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The Healing Properties of Fermented Foods

Nov 16, 2014

I’ve now more than passed the half way mark to completing my education at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition and was just recently awarded the title Certified Holistic Health Coach. I am so inspired and motivated learning about all kinds of different dietary theories, but also how what we call “primary foods” (our  personal relationships, career, spirituality and exercise to name a few) make such an impact on our health.  I’m surrounded by a sea of wonderful people who are also in the program and so knowledgeable and resourceful about the world of nutrition, and we all share the same desire: To make the world a healthier place for everyone in a way that inspires and motivates, and not discourages.

As we are encouraged to look back at our childhood and remember what we ate while growing up, I naturally reflect on Norwegian cuisine and what my mom fed me.  Luckily I have a mother who made everything from scratch, and is an incredible cook. There were no pre-packaged, processed items that made it to our table, and the dishes were recreations of what her mother and her grandmother had made, going back over one hundred years. As I’ve grown older, I grew more curious and wanted to research further about dishes that are particularly Norwegian, ans has a long history in my country, hence the creation of this blog.

Fermenting vegetables (and fish) has a long tradition in Norway from the old times when people did not have refrigeration, yet allowed people to store food in a safe and nutritional way.   Cabbage and caraway were popular items to use in this process.  Caraway was planted and harvested in the fields and was a popular item to chew on when people had problems with bloating and gas, for instance.  The combination of cabbage and caraway is popular as a side dish for Christmas (surkål, translated directly as “sour cabbage” because of the vinegar added to this process), but here the cabbage is cooked.  When fermenting cabbage, the cabbage is not cooked but rather macerated with salt to bring out the natural juices in the cabbage. Cabbage consists of a lot of water, as I’m sure you home cooks know; when cooking it on the stove, very little water is needed as the cabbage produces its own water, which is also more nutritious.


Fermentation of vegetables happens when the natural bacteria in the vegetables break down the components of the vegetables into forms easier to digest and often more nutritious than the raw vegetable itself.

For those who have apprehensions about food safety, fermented vegetables can be safer than raw vegetables, thanks to the ability of lactic acid, which forms during fermentation, to hunt down and kill any harmful bacteria that might be present.

Fermented vegetables are incredibly healthy, and especially good to promote gut health.  To understand why, read on here (or skip to the recipe!):

Your digestive tract is probably the most under appreciated system of your body, often ignored until it screams of discontent loud enough for your to even hear.  Unhappy gut bacteria can even make you fat! Your gut is much more than a food processing tube — it houses about 85 percent of your immune system. When your GI tract is not working well, a wide range of health problems can appear, including allergies and autoimmune diseases. If you suffer from any major illness, you simply will NOT be able to fully recuperate without healing and sealing your gut. Balancing the menagerie of microorganisms that occupy your GI tract is a key part of maintaining your immune health.  More than 100 trillion bacteria live in the human gut.1 In fact, throughout the body, microbes outnumber human cells by about 10-to-1.2. While the thought of playing host to so many microbes can be unsettling, these “gut bugs,” most of which live in the colon, have very important jobs. Friendly bacteria can help protect the body from disease-causing bacteria. They can break down fiber and other undigested carbohydrates to produce substances that provide us with energy. They can even make vitamin K and some B vitamins.

Ninety percent of our cells are nonhuman, microbial cells. Since our diet influences our microbes, it’s true: We really are what we eat.

The good news is that you can cultivate a new microbiota, formerly known as gut flora, in just 24 hours—by changing what you eat. Bacteria that live in our intestinal tract, also known as gut bugs, flourish off of colorful, plant-based foods.


Healthy gut bugs act like quarterbacks in our intestinal tracts: They call the shots and control the tempo by helping our bodies digest and absorb nutrients, synthesize certain vitamins, and rally against intruders, such as influenza and toxic cancer-forming carcinogens. In addition to boosting our immune system, microbiota sends messages to our brain and helps regulate metabolism.

Over time, microbiota forms colonies to combat obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune disease, and even certain forms of cancer.

