How To Make Your Own Probiotic Food
Most of you have heard the term “probiotics.” So today, let’s discuss them, specifically what they are, why you need them, and how to get probiotics from your food, as people have been doing for ages. I mean, really, we constantly say “eat some fermented foods,” but how hard is it to do that? Let me show you how easily you can do this in your own kitchen.
What Are Probiotics?
Here’s a term I know you’ve heard: antibiotics, those substances we use to kill off bacteria. Well, probiotics are basically the opposite of that. They are substances that promote bacterial growth. In the words of the WHO,
Probiotics are: “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”
To cut to the chase, they’re the bacteria that sit in your intestines. And there are lots and lots of these little buggers in your guts. In fact, there are far more of them than there are cells in your body, to the tune of 10 times as many.
Why Are Probiotics Beneficial?
Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned to believe that bacteria are bad. From antibacterial soaps to doctors handing out antibiotics like they’re candy, we pretty much make sure as many bacteria as possible are wiped out. But that’s not a good thing. Sure, antibiotics are a necessity when the risk of infection is high, such as during surgery, and therefore have helped increase our life span markedly.
The reality is that we overuse antibiotics majorly. From antibacterial soaps to doctors passing out courses of antibiotics every time you step through the door with a sore throat (mostly so you’ll go away), it’s safe that most of us have pretty well taken care of all of the bacteria in our lives. But they don’t selectively kill off the bad bacteria. They are “anti” all bacteria and your intestines pay the price for our overuse.Basically, the bacteria in your intestines handle a few minor jobs for you, such as:
- Digesting your food
- Fighting off pathogenic bacteria before they actually enter the body, i.e., front-line immune system defense
- Keeping things, umm…moving in the bathroom
Basically, these little guys in your guts are out there fighting for you and freeing up the nutrients you eat so your body can absorb them. Just minor things like that. Given their importance, it’s pretty obvious that you better be doing something to keep them happy.
What Foods Contain Probiotics?
Start with a load of vegetables or a beverage like milk and allow the bacteria to do what they do. Specifically, they ferment sugars and excrete lactic acid (and alcohol if using specific types of yeasts, as in brewing), which brings about several beneficial enhancements to food:
- enrichment of the diet through development of a diversity of flavors, aromas, and textures in food substrates.
- preservation of substantial amounts of food through lactic acid, alcohol, acetic acid and alkaline fermentations.
- biological enrichment of food substrates with protein, essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, and vitamins.
- detoxification during food-fermentation processing.
- a decrease in cooking times and fuel requirements.
- produce important nutrients or eliminate antinutrients.
- can make dairy products tolerable for lactose-intolerant people.
There are numerous foods you can eat with probiotic properties. A few of the more common that you’ve probably heard of are:
- Kimchi, pao cai, and other cultural forms of pickled vegetables
These foods and beverages are all so ridiculously simple to make that you’ll hopefully start including them in your diet and skip the store-bought versions, which are often pasteurized, which pretty much defeats the purpose since pasteurization kills off the bacteria.
As a final note, if you make these fermented foods at home, do not use metal containers for the fermentation as the acidity can leach materials from them.
How To Make Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut is exceedingly easy to make. At it’s most basic, it’s just salted cabbage that’s left to ferment, though I usually add some other vegetables, like onions, radishes, or carrots; various herbs and spices, like basil, fennel, thyme, oregano, coriander, or dill; and sometimes even some apples. Kimchi and other fermented vegetables are made similarly and you can find recipes for them all over Google.
I’ve detailed one of my sauerkraut making adventures previously. I still use a similar process, though in much larger quantities, as I now have a huge glass jar with an opening about 9″ across that holds 4-6 heads of cabbage, depending on their size. As such, there is no need to use rolled cabbage leaves to hold the kraut under the brine. I just press a bowl or plate down in the middle to weight the kraut and push it down such that the brine level rises above the top.
It takes about an hour or two of work for me to cut up the cabbage, salt it down, and pack it into the jar, then it has to sit for a couple weeks. During this time, my work is minimal, basically just making sure that the cabbage stays pressed below the brine level. So let’s be conservative and say that it takes me 2 hours of work to yield about 3 months of sauerkraut. Not a bad return on your time investment, eh?
