Your gut is home to over 500 different types of bacteria, and striking the right balance among the millions of bugs in your belly helps with myriad health problems, including indigestion and a weak immune system. A recent study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eating fermented dairy like yogurt led to a decreased risk of coronary heart disease. And in 2016, a study found a correlation between good gut bacteria and a decreased risk of cancer in mice. Robert Schiestl, a professor at UCLA and the study’s senior author, found that the most beneficial bacteria was a strain of Lactobacillus found in yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and sauerkraut.
While recent research suggests that not all the bacteria we swallow in pill form will take up residence in our gut, fermented snacks—which are packed with live, good-for-you bacteria—offer a tasty way to encourage a healthy gut. Probiotic foods like kombucha and kimchi can be expensive at your local grocery store, but they’re cheap and relatively easy to make at home. Here are three options that you can make yourself with minimal fuss.
“When I started eating fermented foods, so many of my digestive health issues, like bloating, started to disappear,” says nutrition writer and certified health coach Robyn Youkilis. “Fermentation jump-starts the digestion process.” Her favorite way add fermented foods to her diet is topping a big salad with a pickled vegetable, like radishes.
Pretty in Pink Fermented Radishes
- 3 bunches radishes, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon pink peppercorns
- ¾ cup fresh dill, chopped
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- Filtered water
- Kale, cabbage, or collard greens
Note: If the flavor’s right, it’s done. Youkilis says the most common question she’s asked is how to tell when a fermented veggie is ready to eat. “When it tastes good to you, it’s good! It will smell tangy and slightly sour but shouldn’t smell rotten.”
From Robyn Youkilis’s book Thin from Within
Kimchi, a mix of fermented cabbage and other vegetables, is a staple in most Korean kitchens. The flavor profile can be hard to perfect, but there isn’t one right way to make it: based on individual taste, there’s plenty of room for improvisation. Cyclist and chef Lentine Alexis explains that the good bacteria in kimchi helps keep her stomach settled—even when she’s eaten “like 50 gels or energy bars on the trail.” She’ll serve it with eggs and fried rice for an extra pop of color and flavor, and before big bike rides, she’ll use it as a topping for savory oatmeal.
Pro tip: “Before you start, make sure that all of your equipment and space is clean and that no metal comes into contact with the vegetables while they ferment, because the acids from the ferment will corrode the metal,” Alexis says.
Lentine Alexis’s Spicy and Gingery Kimchi
- 1 medium Napa cabbage (about 1¾ pounds), outer leaves removed
- 2 medium carrots, thinly sliced on the diagonal
- 6 radishes, thinly sliced
- ½ cup thinly scallions, sliced
- 2½ teaspoons fine-grain sea salt
- 3-inch-piece fresh ginger, roughly chopped
- 8 large garlic cloves, peeled
- ½ cup dried red chili flakes
- Large jar with a coated lid (to avoid contact with metal)
Quarter and core the cabbage. Slice each quarter into 1-inch strips; place them in a large bowl, and add the carrots, radishes, scallions, and salt. Toss to combine, and set aside.
Place the ginger, garlic and chili flakes in a food processor and blend until finely ground. Scrape the sides and blend again. Add the mixture to the bowl of vegetables, and use your hands to mix it completely. Continue mixing and massaging the vegetables for a few minutes until they become juicy and start to soften. (At this point, you can taste them to make sure they are a little bit saltier than you want the end result to be.)
Add a handful of vegetables to two wide-mouth jars or a crock, and press them down with your fist to release any air pockets. Repeat with the remaining vegetables a handful at a time, dividing any remaining liquid from the bowl between the jars. Push down on the vegetables until the liquid covers the them completely, leaving just a one-inch space at the top of the jar. Seal the jars, then place them in a well-ventilated, cool area. Ferment for up to ten days. Taste the kimchi after five days, and then every day after until the flavor is right. When you’re satisfied, transfer the jars into the fridge to halt the fermentation. Over time the flavors will continue to develop and strengthen, and the veggies will soften. When stored in the fridge, kimchi keeps for several months.
People have been drinking kombucha—a fermented tea that hails from ancient China—for over 2,000 years. These days it comes in hip glass bottles at your local grocery, and often costs more than a fancy coffee. So even though brewing your own demands a bit of space and time, it’s worth it. The fizzy, tart drink is packed with live active cultures, which promote gut health, and it can also be a great substitute if you’re hoping to cut back on wine or beer.
“It makes my stomach feel really good,” says Becca Schepps, a category 1 cyclist and founder of Mortal Kombucha. “It’s not going to cure anything, but it helps keep your body in balance.” Schepps founded her own kombucha company after perfecting a homemade recipe over years of trial and error.
- Filtered water
- 1-gallon mason jar
- Cheesecloth cover for mason jar
- 5-7 black tea bags
- White sugar
- 1½ to 2 cups distilled white vinegar
- Symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). If you can’t find it at a local grocery store, order one online.
Boil 12 cups of water. Add black tea bags, and steep five minutes. Add one cup of sugar and stir. “Don’t short on the sugar,” says Schepps. It’s tempting to try to cut sugar, but the SCOBY will eat it, and you won’t end up with a supersweet beverage. Let water cool to room temperature. Add distilled vinegar and SCOBY. Cover with cheesecloth, and secure with a rubber band to keep fruit flies from sneaking in. Leave for seven to thirty days at room temperature, tasting it every few days until it reaches your preferred level of tartness (usually around three weeks is ideal, but Schepps advises that you’ll likely need to leave it longer than you think you should). Drain into bottles, and store in the refrigerator. Skip the in-brewing flavoring; after years of experimenting and destroying SCOBYs by the dozen, Schepps has learned that it’s easier to add a shot of lime juice or toss a few berries into the finished product on a glass-by-glass basis.
If you’re not actively brewing a batch of ’booch, store your SCOBY in the fridge to keep it stable until next time. Simply put it in a tightly sealed mason jar with some sweetened tea so it stays healthy and well-fed.