Get cultured: Listen to Beethoven. Visit a museum. Take a watercolor class. Attend a TED lecture.
But seriously… almost anyone who follows food blogs or reads current health and nutrition news knows that there is a huge trend these days toward getting more “cultures” or probiotics into your system. Very simply, probiotics (pro = in favor of, biotic = life) are the bacteria that break down your food into particles your body can absorb. Your body is full of bacteria – probably 4 or 5 pounds worth! By eating foods containing probiotics, you support the natural processes of your digestive system.
Many people get probiotics by taking capsules containing live bacteria. Another way – much more fun! – is to eat a variety of foods rich in beneficial bacteria. Yogurt is one of the most common and most popular, but there are many other cultured and fermented foods that can add flavor, variety, interest and probiotic benefit to your diet.
In addition to yogurt, there are a variety of cultured milk products that are easy to make, and that can be delicious by themselves as a meal or snack, or can be added to recipes. A great advantage of baking with cultured milk is that the natural acids in the milk give an extra “lift” to your baked goods, making them fluffier and lighter.
Milk kefir is a cultured milk product made with little nuggets of milk proteins that carry a certain set of bacteria and yeast. It’s sort of like tangy yogurt, and can even be a little fizzy. Milk kefir is great as a drink by itself, or with fruit blended in. It makes a great base for a smoothie or for salad dressings, and freezes beautifully for a creamy ice cream treat.
Sour cream, crème fraiche, buttermilk, mascarpone and other soft, tangy, cultured milk products are so easy to use! Just add a dollop to a bowl of fruit, make a fruit/granola parfait, spread on gingerbread… anywhere you want a taste of tangy sweetness to dress up your meal or dessert.
Sticking with dairy products, did you know that cheeses are cultured foods too? There is a huge variety of cheese that you can make at home or buy ready-made. Cheese-making can be a long, laborious process, although there are a few simple ones like mozzarella or feta. Fortunately most stores carry a variety of delicious cheeses for you to sample. Look for natural cheese containing few ingredients. Milk, enzymes, rennet and cultures are good things to see on a label. When you see lots of chemicals and preservatives, not only is the cheese less “probiotic,” you also lose a lot of flavors and nuances. These days, even chain supermarkets carry a lot of artisanal and gourmet cheeses. Don’t stop at cheddar! Sample some gouda, brie, muenster, chevre or anything else that strikes your fancy!
If dairy is not your style, you can still get plenty of probiotics into your diet without going to extremes. Rapidly becoming a favorite drink across America is kombucha, a fermented tea that tastes like a fizzy, tart cider, often flavored with fruit, ginger or even herbs. It’s easy to make: you just let a mushroom-like culture sit in sugared tea for a week or two, then add flavorings and bottle it! Or if you prefer, you can buy it ready-made at most health food stores or even lots of supermarkets. (It’s much less expensive to make your own, though!)
Water kefir is another terrific drink. It’s a little more complex to make than milk kefir or kombucha, but well worth the effort. Water kefir is little more than cultured sugar water! It’s made using little polysaccharide nuggets (called “grains”, although they are grain-free). The bacteria/yeast complex that live on the water kefir “grains” eat up the sugar and produce lactic acid, fizz and more bacteria. Add a little flavor, and water kefir is a delicious, low-sugar, probiotic replacement for soda!
Cultured vegetables offer a whole world of probiotic goodness. The idea behind cultured vegetables is that you use the natural bacteria on the surface of the vegetables to increase the enzyme activity, break down some of the tough fibers (making it easier to digest), and increase the acid level of the bacteria (also an aid to digestion). In the process, the bacteria themselves will multiply, providing the probiotic boost.
Vegetables can be cultured in a simple brine (salt plus water), or with any liquid that has probiotics already in it, like whey, kombucha, water kefir or even the liquid from a previous batch of cultured vegetables. Most people are familiar with pickles and sauerkraut, but almost any plant matter can be cultured or fermented. Some popular ferments include beets, carrots, rutabaga, green beans, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, white radish, cauliflower or combinations of vegetables.
Culturing vegetables is simple but time-consuming. Get a taste for them by picking up some pre-made at the supermarket (usually in a refrigerator case), or buying some online, and see what kinds you like, then experiment on your own.
You can even add probiotics to your condiments! Add a little whey, kombucha, water kefir or sauerkraut juice to your mustard, mayonnaise or ketchup and experience a whole new level of taste and goodness. You can make a wonderful salsa with fresh vegetables and a little pre-cultured liquid! Here is a recipe:
Fresh Fermented Summer Salsa
- 1 medium Onion, diced
- 2 large Tomatoes, diced
- 1 medium Green Bell Pepper, diced
- 1-2 Jalepeños, diced
- Clove of Garlic, minced
- Handful of fresh Cilantro
- Lemon and Lime juice to taste
- One of the following: 2 t. Salt or 1 to 2 teaspoons Salt and 1/4 cup Whey or a starter culture such as Caldwell’s Cultured Vegetable Starter or Body Ecology Starter Culture and salt as indicated by the instructions for the specific culture you are working with
If using a starter culture, prepare the culture according the package instructions. Mix all the ingredients together including the salt, whey, or starter culture. Place the salsa in a fermentation container. (A simple mason jar will do.) Press down to release some liquid. Ideally the vegetables should be submerged under the liquid. (Add a bit of extra water if needed). Ferment for 2+ days at room temperature. Once the fermentation period is complete, the salsa can be removed to a storage container if desired.
Store salsa in the refrigerator or root cellar. Makes approximately one quart.
Rosalyn of Cultures for Health has a background as a Nutritional Consultant and enjoys helping others learn about the value of eating real food. Rosalyn is a homeschooling mom who loves being in the kitchen and shopping at the farmers’ market. She’s a lifetime baker and enjoys improvising recipes. She can regularly be found experimenting with new flavors and varieties of cultured foods.