Okay, so you want to get started with fermented vegetables. Maybe you’ve heard of the health benefits of probiotic rich fermented foods, or you want to utilize fermentation as a natural way to preserve food long term. Maybe you just want to eat some tasty food. No matter what your reasoning, you can get started fermenting vegetables at home!
Fermented vegetables and how I got started
I have been fermenting vegetables since early 2015. When searching for a way to help my almost toddler deal with his new diagnoses, I found a study (similar to this one) out of Australia linking probiotics to healing anaphylactic food allergies. When I saw the price tag on the bottle of store bought probiotics I started to research other options.
The first vegetable I ever fermented was cabbage into sauerkraut. As I watched the magical process of fermentation progress in that glass jar in my tiny home kitchen, my life was changed forever. The steps I used to ferment those vegetables are simple, and still what I use to this day, hundreds (thousands?) of batches later. Here are those simple steps.
Steps for easy fermented vegetables
- prepare vegetables
- add salt and water if needed
- pack vegetables into jar or crock
- submerge everything under the brine
- leave room temperature to ferment
- check the ferment often as it developes
- keep everything submerged under the brine, and skim off any foam
- Taste often during the process and move it to the fridge when you think it’s done.
What is fermentation?
Fermentation is the metabolic process of certain bacteria. Some beneficial bacteria thrive and reproduce in an oxygen-free environment. In this process lactobacillus bacteria (among others) digest carbs and sugar and convert them into acids, yeast and carbon dioxide. This changes the flavor of the food but also switches that bland brine into an acidic vinegar like liquid.
What are some examples of fermented vegetables?
The most widely knows fermented vegetables are Sauerkraut, cucumber pickles and kimchi . It doesn’t stop there! You can ferment just about any vegetables you want, and in many different styles or recipes.
How does fermentation work to preserve food?
The process of fermentation creates an acidic environment. This acidity inhibits bad bacteria, like botulism, from growing.
There are bacteria all around us, on our food, our bodies and in our soil. If we create the right environment for these beneficial bacteria to grow, we also in turn create an inhospitable environment for bad barteria to grow. This is how fermentation preserves food. Take a fresh cabbage that may last in the fridge for only a few weeks and make sauerkraut that can last in your fridge for a year or more. That is all thanks to the good bacteria keeping things in balance.
When bad bacteria cannot proliferate, they cannot break down the food. Fermented vegetables can keep for long periods of time, even up to a year or more in cold storage.
Since this process happens without oxygen, we can ferment without mold growing because mold can only grow withoxygen.
Do you have to understand the science to understand fermented vegetables?
While I do believe it’s helpful to understand the basic process of fermentation, I don’t think you need to dig much past that to get started.
Humans fermented long before we had microscopes and before we had names for different strains of bacteria. The import understanding of fermentation comes with practice. Experience it will all your senses, start today!
How can I learn fermentation?
Watch some videos, read a little, take a class, talk to people who have fermented, buy this book. You can even take one of my online workshops, or grab the replay. All of that is great, but I believe people can only really learn from doing. Just start and learn as you go!
It’s important to watch your ferment closely, but don’t just look. Smell, taste, touch and listen too. Witness the process first hand so you may understand it intuitively.
What about food poisoning?
The science-y part that is important to me is that most food-borne illness, including and especially botulism, cannot grow in an acidic environment. Therefor, by nature, fermentation prevents food-borne illness. If your food has a pH of less than 4.6 it is considered acidic and safe from the bad guys.
When I first began fermenting at home I was really scared that I would do something wrong and make myself and my family sick. I wish I knew right away that an acidic food will not allow that to happen!
How do I know what the pH of my food is?
You can easily check the pH of your fermented foods by using these cheap pH strips. You just dip a little piece of the paper testing strip into your brine. Match the color up to the colors on the front of the container and it will tell you what the pH is.
How does fermentation work?
Fermentation works when we create the right environment for this process to take place.
Fermentation happens at room temperature and under a brine. The byproducts created during this bacterial process are c02, natural acids and yeast.
Knowing this, all we need to do is put the veggies in a jar, cover with brine, use a weight to keep the veggies submerged and a vented lid to keep the gases from building up in the jar. Mold can only grow on the surface. To prevent this just insure your food stays submerged.
