Are your kitchen cabinets growing stuff?

Scientists and doctors today are mystified by the proliferation of new viruses—not only the deadly AIDS virus but the whole gamut of human viruses that seem to be associated with everything from chronic fatigue to cancer and arthritis. They are equally mystified by recent increases in the incidence of intestinal parasites and pathogenic yeasts, even among those whose sanitary practices are faultless. Could it be that in abandoning the ancient practice of lacto-fermentation and in our insistence on a diet in which everything has been pasteurized, we have compromised the health of our intestinal flora and made ourselves vulnerable to legions of pathogenic microorganisms? If so, the cure for these diseases will be found not in vaccinations, drugs or antibiotics but in a restored partnership with the many varieties of lactobacilli, our symbionts of the microscopic world.
Sally Fallon with Mary G. Enig, Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, page 91


Spring’s the season for growing things. But if you don’t have a backyard vegetable plot or windowsill herb box, can you still harness the power of personal cultivation in your kitchen?

Absolutely! Any dark cabinet corner is perfect for cultivating—intentionally—a veritable life-giving microbial community. (If your kitchen cabinets are growing other stuff—uninvited and uninhibited—then may we suggest a little pantry spring cleaning?)

Lacto-fermentation requires little more than a few vegetables, a glass jar, and an enclosed space. And it just might offer an antidote to the pathogen epidemic that jeopardizes our vitality, imperils our fertility, and bedevils our allergy-prone youth.

These two simple recipes will have your kitchen cabinets teeming with life in no time. 

Fermentation doesn’t really require people, as ingenious as we might like to think ourselves. Nature ferments of its own accord, even without human intervention.

Lactic-acid-producing bacteria—called lactobacilli—are present on the surface of all living things, particularly the leaves and roots of plants growing in or near the ground. They convert the starches in vegetables to lactic acid, which then acts as a natural preservative to inhibit putrefying bacteria. This produces lacto-fermented vegetables, also known simply as fermented vegetables or cultured vegetables.

So it’s a natural process, but we can harness its power by providing the right medium and ingredients and a little bit of time. And in fact, human beings have been doing just that for millennia.

While humans have historically fermented all sorts of foodstuff—from vegetables and fruits to drinks and grains, meats and dairy—combining healthy flora with plant matter creates quite a nutritional powerhouse. Plant matter is already living, but fermentation affords ways to make its life-giving nutrients more bioavailable.

Perhaps you’ve sampled the fruits of this labor? From sauerkraut to pickles, kimchi to beet kvass, every food culture in the world has its own cultured products. Even today one-third of the global diet is still fermented.

So everyone does it, but does that mean you should, too? Modern Westerners might need a little more convincing, so here are 17 by-no-means-exhaustive reasons why you might want to take your cue from the fervently fermenting rest of the world.

