Fermenting – a recipe for good health

There is no activity more feminist than fermentation – Palestinian women ferment yoghurt

What is fermenting and how it works?

Women were first to ferment different foods -yoghurt into cheese, grains, and plants into bread and beer. They started, innovated and developed the craft. Later on scientists came along, observed the method and interpreted the processes and results. Later they created laboratory-controlled fermentations in precise batches that were different from the original fermentations. For example, Bulgarian yoghurt making had a sacred, pagan dimension to it as peasant women had always fermented milk available on a day. They sang special sounds and drew a cross over fermented milk, before it got inoculated with the backslopped maya (culture) to ensure that the process works.

Pasteurising and industrialisation of these activities has taken the craft from women’s hands to men’s. This put men in control of the microbes and the entire fermentation process in most of Europe. However, the brewing and fermenting is still predominantly women’s work in Asia and across South America.

Fermenting in a nutshell

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Fermenting makes raw food more nutritious and easier to digest

Firstly, we prepare our fermenting and pickling containers. We use all sorts of second-hand glass jam jars as well as new large jars as we have lots of vegetables to pack into them. If we want to ferment our food in a nutritional way, we can begin by sterilising empty jars beforehand. However, a traditional way is to store fermenting vegetables in a huge ceramic crock or wooden barrel. As there is already some microbial starter culture from previous fermentations. This is called backslopping. Seeing this was a constant in my childhood when people regularly fermented cabbage in the same vessel until the culture was no longer viable.  

When pickling with vinegar and sugar brine, we can pasteurise empty jars or do it once we fill the jars with food. We cover the vegetables with brine and place ready jars in a large saucepan of just boiled water. We just simmer the mixture in jars, we do not boil it. This usually takes several minutes and ensures that the pickles will last long enough without spoiling. Pasteurising not only kills unsafe bacteria, but it also preserves the flavour and increases the shelf life of foods. In fact, Louis Pasteur used this process for wines.

To ferment or to pickle – that is the question

To ferment you need three main ingredients; food, sugar, and time.  There are a few methods of fermenting. Whenever there is a source of readily available sugar, fermentation will start on its own. We are familiar with this when we leave fruit for longer than we intend. Grains hide their sugars, so we require something else to access them for fermentation. Brewers call this malting. By germinating seeds of barley, wheat or other plants we do just that – we unlock and deliver the sugars to kick-start the process. The origins of this more labour-intensive method go back to the ancient Sumer- today’s Iraq. Egyptians turned it into a sophisticated craft around 10,000 years ago while the rest of the world was still fermenting in old ways.

Most of us have tried one type of fermented food or another. Our supermarkets and local groceries generally carry foods such as sourdough bread, sauerkraut, Tabasco sauce or kefir drink. There are also super healthy vegan fermentations from Asia. They are tempeh, miso, kimchi, sambar or Kombucha tea. The tea was already a healing remedy in Russia in 1920. Today, these foods and drinks gain mainstream traction because of their health credentials. Their origin and history of use continue to shed an illuminating light on the fermentation. Different cultures used varied plants. And they almost vanished from Western medicinal and cook books as this form of healing declined. Luckily, they reappeared again with a new vigour.

Fermenting versus pickling

There are two types of pickling methods:

  • brining using a salt solution with added vinegar to ferment vegetables or fruits fast
  • true fermenting with bacteria that form naturally

The vinegar brine is a preserving agent and also a destroyer of bad bacteria. The downside is that this method removes flora that is beneficial to our digestive system. So we end up with a mixture that is less nutritious albeit delicious.

True fermentation is a longer process. Slowly, it alters the properties of the raw food in a way that we can assimilate better. The fermented food is more palatable and longer-lasting. It also has probiotics and antioxidants that protect the body by strengthening its immune defences. In case of beans, the fermentation makes them easier to digest. It breaks down proteins into amino acids, which the body uses more efficiently. In fact, this pre-digestion of fermenting bacteria is the most effective way for us humans to access maximum nutrition from vegetables. Some say that human and fermented cultures form a symbiosis. It is certainly true for me. I remember always hearing as a kid that Polish folk are much healthier because we eat huge amounts of sauerkraut during our lives. Fermented cabbage is rich in vitamin C. The same applies to our neighbouring countries where this tradition of eating a lot of fermented foods at meals is kept alive. Fermented foods protect us against diseases that stem from our poor Western diets. This has even pointed some researchers to investigate links between their benefits and Covid-19 virus. 


Fermenting is a social pastime

Fermenting times are a great opportunity to talk about issues that concern us. Our culinary sessions showed that working directly with vegetables and fermenting them is good for us on many levels. It can positively alter our perception of microbes and their role in our lives. Generally speaking, the word microbe has a negative slant. It brings up all sorts of negative images in our minds. But with time, as we get a chance to try different mixes of fermented vegetables, we warm up to these good microbes. After all they pre-digest the food for our benefit. We all agree:  it is a lesson worth learning and a new experience worth having.

For me fermenting wins hands down over pickling each time. Why? It preserves all nutrition of the raw food thanks to the action of yeasts that form naturally during the process. However, pickles are also tasty and much quicker to make. So I had a go at pickling at the farm, too. We just had to process huge amounts of never ending supply of fresh vegetables and fruits. All thanks to our generous hosts, reliably present Portuguese sun and pristine mountainous climate. Fermenting is a gift!


“Kombucha –Miracle Fungus.” Harald Tietze, Gateway Books, 1994.

Wild Fermentation – The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods. Sandor E. Katz, 2016.

Yoghurt making photo source: http://malikianphotography.com/studios/studio-kahvedjian/

All photographs by Earthvoice, except for an image of Yoghurt fermenting. All Rights Reserved.