Fermented Foods Primer

How are these foods alike?

  • pickles
  • yogurt
  • bread
  • beer
  • kombucha
  • sauerkraut
  • miso

They were all turned into what they are by microorganisms - bacteria or yeast - and all are examples of one of the earliest forms of food preservation - fermentation. From Neolithic times, or even before, humans have used this natural process to make food and keep it edible without refrigeration. Today there's been a revival of interest in how fermented foods can help us stay healthy by replenishing and configuring the bacteria in our own guts.

From the day we're born we're in a constant dance with the microbial world, some of which serves us magnificently and some of which can harm us. With modern emphasis on pasteurization, refrigeration, hyper-cleanliness, and antibiotics, it's easy to forget that our bodies depend on a vast and complex array of microorganisms - what's now called our microbiome - to mediate digestion, immune reactions, vitamin production, and other vital functions. 

Ancestors and Allies

In his recent book, The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz calls these worker-organisms "our ancestors and allies." They're an intimate part of our body's economy and usually carry on their vital work without any conscious attention from us. But it's well known that a course of antibiotics, for example, can disturb the natural quiet functioning of our intestinal allies. In this case, we have the option of taking some "probiotics," capsules full of live bacteria, to try to restore the inner balance. Alternatively, we can get these same bacteria from unpasteurized fermented foods, i.e. those with live organisms. If this topic interests you, check out Perlmutter's new book, Brain Maker, for an in-depth look at the most recent science.

Start with Just a Little

I'm a real newbie with fermented foods and can't wait to learn more. When I first tried kombucha, I liked it and started drinking a bottle or two a day. I soon noticed that my gut felt different in a not-good, gassy kind of way. I didn't realize I was changing the status quo precipitously by consuming all that kombucha. You may not react the same way, but if you want to try adding in some daily ferments, start with just a little, and be sure to choose products that have been carefully handled to keep the "ancestors and allies" alive.  Here are some recipes I've been enjoying lately.


2-4 oz smoked wild salmon

1/2 - 1 ripe avocado, sliced

4 tsp MMColorado mustard with sauerkraut (available at Whole Foods)

Wrap sections of salmon around the avocado slices. Top with mustard. Enjoy for a light lunch or an afternoon snack. 


3-4 oz cooked ground beef, shrimp, pulled pork, or similar (I'm thinking leftovers here)

2 T finely ground sauerkraut or favorite fermented vegetables (I used Vegi-Delite Zing Salad)

1/4 c shredded carrots

1/2 c shredded cabbage

cucumber chunks

1 T olive oil

1 T apple cider vinegar (optional, add if you like pretty tangy salads)

salt to taste

handful of fresh blueberries

Spread meat or shrimp in bottom of leakproof 3-c container. Cover with sauerkraut, then add shredded vegetables and cucumber to mostly fill box. Drizzle oil, vinegar, and salt evenly over salad. Add berries on top. Close, pack in travel bag, and enjoy later on the plane or at a roadside picnic area. Don't forget your fork and napkin. You'll feel so much more rejuvenated than with a lunch of road or airport food.



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