Fermented foods: An easy way to bring more flavour - and potential health benefits - to your meals

Container of kimchi - stock image
Fermented foods can be fun to try, whether you prefer kimchi cabbage and radish salad or white and red sauerkraut. Photo credit: Getty Images

By Casey Barber of CNN

Wild, not mild - it's not an official tagline for the range of ingredients and dishes that fall into the category of fermented foods, but it could be.

Many fermented foods contain probiotics, which are live microorganisms that, when ingested, can work in conjunction with the existing good bacteria in your gut microbiome to help regulate your digestive system and potentially improve your overall health.

However, not every fermented food contains live probiotics. High heat kills probiotic microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast, so any item that has been cooked or pasteurised, such as shelf-stable pickles, won't have any living microorganisms. If you're seeking out probiotic-rich foods, make sure the label notes that the food contains live or active cultures.

Beyond any potential health benefits, there's one big reason to eat fermented foods: flavour! My personal favourite byproduct of the fermentation process is the richness and depth these tasty microorganisms bring to so many meals. From tangy yoghurt to fizzy kombucha to briny kimchi, fermented foods are just plain fun to try.

If you've turned your nose up at the idea of fermented foods because of the potential funky flavours and idea of live bacteria, maybe now is the time to get a bit more wild than mild.

"Fermented foods in general are beneficial," said Erica Sonnenburg, senior research scientist at Stanford University School of Medicine in California. "There's not one specific kind that's better than another."

Start small with some of the suggestions below and work your way to a full meal of fermented flavour.

Yoghurt and kefir

You're probably eating fermented food every morning without stopping to consider it. Many yoghurt brands contain the probiotic microorganisms (noted by the "live and active cultures" label) that add to this popular dairy product's signature tangy taste.

Kefir is looser in consistency than yoghurt, which is why it's often classified as a "drinkable yoghurt" or a fermented beverage. This liquid fermented food can be found in the refrigerated yoghurt section to be consumed on its own, but it can also be added to morning smoothies.

You can use yoghurt or kefir instead of buttermilk, milk or sour cream in your favourite baking recipes. Add some to your weekend pancakes or waffles, bake a batch of blueberry kefir muffins or even try a sweet cobbler cake.

Sauerkraut can also work as a side dish or mix-in just like kimchi. Photo credit: Getty Images


White, yellow, red, sweet, salty - no matter your preference, there's a miso style out there to meet your palate. The flavour and colour profile of this versatile Japanese soybean paste is based on the ingredients used and the length of fermentation time.

Choose a few varieties of miso and sample them in various dishes to taste the range of flavour. While miso soup is one of the most common ways of consuming this paste, it can also be used as a condiment or a savoury add-in, along the same lines as mayonnaise or soy sauce.

Make a miso marinade for seafood, chicken or tofu, blend it into a salad dressing or dip like this carrot miso dressing, or mix it into an umami-rich miso sauce for pasta.


No longer a cult beverage, kombucha is the fermented drink that's easy to find in big-box retailers as well as high-end markets and local breweries. It's technically a fermented tea, which can be flavoured with all kinds of fruit and herbs to make it sweeter and more complex in taste.

Plain or flavoured kombucha can serve as the base for mocktails or cocktails. Kombucha contains trace amounts of alcohol, no more than 0.5 percent in commercially bottled brands. Hard kombucha is more alcoholic, similar in booziness to a cider or hard seltzer.

Mix up one of these drinks for a fizzy refresher:

It's also surprisingly easy to make your own kombucha at home. All you need is brewed black tea, sugar, a bottle of plain kombucha to work as a starter liquid and a few weeks to get it going. If you're looking for a summer project, you'll soon be swimming in your own tasty flavoured fermented beverage.

Kombucha is a fermented drink that can be flavored with fruits and herbs to make it sweeter and more complex in taste. Photo credit: Getty Images

Sauerkraut and kimchi

These two styles stand out as the most widely known and widely available in the fermented cabbage category. While there are variations in technique and style for both, sauerkraut and kimchi are definitely the strongest and tangiest of the fermented foods mentioned here.

But that's not to say they're always too intense for most palates. Not all kimchi is spicy, for example, and can include other vegetables such as carrots, radishes and cucumbers for a wide variety of tastes and textures.

If you really love both sauerkraut and kimchi, combine them in a fermented food lover's ultimate sandwich: the kimchi reuben. As a side dish or topping, try kimchi in place of slaw on tacos, stir it into scrambled eggs for breakfast, pile it on a grain bowl or stir it into fried rice.

Sauerkraut is a traditional accompaniment for pierogi and sausage, but it also works as a side dish or mix-in just like kimchi. Substitute sauerkraut anywhere you'd add pickles to a sandwich, use it as a baked potato topping with sour cream, or even pair it with cream cheese as a dip for vegetables. (Add fresh herbs such as dill or parsley to liven it up.)

Casey Barber is a food writer, artist and editor of the website Good Food Stories.