The bottom line: The more diversity you have in your gut bacteria, the better off you’ll fare in the long run.

Cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, contain sulfur-containing metabolites, known as glucosinolates, which are broken down by microbes to release substances that reduce inflammation and reduce the risk of bladder, breast, colon, liver, lung, and stomach cancer.

(above info taken from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine).

In addition to helping prevent cancer, red cabbage is a great food for the detoxification and elimination of harmful chemicals and hormones found in food, water, and air pollutants. The vegetable’s waste removing abilities are particularly beneficial to the liver, the digestive tract, and the colon.

I could go on in much more detail about this, but have I convinced you to try out fermenting cabbage yet?? 🙂

Some of you may have heard of kimchi, which is the Korean version of fermented vegetables. You can also ferment beets, carrots, and ginger among other vegetables. You can do the below recipe with regular white cabbage, but I love the color of red cabbage, and in general am a huge fan of colorful foods!

Try this out, it will spritz up and add amazing flavors to your dish. Be kind to your body – because all it wants is to keep you healthy!!


                                                     Photo Credit: Nadin Martinuzzi/



2 whole heads of red cabbage

2 tbsps sea salt

1 tbsp whole cloves

1 tbsp mustard seeds

1 tbsp whole peppercorns

1 handful blackcurrants (optional)


Clean the cabbage well, and remove the outer leaves and the stalk.  Slice the cabbage into thin strips.

Place the cabbage with the salt in a large bowl and massage the salt into the cabbage until the water starts to release. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well.

Add the mixture to a fermenting pot, or a big mason jar with a wide opening.  Using your fist, keep pushing the cabbage down into the jar until the water reaches above the cabbage.  It is important that the water level rises above the cabbage to complete the fermenting process. If it doesn’t, add some salt water. 

Place a heavy item on top of the cabbage (like a dish with something heavy on top) to keep the cabbage submerged in the liquid.  Place a cloth tightly on top and around the jar to prevent any bugs to get into it. Place on your counter to naturally ferment for about 7-30 days, depending on how acidic you want the mixture.

When your tastebuds have decided the mixture is acidic enough, add it to a clean mason jar and tighten it with a lid and keep in the refrigerator.  If you like a little bit of sweet mixed in with your fermented cabbage, you can add maple syrup or a little bit of red currant jelly for a nice touch. Enjoy – your gut and your body will thank you!!



  1. The Kitchen Bridge

    Incredibly informative. I always thought Norwegians developed their fermentation process because they didn’t have a lot of salt. The day they got a load was when they created the masterpiece known as grave lax.

    • Sunny

      Thanks so much for your kind comment, Kitchen Bridge! You are right that salt was an expensive item and hard to come by in Norway during the Middle ages, it was first during the 18th century they started making salt cured fish because of access to inexpensive salt from southern Europe. Fermenting I guess has always been a part of our diet, salt or not – vinegar is also sometimes used. Hope to keep in touch- please stop back soon! Sunny 🙂

  2. Anya

    Fabulous post! I have always had trouble digesting raw vegetables. Ever since I began eating almost all vegetables fermented or cooked, my body’s felt better than ever. I suppose not everybody’s built to eat raw produce regularly. Maybe it’s my Russian roots? Ha, who knows. Thanks for haring yet another fantastic article!

    • Sunny

      Thank you so much, Anya for your positive comment! I agree with you – not everyone is built to consume the same things, I truly believe in what we call “bio individuality” – every body is built differently based on their genetics, background and build… and handle foods in various ways. Which is what makes the world of nutrition so interesting! Please keep in touch and thanks again for stopping by ! Sunny 🙂

  3. Sophie33

    What a lovely read of a tasty post! I do not fermented foods a lot. Your fermented red cabbage recipe looks really amazing & what a stunning color too! xxx

    • Sunny

      Thanks so much, Sophie! I encourage you to try it – it can be an acquired taste at first, but it really adds a lot of flavor to dishes (tangy, sharp) and brightens up not only your plate but your tummy! 🙂 xo


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