  1. Plentiful probiotics. Lacto-fermentation supplies microorganisms known as probiotics, necessary for healthy intestinal function.
  2. Bountiful prebiotics. It’s also a source of prebiotics—that is, the fuel for the probiotics. This makes lacto-fermented foods synbiotic, or containing both probiotics and prebiotics in a synergistic form. Basically, that’s a fancy way of saying that lacto-fermentation adds new healthy microbes as well as promotes the proliferation of healthy intestinal flora already present.
  3. Allergy alleviation. A healthy balance of bacteria reduces food allergies and sensitivities, as well as reducing the incidence and mitigating the effects of atopy, often manifested as allergies, asthma, or eczema.
  4. Digestive aid. Lacto-fermentation improves the digestibility of the fermented food itself as well as overall digestion. The human digestive system is relatively weak, but the concerted effort of our microbial forces boosts absorption manifold. The sour taste in particular supports good production of stomach acid and thus modulates the pH of the stomach, which is critically important for optimal digestion. (And contrary to popular belief, most people, even those with heartburn or reflux, are actually deficient in stomach acid.)
  5. Enzyme augmentation. It produces abundant enzymes that help the digestion of the other foods you eat at the same time. This also increases the bodily enzyme reservoir, offsetting enzyme exhaustion from a diet too high in cooked, processed, or depleted foods and food-like substances.
  6. Micronutrient multiplication. It increases the fermented food’s vitamin content, liberates bound minerals, and affords beneficial by-products like lactic acid and critical compounds like choline, which facilitates proper transmission of nerve impulses from the brain through the central nervous system, among many other functions.
  7. Pathogen power. Lacto-fermentation provides antibiotic substances. In fact, beneficial bacteria in ferments produce chemicals inimical to their nocuous foes, which aren’t harmful to us but keep bad bacteria in check.
  8. Detox fiend. It helps the detoxification pathways, scavenging toxins, fighting free radicals, and curbing cancer cells.
  9. Curbed cravings. And once you detoxify, cravings really do disappear. When channels are clogged and cells are confused, you get perverted cravings. Adding fermented foods can restore bodily intelligence so you crave what makes you feel well. Plus, the sour taste takes away the desire for sweet, aiding discipline around sugar.
  10. Kiddo compatibility. This is one reason lacto-fermentation is safe and beneficial for youngsters, even pre-toddlers, who these days tend to get hooked on the sweet taste too soon. Instead, sour fermented foods provide bioavailable, predigested nutrition that helps populate their vulnerable digestive tracts with healthy organisms and protect them for life.
  11. Fertility friend. Speaking of babies, if you’re hoping for progeny or have a child on the way, make sure to get those cultured veggies. A healthy gut ecology supports healthy offspring, as your intestinal, vaginal, and oral flora get transferred to the baby during pregnancy, the process of birth, and breastfeeding. And in fact, the maternal microbial community, be it balanced or pathogenic, has been shown to have even more widespread repercussions, conferring either health or heightened disease risk well into adulthood.
  12. Age defiance. And if you’re well into adulthood yourself, fermented food is good for the hair and teeth, mitigating the effects of aging.
  13. Ease. There’s no special equipment or expertise required! And most of the work is hands off, accomplished in the dark reaches of your kitchen cabinets.
  14. Efficacy and thrift. Sure you could take a probiotic supplement instead, but whole foods are more powerful, synergistic, and long-lasting than isolated supplements. The result of wild fermentation, these foods contain greater diversity and potency than can ever be manufactured in a lab. Plus, fermented foods are less expensive: two ounces of homemade sauerkraut, mere pennies to you, for example, has more live cultures than your average bottle of one hundred probiotic capsules, which can get quite costly.
  15. Food preservation. If you live farther north or in a harsher climate, fermentation is a great way to get nutrient-rich vegetables during cold winters when fresh is sparse. Regardless of where you live, it’s a perfect way to capture the abundant harvest of the warmer months and preserve them for the rest of the year.
  16. Real-life education. Kids love caring for things, watching things grow and change over time, and helping in the kitchen. Fermentation can become an instant fascination! You can turn it into a science lesson with older children or simply let youngsters help with the preparation. They’ll love watching the colors evolve (quite the chameleon, cabbage metamorphoses from royal purple to muted magenta) and enjoy the final product, bursting with mouth-puckering sourness and a lip-smacking salty crunch.
  17. Overall immunity. In all these ways, fermented products nourish the body, mind, and spirit and fortify that indispensable immune system, keeping harmful inflammation in check and making the whole body less vulnerable to pathogenic microorganisms. In a world run rampant with diseases, and increasing drug-resistant microbial strains, you definitely want these little lactobacilli on your side.

And as you’ll soon see, it’s quite simple to make that happen, with the novice-friendly recipes below.

Note: Whatever produce you choose for fermentation, use fresh, organic ingredients as much as possible, purified water, and a quality mineral salt. Nutrient-deficient vegetables, water with toxins, or salt with impurities will diminish the final result.

And one caveat before we continue: If all this talk of fermentation has you eyeing your favorite celebratory intoxicant, sorry to burst your bubbly, but those don’t count. Alcohol, including beer and wine, is produced by yeast fermentation, not lactic acid (lacto) fermentation, and tends to convert quickly to sugar in the body and add more fuel to the pathogenic fire. Likewise, kombucha, while all the rage these days, is partly the product of yeast fermentation and can provoke more symptoms than it resolves. Compounding these factors is the reality that popular drinks are heavily marketed, laced with extra sugars and other additives, and promoted in quantities far exceeding historical consumption.

So instead, grab yourself some veggies and let’s get started.

