Using fermented foods in the Kitchen

Using fermented foods in the Kitchen

In 2019, fermented and cultured foods are the rising stars of the UK food scene. Spanning cuisines, palettes and cooking styles, these probiotic powerhouses increasingly feature on the menus of British restaurants. But what are they, exactly?

Naturally fermented foods are traditional, easy-to-make sources of gut-friendly bacteria that are created by preserving ingredients in sterilised jars (though sometimes in more grisly ways). Before the days of refrigeration, fermentation was the best way to preserve foods. Today, they’re a great way to transform the flavour and shelf life of natural ingredients. 

You only have to look at the health benefits of fermenting to realise what all the fuss is about. Eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut can:

  • improve your digestion and cognitive function
  • boost your immune system
  • reduce inflammation
  • relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • help to fight allergies
  • kill harmful yeast and microbes that can cause infections

As you can see, they’re super important for maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. All the more reason to pile on the sauerkraut next time you eat a big German sausage.

Though many fermented products have only just started to become popular in the UK, chefs have been fermenting foods all over the world for thousands of years. Rising stars they may be, but they’re also international old-timers.

In Europe, cabbage, beets and cucumbers have long been used to make sauerkraut and pickles. In Japan, fermented soy has been used to make miso for thousands of years, while kimchi is one of the mainstays of Korean cuisine. And let’s not forget kombucha — a fermented tea originating in northeastern Eurasia that can now be found on the shelves of just about every health shop.

Read on to discover ten types of incredible fermented foods, and learn how you can use them to add variety to your dishes.

1) Yoghurt

Everyone’s heard of the term “probiotic” before — especially when it comes to yoghurt. Little wonder, then, that cultured dairy products like Yakult are among the most popular fermented foods on the market.

It doesn’t have to be milk and honey, either. Most supermarkets and suppliers now stock dairy-free yoghurt options for the lactose intolerant and vegan consumer, with companies like Alpro and Koko leading the charge.

In the kitchen, yoghurt can be used in an endless number of ways — from fruit-filled desserts to a palette-cleansing addition to chilli con (or non) carne — and that’s why no chef goes without it.

2) Sauerkraut

Literally German for “sour cabbage”, this age-old food is made by lacto-fermenting cabbage. Though it is thought to have originated in China, sauerkraut has a long culinary tradition in German, Russian and Eastern European cuisines. 

Sauerkraut’s popularity is largely due to its versatility. It goes well with almost any savoury food — from a tasty hot dog topping to the sour centrepiece of a tossed green salad. Sauerkraut is also high in dietary fibre, vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C and vitamin K, and is a source of iron, copper, magnesium, calcium, sodium and manganese. Healthy.

If you want to use sauerkraut in your meals, start by incorporating small quantities (about a tablespoon) to avoid any gastrointestinal discomfort for the diner. The fermentation process can also take up to 6 weeks, so plan ahead if you intend to ferment your own.

3) Kombucha

Yes, it may seem like the latest Instagram fad, but kombucha is starting to convert the masses. This unique non-alcoholic beverage is available in trendy grocery stores and organic health food shops. Some supermarkets even stock it. Kombucha disciples even have their temple to congregate in: East London’s Jarr, which styles itself as Europe’s first kombucha taproom.

Kombucha is a fermented drink made of black tea and natural sugar such as cane sugar, fruit or honey. There are also traceable amounts of alcohol in kombucha, but not enough to feel any effect. So if you’re looking for a quick dash of Dutch courage, this fizzy brew is unlikely to give you a second wind. In fact, it will have the opposite effect: reducing liver toxicity and improving digestion. Not bad.

Kombucha can be pricey, so some soft drink pioneers and restaurateurs are starting to make their own at home. Because of its tart, bitter taste, kombucha perfectly complements pickled foods as a like-for-like pairing — ideal for a starter option. It can even be used as a substitute for vinegar, so go ahead and throw some in your vinaigrette!

4) Miso

Here’s one you’ve likely heard of. Miso is a traditional Japanese paste that’s used in recipes such as miso soup. It’s created by combining fermented soybeans, barley or brown rice with goji (a type of fungus). With popular high-street restaurants like Itsu expanding their presence in the UK, British consumers are becoming more familiar with this sweet and earthy ingredient.

