Thursday 22 March 2018

Give your gut a real boost with fermented food

Once your taste buds come round to the salty flavours, you'll never want a biscuit again

Valerie O'Connor: A healthy digestive system is the basis for good health
Valerie O'Connor: A healthy digestive system is the basis for good health
Healthy digestion

Valerie O'Connor

It seems we are a nation of dodgy tummies and digestive problems. Every second person claims to be gluten intolerant and dining out is now greeted with as much anticipation as being thrown to the lions. But just how did we get like this? Surely we are designed with digestive systems that can process grains and bread?

Throughout our history we consumed foods rich in naturally occurring probiotics like buttermilk, our butter came from rain-rich pastures that were not depleted by chemical spraying and all our food was organic by default. Use of pesticides and intensive food production has removed those healthy enzymes that promote the good gut flora that we need to keep everything ticking over nicely.

A healthy digestive system is the basis for good health, it is how we are meant to be, with good bacteria flooding our systems and helping us to sleep well, make sure we have lots of energy, less allergies and everyday illness like colds and flus.

Fermented foods have been popping up as a new fad in eating but some of our best known and loved foods are fermented. Who hasn't heard of beer, wine, cheese, sourdough and yogurt? Even chorizo and salamis are fermented foods.

Fermenting is one of the oldest ways to store foods, bottling fresh vegetables with nothing but salt induced a magical process of lacto-fermentation where precious lactobilli bacteria would develop and keep the food crunchy and fresh.

When we ingest these foods, even in tiny amounts, we introduce powerful enzymes that can boost our immune systems, aid conditions like IBS and bloating and put a spring in our steps.

From Korean kimchi to kombucha, kefir to kvass, these are all new foods to our palates. When eaten regularly they will change our taste-buds to liking more sour and salty foods, sugary foods become unappealing and things like packet biscuits are just plain yuk. It's like hypnosis for the mouth!

Some fermented foods require special starters but here are a few easy ones to get you, well, started.

Valerie O'Connor is a qualified organic horticulturalist and delivers workshops and classes in fermenting food (next one is in Airfield House and Garden, Dundrum, Dublin 14 on October 31) For more info visit or

The basis for good health

The benefits of eating fermented foods are many; mainly you are quickly populating your gut with millions of beneficial bacteria which we need so that our digestive systems work at their best.

A healthy digestive system is the basis for good health and will reduce or eliminate symptoms of IBS, improve bowl health and boost your immune system. Eating these foods helps your gut to produce the enzymes needed to get the most from your food in terms of nutrition.

Many people who complain of gluten intolerance find that once they introduce fermented foods into their diet, they can also reintroduce much loved bread, but real bread like sourdough, which is also a fermented food.

There are strong links between gut health and anxiety or depression and science-based research is showing that lactobacillus and bifidobacteria species bacteria associated with fermented foods may also influence brain health. Making and eating these foods on a regular basis is not only good for your gut, they are also cheap to make once you've bought a few jars and you are inadvertently getting far more raw food into your diet too.


Sterilise your jar by putting it through the dishwasher without a tablet, boil it for 10 minutes or put it into the oven at 160ºC for 10 minutes.

Equipment needed: 1 x 1litre clip-top jar, 1 instrument for 'pounding' the cabbage like a flat-ended rolling pin, a very clean, large plastic basin or bowl, a small jar or stone for weighing the cabbage down in the jar, this will also have to be sterilised. Sauerkraut is a great accompaniment to cold meats and cheese or a typical German sausage.


1 head Dutch-style white cabbage

2 tsp sea salt

1 tsp caraway seeds or other flavourings like star anise or black peppercorns, optional


Shred the cabbage with a large knife, you can use a food processor but it tends to chop the cabbage too finely.

Put the cabbage into the bowl with the salt. Mix everything together with your hands and then get your pounder and begin pounding the cabbage, keep going for 10 minutes until some of the juices are being released. Sprinkle on the caraway seeds or other flavourings, or leave it plain.

Get your sterile jar and pack the cabbage in with the juices, press down and pop in a jar/weight or stone that's big enough to put pressure on the cabbage when you close the lid down. You want it to be submerged in the juices. Place the jar on a plate to catch any juices that overflow.

Leave the jar at room temperature for 4-5 days. You should see bubbles happening, this means it's working! In a cold winter maybe put it in the airing cupboard, the ideal temperature is 2-22ºC.

Open the jar every day to release the gasses, it will be ready after 5 days. You can put the jar in the fridge now, this will stop the fermentation process. You can also let go of the weight in the jar.


Kimchi is great with some vegetable fried rice with a fried egg on top, or spoon some into some hot chicken stock for a spicy winter warmer. You will need a 2 litre glass clip-top jar, a large plastic bowl and tongs.


2 napa or Chinese cabbages (long white ones), cut into quarters lengthways and then into chunks

8 tbsp sea salt

4 spring onions, cut into pieces about 3cm/1inch long

4 tbsp Korean chilli powder

4 tbsp fish sauce

100g/4oz fresh ginger, peeled and grated

6-8 medium garlic gloves finely chopped


Wash the cabbage and discard the middle spine, place it in a large plastic bowl and sprinkle over the sea salt.

Cover with water until the cabbage is submerged and weigh it down with a dinner plate. Leave at least 4 hours and up to 24 hours to soak.

Strain off the water and rinse the cabbage under cold, running water, squeeze out as much excess water as you can and return the cabbage to the rinsed bowl.

In another bowl, mix the remaining ingredients and pour this over the cabbage, mix everything well to combine it and now pack it into your clean jar, pressing it all down as you go.

Get your small jar or weight and pop it on top of the cabbage, you should be able to slowly lever the jar closed. It's important that the cabbage remains submerged under the liquid. Place the jar on a plate and leave at room temperature.

After 2-3 days you should see some activity in the form of bubbles. Open the jar to let any gasses out and close it again.Repeat this for up to six days when the kimchi should be ready to put in the fridge. It will keep for ages in the fridge but becomes addictive once you start eating it.


This is so easy and makes a delicious and refreshing drink. Using whey speeds up the fermentation process but you can do without it. Beetroot is great for your liver and kidneys so if you're planning a big night out on the town where you know you will be drinking, having a glass of this in the morning and evening will have a notable strengthening effect on your liver and a reduction in hangover symptoms. Kvass is also credited with a reduction in symptoms of inflammation and arthritis. You will need 1 x 2-3 litre glass jar - sterilised.


1 large beetroot, organic will work best here

1 cup whey

1 tbsp sea salt

Filtered/spring water


Simply peel and slice the beetroot into chunky pieces and place them in the jar, topping up with the whey, salt and water until the jar is full.

Keep the jar at room temperature for 2-3 days and then transfer somewhere cool, ideally the fridge but if you live in Ireland, any storage that's unheated in winter will do.

Drink a glass in the morning, diluted with water 50/50, and one in the evening. Depending on your usual bodily functions, you should notice a difference in your digestion and therefore your energy levels in a few days.

When the jar is almost empty of liquid, top it up again with fresh water and leave it at room temperature for 2-3 days and repeat the process until the colour goes out of the water. Then begin a new batch from scratch.

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