History and Benefits of Fermented Foods


Homemade kombucha with SCOBY

Kombucha is my personal favorite fermented food but there are many other cherished favorites from all around the world. Every culture and tradition has a unique one of its own.

While fermented foods are pretty foreign to us these days, a few fermented foods have had a history in our country. Examples are pickles and relish. Unfortunately though, with modern food practices, most of these are no longer fermented; they are fake imitations, made with distilled vinegar and not with living cultures.

A little History of Fermented Foods

Fermentation is so common, so natural and inevitable that every traditional culture around the world has its own signature fermented food. For Russians, it’s kefir, a yeast fermented, thick milk. For the Chinese it’s the thousand-year egg, a nearly black, preserved egg. For Koreans it’s kimchi, a pungent side dish of fermented cabbage, garlic, and peppers. Colombians drink a fermented corn beverage called chicha. Germans like to add sauerkraut – sour cabbage – to sausage. A staple food for Hawaiians is poi, a fermented taro porridge. The Japanese add the sticky and stinky fermented soybeans called natto on top of rice. And kombucha, a fermented sweet black tea, has been adopted by cultures all over the world for centuries.

The list of interesting fermented foods could go on and on. Every culture has, throughout history, made them both intentionally and inadvertently. If you leave raw milk out on the counter, for example, the lactobacillus naturally present in the raw milk transforms the milk into yogurt after some hours. When you soak nuts in warm water, yeasts are mobilized to start the process of break down. Making mead, a honey wine, is as simple as adding water to honey and letting the natural yeasts present in the honey do their magic. The same is true of grape wine. The yeasts present on the skin of the grape transforms the sweet fruit into wine.

Benefits of Fermentation

Fermented foods should always be a part of our diet. Bacteria and yeasts confer so many benefits and we simply cannot be healthy without them. We are designed to work in synergy with microbes.

  • Fermentation neutralizes plant toxins, making vegetables more digestible.
  • Fermentation of foods releases trapped vitamins and minerals from plant fibers.
  • Bacteria and yeasts themselves are replete with B vitamins.
  • Bacteria in the gut helps to stimulate peristalsis (fecal elimination), staving off constipation.
  • Friendly bacteria keeps pathogens from gaining territory in our gut, i.e. they help keep us from getting sick.
  • A mother’s healthy microbial colony can prevent neonatal infections.

Bacteria and yeast assist many of our natural processes, which alone, in a sterile environment, we simply could not mamage. One of modern people’s biggest health problems is the avoidance of fermented foods and the consumption of nothing but dead, packaged foods. Bags of chips, canned food, sodas, and boxed dinners are designed to be sterile. Not only is this an ideal home for pathogens (think food poisoning) but, without our microbial friends, it is also food which is very difficult to digest and assimilate.

There are by far more fermented foods than I listed on this page. What are some of your favorites that you’ve made at home or tried on your travels? How did you like them and how did they make you feel?

How to Make Kombucha


  • 3 quarts of pure water
  • 4 black tea bags
  • 1 cup organic, unrefined sugar
  • 1/2 cup plain kombucha for acidity
  • The SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts)

Boil some of the water and steep the tea. Add sugar and dissolve. Add the rest of the water. Once the mixture is room temperature add the kombucha and SCOBY. Cover with a paper towel and store at room temperature or in a warm environment. With a fully formed mother the process should only take a week. The kombucha is ready when it no longer tastes sweet. The kombucha is over done (but still good) when it tastes like vinegar. Transfer to bottles or a pitcher and store in the fridge.

If you don’t have a friend that can pass on a mother, just make your own!

Use the same recipe as above and wait. It may take a month to get a mother as large as the one shown in the picture above, but once you’ve got it you can then begin transferring it to the next batch each time.

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  1. During storage, do you leave it covered or uncovered? If covered, air-tight or no?

    I’ve been reading a lot lately about the benefits of fermented foods and would love to start trying them, but I’m paranoid of contamination by bad organisms and want to make sure I keep it “safe.”


    • I’m glad you asked. I should have added that in the post.

      I cover the jar with a paper towel and a rubber band. The acidity (from the 1/2 cup kombucha) will fend off potential pathogens. Additionally, pathogens are not appealing to us while friendly microbes are. I have made countless gallons of kombucha and yogurt and sauerkraut and everything and only once encounterd a problem. It was the cabbage. It had molded. It really couldn’t be more obvious. Pathogens are rather gross. Also, if a pathogen takes over the product, it will not be sour.

      After the kombucha is ready, bottle it and keep it in the fridge so that it doesn’t become like vinegar. If it is left out at room temp, it will continue to ferment.

