How To Make Fermented (Cultured) Vegetables
If you rummage through your grandmother’s recipe cards, you might find instructions on how to make traditional fermented foods, recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation in countries all around the world. Northern European sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), Scandinavian gravalax (fermented fish), and Asian kimchi (fermented radishes) all came with immigrant families and are now commonly found in most supermarkets, but over time most people got out of the habit of making fermented foods at home.
No matter what your family traditions are, you can add homemade fermented vegetables to your own recipe file, and enjoy the health benefits that go with eating these probiotic-packed foods.
Why Is Fermentation Good?
Fermentation is a natural part of your digestive process. You’ve got millions of bacteria already working away in your large intestine, using fermentation to break down carbohydrates and proteins into short-chain fatty acids, which studies have shown help increase metabolism and reduce cholesterol. The microorganisms that create and remain in many fermented foods help your natural gut flora stay healthy and active.
Foods like cabbage, turnips, and radishes all have plenty of the dietary fiber (a carbohydrate) that your gut flora are looking for, and they’re packed full of vitamins and minerals. You’ll get the most nutritional benefit out of fresh vegetables like these if you eat them raw, but unfortunately many people have problems eating raw vegetables because they can be hard to digest. That’s where fermentation comes in – not the fermentation your gut flora are doing, but instead the action of the bacteria that do the fermentation in a crock or jar of shredded or sliced vegetables mixed with salt. The bacteria “pre-digest” the food for you, making it easier to process in your gut.
Fermented vegetables, bread made with sourdough starter, kombucha, kefir, yoghurt, and kvass are all traditional ways of preparing ingredients that make them easier to eat, easier to store, and more nutritious. When you start fermenting vegetables, you’ll be able to enjoy the health benefits of fermented foods and eat delicious dishes like caraway-spiced sauerkraut, spicy radish kimchee, and tangy ginger-carrot slaw.
We at KombuchaHome.com call Kombucha, Kefir, and Cultured Vegetables the ‘holy trinity’ of fermented foods, given how many benefits each of these fermented food types pack and how darn easy it is to create these foods with household food items for cheap.
If you have NOT started on your fermentation journey, there is no time like NOW — you won’t regret it.
Ok, let’s start talking about how to ferment / culture veggies.
In order to ferment vegetables, you need:
- the right equipment
- the right environment
- the right ingredients
Although fermentation is a natural process that combines healthy fresh vegetables and health-supporting bacteria, you need to follow a few guidelines to make sure that your fermented vegetables are safe to eat.
You can slice your vegetables or leave them whole, depending on what kind they are and what size they are. You should have a good sharp stainless-steel knife to peel and core your vegetables to prepare them.
A mandoline or grater will help you thinly slice or shred vegetables quickly.
You need a glass jar or ceramic/stoneware crock that is large enough to hold the prepped veggies while still leaving room for the liquid brine that will be created when the vegetables start to ferment. You can also use a container made out of food-safe plastic for fermenting vegetables, but do not use a metal container.
The container doesn’t need to have a lid. However, you do need to keep the veggies submerged in brine while they ferment. A clean plate that’s just big enough to fit inside the container works well to hold the vegetables under the surface of the liquid. You also need a clean tightly-woven cloth to cover the container and keep out any contamination or insects while allowing the gasses produced by the fermentation to escape.
Many people use fermenting crocks that close with airlocks. This allows the CO2 produced by the bacteria to escape, while also maintaining an anaerobic environment inside the container. When you use a container that’s covered by a cloth, you’ll probably find some mold on the top of the liquid. In general, this is harmless and can be easily scraped off, but some people don’t like the way it looks. To avoid mold, you need to prevent oxygen from reaching the fermenting vegetables. (“Anaerobic” means “without oxygen.”)
If you make kombucha at home you know how important the right environment is, especially when it comes to time and temperature. The bacteria fermenting the vegetables will be more active when the temperature is higher, but if it’s too warm, they will die off and your food will spoil. On the other hand, if the temperature is too cold, the bacteria will slow down or stop, and your vegetables won’t ferment.
Traditionally, vegetables were stored in fermenting crocks in order to preserve them over the winter. The crocks were kept very cool (but not refrigerated – this was before refrigeration!) and the fermentation went slowly over several months. Summertime fermentation was used to make pickled fruits and vegetables that were then stored at very cool temperatures.