If soup isn’t your thing, it doesn’t mean you should discount miso. These miso recipes show the diverse number of ways that you can add this delicious ingredient to your menu. Miso-glazed Aubergine, anyone?

5) Kimchi

If you’re a fan of Korean cuisine, there’s a good chance you’ll be singing off the kimchi hymn sheet. This staple side dish is has been growing in popularity for decades and has become as synonymous with Korean cooking as pasta is with Italian cuisine.

Kimchi is made from fermented veggies such as napa cabbage and Korean radishes, which are usually seasoned with garlic, ginger, scallions, fish sauce, sea salt or the wonderfully-named gochugaru (or hot chilli powder). In Korean culture, it is served with almost every meal. A traditional stew made with the ingredient, kimchi-jjigae, is one of the country’s most well-loved dishes.

Kimchi is similar to another fermented cabbage, sauerkraut, but is spicier, saltier and less acidic. It also takes less time to ferment too: around 3 weeks. Kimchi contains minerals such as iron, calcium and selenium as well as vitamins A, B1, B2 and C — infusing any dish with nutrient-rich goodness.

6) Tempeh

Tempeh is a fermented food that’s created by combining soybeans with a tempeh starter (a mix of live mould). This increasingly popular food of Javanese origin offers a hearty dose of good bacteria and packs plenty of protein. In terms of texture, it’s fairly similar to tofu, though more grainy and not as spongy. Like tofu, it’s incredibly versatile and can be an absolute lifesaver when trying to put together vegan and vegetarian recipes.

If you’re looking to implement tempeh into your dishes and need some pointers, some great tempeh recipes can be found here. As far as a meat-free option goes, there’s plenty of scope for creativity — from salad to teriyaki.

7) Kefir

Kefir is a fermented dairy product (made from cow, goat or sheep’s milk) that originated in the Caucasus region of southern Russia. Created through a process of lacto-fermentation, it can be prepared by mixing whole milk and kefir grains. Today, it is popular in the United States, Eastern Europe and Japan.

Kefir contains high levels of vitamin B12, calcium, magnesium, vitamin k2, biotin, folates, enzymes and probiotics. Such is its popularity that you can now find kefir drinks in supermarkets like M&S and Waitrose. It’s slowly but surely finding its way into restaurants, too. 

8) Pickles

We’d be really in a pickle if we didn’t include this popular fermented food in our list. And for good reason.

Pickles — commonly known as gherkins in the UK — are packed with probiotics and are a great low-calorie addition to any gourmet burger or potato salad. Fermented pickles are traditionally made from cucumbers and brine (salt and water). Most pickles bought from major retailers, however, are made with cucumbers and vinegar and are therefore not naturally fermented. 

When shopping for pickles in your supermarket or supplier website, keep an eye open for “lactic acid fermented pickles” for the authentically fermented variety. If you’re after a proper probiotic punch, try to buy pickles that use organic, locally-sourced products.

9) Natto

Another popular food from the land of the rising sun, natto is (once again) made from fermented soybeans. It is eaten for breakfast in Japan alongside soy sauce, karashi mustard and green onion. For newcomers, natto may take some getting used to due to its salty, sour taste and sticky, slimy texture after fermentation. It may not sound tasty, but it can really add a zing to your Asian-inspired dishes.

If you’re a fan of Japanese cooking, these natto recipes will certainly whet your appetite for some kitchen experimentation.

10) Lassi

We couldn’t complete our world tour of fermented foods without including Britain’s favourite cuisine — Indian. Far from being an affectionate Scottish word for a young woman or a Hollywood dog, this probiotic-rich yoghurt drink is made from soured milk and has been enjoyed on the Indian subcontinent for centuries. 

Offering a refreshing counterpoint to the spices of many Indian main courses, lassi is often combined with fruits such as mango, though it can also take on a savoury twist in a salt lassi.

If you plan to add lassi to your menu, you need to know the right way to say it. As those of an Indian, Bangladeshi or Pakistani background will know, the drink is pronounced “lussi” — rhyming with words like fussy. And with a sweet and sour taste, we’re sure even fussy eaters will want to get in on the act.