      • Is it ok to cover it with plastic wrap? I’m always confused about this with fermentation recipes. When it says cover, is that just with something light to keep out dust, or can I cork it or put plastic wrap over it and make it airtight? (although I guess a cork isn’t really airtight).

        Also, is the SCOBY different from apple cider vinegar mother? Or is that essentially a kombucha (with longer fermentation)?

  2. You can also use the commercial bottles of kombucha to get a SCOBY (in my head, I pronounce this scooby). Plus you then have a glass bottle to store the new kombucha in for the fridge.

  3. Konbucha is Japanese (昆布茶), but in Japan they make it a bit differently. My favorite version here is using a konbucha powder available at stores everywhere, an umeboshi (sour pickled plum), shredded squeezed ginger, and shredded long onion. Really warms you up on a cold winter’s night.

    • Kombucha is very popular in Japan (as it is in China and Russia) but where it originated is hotly debated. :)

      Your kombucha recipe sounds so interesting. I am going to have to try that! Umeboshi, onion, and ginger. What a combo!

  4. I recently bought a bottle but was advised not to drink it because I’m breastfeeding….whats your take onthis?

    • Eesh. That’s sad. As if kombucha were dangerous or something. I’m guessing a “wise” American advised you against it? A bacteria paranoid westerner? Don’t mean to be sarcastic but really, we’re really lost over here.

      Fermented foods should be enjoyed by all. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are no exception. Babies get their healthy colonies from their mothers. Plus, fermented foods fend off illnesses, making mothers stronger and more resilient to illness.

      I drank kombucha and ate other fermented foods the whole time I was pregnant and breastfeeding Evelyn and mothers all over the world do the same.

    • If a woman has eaten a mostly SAD diet & is full of toxins, either from exposure or a metabolic deficiency that interferes with the toxin removal process (MTHFR for example), she would be wise to start slowly & to look for a reaction in herself or her child, increasing amount slowly. Kombucha has glucathione which is a potent detoxifier & breastfeeding is not the time to mobilize toxins – for obvious reasons. I’ve never had any problems, but have eaten clean & lots of ferments for a decade before I had my son. Nearly 50% what goes into my mouth is fermented, including about a quart of kombucha a day… my son, 2.5 & still breastfeeding LOVES kombucha & drinks about 1/2 c a day (which is a lot for a little guy!) I imagine he’s as clean as a whistle inside ;) However, my friend had to stop drinking kombucha because her nursling broke out in a terrible rash shortly after mom started drinking kombucha… The mom felt that she was mobilizing to many toxins & her little daughter couldn’t process it, so she quit drinking it & daughter’s skin cleared up. that mama is not primal, but does eat clean… we just all have different toxic loads for various reasons.

      • Even this I find dubious reasoning, though I have heard the argument many times before. So the woman has eaten SAD all her life, maybe is overweight, maybe has taken drugs and prescriptions and clearly has ample toxins in her body.

        Anything healthy will promote detox. Cilantro, parsley, fermented foods, and just anything nutrient dense.

        Your friend’s rash could have been caused by any number of things. I used to get rashes in a big way when I mixed fruit sugar with fermented foods. I have fructose malabsorption and so the fructose ferments in my gut, add some kombucha to that and I was in for a very uncomfortable day. But was it detox? No. It was a problem with carbohydrate digestion.

        I strongly believe that we need to eat nutrient dense and fermented foods at all stages of our lives. If rashes result, consider that it may be a carbohydrate malabsorption issue, and hence an overgrowth of undesirable bacteria and yeast, rather than the sudden and massive mobilization and detoxification of toxins.

        • i was presenting a possibility to Jennifer regarding why there might be contraindications for kombucha during breastfeeding. Obviously its not the case with everyone, as I gave an example of how my breastfed boy loves his kombucha. My friend does not eat a SAD diet, she’s not primal, but eats whole organic food & has been organic for 1/2 a decade. She also has reduced her toxic exposure through carefully choosing lotions, fabrics, etc. It was her baby that developed the rash when mom started the kombucha, not the mother. When mom stopped the kombucha, baby cleared. Babies immune systems are underdeveloped, so it stands to reason that during a detox in mom the toxins would be mobilized & enter the breastmilk (which is why a detox program is not adviseable during the breastfeeding journey). The mobilized toxins may have been too much of a burden on the baby’s underdeveloped immune system. Other ferments, however, support the immune system w/o a strong detox, it is the glucathione in the kombucha that supports the detox process. Either way, ultimately a mom wants to grow & support a strong baby & will make adjustments if her child is having a reaction to something in her breastmilk :)

