Have you always wanted to start fermenting foods but you’re not sure where to start? Valerie O’Connor has the beginner’s guide.

Once considered the next food fad, it seems fermentation is here to stay. At last year’s swell of food festivals, kimchi and sauerkraut were at every turn. From kombucha to kefir, krauts and kvass, the real ‘special ks’ are now as mainstream as their bread brother sourdough. But, of course, fermented foods have been with us since humans figured out how to cook – it is one of the oldest forms of food preservation and it even happens by accident when we’re not looking. Honey from a hive of bees that falls into water will ferment into delicious mead. Wheat, when wet and left in the sun, will ferment and bubble up, becoming an early form of bread. On a daily basis we enjoy an array of fermented products, including yogurt and wine, beer and dark chocolate – just maybe not in those combinations. But what’s so great about fermented foods that have brought them back into the food limelight? Why now – when we have freezing and canning to cut though all the effort of doing this ourselves at home?

We often hear the expression ‘listen to your gut’, and indeed the gut is recognised as the second brain. It is thought that all disease begins in the gut and it is the centre of control for our feelings and emotions. It’s exciting to think that eating some fermented cabbage (much more delicious than it sounds) can improve our mood but much research shows this to be the case.

When we hear the word ‘pickle’, we think of cucumbers in a jar on Sesame Street, but pickles and fermented foods are the same thing – except that ‘pickling’ was replaced by the modern version that uses vinegar and sugar to preserve the food. This modern technique adds nothing good to the food, but traditional pickling is a wonder to behold.

Valerie's lates book 'Val's Kitchen', published by O'Brien's Press

Valerie's lates book 'Val's Kitchen', published by O'Brien's Press

Vegetables, when grown without chemical pesticides, are full of natural yeasts and bacteria that feed our good gut flora. When we ferment these foods in a simple mixture of water and sea salt, they undergo a lacto-billi fermentation process that not only keeps them fresh, crunchy and delicious for months, but it also ramps up their nutritional profile and boosts their vitamin content. Fermented foods are natural probiotics and, by adding a small amount of sauerkraut or any fermented veg, and some plain, natural yogurt to your diet every day, you will give your gut all the good bacteria it needs to thrive. A healthy gut will support a strong immune system as good digestion is the basis for health and vitality.

In Ireland and other, mostly western, countries, we are experiencing an epidemic of autoimmune conditions and food allergies. Theories suggest that this is due to an over-consumption of processed foods, chemically treated fruit and vegetables and toxins in the environment. No doubt our guts are suffering and fermented foods are being credited with helping to restore that good gut flora that we need to feel happy and energetic and enjoy better lives.

As eating ferments can help balance your hormones, they are also linked with a reduction in PMS symptoms, improvement in sleep and also help with weight control. Eating a little kimchi or kefir will help you to produce the digestive enzymes you need to get the most from your food so that you get the best from your green juice and wholegrains.

The best part about making fermented foods is that it’s fun, very creative and doesn’t cost much. All you need is a few nice, big jars and bottles, some good sea salt and a good source of water. Go out and get some nice fresh vegetables and a few spices and let the fun begin. These recipes require no special starter culture, so get fermenting.

Turmeric Kimchi

Turmeric is the hottest word in the world of superfoods and is credited with all sorts of anti-inflammatory properties. To get the most from turmeric, it needs to be eaten with fats and black pepper, or fermented, so I came up with the idea of adding it to kimchi.

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Beet Kvass

Anything made from beetroot is a great support for your liver and we really need that at this time of year and after the party season. This drink is so easy to make – it will get you into fermenting in no time.

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Fermented Wholegrain Mustard

This works out a lot cheaper than those ceramic jars of wholegrain French mustard that I buy sometimes, though they are very tasty too. This is an easy recipe to make, and it makes about three regular sized jars.

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Fermented Tomato Ketchup

This isn’t as sweet as commercially made ketchup but it tastes great with some good quality sausages and is an easy way to get ferments into your diet. 

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Top Tips for Fermentation

To make sure your fermented goods are made correctly and last long enough for you to enjoy, check out these troubleshooting tips.

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Credit: Valerie O'Connor

Learn more: If you’d like to learn more about fermenting food, The Organic Centre in Rossinver, County Leitrim run regular courses on fermented and cultured foods. Check their website for more info.

Valerie O'Connor is a certified organic horticulturalist specialising in probiotic fermented foods for health. With over twenty years experience in food and media, she now writes regularly for the Irish Examiner gardening supplement. Valerie also teaches classes in food fermentation and plant-based eating for health, as well as conducting one to one and group consultations on plant based, healthy eating. Valerie has published three cookbooks: Bread on the Table, Irish Bread and Val's Kitchen, published by O'Brien Press, which are available in all good bookshops and online. You can find out more about Valerie on her website Val's Kitchen.