Harvesting the Bounty of Bacteria

Several years back, I had a nasty sinus infection that resisted several treatments of antibiotics before clearing up. Unfortunately, in the process, I killed most of the natural flora in my gut. The result was a low-grade diarrhea for the following two years.

Our culture is obsessed with sterility but, in reality, we live in a very complex symbiotic relationship with thousands of microorganism species. I’ve read that the physical number of bacterial cells on us, and within our gut, exceeds the number of human cells that make up our body!

My intestinal symptoms slightly improved through the summer months when I was eating fresh raw vegetables from the farmers’ market, presumably for the beneficial bacteria they provided. However, my symptoms didn’t completely resolve until I started making my own yogurt and eating it daily.

Homemade yogurt is surprisingly easy to make. I have two kitchen pots that nest together to make a double boiler. I cook the milk until it starts to foam like a latte.

Starting in the early afternoon gives the milk time to cool until it is just slightly warm to the touch. I stir in some live yogurt before going to bed. The pot of milk culture sits in the oven with the light on overnight, and the next morning I have yogurt.

I will often make a sauce from frozen berries and let that cool in the fridge overnight while the yogurt is growing. I partially fill ‘salmon-sized’ canning jars with berry sauce and then cover them with fresh yogurt to make individual portions. One jar is perfect over a bowl of oatmeal.

I make sure to save a little yogurt aside in a sterilized jar to start the next batch.

Within the first month of eating my yogurt every day, my diarrhea cleared up. Needless to say, I am now a believer in pro-biotics. I should mention that I had previously tried so called ‘pro-biotic’ pills from the health food store with no such effect.

After my success with yogurt, I was excited to stumble across the principle of lacto-fermentation. Yogurt is lacto-fermented milk. I was surprised to learn you can also lacto-ferment virtually any vegetable.

The principle is this: beneficial bacteria, lactobacillus, create lactic acid that literally pickles the vegetables. Lactic acid suppresses the growth of harmful bacteria, but unlike conventional pickles that are cooked in vinegar, these pickles are literally alive with beneficial microorganisms. The action of the bacteria also makes it easier for us to digest and absorb nutrients.

The process is too simple: vegetables are packed into a jar and covered with a salt brine (approx 1 TBSP per cup of filtered water). They sit on the counter for a week in closed mason jars and start to bubble actively—I occasionally crack the lid to let excess gas escape. After a week to ten days of growth, they are moved to the fridge and can be stored there for many months.

When I first started researching the subject, I was certain it must be very dangerous, because I do a lot of canning and am ever wary of botulism in my preserves. However, as I read, I was assured that lacto-fermentation is actually safer than pressure canning. In the right environment, the lactobacillus easily out competes the harmful organism that causes botulism. During heat canning, it is through our attempt to sterilize that actually creates the risk, as botulism spores can withstand higher heat than the good bacteria. If the sterilization is not complete, the clostridium botulinum proliferates without competition.

I have read that if the lacto-fermentation pickle is not successful, it will be obvious with a foul smell. With heat canning, the danger with botulism is that it doesn’t produce an odour to alert you. With the process of lactofermentation, there are many types of bacteria involved and if the wrong ones proliferate, they make the food very obviously spoiled, or ‘putrefied’.

Just this week, I opened a jar of our pickled green beans that have been in the fridge for just over 2 months. I was pleased to find them surprisingly crisp and pleasantly sour, if a little salty. I have jars of cauliflower, carrots and beets pickling as well. I’ve read that my several jars of sauerkraut will be best after ripening in the fridge for a full 6 months.

I encourage you to look into this fascinating subject. There are many devoted sites on the internet. A good book to read is Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. There is evidence to suggest that eating a small quantity of these naturally pickled vegetables each day can help maintain a healthy digestive system and healthy body.

To further my experimentation with beneficial bacteria, my newest project is to try making sourdough bread. There is a lot of talk these days about cutting wheat out of the diet, but I am learning how fermenting flour can help improve the digestibility of bread. Fermentation releases the nutrition from the grain by breaking down the naturally occurring ‘phytates’ that chelate (hold onto) minerals such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc.

I am told that rye flour makes the best starter for sourdough, so it was very fortuitous that Sloping Hill Farm in Qualicum Beach grew rye as well as wheat this year. Today, I used my Nutrimill to grind about 8 cups of rye flour. Following the recipe, I mixed 2 cups of the flour with 2 cups of water. Based on the advice of a local baker, I also used a bit of the water from my pickled beans. The bowl is sitting under a cloth on the top of my fridge where the lactobacilli will grow in the warmth. For the next week, I shall feed it another cup of rye flour daily and add enough water to keep it soft. By next weekend, I will be ready to make sourdough bread, using this rye starter culture instead of yeast. I will be sure to save at least a third of my culture as a starter for the next loaf.

It is ironic that it took a whopping infection for me to appreciate the amazing balance of bacteria in the body. My understanding of health and nutrition has been fundamentally changed: I now understand that processed foods are not only devoid of nutrition, but devoid of life. I have learned that not all bacteria are pathogenic germs, and I am working to cultivate beneficial bacteria to maintain good health.

P.S. The sourdough turned out delicious!

Chris Semrick, B.Sc, RRT, CRE is a Registered Respiratory Therapist, Certified Respiratory Educator and a Local Food Activist.