          • I think this is an interesting topic. Kombucha is detoxifying, although I don’t think it is something that would be of general concern. Many mothers see rashes and reactions in their babies to all kinds of foods – milk, wheat, in this case kombucha. I feel like you were demonizing kombucha in particular as though it were more likely to cause reactions. I just don’t know about that. You might also advise, then, that she stay away from cilantro, beets, lemons, garlic, ginger, artichoke. These are all powerful detoxifiers. It may depend on just how toxic the woman is. If she’s a walking cesspool then maybe, yeah. :)

            Of course you did not suggest that this would be the case for everyone but just because one woman’s baby comes down with a rash while mom was drinking kombucha doesn’t mean that she was mobilizing toxins. And now that you clarify your friend’s diet and lifestyle, it doesn’t sound like she was overly toxic to begin with, so where is this crazy toxic mobilization coming from? Now the scenario really looks like what I am trying to oppose. That every god forsaken symptom is a result of detoxification! Do you know what I mean? So many people, my past-self included, blames unexplained symptoms on detox. It can go on like this for years without ever finding a really solid solution or culprit.

            I absolutely agree with you that pregnant and breastfeeding women should hold off on a strong detox program (including significant weight loss since toxins are stored in fat) and I agree that kombucha is unique and quite remarkable in that it has the power to detox, but drinking a little of it, say one or two cups throughout a day, is not likely to have such a dramatic detoxifying effect.

          • peggy~ I’m not trying to argue with you, i’m simply suggesting that every mother & every baby have their own unique situation with its own set of variables & that ultimately the mother should chose what she feels is best for her baby. In the examply of my friend, she honestly felt that the rash was a result of mobilized toxins. She responded to her gut, quit kombucha & baby’s rash cleared. Baby was not a newborn (6-ish mo & no solids yet), so there were no other dietary changes that mom could attribute to baby’s reaction. I’m not sure where you got the idea that I am demonizing kombucha?! I personally make 4 gallons per week for a 3 person household, 1 of us is only 2.5 yrs old. I think kombucha is great. I was not comparing kombucha to milk, or wheat, or artichoke or anything else on the list you mentioned. The question was about kombucha, which is all i was responding to! To address your list, though: absolutely I think a woman should stop drinking milk (or anything else you mentioned) if her baby has a bad response to it! My poor little guy had crazy colic when he was a few weeks old & I could hear his poor little tummy roaring & gurgling in between his tears, so I new it was something his digestive system couldn’t tolerate from my diet. I quit my cow milk & he immediately improved & was a whole new baby w/i a couple weeks. I am very supportive of a mother listening to her gut & her baby & making adjustments as she seems fit. I’m also not sure where I gave you the idea that I think every reaction is from detox?! I was refering to a specific situation. I am of the mind that there are many variables, both internal & external that effect the way our bodies react to things. the MTHFR genetic mutation that I mentioned in my 1st comment is an example of an 1 internal variable, which in that particular example is many variables, 1 of which is a decreased ability to detoxify because the cellular process of creating glucathion is impaired back at the B to methyl conversion. In that scenario, a persons free radical & toxic load build up slowly over time. Does everyone have MTHFR mutations? No! Its just 1 example of many of how every person has their own variables, their own unique situation that influences their health. Again, I am not the kind of person to attribute everything to detox. I have a much more holistic view of health. In the end, I believe that, Jennifer (who posed the original comment) & every other mother should learn to listen to their guts (intuition & physically) regarding their nurslings.

        • Hi Peggy,
          Just wondering if you know the fructose content of kombucha? I have fructose malabsorption too. I read that the mother splits the sucrose and uses the glucose, leaving fructose behind! Eeek!

          • Sarah, I don’t know but I have also heard that the kombucha cultures use glucose. Some kombucha brands are kind of sweet but some of them are not at all. I have also made some batches that are totally not sweet. This makes me think that the kombucha cultures do use fructose. It may just be that they use them as a last resort?

          • Thank you Peggy. I agree with you. It may depend on the mother. I have made batches at home that vary from slightly sweet to extremely sour. It’s worth a little more investigation. :)
            Love your blog, by the way.

  5. Hi, Peggy:

    First, LOVE your blog!!!!

    Second, where you get the “1/2 C of plain Kombucha for acidity” if you’ve never made this before? Do you just buy it from someone? I’ve never made this before and would love to try. Where would you suggest I buy my Kombucha from?


    Blessings to you and your lovely family!

    Patti :)

    • Thanks Patti! These days you can buy kombucha in any health food store. Even safeway carries it now. Have fun!