Simple Sauerkraut


Sometimes raw vegetables, while megastores of micronutrients on paper, present problems for troubled digestion and impaired utilization in the body. Raw cabbage, for example, provides more vitamin C than cooked cabbage but can interfere with thyroid hormone production if consumed in abundance. The lacto-fermentation process, as in this sauerkraut recipe, harnesses the nutrient benefit of the raw vegetable while making those nutrients better assimilated in the body. It also confers abundant prebiotics and probiotics, which enrich the beneficial intestinal flora that optimize health and, if you are in the childbearing season of life, get transferred to the baby during gestation, delivery, and breastfeeding.

Cruciferous vegetables, including cabbage, are rich in many other vitamins and minerals, as well as a class of phytonutrients that, aside from giving these vegetables that distinctive sulfur aroma, includes a particularly active compound called sulforaphane. Sulforaphane enhances the body’s natural mechanisms by activating hundreds of antioxidant and detoxification genes. Increasing your intake of crucifers thus neutralizes more free radicals, decreasing inflammation and boosting energy, and supports liver health and hormone balance, reducing your risk of cancer. (Did you see last week’s post on the all-important liver?)



  • 6 level cups organic red cabbage, shredded (about 1 ¼ pounds)
  • 1 small organic onion, finely chopped (about ½ pound, or 1 ¾ cups)
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • filtered water (if needed)
  • 1 small cabbage leaf (reserved for the top)


  1. In a large durable bowl, combine the cabbage, onion, sea salt, cumin seeds, and mustard seeds.
  2. Pound the mixture with a pestle, wooden hammer, meat pounder, potato masher, or other blunt object for several minutes to release the cabbage juices. Alternatively, you can use a food processor or a high-quality blender; in that case, add the seasonings afterward and take care not to overprocess the vegetables.
  3. Pour the mixture into a wide-mouth quart jar and pack it down with the blunt object.
  4. Add filtered water only if needed to cover the cabbage with liquid, ensuring at least an inch of space between the top of the cabbage and the top of the jar.
  5. Press a small piece of cabbage leaf on top of the vegetables to keep them submerged.
  6. Secure the jar tightly with a plastic lid, set the jar in a bowl or pan to catch any leaked liquids, and place it away from sunlight where it will not be disturbed.
  7. Let the jar sit at least 3 to 5 days at room temperature; a week or more is also fine.
  8. Once the flavor is to your liking, place the sauerkraut in the refrigerator; it will keep for many months.

Pickled Asparagus

Raw asparagus is a superstar prebiotic, but few of us want to nosh on spears straight out of the fridge. So pickled asparagus provides a tasty solution.

A nutrient-dense early spring crop, asparagus, like the cruciferous cabbage, confers many health benefits. Among other virtues, asparagus is one of the vegetables highest in folate, which is critical for cellular growth and regeneration plus the much-publicized normal fetal development. It also supplies glutathione and stimulates the body’s production of that all-important antioxidant, key to immune function, cancer fighting, and liver detoxification. (Yup, we’re talking about the liver again!)

Ayurveda has long recognized asparagus as an iconic fertility food, a veritable aphrodisiac, and its power in postpartum recovery is not paltry either. So if you have babies on your mind (or in your arms), find ways to get asparagus on the menu. (The accompanying garlic in the recipe below is equally powerful as a prebiotic, Ayurvedic fertility food, and postpartum aid, so press it frequently into action as well.)

But if asparagus is unavailable or unappetizing, feel free to experiment with other vegetables. This recipe provides a versatile template for ferments: you can choose any vegetable that forms chunks or spears—cucumbers, zucchini, carrots, daikon, green beans, jicama, turnips, cauliflower, whatever you like or have in abundance. Engage different colors and smells and flavors here in your selections and you’ll never have a dearth of pickled produce options.


  • 1 bunch asparagus (about 1 pound, or 16 to 20 spears)
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled
  • ½ bunch fresh flowering dill (about 3 sprigs)
  • 1 tablespoon pickling spice (see note below)
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 1–2 cups filtered water
  • 1 small cabbage leaf (reserved for the top)


  1. Neatly trim the woody ends of the asparagus and cut as needed so they fit vertically into a wide-mouth quart jar. Thinly slice the garlic.
  2. Place the dill, sliced garlic, and pickling spice at the bottom of the jar. Stand the spears of asparagus on top.
  3. Pour 1 cup of water into a glass measuring cup. Add a tablespoon of salt and stir to combine.
  4. Pour the water over the asparagus spears such that the liquid covers them by at least half an inch, leaving another inch of space to the top of the jar. Add more filtered water if needed.
  5. Press a small piece of cabbage leaf on top of the vegetables to keep them submerged.
  6. Secure the jar tightly with a plastic lid, set the jar in a bowl or pan to catch any leaked liquids, and place it away from sunlight where it will not be disturbed.
  7. Let the jar sit at least a week at room temperature; 2 weeks is preferable for asparagus.
  8. Once the flavor is to your liking, place the pickled asparagus in the refrigerator; it will keep for many months.

