by Rachel Beth Dorfman, CMT, L.Ac., acupuncturist, Mayflower Spa, Washington, Connecticut
Microorganisms and bacteria.
We live in a culture and time where, for most, these words go hand in hand with what causes illness. They are germs. They are to be avoided. We want them out of our homes, far from us and away from our children. And so, we disinfect. We sterilize. We use antibiotics, sanitizers, and fungicides. But still, colds, flues, infections, and allergies not only exist, but seem to be on the rise in both intensity and occurrence.
Contemplate for a moment, the possibility that there is another way to be in relationship with these one-celled organisms.
Yes, they are everywhere. There are more microorganisms in your body than there are people on the Earth. They play an essential role in human health, and in the proper functioning of all ecosystems. But, in the natural organization of life there is balance. For all of those “bad germs” that make us sick, there are “good germs” that increase our health. What if the answer is not to seek out new and improved ways to create sterile environments, but to co-create relationships with the bacteria that makes us well? What if instead of spending time and money waging microscopic war, we can utilize creativity and what is naturally occurring all around us to consciously participate in a relationship that could benefit us beyond measure? What if “bacteria” and “fungi” empowered you? What if it made you feel more alive? What if it strengthened your immune system and turned your food into medicine?
All around the globe for much of our history, human beings have been using the art of fermentation to preserve food. The ancient Greeks actually called this process “alchemy,” for not only could meats, dairy, and vegetables be stored for months or even years at a time, but in the process, their digestibility and vitamin levels increased. Common vegetables became powerful antibiotics and anti-carcinogenics, and the very enzymes that kept food in a perfectly preserved state also promoted the growth of healthy flora throughout the digestive tract. Did you know that over 70 percent of the body’s immune system resides in gut-associated lymphoid tissue and gut mucosa?
Lactobacilli, a “good bacteria” that is found on the surface of every living thing, proliferates during fermentation. It is this abundance of lactobacilli in fermented foods that produces the helpful enzymes and lactic acid that are responsible for the food’s preservation and increased health benefits. Fermented foods are literally alive!
Our Standard American Diet (SAD) includes little, if any, fermented food. They are a lost art. Foods that once were commonly prepared and preserved in this beneficial way, such as ketchup, soft drinks, and pickled items, are now given their shelf life via preservatives, chemicals, and plastic packaging. We have traded a process that took time, cultivated an intimacy with our food, and in turn, gave us health benefits, for the quick availability, preparability, and the immediate gratification that comes with processed, packaged food.
In contrast, fermented foods and drinks exist as a staple in most, if not all, other diets in the world. They are present at every meal. Sauerkraut, wine, beer, mead (fermented honey), cheeses, yogurt, and traditional sourdough breads in Europe. Miso, soy sauce, and pickles in Japan. Tempeh in Indonesia. Kimchi in Korea. A porridge of fermented millet in Africa. Fermented pulses and milk products in Moslem countries. Poi, a fermented taro root porridge in the South Pacific. Fermented green tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces in Russia and Poland. Fermented fish oils in the Arctic. Fruit chutneys in India. On and on the list goes. Could this missing piece from our diet be a contributing factor to our national decline in health?
Not too long ago, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy products, and even grains were fermented here. Your grandmother did not cook a bowl of oatmeal without soaking it first—a step that we have now omitted “for convenience.” The simple act of soaking cracked or rolled oats overnight before cooking vastly improves the nutritional benefits of the cereal by breaking down the phytic acid in the outer layer of the bran. Untreated phytic acid can combine with calcium, magnesium, copper, iron, and especially zinc, in the intestinal tract and block the absorption of these important nutrients. Diets high in un-soaked whole grains, like the SAD diet, may lead to mineral deficiencies and bone loss, irritable bowel syndrome, and other adverse, long term effects.
The good news is that incorporating fermentation into your diet can be fun, low-tech, relatively simple, save you money, and cut down on the use of plastic, all while making you feel great and increasing your level of health. You would be surprised how the simple act of making your own yogurt can be incredibly fulfilling and put you in a mindful relationship with your food—as opposed to just peeling the lid off of a plastic cup. Yogurt has been made for thousands of years, long before Dannon and Yoplait. By making your own, you are inoculating yourself with the good bacteria that surround you, right in your own home, instead of the good bacteria from a lab. If health and homeostasis require that we coexist with microorganisms, doesn’t it make sense to partner with those living right in your very own kitchen?
So now I ask, what entices you? What wakes up a feeling of excitement inside of you? Is it cooking? Are you a foodie? Did you dream of being a scientist…and want to perform experiments? Do you like to learn about cultures around the world? Or how civilizations lived long ago? Are you turned on by the idea of magic? And transformation? Are you into what is healthy? Do you challenge yourself with ways to leave a smaller environmental footprint, or spend less money? Do you want a project that you can take on as a family? Fermentation can be all of that. I invite you to be inspired.
The Math: A 6 oz. cup of Stonyfield Farms Organic Plain Yogurt costs 60 cents (on sale). If you eat one serving per day, five days per week, for one year, you pay $156. By turning a gallon of milk that costs $4 into yogurt, you reduce the price of yogurt down to 18 cents for a 6 oz. serving, and pay $46 for a year’s supply. Additionally, you keep 260 plastic cups from entering a landfill.
Five 1 qt wide-mouth mason jars (found in most supermarkets)
One gallon of (organic) milk
A candy thermometer (also found in most super markets—approx. $3 or $4)
For your first time, four Tbsp of your favorite (organic) plain yogurt to use as a starter
A large pot
Four kitchen towels
A medium-size soft or hard cooler that will close with five mason jars inside of it
Slowly heat the gallon of milk to 180 degrees. Remove from heat and let cool to 110 degrees. Place one Tbsp of starter yogurt in four of the mason jars, then pour the cooled milk into the four jars, filling them within a half inch of the top. Put the lids on the jars and gently swirl them around to mix the starter yogurt throughout the milk. Carefully fill the fifth mason jar with boiling water and put the lid on it (you may need to handle it with one of the towels). Wrap each of the four jars of milk with starter in a kitchen towel and place inside the cooler. Ideally, set the unwrapped fifth jar of hot water in the center of the other four jars, so that all five jars are nestled together. Close the cooler. Leave overnight in a warm place. In the morning, the yogurt is ready to eat! Transfer the jars to the refrigerator. The yogurt will stay good for several weeks. Try flavoring it with honey, maple syrup, vanilla, stevia, cinnamon, etc. (It also goes great on your “soaked overnight” oatmeal!) Remember to save four Tbsp from this batch prior to flavoring it, to use as your starter for your next batch!
- If in the morning, when you open a jar, the consistency of the yogurt is very thin, leave it for several more hours in the cooler. You can even re-boil the water in the center jar and re-fill it. The right blend of time in the cooler, with a nice warm environment, will produce a texture very similar to store-bought yogurt (perhaps only slightly thinner). In winter months I have left mine to sit for up to 18 hours. Yours may go up to 24 hours or take as little as eight. It only takes a few times to learn what works for you.
- Letting it sit too long in the cooler will create a more sour/intense yogurt flavor.
- More than one Tbsp of starter per jar is not necessary and may “overcrowd” your lactobacilli. They like to have room to grow!
- Yogurt does not like to be jostled while it grows.
- Two great books with lots of information are: Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.
Have fun, and happy fermenting!