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Why, what a lovely microbiome you have! An article in yesterday’s New York Times covers doctors studying the DNA of microbe colonies that help keep us healthy. Like a little planet, the human body seems to be covered with tons of unique microbe ecosystems: The critters on your tongue are different from the ones on your gums and the ones on your left hand are not the same as those on your right! Microflora also very from person to person and between those who are healthy and those who are sick. How do they benefit us? The article gives this illustration of their value for digestion:

In 2008, Dr. Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota, took on a patient suffering from a vicious gut infection of Clostridium difficile. She was crippled by constant diarrhea, which had left her in a wheelchair wearing diapers. Dr. Khoruts treated her with an assortment of antibiotics, but nothing could stop the bacteria. His patient was wasting away, losing 60 pounds over the course of eight months. “She was just dwindling down the drain, and she probably would have died,” Dr. Khoruts said.

Dr. Khoruts decided his patient needed a transplant. But he didn’t give her a piece of someone else’s intestines, or a stomach, or any other organ. Instead, he gave her some of her husband’s bacteria.

Before the transplant, [a genetic survey of the bacteria in her intestines] found her gut flora in a desperate state. “The normal bacteria just didn’t exist in her,” said Dr. Khoruts. “She was colonized by all sorts of misfits.” Two weeks after the transplant, the scientists analyzed the microbes again. Her husband’s microbes had taken over. “That community was able to function and cure her disease in a matter of days,” said Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-author of the paper. “I didn’t expect it to work. The project blew me away.”

It only gets more interesting from there. Read on.

In this post I run down different ways to store pickles mold-free while they ferment. Storage is a crucial aspect of making pickles and there’s more than one way to do it. Every technique achieves the same essential goal, though: keeping the pickles from being exposed to the air for too long. Otherwise, mold may gain a foothold and begin to grow. In most cases this means you want to keep the pickling food submerged in brine, away from the air.

On the other hand, it’s important to keep the surface of that brine open to the air. If you seal the pickle tightly with a lid, carbon dioxide—a natural byproduct of fermentation—will build up and create pressure that could cause leaks or even spray pickle juice everywhere when you open the lid. Salt-brine pickles ferment at room temperature, not in the fridge, and it’s best to leave them in a dark place like a cabinet. Because the jars stand open to the air, it’s a good idea to cover them with a towel to keep out dust and random flies. It is also wise to put your jar on top of a kitchen towel or in an open tupperware that will catch any drips.

Pickling can take as little as a week and as long as a month (or even longer) depending on the size and density of the food you’re pickling. The bigger and harder it is, the slower it pickles. The temperature of your storage space influences the timing too. The hotter it is, the faster the microorganisms will do their work. The good news is that it’s hard to over-pickle something. If you’re not sure your pickle is ready, give it a taste. When it tastes the way you like, remove your seal, put a lid on the pickle, and put it in the fridge. This will stop the fermentation, although the flavors of your spices will continue to soak into the pickle.

So, here are some techniques for keeping your food mold-free while it ferments: Read the rest of this entry »

kefir grains

An article in yesterday’s New York Times raises the question, are probiotics just hype? The answer, according to the article, is no. But the author points out that there are many kinds of potentially beneficial bacteria in unpasteurized fermented foods such as yogurt, and not all of them are beneficial in the same way. Indeed, even a particular bacterium has different strains that may or may not offer particular health boosts.

How are you supposed to know which probiotics are helpful and which aren’t? The author recommends searching the abstracts of studies at, which can be both enlightening and confusing. It would be nice to have a source or a number of sources that gather scientific data together into a kind of guide to probiotics. Does anybody out there know of any?

Meanwhile, I’m not about to stop eating live foods just because each and every bacteria that populate them has yet to be profiled. Eating yogurt or homemade kefir daily, along with turmeric paste, has helped me stop heartburn. More on how to do that later! Up above are my kefir grains, a little colony of bacteria and yeast that turn milk into kefir yogurt for me. And a strawberry-melon-mint kefir shake like the one below is a particularly tasty way to get a stomach full of helpful probiotics.

kefir shake

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