Probiotic foods will help you get healthier

Pucker up! Sour foods like kombucha, kimchi and your morning yogurt are teeming with good-for-you bacteria
By Maura RhodesPublished on 01/04/2019 at 9:00 AM EDT
The probiotics in Kimchi are beneficial to your gut health Shutterstock

For me, it started with kombucha—which to the uninitiated may sound like anything from a cartoon-bubbled description of a superhero’s assault on a bad guy (“SMACK!” “POW!” “KOMBUCHA!”) to the latest rendition of a Latin American dance-style exercise fad.

In fact, kombucha is a delightfully bubbly tea that gets its fizziness from fermentation, an age-old way to preserve food and beverages in which sugars or other carbohydrates are combined with microbes that in the process of chowing down on the carbs produce what are called probiotics. When probiotics are imbibed (in kombucha, for example) or eaten (bacteria in yogurt are usually listed on the label as “live cultures”), they contribute to the hundreds of trillions of bacteria that live in the digestive system.

Theoretically, ingesting probiotics can contribute to a better-functioning digestive system and overall health. And in fact, beneficial bacteria have been looked at as a potential panacea for everything from cavities and colic to the common cold and Crohn’s disease. According to a recent article in The New York Times, though, lots more research needs to be done to tease out the specific diseases and conditions that can be helped or prevented with probiotics. 

Still, there’s no question that including fermented foods in the diet is a healthy move—and a tasty one too, especially if you have a palate that appreciates the power of sour flavors and tongue-tickling effervescence (fermentation often creates subtle bubbles that can make a beverage like kombucha a less belly-expanding stand-in for soda). 

In fact, you probably already are ingesting plenty of probiotic-rich foods. But if your diet doesn’t include any of the fermented foods at all or you rarely eat any of the foods on the list that follows, consider adding some in. 

  • Yogurt (as long as “live cultures” are listed on the ingredients list or label)
  • Kefir, a yogurt-like beverage 
  • Tempeh, fermented soybeans 
  • Pickles (note that not just any sour pickle is a fermented pickle: The ones you buy in the supermarket often are simply cucumbers in a vinegar-y brine and so they don’t get their flavor from fermentation)
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi, a fiery Korean side dish made from Napa cabbage and, often, other vegetables
  • Sauerkraut 
  • Miso, a paste made from fermented soy beans used in Japanese cooking that packs a lot of probiotic punch—for example, this recipe for Black Bean Soup with Miso and Ginger from that American Academy of Nutrition and Dietitians calls for just a tablespoon in the entire yummy-sounding recipe
  • Escabeche, spicy pickled mixed vegetables with roots in Mediterranean cooking

You also can make your own probiotic-rich foods—which brings me back to my obsession with fermented foods. I brewed my own kombucha for the better part of a year, spiking it with lots of fresh ginger. A friend of mine has been making her own yogurt for years, in the summer setting it outside in the fresh air where the heat from the sun creates the perfect temperature for fermentation—such a romantic way to “cook!” (Click here for Grok Nation‘s article about making yogurt in the Instant Pot.)

Vegetables are one of the easiest foods to ferment, though. All you need is salt and your favorite veggie or veggie mix. Salt will keep bad bacteria from overrunning the good ones, prevent the vegetables from going limp, enhance the flavor of the vegetables (and any other flavorings you might decide to toss in), and slow down the rate of fermentation allowing the flavors to develop. 

Here’s the absolute easiest way to make fermented vegetables, adapted from culturesforhealth, a website devoted to all things fermented.

Salt Brined Vegetables

4 cups of grated vegetables, such as cabbage, carrots, radishes, beets
1-3 tablespoons non-iodized salt (a course salt such as sea salt or Himalayan salt will add lots of flavor as well as minerals)

In a bowl, add as much salt as you’d like to the vegetables. Don’t use less than the recommended 1 tablespoon; it’s there as much to draw moisture out of the vegetables and to prevent mold as to add flavor. Fermenting is one of those kitchen crafts that you’ll need to experiment with a bit until you get a feel for how much salt works best for you. 

With clean hands, massage the salt into the veggies thoroughly. This will begin to draw liquid out, which essentially will become the fluid (or brine) your veggies will ferment in. 

Dump the salted and kneaded veggies and any juices that have started to seep out into a wide-mouthed glass jar that has a lid. A quart-size Mason jar is perfect. 

With the back of a spoon, press the vegetables down until they’re completely covered with brine. It’s important that the veggies stay submerged while fermenting; if oxygen reaches them they can mold. (If this happens, throw away the escapees; the rest will be fine.) You can use anything from a cabbage leaf or wide strips of carrot or zucchini to a smaller dish that will fit inside the jar to weigh down the vegetables after you’ve pressed them.

Cover the jar tightly and place in a cool, dry place. After three days, check the veggies. They should smell (pleasingly) sour and the brine should be somewhat bubbly. Give them a taste. If you like the flavor, you can move them to the fridge; if you’d like the flavor to develop more, leave them for another day or two, testing and tasting each day. A total of five days should be plenty, especially if your house is on the warm side. 

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