Note: Pickling spice is a combination of herbs and spices used to pickle foods. There are many variations, so feel free to select a blend you like or make your own at home. What follows is a simple version to get you started.

Pickling Spice


  • 2 cinnamon sticks, broken into small pieces
  • 2 bay leaves, crushed
  • 2 tablespoons whole mustard seeds
  • 2 tablespoons whole coriander seeds
  • 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
  • 2 teaspoons whole allspice berries
  • 2 teaspoons whole dill seeds
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • ½ teaspoon whole cloves


Add all ingredients to a small jar, close tightly, shake to mix, and spoon out the desired quantity for your recipe. You can also experiment with additional spices, like cardamom seeds, red pepper flakes, or mace, depending on your preferences.

Simple, huh? Or maybe not. If you’re having trouble getting a home-cooked dinner on the table most nights, we get it: sometimes life is too full to add more choreography to your kitchen dance. In that case, you can still incorporate lacto-fermented vegetables into your diet. They are becoming more available in stores, but make sure you purchase truly raw vegetables, unpasteurized with live cultures and no vinegar. They’ll likely be in the refrigerated section and a little pricy…which is why it’s so handy to make them at home, if you do find a spare moment to whip up a few batches that will last for months.

Maybe a few other questions are gyrating around the gray matter.


Now that I have these lovely jars of proliferating lactobacilli, what do I do with them?

First, please don’t gorge. A little—a tablespoon or so at a time—goes a long way. Otherwise, it’s up to you. Fermented vegetables pair particularly well with denser foods (like muscle meats, organ meats, eggs, and legumes), with cold-pressed olive oil as a dressing for greens, or with any dish really. Try to serve up a spoonful with at least one daily meal. At such small doses, your quart jar with its small time investment can last quite a while.


I’ve tried asparagus before and it makes for smelly pee—how normal/healthy/good can that be?

Perfectly normal/healthy/good, I assure you. Asparagus contains a certain chemical that once digested, decomposes into sulfur-containing compounds with a strong scent. But don’t let the odiferous output get in the way of preparing these power-packed spears. If, however, your urine is malodorous apart from asparagus consumption, then I have a few words for you.

Or perhaps…

Is this stuff really for me?

Most likely, yes. While bioindividuality requires customized nutrition, some amount of fermented food is good for almost everyone almost all of the time, infancy through old age and perhaps even especially infancy and old age. As mentioned earlier, it has a revered place in the mouth of babes: infants and children fed fermented foods are happier, smarter, more focused, and less susceptible to sugar addiction, diabetes, overweight, emotional eating, autoimmune conditions, and autism. Adults should get probiotic-rich food regularly, but especially during preconception planning and pregnancy as well as during times of convalescence and illness, when digestion is compromised. Countering antibiotic use with fermented foods is also crucial, since just one course of antibiotics can wipe out delicate beneficial bacteria that will never return.

Note, however, that some conditions may warrant a targeted hiatus from fermented foods. If you have

  • parasitic or bacterial infections (more common than you might realize regardless of gastrointestinal distress)
  • yeast overgrowth like candidiasis
  • leaky gut
  • chronic skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or hives
  • chronic headaches or allergies
  • histamine intolerance
  • or other symptoms of significant dysbiois

then you may need to work with a practitioner to determine the right probiotic-rich foods and supplements for you, aiming to restore proper internal structure and function before introducing a bevy of new microbes.

Suspect you may be harboring intestinal parasites, pathogenic yeasts, and other unfriendly microorganisms mentioned in the opening quote to today’s post? Resonate with the symptoms above? Need more guidance navigating fermented foods and customized nutrition? Then let’s talk. Functional diagnostic investigation and customized drug-free protocols, coupled with an appropriate dose of lacto-fermented foods, can help your friendly flora flourish again.

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