      • Oh, but it is incredibly expensive, which is why you would want to make it yourself. :)

        • Thanks, Peggy! I guess I’ll get a couple of small bottles to have so I can have enough to use in both my first batch of homemade and then wait the month to produce my SCOBY and then make my very first batch using my homemade SCOBY! Can’t wait! Thanks so much! You ROCK! :)

  6. I’ve been brewing my own the past few months now and absolutely love it. My body loves and craves it everyday now!

  7. Poi, organic full-fat yogurt, kim chee and homemade sauerkraut are all regular parts of my diet….but of all fermented foods, I gotta go with my favorite: beer. :-)

  8. Thanks for the great article . I have 2 questions :
    1) How much sugar is left once fermented ? (trying to avoid sugar)
    2) is there a version without caffeine/teein that you have tried ?

    • Hi Frank, according to the nutrition facts in commercial bottles it’s only a couple grams of sugar left over. It depends on how long you let it ferment but it really isn’t all that much.

      I have made kombucha with green tea many times and once had some decaf green tea around which I used. Technically, you could just make it with water but that might be a bit boring. Try using an herbal tea and let me know how it turns out!

  9. How old is Kombucha? Have you ever tried using raw honey instead of sugar?


    • Don’t know for sure how old it is. It appears in written history in the 19th century but may have come from China or Japan even earlier than that.

      I have used raw honey to make kombucha a long time ago when I still ate honey. It worked but I don’t remember the details.

  10. Does the new scoby grow on top of or underneath the old scoby? Thanks~

  11. How exciting! Thanks for the great post. Am going to start making a scoby soon for my first batch. How much of it do you drink, a glass a day? And whats your take on kefir? I have been making goats kefir for ages but a bit concerned about casein.

  12. I should really experiment with making kombucha out of some of my favourite Mighty Leaf flavoured black teas. Mmmmm, like the one with longan fruit…

    The main reason I haven’t made my own yet is because I have an over-crowded counter as it is – rice and/or nuts soaking, dehydrated nuts stored, random fermented beverage experiments fermenting… My latest attempt has actually turned out quite lovely: I had some whey left over from making ricotta, so I mixed it with pure sour cherry juice, added some unrefined sugar, and a dash of almond extract. The flavours melded really nicely, and after a few days at room temperature and a few in the fridge it’s turned gently sour and has the fine carbonation that I love in home fermented beverages.

    I also make yogurt on a regular basis. I used to make it with cream when I was avoiding non-high-fat dairy, now I’m making it with raw milk – which I have FINALLY been able to source!!

    I also make kimchi once in a while. I’d make it all the time but it sure does stink the counter and fridge up. The mark of a good kimchi, as I see it, is that it smells terrible from afar, but when you stick your nose right in it smells heavenly.

    OH! I also did a fun experiment this week: I felt like making homemade pasta but since I limit my wheat intake to well-fermented stuff I thought I’d have to pass on it… Well, I searched around and the WAPF website had a little article which said that apparently pelmeni were originally made with fermneted dough! They had a recipe: basically you just add some (cultured) whey to your flour+egg mixture and leave it for a few days. I left it for 3-4 days, at which point it had a light fermented aroma and some air bubbles when I rolled it out. Flavour was a bout the same. I put the leftover dough in the fridge and after 5 days pulled it out again. It smelled just like sourdough!! Cooked some up, the tang wasn’t very noticeable in the rich bone broth. Will keep it longer and see how far I can take it!

  13. Oh, I forgot to mention, Russia’s got a ton of fermented stuff: sauerkraut (in a different style than the german, much crunchier and with carrot, with soudough rye used for starter bacteria), fully sour and half-sour pickles (mmmmm…).

    The national drink used to be kvass, which is basically a fermentation of rye bread mash! It was very lightly alcoholic and only a touch sweet. There were street vendors selling it everywhere, and everyone drank it (kids included). Now it’s been turned into a nasty pop beverage.

    They also eat a ton of fermented dairy. Besides kefir there is also ‘prostakvasha’ – like a lumpy, liquidy yogurt, everyone made their own. From the prostakvasha people also made a pressed (fresh) cheese. Then there is ‘ryazhenka’… mmmm…. The milk is placed in the oven at a low temperature for a long time, and it caramelises (I guess this is like the initial stages of making dulce de leche). Then it’s fermented with kefir-like bacteria. This stuff is ridiculously good.
    There’s more… ‘maslyanka’, sour cream… They like their dairy over there!

    • Alexandra, this is fascinating! I’ve read about a kefir fast in Russia that new mothers go on for a couple of weeks. Have you heard of this? I’m curious to know more. The caramelized dairy + kefir sounds amazing, btw.

