Pop quiz: What do pickles, vinegar, tempeh, chocolate and wine have in common? Yes, they're all delicious—and they're all fermented. And that means they all have major health perks.
Cultures around the world have enjoyed fermented foods for millennia; they devour kimchi in Korea, sauerkraut in Germany and cheese...everywhere. Now fermenting is appealing to consumers eager to return to naturally healthy ways of eating. Top chefs are embracing it too; Momofuku's David Chang has a culinary lab dedicated to food science, including fermentation, which he calls the "machinery of flavor."
Fermentation is what happens "when rotten goes right," Chang has said. It may sound kind of gross, but fermentation involves "good" micro-organisms breaking down or partially digesting food, which makes nutrients easier for your body to absorb. Research suggests that fermented foods can also strengthen immunity.
Fermentation helps extend shelf life (think how much longer a block of Cheddar lasts than a carton of milk) and can make food safer, since foodborne pathogens are less likely to survive in the acidic environment fermentation creates.
You're probably already enjoying many of these foods. Here are some of my favorites.
This paste, made from fermented soybeans, is the essential ingredient in the Japanese soup of the same name. The darker the miso, the longer it has been fermented, and the saltier and stronger the flavor will be. I keep a container in my fridge and use it in marinades and glazes for chicken or fish. I also make salad dressing out of it: I mix 1 tablespoon of miso with a little chopped garlic and ginger, 1 tablespoon of rice vinegar and 1 or 2 teaspoons of honey. Then I whisk in 2 to 4 tablespoons of a neutral oil, like grapeseed.
It's lower on the glycemic index, so it's less likely to wreak havoc on your blood sugar and leave you hungry and craving more carbs. Try it as French toast, croutons, bread crumbs and stuffing.
Be sure the label says "fermented." Commercially made pickles and capers aren't always made using good bacteria; often they're just soaked in brine.
Wine and beer
They're both fermented (yay!). You don't need me to tell you how to enjoy them.
Other delicious ideas: Swap tempeh for tofu in a stir-fry, pile sauerkraut on a turkey sandwich or marinate chicken in buttermilk overnight. With so many great choices, you'll be in a pickle in no time (but in a good way).
Snack On This: If you love sriracha, the super flavorful Southeast Asian hot sauce, like I do, grab a bag of Indiana Sriracha Popcorn ($4 for a 6-oz. bag; at Whole Foods Market). Seasoned with red chili pepper, it brings the heat. And studies suggest that chiles boost metabolism.
Gotta Have It: When I see something I don't recognize on a food label, I turn to the Chemical Cuisine app (free; iTunes and Google Play) from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Search the alphabetical list of 130-plus food additives; color-coded icons indicate whether the ingredient you're curious about is safe, OK for some people or to be avoided completely.