There are many different ways to pack a jar or crock. There are glass weights, ceramic crocks with matching weights and lids. These springs from Ball are my favorite for smaller batches. You can even improvise by using something from around the house. As a last resort for a weight a plastic bag filled with water will do it.
If your room temperature is very warm, the fermentation process will progress faster. In turn, if it’s cold, it will go much slower. That is why it’s necessary to move your ferment to the refrigerator or a root cellar when it’s done to your liking. Switching to a cold space will slow your ferment almost to a stop, which will help keep it delicious for months to come.
Is the method the same for all types of vegetables?
There are two main methods of fermenation. The Brine Method and The Dry Salt Method. Use the brine method for whole or large cut veggies like cucumbers or carrots, and use dry salt for shredded vegetables like sauerkraut. The shredding and salting will break the cell structure and release the vegetable’s juices. Those juices and salt will become the brine, there’s no need for water. Shredded veggies use the dry salt method, whole or large cut use the brine method.
Is fermenting vegetables hard?
The biggest learning curve for me was figuring out how to effectively pack my vessel and what equipment to use. I found the easiest way for people to get started is by using a wide mouth mason jar. A quart or half gallon size words best depending on how big of a batch you are making.
Do you have to follow a recipe to safely ferment vegetables?
No! Understanding the basics of fermentation means you can make any recipe your own. Adjust salt to your preference. Add spices or herbs. Small batches are a good idea until you know if the flavors work well.
How do you know when vegetables are done fermenting?
When it tastes good to you the vegetables are done fermenting. Some ferments are great after just 3-5 days, others like sauerkraut can be 20 or more. Check on the ferment daily. Smell, taste, look and listen. Following along will teach you more than any book or video.
Set yourself up with success when fermenting vegetables
Pack your vessel tight and press it down under the brine. Skim any floaters off the surface. Use a cabbage leaf or large peice of whatever you’re fermenting on top to follow the veggies and help hold them under. Place a weight or spring on top of that and press down. Cover with a breathable lid. My fav set up for small batches is the Ball Lid and Spring Set. Pictured below.
What’s that on top of my ferment?
As the ferment progresses foam may develop on the surface. Skim it off to prevent unwanted mold from growing. Taste and smell often.
When you’re making fermented vegetables one of the byproducts is carbon dioxide. This will create bubbles in the brine. Those bubbles can sometimes create a foam that accumulates on the surface. Don’t worry, it’s totally normal. Check your ferment once a day, and skim off any foam or floating vegetables. This will prevent mold from growing on the surface. The only time I’ve grown mold on a ferment was when I forgot all about it and neglected to skim off what rose to the surface.
- Fermented vegetables can be very healthy to eat. They help increase good gut bacterial. This can help many ailments including IBS, asthma and allergies among many others.
- Fermentation happens at room temperature in an anaerobic environment (that just means “without oxygen”).
- If the room temperature is very warm, the process will move faster, if it’s colder it will move slower.
- The bacteria needed to ferment your vegetables are there naturally, you don’t need to add anything special.
- The process of fermentation has a built in protection from food poisoning because, by nature, it transforms the food and becomes acidic.
- Consider the food or liquid acidic when the pH is under 4.6.
- Mold can only grow with oxygen, so it will only ever grow on the surface of the ferment. To prevent this, keep everything submerged under the brine.
- There are 2 main methods of vegetable fermentation:
The brine method: Pour salt and water over whole or large cut veggies, like this dill pickle recipe.
The dry salt method: No water needed. Massage salt into shredded vegetables like in my sauerkraut recipe.
- Fermentation takes time. The submerged vegetables have to sit at room temperature for this process to take place. The time it takes varies based on what is being fermented and the other factors (like how warm the room is) as well.
- The best way to know when your ferment is done is taste it! When it tastes good to you, remove the lid and the weight, start eating some and move the left overs to the fridge with a lid on it.
For quick reference, you can save or print this summary below.
That’s it! Well, not it, but that’s enough for now. Start fermenting vegetables or trying new recipes. There are so many variations, this never gets boring. After you have a basic understanding you can expand your knowledge by observation and experimentation. Try new recipes and don’t forget to get create and give it your own personal flare.
Check back here often for more of my recipes for fermented vegetables and other food preservation recipes. If you haven’t yet, check out this article on How I Make Simple Sauerkraut at Home.