Green Living: Lacto-fermented foods abound with benefits

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      If you’re looking to get the most out of your produce—homegrown or otherwise—consider adding fermentation to your culinary arsenal. Specifically, lacto-fermentation: an age-old process that converts the sugar in fruits and vegetables into lactic acid. This acid preserves the flavour, texture, and nutrients in fermented foods while leaving them with a distinctive tang.

      “It’s essentially making vinegar,” Andrea Potter, fermenting instructor and owner of local culinary school Rooted Nutrition, tells the Georgia Straight by phone.

      Although some meats, cheeses, and beverages such as kombucha and beer undergo fermenting processes of their own, lacto-fermentation is especially handy for those looking to extend the shelf life of seasonal produce such as cauliflower, peppers, and wild greens. If fermented foods are stored properly, Potter notes, they can last up to a year or, at the very least, until the next crop is ready for harvesting.

      The lactic acid produced in the procedure, which sees good-for-you bacteria naturally present in fruits and veggies breaking down nutrients in an oxygen-free environment, also aids human digestion. Other lactic-acid bacteria strains may be generated during lacto-fermentation as well. These have been seen to improve cholesterol levels and stimulate the immune system, among other probiotic effects.

      “The bacteria themselves are working away at the starches and sugars in the food, and they essentially predigest the food,” Potter explains. “So it takes a net-zero amount of effort for our bodies to digest them, while conferring all this benefit at the same time.”

      Popular lacto-fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, and dill pickles. In typical recipes, vegetables such as cabbage, carrots, and cucumbers are submerged in a jar with salted water and various seasonings. The jar is left covered for a period of time while bacteria create lactic acid. This can take from a few days to a few weeks.

      “The length of time depends on people’s personal tastes and how potent they want it to be,” Potter says. “The conditions you’re working in also affect the time. If it’s cooler in your house, your food may take longer to ferment.”

      If you’re lacto-fermenting for the first time, Potter suggests sticking to cabbage and carrots. Cucumbers, she says, can be more temperamental. “Cabbage is really, really easy to ferment because it’s super rich in natural bacteria and yeast, which make fermentation happen.”

      In her fermenting classes, which usually take place at the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition (2245 West Broadway) or Homestead Junction (649 East Hastings Street), Potter teaches attendees how to make sauerkraut, kimchi, and seasonal brined pickles at home. Once students have mastered these items, the instructor notes, they can begin experimenting with various flavour combinations by introducing ingredients such as grated turnip, chunks of radishes, or garlic-chili ginger.

      “Those three projects, once you get them under your belt, there are a ton of different variations,” she says. “You could play around with them for a few years, for example, and never get the same jar of pickles twice.”