Fermented foods are having a big moment right now. You’ve probably noticed items like kombucha, kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, and hot sauce taking up major real estate on grocery store shelves. But what is fermentation anyway? Simply put, fermentation is the process of sugars (found in food) being broken down by bacteria and yeasts in an oxygen-free environment. During this transformation, bad bacteria is killed off (due to the lack of oxygen) and lactic acid is produced, naturally preserving the food and giving it that signature sour, tangy flavor.
One reason for the recent fermented food popularity surge is more people are finally getting clued in to the myriad health benefits such foods provide. Not only does lactic acid fermentation lead to the creation of essential enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics, it has also been shown to help break down food into a more digestible form, supporting greater overall gut health. Lucky for us Chicagoans, there are a plethora of Midwest-made fermented foods readily available at both local grocery stores and restaurants. Here are five of our favorites you should try right now!
Although still fairly new on the market, kombucha (a fermented tea beverage often flavored with fruit/citrus juices and spices) seems to be everywhere these days and delivers all the fizziness and buzz of a good soda with hardly any sugar or caffeine. Chicago-based Arize Imperial Kombucha is leading the movement here at home with their inventive varieties like Orange Basil, Turmeric Ginger, Elderberry, and Spearmint. All of their ingredients, from tea to fruit, are premium and organic and all produce that goes into their blends is locally sourced, leading to the purest flavor possible. You can find Arize bottled at the Sugar Beet Co-op, Dill Pickle Co-op, Go Grocer, and Green Grocer, and on tap at more than 30 city restaurants.
Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, The Brinery has taken the Midwest by storm with their extensive collection of naturally fermented foods. While sauerkraut is their bread and butter (utilizing vegetables from cabbage to beets, radishes, and even seaweed), they also produce some seriously delicious hot sauces and kimchi to round out your condiment collection. All of The Brinery’s vegetables are sourced from Michigan family-run farms and processed in small batches to preserve quality. Another distinguishing factor is that all of their veggies are kept raw rather than going through pasteurization. This helps retain the maximum amount of nutrients while also keeping the veggies nice and crunchy. The Brinery products are now sold at most Chicagoland Whole Foods as well as Plum Market, Local Foods, and a number of specialty stores like Publican Quality Meats, Olivia’s Market, and La Sardine.
Illinois and Michigan aren’t the only Midwest states jumping on the fermented food bandwagon. Wisconsin’s Spirit Creek Farm, located in the town of Cornucopia, has an extensive catalog of fermented foods in their arsenal. As with The Brinery, Spirit Creek’s product line is entirely raw (or unpasteurized) and based around Midwest produce. Some unique standouts from their collection include spicy pickled green beans, pickled ginger carrots, pickled beets, and a zippy sauerkraut flavored with mustard seeds. All of Spirit Creek’s products can be purchased from their website, while select items can be found at Sugar Beet Co-op and Dill Pickle Co-op.
You might not have heard of shrub before, but you may know it by its alternative name, “drinking vinegar.” Shrubs are simply a combination of vinegar, simple syrup, and fruit, fermented together to create a tart, non-alcoholic beverage. They’re a fantastic way to settle your stomach at the beginning or end of a meal and a fun alternative cocktail mix-in. Madison-based Mad Maiden Shrub is one of the few drinking vinegar companies in the Midwest and currently produces both a Honey Ginger and Cranberry variety for sale. You can find their shrubs at the Gold Coast Whole Foods as well as Foxtrot grocers citywide.
With nearly 15 years of experience under their belts, Chicago’s own Co-op Hot Sauce knows a thing or two about everybody’s favorite condiment. Like many of the fellow businesses on this list, Co-op sources all of their vegetables locally and produces their hot sauce in small batches, giving each bottle a bold, rich flavor all its own. Although Co-op does maintain a few standard varieties in their collection, they are always churning out fun, new flavors and working on collaborations with other restaurants/breweries (think Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Half Acre Beer Company). While not all of their selections are fermented, they usually have at least one or two in rotation at a given time. Check out their collection at Whole Foods and Mariano’s as well as their café and retail space in Rogers Park.
More from Make It Better:
- The 8 Best Teas For Your Health
- Chicago’s 7 Best Restaurants for Fresh Pasta
- 10 Fabulous Chicago Food Halls You Need to Visit
Maddie LaKind is a Chicago-born personal chef, caterer and writer. Her love of gastronomy began with an introduction to the Food Network as a teenager and has since blossomed into a deep-rooted passion. She spent her early career in the food world working at the famed Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before moving on to other notable spots including Detroit’s Sister Pie bakery, and Floriole Bakery, Read It and Eat bookstore and The Social Table in Chicago. In her spare time, she can be found practicing yoga, hosting dinner parties for friends and sifting through her ever-growing cookbook collection. Maddie is also a supporter of PAWS Chicago. Since adopting her two cats from the shelter, she has served as a volunteer and donated her cooking services as an auction item at fundraisers.