Sharon Flynn likens fermenting to having a tiny little farm on your kitchen bench – one full of wonder and hope.
“You’re just waiting for the bacteria to do the work for you, so there’s a sense of hope involved, like planting a seed in soil,” the woman behind Victoria’s The Fermentary says, when we talk to her about the joys of getting into the world of ferments.
Fermenting food not only prolongs its life – the reason many traditional techniques were used – but can increase the nutritional value of the food and potentially offer various health benefits. Sydney’s Holly Davis writes in her book Ferment, “While you care for, crunch and sip ferments with relish, they also offer invisible probiotic support shown to enhance your digestion, immunity, brain function, nutrient levels and more.” (You can discover some of Holly's beautiful ferment recipes here, including her vibrant masala-filled dosa.)
In fermenting, yeast and bacteria break down molecules in food, transforming the food and producing by-products. Some of those by-products are what give many fermented foods that distinctive tang (think kombucha or pickles). Fermenting can also put a sparkle in drinks, give rise to a loaf of bread or even serve as a vital step in the production of chocolate.
Often, the first project suggested for those who want to get into fermenting is sauerkraut. But what if you don’t like cabbage? We chatted to Flynn, and another fermentation fan, Kriben Govender, host of the Gut Health Gurus podcast, to find out what else they’d suggest as an ideal starting point (or perhaps a next step if you did commence with cabbage).
Think of it like toast!
If you’re worried that fermenting is risky or difficult, Flynn wants to reassure you it’s not. She’s taught and mentored a lot of new fermenters, and says she understands why it can seem scary, especially if fermenting isn’t something you grew up with. “I always tell people not to be frightened,” she says. And you don’t need any special skills. As she writes in her book, Ferment for Good, “the main ingredients in fermenting are your desire to play and time to wait.”
And we love her advice about what to do if things don’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped. “And if it doesn't work, don't say, ‘I'm not good at fermenting,’ because you would never say, ‘I'm not good at toast,’ because you burnt one once. It's the same thing, you're setting the environment up and you should have faith that it's going to work, but if it doesn't, just try again. It's not an indication that it's not for you,” she says when we chat to her about getting started.
Flynn herself had an unusual introduction to fermenting: she started with miso and natto while living in Japan for a decade. (You can read more about her fermentation journey in her book and in this episode of the Gut Health Gurus podcast.)
“In general, I would start with a brine. It’s easy – just salt water and a vegetable,” Flynn says. “And you can do flavourings to your own taste.
“For example, carrot sticks, beans, green beans, broad beans, kidney beans, onions, cauliflower, throw in some artichokes - actually it takes the gas issue away from some artichokes! I've done beautiful okra, too… Any vegetable apart from those really dark green chlorophyll-rich vegetables like broccoli - that doesn't brine well, but the stems brine well.” (Sharon Flynn has shared her fermented carrots recipe with SBS here.)
If you like a milder taste, ferment it for less time before putting it in the fridge. “I recommend that for people with little kids who have been on antibiotics and they really want to proactively put some living foods in their kids' guts. I would say, grate some carrots up and then brine them with something yummy, even cinnamon stick… You don't have to ferment it for long, maybe three days would be enough for that, just a hint of sourness.”
And if you have a garden, fermenting is a great way to use up the glut, as Matthew Evans does when making fermented zucchini in Gourmet Farmer. Evans says he finds a simple brine ferment the best way to preserve the subtle flavour of zucchini:
Kriben Govender doesn’t hesitate when we ask what he’d suggest as a starting point project.
“I have a very dear spot for milk kefir for a few different reasons. The main reason is because it's the one that really changed my life. I struggled very heavily with anxiety and depression and milk kefir really made a huge difference, aside from all the lifestyle changes and diet changes. Milk kefir was very rapid in helping me,” says Govender, who as well as hosting the Gut Health Gurus podcast also runs Nourishme Organics, a business that sells a wide range of fermentation supplies.
“And from a scientific perspective, it's the most studied fermented food as well with lots of data. Amazing data to suggest that it can help lower cholesterol, it can help with mood, it can help with things like inflammation, blood pressure, there are all these very well documented scientific studies - a lot more needs to happen, more good human trials… but we are seeing more about the health benefits.”
Milk kefir is a drink, a bit like a drinkable yoghurt, made with kefir grains. Despite the name, they have nothing to do with cereal crops; it’s more a reference to what it looks like – little jelly-like clumps shaped a bit like the heads of cauliflower florets. The grains are a complex, symbiotic mixture of bacteria and yeasts, and the fermented milk is rich in microorganisms. The many different types of bacteria in the kefir grains is what makes kefir different from yoghurt, which is usually fermented by just a few strains of microbes.
