Pedro Perez demonstrates how to make kimchi. He says he uses whatever vegetables he finds in the refrigerator. Behind him is another batch of kimchi fermenting. A floating glass jar serves as the lid in the bigger jar of soon-to-be kimchi.

David Brewster, Star Tribune


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Getting cultured with fermented foods

  • Article by: SARAH MORAN
  • Special to Star Tribune
  • July 26, 2009 - 7:35 PM

Pedro Perez's food brims with bacteria, just the way he likes it.

For the past two years, the Stillwater resident has been fermenting his own food, making homemade yogurt, sauerkraut, sourdough bread and kimchi (a traditional Korean vegetable side dish) on his kitchen counter.

The fermentation process -- which Perez describes as easy and money-saving -- is older than recorded history. Today, it's gaining favor among people who want to take advantage of its health benefits, including heaps of helpful bacteria known as probiotics. The fermentation revival is also getting a boost from people who want to craft their own yogurt or bread, said Sandor Ellix Katz, who is in the Twin Cities this week to teach classes on how to ferment.

"Every place I go, I have capacity crowds," said Katz, author of "Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition and Craft of Live-Culture Foods."

Plus, it's just plain tasty. "If you walk through a gourmet foods store, almost everything you see that's considered gourmet is fermented," such as cheese, bread and alcoholic beverages, he said.

Think of San Francisco's coveted sourdough breads. A fresh loaf today is made using the same batch of bacteria that was harvested a century ago and has been continually grown and split over the years.

To make fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut or kimchi, clean vegetables are cut, salted and pressed into a glass jar. The vegetable's liquids emerge, submerging the food in fluid. After a couple of weeks or months, dinner is served.

Or, in the case of sourdough bread and yogurt, yeast or bacteria are added to other ingredients, such as flour or milk. The bacteria break down the carbohydrates or sugars. This process causes probiotics -- bacteria that help with digestion and other health issues -- to multiply.

"In the normal scheme of things, we'd never have to think twice about replenishing the bacteria that allow us to digest food," Katz said. "But since we're living with antibiotic drugs and chlorinated water and antibacterial soap and all these factors in our contemporary lives that I'd group together as a 'war on bacteria,' if we fail to replenish [good bacteria], we won't effectively get nutrients out of the food we're eating."

A proper balance between good and bad bacteria is crucial, said Joanne Slavin, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota.

"A diet that has some fermented foods is good for our digestive tract and health," Slavin said.

In addition, some fermented products might be easier to digest, she said. For instance, sometimes people who cannot tolerate milk can eat yogurt. That's because the lactose (which is usually the part people can't tolerate) in milk is broken down as the milk is fermented and turns into yogurt. One way to think of fermented foods is that they've been partly digested before they're eaten.

An ancient ritual

There's also some evidence that among ethnic groups whose diets are heavy in fermented foods, such as yogurt or kefir, people live longer, she said.

"There's a huge tradition of fermented foods," Slavin said. "It's great that people are actually getting more interested in it."

One of the reasons why people might be leery of fermented foods is the concern about food safety. But the bacteria found in fermented foods are healthy, not dangerous, Slavin said. With some basic knowledge and proper storage, there's nothing to worry about.

The acidified liquid in fermented foods kills any harmful bacteria, Katz said. He said conventional canning and mass production methods -- which often use heat to kill bacteria -- are actually riskier. That's because if the product isn't sufficiently heated, the bad bacteria, such as E. coli, salmonella and botulism, survive and thrive. Plus, the heating process kills most of the beneficial bacteria, he said.

Fermentation is an "ancient ritual that our ancestors did without any understanding or microscopes to identify particular organisms or sterile spaces or ability to control temperatures," Katz said. "It's been done since the beginning of time."

Sarah Moran is a freelance health writer.

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