Fermentation has a long history of use for preserving foods. It’s said that the Great Wall of China was built on brown rice and fermented cabbage (kimchi). This article tells why fermentation is so important.
Originally published 2004
Elsewhere, I’ve described kimchi as “the healthiest food on the planet”. (See What Makes Kimchi so Healthy?). But in addition to the ingredients it contains, it is the fermentation process that is largely responsible for making kimchi so beneficial.
Why Fermentation is Healthy
The definition of fermentation is “breaking down into simpler components”. Fermentation makes the foods easier to digest and the nutrients easier to assimilate. In effect, much of the work of digestion is done for you. Since it doesn’t use heat, fermentation also retains enzymes, vitamins, and other nutrients that are usually destroyed by food processing.
The active cultures that pre-digest the food as part of the fermentation process actually generate nutrients. So there are more vitamins — especially B-vitamins — and minerals like iron are released from the chemical bonds that prevent them from being assimilated. In effect, the nutritional value of a food goes up when it has been fermented..
The fermentation process also preserves the food. You start with a wholesome, raw food and preserve it in a way that leaves its nutrients intact, so you have the health benefits of raw food with having to run to the grocery store every other day for more — which is what happens, unless you’re lucky enough to have a garden.
Note, too, that it’s especially important to ferment (or otherwise prepare) the cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabibrussels sprouts, and turnip greens.) Those vegetables have important anti-cancer properties. But if they’re not cooked or fermented first, they tend to depress the thyroid, which lowers your energy and gives you a tendency to gain weight. (That’s generally not a problem in small quantities, but it can become one if you eat a lot of these vegetables.)
On the other hand, the cruciferous vegetables can be overcooked, too. That makes fermentation an ideal way to unlock the nutrients in cruciferous vegetables, because there is no risk of overcooking.
The boody line is that fermentation is an important part of the process, when making cabbage-based kimchi.
How Fermentation Works
The critical ingredients for the fermentation process are:
- Salt (sea salt)
- Lack of oxygen
- Cool temperature
Salting the food preserves the food and protects it from bacteria, so it doesn’t spoil before it ferments. Sea salt is most desirable for that purpose, rather than table salt. (Table salt has been bleached and has had other important minerals removed.)
Once the food is salted, it needs to be kept in a cool place with minimal oxygen.
To keep the contents cool, Koreans have traditionally placed their Kimchi pots in the ground, which stays at 55 degrees year-round. Basements and root cellars are also good. For the rest of us, one author recommended using a small refrigerator at the least cool temperature setting.
The final step is keeping the air out, which allows fermentation to occur. It’s a process that only takes place in the absence of oxygen. That’s why an apple core rots at the bottom of a garbage can, but simply dries out at the top. So you keep stirring compost to keep it from fermenting (and smelling), but you want your kimchi to ferment. Go figure. (The fermentation does produce a bit of an odor, but you get used to it.)
The ideal way to keep the air out of the process is to put a stone in the jar that fits to the edges. The stone keeps constant pressure at the top, continually squeezing air out as the contents condense and settle.
Doing Things the Easy Way with Sauerkraut
When I make fresh kimchi, the cabbage generally doesn’t age long enough to ferment. I don’t have the right kind of jar with stone, and I haven’t yet dedicated a small refrigerator to creating the right environment. So I’m decidedly ill-equipped to ferment things properly. (It does ferment after a week or so in the refrigerator, but by then I’ve eaten much of it, if not all.)
To get the benefits of fermentation, I’ve begun using sauerkraut as the foundation, instead of raw cabbage. Sauerkraut is actually a version of Kimchi that migrated to the Teutonic peoples with the Mongols and other wandering tribesmen who had contact with the Orient.
Finding Real Sauerkraut
It’s important to note, thought, that there are “quick and dirty” sauerkrauts out there that are made with vinegar. The vinegar is fermented, and therefore healthy, but the cabbage isn’t. The vinegar is used to make the sauerkraut seem fermented, which means they don’t have to store it, which improves their profits. But in reality those products are just raw cabbage and vinegar.
To get real sauerkraut — fermented cabbage — look for sauerkraut made from cabbage, water, and salt — with no vinegar on the label.
You can also make your own, sauerkraut, and use it for a variety of purposes in addition to kimchi. See the Resources (section) for links.
- Harsch Earthenware Fermentation Crock for Sauerkraut and Pickling
The Mercedes of pickling crocks, made by a German firm and designed to the job right.
- What Makes Kimchi so Healthy?
- How to Make Sauerkraut
- The Joys of Homemade Sauerkraut
- HomeMade Sauerkraut
- Sauerkraut Recipes
- History of Sauerkraut: How it All Began
- Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods, by Sandor Ellix Katz and Sally Fallon.
Short primer on fermentation and its uses.
- Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig.
Cookbook with healthy recipes from around the world. Has a great section on fermentation and a wealth of nutritional information.
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