassfed Organic Greek Yogurt from Stonyfield Organic and Lifeway Organic Kefir. Choosing the best-made dairy is important to me so I do seek out Grassfed and Organic. Farmer's markets are a great place to get these but these are the national brands that I buy.
For dairy substitutions, I actually haven't found a true-fermented nondairy yogurt that I love! I find they are just filled with stabilizers, thickeners and sweeteners so I continue to DIY with my Easy 3-ingredient Coconut Yogurt recipe. If you have a non-dairy, fermented yogurt that you love, please share it with me in the comments!
Serving suggestion: I try to have yogurt as less of entree and more of a garnish. I'll add a squeeze of lemon and a dash of salt and use it to top falafel or a bowl. Kefir can make great dressings (think of it as a drinkable yogurt), smoothies and even frozen yogurt. As long as nondairy yogurts aren't sweetened or flavored (hard to find!) they can be used for savory applications too.
What are your go-to fermented foods? Let me know in the comments below!