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Fermentation is set to be this year's biggest food trend – here's how to do it at home

We found out everything we need to know about microbes and fermentation from Dr Mary O’Connell Motherway.


As well as being very tasty, fermented foods may offer a host of health benefits. We decided to find out more from an expert about fermentation and the microbes in our food. 

Whether it was going on hikes, swimming in the freezing sea or simply just lounging in our back gardens, 2020 saw many of us finding a love for the outdoors. But one outdoor activity that reigned supreme was gardening. Many of us found the green thumbs we never knew we had.  From discovering the indoor plants even you couldn't kill to growing your own herbs and vegetables, many of us are finally getting to see the results of our labour with sprigs and fresh vegetables finally sprouting. 

In order to enjoy our own produce, discovering ways to preserve our own herbs and vegetables is a necessary skill to acquire. Cue fermentation. Fermenting is a simple, tasty way to preserve food with added health benefits. The brilliant thing about fermentation is that it’s very simple to do at home – all you need are some sterilised jars, vegetables, muslin, baking parchment and a bit of patience.

But before we can get into the how-to ferment, we first need to learn what is and how it occurs. Microbiomes, also known as microbes, are tiny organisms that can’t be seen with the naked eye but are found in every environment on the plant, including the human body which can result in both health benefits and problems.

To find out more about the microbes in our food, we spoke to Dr Mary O’Connell Motherway, Investigator at APC Microbiome Ireland, University College Cork. Read on for ten things you didn’t know about microbes.

What are microbes?

Microbes play an essential role in the production of quite a few foods that we all eat regularly through fermentation, but why did humans decide to pickle and ferment foods in the first place? “Prior to refrigeration, people had to rely on alternative methods to make foods last throughout the year,” said Dr O’Connell Motherway. “Many of these foods were fermented to make them last longer and some even taste better after fermentation. Fermented foods have existed for more than 3,000 years.”

A natural process, fermentation is used to create so many products that we already use regularly, like salami, cheese and yoghurt, as well as more unusual products like natto, kombucha and kefir. According to Upserve, a tech-based restaurant management platform, the popularity of fermented foods rose by a massive 149% in 2018. According to Dr O’Connell Motherway, “Fermentation occurs when microorganisms like yeast and bacteria convert carbohydrates into alcohol and acids,” said Dr O’Connell Motherway. “The alcohol and acids act as natural preservatives and give fermented foods their distinctively zesty, tart flavour.”

Kombucha works really well in cocktails. Getty Images.
Kombucha works really well in cocktails. Getty Images.

How to ferment foods

Fermentation occurs in so many different ways, such as through the yeast used to make bread and beer, and it’s so easy to do at home. We’ve seen people make their own preserved lemons, homebrewed beer and kimchi, all of which use fermentation.

To get started, Dr O’Connell Motherway says to start with something simple, like vegetables. “Chop them up, add salt and put them under water, creating an atmosphere without oxygen so that only anaerobic bacteria can grow. To know that your vegetables are actively fermenting, you should see bubbles, which shows that carbon dioxide is being produced by the fermentation.

Turmeric kimchi.
Turmeric kimchi.

What is a ginger bug?

One of Dr O'Connell Motherway's favourite fermented products is the ginger bug, which is "a wild-fermented starter culture made with sugar, ginger and water. It is used to make naturally bubbly soft drinks, sodas, herbal beers and tonics."

It takes a few days and three ingredients to make a ginger bug, meaning it's one of the simplest fermented products you could try out. To make a ginger bug, combine one cup of non-chlorinated or filtered water with a tablespoon of freshly chopped ginger and a tablespoon of sugar in a jar. Cover the jar with a tea towel and leave it at room temperature, then stir in a teaspoon each of ginger and sugar once a day for the next three days.

After three days, there should be bubbles on top, showing that your ginger bug has started to ferment properly. Cover your jar with a lid and mover to a refrigerator, which will slow down the fermentation process. At this stage, you can use the ginger bug as you please; we love adding a little to a cup of ginger tea to make a bubbly, healthy beverage.

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Meu primeiro “Ginger Bug”! Penso que com este preparo adeus aos refrigerantes industriais. Obrigado @the_dough_eyed_girl pelas orientações! ⭐️ My first "Ginger Bug"! I think with this preparation goodbye to industrial soft drinks. Thanks @the_dough_eyed_girl for the guidelines! ⭐️ Mon premier "Ginger Bug"! Je pense qu'avec cette préparation, adieu les boissons non alcoolisées industrielles. Merci @the_dough_eyed_girl pour les directives! ⭐️ Mi primer "Ginger Bug"! Creo que con esta preparación adiós a los refrigerantes industriales. Gracias @the_dough_eyed_girl por las orientaciones! ⭐️ Il mio primo "Ginger Bug"! Penso che con questa preparazione saluti le bevande analcoliche industriali. Grazie a @the_dough_eyed_girl per le linee guida! ⭐️ #fermentodegengibre #gengibrestarter #gingerbug #gingerstarter #naturalbeverages #naturalrefreshments #rinfresconaturale #rafraîchissementnaturel

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