  14. peggy~ that’s a gallon size jar in the pic, right? what brand is it or where did you get it? it has such a beautiful shape & my fermented lemonage, rootbeer & ginger beer would appreciate the air-tight top so they could get really bubbly. weck makes some beautiful 1.5L jars, but the price is a bit steep…

    • It’s 3 quarts. I got it at a thrift store for a couple of bucks. The top was broken which was fine with me since I don’t use it anyway.

  15. Speaking of Korea, there you can easily buy fermented alcoholic rice wines (not to be mistaken with soju) that are delicious and healthier than most alcoholic beverages. Rice wine often accompanies meals, alongside kimchi.

  16. Every year in August I order a case of organic pickling cucumbers and make lacto-fermented pickles. I eat them up so fast because they are so delicious! I also make various fermented cabbage/veggie/kelp “salads,” kombucha (last batch was flavored with elderberries), and water kefir. I have been using the water kefir instead of whey to make nut and seed “cheeses.”

    One thing to remember with kombucha: it does not like metal, not even a metal spoon or fork dipped into the glass jar. It is reminiscent of the Celtic fairy lore in which iron was horribly weakening and repulsive to the fairies. It seems that kefir doesn’t like metal either.

    A few years ago, I made gorgeous sourdough spelt bread. But then I figured out that I could not tolerate gluten, even if the flour had been well-soured and fermented. I use to make yogurt from raw pastured cow’s and then goat’s milk, but my acne got bad from that, so I stopped all dairy. The acne cleared for a few years. Now it is back, accompanied by fatigue, low thyroid, stressed adrenals and other hormones. I have now cut out all grains and legumes and have increased grass fed meats raw and cooked. I sill eat veggies and fruits with limited amounts of soaked nuts and seeds.

    Whenever I cut out something, I notice a huge improvement, followed with a gradual return to old symptoms. I take pro-biotics and fermented foods, multiple times daily. Hopefully when my gut heals in months or a year, I may try to add raw butter, cheese and fermented dairy back in.

    • It’s hard, isn’t it, the ups and downs? You read about people that figured out they couldn’t tolerate something, cut it out and having been doing great since. For some of us though it seems that issues just keep cropping up. Like you said, hopefully one day the healing will be complete and some of those good, yummy whole foods will be tolerable again.

      On that note, Peggy are you eating alliums now? I thought I saw that on your FB page. If so, that’s a big step forward in healing!

      • Definitely not eating alliums! Nor am I expecting to heal from fructose malabsorption. I don’t think enough is known about the condition at this point to believe that it is something we can “heal” from. I suspect that I have always had it, just like my daughter always has. Maybe it is a result of some other imbalance, which maybe I passed down to her, I don’t know, but that’s just it, I don’t know, and no one else does either. A lot of people claim that we can heal from these conditions. I believe this is more speculation than anything else. I was raised on anti-biotics, packaged foods, tylonol, and sugar. What is my body really capable of now? As far as I’m concerned, this is my fate. If I “heal”, cool, if I don’t, such is life.

  17. I went to whole foods and they did not have plain kombucha. They did have GT’s brand raw kombucha drink with lavendar flavoring. Do you think this would work as a starter to make my own SCOBY?

    • No unflavored kombucha huh? I don’t know for sure how the mother would like the lavender. For all I know the flower might weaken the SCOBY but I just can’t say for sure.

  18. Concerning fermented foods: I have some raw goats milk i’d like to ferment into yogurt, but i do not wish to buy a starter culture. I am doing an elimination diet to figure out what my body can and cannot tolerate and the next thing i’d like to add in is dairy. I know the results may not be as consistent or as tasty as with a culture but im ok with that. Every source ive come across seems stuck on the idea there must be a culture. Can i just leave the milk, enzymes and bacteria intact, in a warm place for 24 hours or so? Anyone have any experience/ thoughts on this?

    • I used to leave my raw milk out on the counter for up to 24 hours. I didn’t use a starter culture and really preferred it that way. It’s clumpier and a little different than yogurt but suites my taste well. If it wasn’t warm outside, I would leave it on the floor by the fridge where the warm air came out.

      You can definitely tell if good or bad bacteria has fermented because the good stuff is sour and the bad stuff is just plain putrid.

  19. Hi! I love Kombucha but am worried the sugar in it will break me out. Is my fear illogical? Also, sugar ages the skin and breaks down collagen so I’m wondering if the poison is in the dosage…

    • Des, the sugar could make you break out, especially if you’re sensitive to fructose. And yes, sugar ages the skin so it is better to stay away anyway.

  20. Can I use glucose instead of normal sugar to make kombucha?

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