“Milk kefir is not a laboratory product, milk kefir is a very ancient culture, potentially a couple of thousand years old,” Govender says. It is thought to have originated in the Caucasus.
And like Flynn, he’s got plenty of reassurance for anyone worried about what happens with a milk kefir ferment. If you leave it to ferment for ages, it might develop some funky smells and taste profiles, but from a safety point of view, it’s pretty much bullet-proof, he says. “I've been in the food industry for 20 years, I worked for a lot of big manufacturing companies, So, this is what I lived and breathed, to keep food safe. Milk kefir is extremely safe.”
And what does it taste like? It’s hard to go past what Flynn writes in Ferment for Food. “There is a tangy, effervescent, deep, almost goaty flavour to milk kefir that you’ll grow to love – like drinkable feta cheese.”
She, too, recommends milk kefir as a good beginner ferment. It’s easy and versatile, says Flynn when we chat to her about this ancient dairy drink.
“You can make labneh out of milk kefir, you can make cheeses, you can make yoghurt, you can make cultured butter and then you can also get the whey from the labneh and make it into soda. You can use the whey for all kinds of things. Kefir just has so much to offer and then also, it's very healing.” (Get her milk kefir recipe here.)
She also suggests flavouring kefir and making icy poles or using it in smoothies.
When a batch of milk kefir has fermented, it’s poured off, leaving the grains ready to ferment another batch. They grow while they ferment, so you not only have a culture for life, but will most likely have some to give away, too.
“The other nice thing you can do if you've got spare grains, which you will have, is to put them in a bottle of apple juice. Beautiful organic apple juice, you can pop your grains in there and it'll make it sparkling and it'll eat some of the sugar out. And grape juice, any of the juices like that, it just loves sugar. So, whilst it won't live like that forever, if you've got too many, that's something you can do,” Flynn says.
Don’t do well with dairy? There are a few options for you when it comes to kefir. Some people find kefir more digestible than unfermented milk. Or you could try making it with non-dairy milks. “Soy milk tends to produce the best dairy-free kefir because it has a very high protein content so it creates the texture. So soy kefir is probably my most recommended product for someone that's vegan or vegetarian,” Govender says. Almond milk and coconut milk can also be used.
“Another great option is water kefir. So, water kefir is [made with] another one of these kefir grains, but they actually evolved very differently to milk kefir, they're more likely to have come from South America. Rather than fermenting with dairy, you just basically ferment with water and sugar, a very clean unrefined sugar. It ferments for about 24 to 48 hours. Most of the sugar is fermented out of the product so it has a low sugar content, with around 15 strains of probiotic organisms and billions and billions of lactobacilli per serve.”
Water kefir is often given a second fermentation, creating fizzy drinks with a wide range of flavours - such as this rosewater and saffron water kefir.
A world of options
There are, of course, an endless array of other options. "There's thousands and thousands and thousands of fermented food products across the world, every single culture," says Govender. Some - like chocolate or coffee, which are also end products involving fermentation - we're unlikely to make at home. But there are many more ferments which you can easily make at home, from kombucha and yoghurt to kimchi (and that other great fermented product, bread!). And if you like sauerkraut but are looking to change things up, try Sharon Flynn's smoky jalapeño kraut or Holly Davis' red cabbage, arame and ginger kraut.
Hope and joy
“When it comes to wild fermenting, you set up the environment and that's all you have to do, so it's very easy,” Flynn says.
“You're just waiting for the bacteria to do that work for you. So, there's a sense of hope involved, similar to if you planted the seed in the soil, you just go, "Okay, it should work," and when it does, I think it opens up another window into the world of microbiology… We know about germs and viruses and negative things, but we don't get to experience that symbiotic sharing of life with a thing like that. So, it's pretty wonderful, I think.
Want to learn more? Join the Ferm Fam. Facebook group, where Sharon and other keen fermenters talk ferments (Sharon also does live chats); or head to her website, The Fermentary, to buy fermenting supplies and fermented products. To hear researchers, experts and keen fermenters from around the world talk about gut health, including various fermenting topics, listen to Kriben’s Gut Health Gurus podcast, or visit Nourishme Organics for fermenting supplies, free fermenting guides and articles and more, including a guide to milk kefir.
Kick off the day with a cafe-quality breakfast at home. But these aren't any old oats - soaked with kombucha, this will be great for your gut health.
Sauerkraut is an obvious best place to start with fermenting; it's hard to ruin this, I promise.