Editor’s Note: Sign up for CNN’s Eat, But Better: Mediterranean Style. Our eight-part guide shows you a delicious expert-backed eating lifestyle that will boost your health for life.
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 pasteurized, 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: flavor! My personal favorite byproduct of the fermentation process is the richness and depth these tasty microorganisms bring to so many meals. From tangy yogurt 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 flavors 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 flavor.
Yogurt and kefir
You’re probably eating a fermented food every morning without stopping to consider it. Many yogurt 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 yogurt, which is why it’s often classified as a “drinkable yogurt” or a fermented beverage. This liquid fermented food can be found in the refrigerated yogurt section to be consumed on its own, but it can also be added to morning smoothies.
You can use yogurt or kefir instead of buttermilk, milk or sour cream in your favorite baking recipes. Add some to your weekend pancakes or waffles, bake a batch of blueberry kefir muffins or even try a sweet cobbler cake.
White, yellow, red, sweet, salty — no matter your preference, there’s a miso style out there to meet your palate. The flavor and color 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 flavor. While miso soup is one of the most common ways of consuming this paste, it can also be used as a condiment or a savory add-in, along the same lines as mayonnaise or soy sauce.
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 flavored with all kinds of fruit and herbs to make it sweeter and more complex in taste.
Plain or flavored kombucha can serve as the base for mocktails or cocktails. Kombucha contains trace amounts of alcohol, no more than 0.5% in commercially bottled brands. Hard kombucha is more alcoholic, similar in booziness to a cider or hard seltzer.
This summer, 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 flavored fermented beverage.
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.)