How To Make Kombucha
Kombucha is a fermented tea. Basically, you make a really sweet tea, then add it to a kombucha mother and let the magic begin. Here is how I do it using the recipe given to me by the guy that runs my co-op:
- Make a tea concentrate with a ratio of 2 cups water, 1 cup sugar, and 1 tbsp each of green and black tea. Don’t worry, the bacteria ferments the sugar.
- Bring it all to a boil, dissolve the sugar, then skim out the tea.
- Once the tea is cool, add 3/4 of a cup of this starter liquid and 3 1/4 cups of water to your fermentation jar.
The only real requirements for making kombucha are to have a large fermentation jar, such as a vodka infusion jar, a kombucha mother (or “mushroom” or “scoby” as some call them), and the above ingredients for making tea. But where to get a mother?
Well, you can find a friendly person that makes their own kombucha and get them to rip you off a piece and give you some of their kombucha as a starter. That’s how I scored mine. But if you either don’t know any friendly people or don’t know anyone that makes kombucha, you can make your own mother.
I will take some pictures the next time I mess with my kombucha and walk you through the process. Once again, this is a minimal time investment, perhaps 10 minutes to make the starter concentrate and 5 minutes every few days to decant some finished kombucha and fill the jar back up. Fifteen minutes per week and I have kombucha everyday.
How To Make Yogurt
Yogurt is one that I’ve never made and don’t consume because I don’t eat much in the way of dairy. However, it also appears to be pretty easy. You basically take milk, add a yogurt culture, and voila. There are a few more steps in there, such as heating and stirring, but for the most part, it’s a straight-forward process that you already have the tools for. Here is a set of instructions to make yogurt from pasteurized milk. As far as I know, making it from raw milk is a similar process.
How To Make Kefir
Kefir is another fermented dairy beverage that lots of people I know make at home. Take some milk, preferably raw, add some kefir “grains” (a combination of bacteria and yeasts), and then wait. One to two days later, you have kefir and it cost you nothing other than the price of the milk.
As with kombucha, the only real problem here is securing some kefir grains. A quick Google search, however, turned up numerous websites and mailing lists where you can find people that will ship them to you, some for free, some for cost. This website has a list of sites including two Yahoo! mailing lists that will probably be helpful.
Get Ye A Probiotic Supplement
This one is more of a back-up than a front-line defense. While I try to keep kombucha and sauerkraut on hand all the time, I also keep probiotic supplements in my fridge. If I wake up feeling a bit less than awesome (hard to believe, I know), I pop 3 or 4 probiotic pills and let them do their thing and usually I feel at least somewhat better soon after. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a good back-up plan to have.
I also take them with me on trips since I can’t really cart bottles of kombucha (unless I want to take a bunch of 3oz bottles in a plastic bag) or containers of sauerkraut onto a plane with me. I spent the weekend in Chicago and took probiotic pills with me instead.
Adverse Effects Of Probiotics
Probiotics actually have very few known side effects. Until today, the only known adverse effect of probiotic supplementation I’d heard of was “loose stools” (yeah, diarrhea) and that only came with extreme levels. Apparently, there are a few others, such as:
Hypothetically, it is possible that these “friendly” bacteria could overcolonize the colon in people with severely compromised immune systems. While this hypothetical risk has never been recorded in medical literature, people with weak immune systems are advised to consult a physician before taking probiotics.
Common side effects are generally mild and resolve themselves without treatment. As the body adjusts its floral balance, the person may experience gas, bloating, or general discomfort.
Wild Fermentation By Sandor Katz
A couple years ago, I looked at my bookshelf and realized that I never got around to re-reading any of my books and sold them all. One of the few that I’ve actually purchased to keep since then is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. This book covers fermentation of all kinds of fruits and vegetables, yogurt, cheese, real sourdough, and even a slight foray into honey wine (which I need to try!).
If you’re interested in getting into fermentation, it’s a good place to start, as Sandor has taken a lot of the trial and error out of the process. Though trial and error is a fun way to play too.