We hear it all the time, and I say it plenty: Eat your yogurt for probiotics. But if you choose not to eat dairy foods or cannot tolerate them, finding dairy-free fermented foods for your probiotics can pose more of a challenge. However, that doesn't have to be the case. There are many dairy-free foods rich in probiotics and beneficial bacteria.
A much loved and much-loathed fermented cabbage dish hailing from northern Europe, naturally prepared sauerkraut is both tart and salty. Decidedly fresher than the canned version you'll find on grocery store shelves, real sauerkraut has a crispy, not mushy, texture and is loaded with vitamin C and B vitamins. Furthermore, the process of fermenting cabbage actually creates isothiocyanate - a substance potentially linked to the inhibition of the formation of certain cancer and tumors.
Sauerkraut isn't the only form of probiotic-rich fermented cabbage. Latin America brings us curtido a dish in which cabbage combines with carrots, onion, and red pepper while Korea brings us wide varieties of kimchi, including kimchi made with cabbage as well as radish kimchi.
Kombucha is another great source of beneficial bacteria that is also dairy-free. A fermented tea thought to originate in Russia or China, kombucha has long been considered a health tonic. Kombucha has a sour flavor with a taste reminiscent of apple cider vinegar combined with club soda, though home-brewed kombucha is often less acidic than store-bought.
A starter culture called a kombucha mushroom, mother, or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts) is necessary to prepare kombucha. This starter culture thrives in the combination of brewed tea and sugar. The kombucha SCOBY metabolizes the sugar converting it to various acids which provide kombucha with its characteristically sour flavor.
Kombucha, like other fermented foods and beverages, is rich in beneficial bacteria and B vitamins. It also contains a substance called glucaric acid. Glucaric acid is deeply detoxifying and recent research indicates great promise that glucaric acid is effective in the treatment and prevention of breast, prostate, and colon cancer in humans.
You can purchase raw kombucha at most health food stores and even many chain supermarkets. Or you can brew your own with a starter culture, available online here.
Sauerruben, like sauerkraut, is a fermented vegetable from northern Europe where fermentation offered an opportunity to preserve the harvest throughout the tough, cold winters. The ingredients are simple: turnips and unrefined salt. Tender, sweet turnips are shredded, or if you like them like we do, julienned and mixed with unrefined sea salt before they are pounded down to release their juice. The turnip juice combines with the sea salt to create a brine that fosters the growth of beneficial bacteria - provided it's not too salty. Turnips and sauerruben are great sources of vitamin C.
Composed of soybeans in combination with barley or rice, miso is a traditional Japanese condiment used primarily in soups or as a seasoning for vegetables, meats, and fish (check out my misoyaki salmon recipe). Miso is primarily fermented by aspergillus oryzae, a mold, that is also responsible for the transformation of soybeans into shoyu or tamari.
Miso is widely touted as wholesome, nourishing food. Miso is high in vitamin K (learn about vitamin K and other fat soluble vitamins) as well as vitamin B6. It's also a good source of phosphorus, manganese, and zinc.
In preparing miso, take care not to overheat it. While you may use it to season cooked foods, doing so destroys heat-sensitive microbiota. When making a good miso soup, wait to add the miso paste until the stock has cooled to blood temperature, and then allow it to slowly dissolve into the liquid. By preparing miso soup in this fashion, the miso retains food enzymes and other characteristics of living foods.
Water kefir, alternatively known as tibicos and Japanese water crystals, is a probiotic beverage similar to Kombucha and Ginger Beer. Water kefir grains are translucent and gelatinous with a crystal-like appearance.
Like kombucha mothers, water kefir grains are a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts including lactobacillus hilgardii - the species that gives water kefir grains their characteristic appearance.
It's easy to make water kefir. You'll need water kefir grains, water, and sugar. Follow this tutorial for basic water kefir. From there, you can flavor it to make Cherry Water Kefir, Cranberry Orange Water Kefir, or anything else you might like.
Moroccan Preserved Lemons
Moroccan preserved lemons are naturally fermented without the use of a starter - just wild lactobacillus bacteria naturally present in the air, on our skin, and on the fruits themselves. Just as with sauerkraut, sauerruben, and other fermented vegetables and fruit, preserved lemons are rich in beneficial bacteria.
Lemons, like all citrus, are rich in antioxidants and vitamin C in particular. Much of the vitamin C is concentrated in the lemon's rind which is customarily discarded due to its astringent, bitter flavor. Fermenting lemons naturally with salt and brine renders the lemon rind not only edible but also delicious.
Lemons are remarkably well-suited to a variety of dishes including classic Moroccan cuisine like lemon and olive roasted chicken and tagines, but I like to serve preserved lemons as a condiment in combination with fresh parsley and fresh garlic.
Coconut kefir is a probiotic beverage prepared from young coconut water and a starter culture. Coconut kefir combines many of the benefits of coconut with the benefits of probiotics.
Coconut water is rich in minerals like calcium and potassium, but it is relatively sweet. By introducing beneficial bacteria into the fresh coconut water, the bacteria metabolize its sugars and produce lactic and acetic acids which lower the overall glycemic index of the beverage. Furthermore, all those beneficial bacteria are great for your belly.
Coconut kefir is typically made using fresh coconut water from young, green coconuts and combining that coconut water with a packaged starter culture.
Homemade Ginger Beer
Traditional ginger beer is cultured using a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts similar to water kefir grains, indeed, there's some evidence that water kefir grains and the ginger beer plant are substantially the same in that both ginger beer plants and water kefir grains share many of the same characteristic bacteria.
There is also a second, more accessible form, of ginger beer and other homemade sodas like this Raspberry Ginger Soda. In this version, you mix ginger, sugar, and water together to encourage the growth of wild bacteria and yeasts, much like a sourdough starter. It forms a ginger bug, that is then strained and added to fruit juice or sweetened herbal infusions to make a naturally fizzy, homemade, probiotic soda.
Ginger bugs can be a little finicky and are best undertaken by cooks who are experienced with fermentation, but you can follow this ginger bug tutorial.
Most pickles on your grocery store shelves are pickled using vinegar, but, traditionally, sour pickles acquired their potent sourness from fermentation. Sour pickles are prepared using a simple solution of salt and water. This brine encourages the growth of lactic-acid-producing beneficial bacteria, that metabolize the carbohydrates in cucumbers, and create beneficial acids that preserve the cucumbers as pickles.
If you're game to make your own, try this recipe for traditional sour pickles.
Store-bought Condiments and Dressings
Not everyone has the time or energy to pound cabbage and salt into sauerkraut or crack a fresh coconut to prepare coconut kefir. So, for those of you with limited time, you can still find wholesome, naturally fermented dairy-free foods that can enliven your belly with beneficial bacteria. Coconut milk yogurts, sour pickles, traditional sauerkraut, and even sour beets can be found on the shelves of well-stocked health food stores, and many supermarkets, too.
Get Started Making Your Own Fermented Foods
It's easy and fun to make your own fermented foods at home, and these fermented vegetable recipes will get you started, but there are a few things you might want to keep in mind.
Get the right equipment. Fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut and sour pickles, ferment best in a closed, anaerobic environment. Traditional fermentation crocks are a great investment, while airlocked jars are good to get started.