On average, you should plan for at least two weeks of fermentation, at cool room temperature (65F). You also need to find a space for your fermentation container that is:
- out of your way, so you don’t have to move it
- not in direct sunlight or a well-lit room
- away from contaminants like dust, pollen, grease, and smoke
The bacteria that do the work of fermentation are naturally-occuring lactobacilli that convert the sugars in fresh vegetables into organic acids. These acids lower the pH of the liquid, making it too acidic for other bacteria and most molds. When you add salt to the mixture, that turns the liquid into brine, which also helps protect the food from invasive and potentially toxic microorganisms.
Using salt helps soften the vegetables to make them easier for the bacteria to begin processing. The salt also creates the protective brine, and helps to preserve the fermented vegetables for longer storage.
Use unrefined sea salt for the best results. We recommend:
Himalayan Salt (the best)
Celtic Sea Salt (second best)
Regular (unrefined sea salt)
Do not use iodized table salt; the iodine will kill off the good bacteria you’re depending on.
You’ll need water to clean your equipment and clean your vegetables. If the salt doesn’t pull out enough water from your vegetables, you may need to add water to the fermenting container. For all three of these, use filtered water to make sure that there is no chlorine that will kill your good bacteria. Chlorine is present in most town and city tap water. If you get your water from a spring or well, filter it first to make sure that you’ve removed any contaminants.
Almost any vegetable can be fermented, as long as you start with fresh, raw veggies. You want to retain all of the vitamins and minerals, and cooking vegetables changes and removes the nutrients. Clean the vegetables well, peel off tough skin where needed, and remove fibrous roots and stems. Here are some vegetables that are commonly fermented:
- celery root
- green beans
Basic Techniques For Fermenting Vegetables
These instructions are for a one-gallon container of fermented vegetables.
Prepare the vegetables and add the salt. Clean and trim five pounds of fresh vegetables. Starting with half the vegetables, shred or slice them, cut them in chunks, or leave them whole if they’re small (like radishes). You can do a mix of cuts as well to get an interesting texture in your final ferment. Put them in two large clean bowls as you prepare them. Sprinkle 4 to 5 teaspoons of sea salt over each bowl and use your hands to mix the salt in thoroughly. Crush and press the vegetables with your fingers to bruise them, something that helps the salt to draw out the liquid.
Fill the container. Pack the vegetables into a clean glass or stoneware crock, pushing them down firmly. The container should not be full to the brim. Put a clean plate on top of the vegetables. The plate should be almost as wide as the mouth of the container, but not entirely, to leave room for the brine around the edges.
Cover the container. Cover the container with a tightly-woven cloth secured by a string or rubber band, or close the container with an airlock lid. Put the container in a location that is out of the light, and that averages 65F to 70F.
Wait. It will take 24 hours or so before there will be enough brine to cover the vegetables. You may need to add weight on top of the plate to keep it and the veggies submerged in the liquid. Use a closed glass jar of liquid or something similar. DO NOT use metal (like a can of tomatoes) for the weight.
If you don’t see any liquid after 24 hours, mix 2 teaspoons of sea salt with 2 cups of filtered water and pour some or all of that liquid over the vegetables.
Taste the vegetables after the third day and see how they’re progressing. It will take at least a week to get a good ferment going, and at cool temperatures the vegetables will be fermented in two weeks. As soon as the veggies are tangy and crunchy-soft, put them in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation.
How to Avoid Mold Growing on the Top of Your Fermenting Veggies
Note that sometimes you can get a bit of harmless mold growth on the very top of your cultured veggies after a few days. This is usually white or black and a bit slimy. Don’t worry about it. You can just scrape it off the top without a fear. However, you can avoid mold growing on the top surface by ensuring your culturing veggies are always entirely submerged beneath the brine surface.
You can accomplish this two ways:
- Use a Fermentation Airlock device (the easiest method, but it requires you spending 5 or 10 bucks to buy an fermentation lock device)
2. Fill a food-safe ziplock bag bag with some salty water and press it down on the top of the veggies to push them down into the brine liquid. Then seal the jar. The weight of the bag will press the veggies into the brine so the surface of them does not contact the air. No contact with the air will mean no mold formation. Easy! Here is what this method looks like below:
Troubleshooting Fermented Vegetables
It’s important that there is enough brine to keep oxygen away from the fermenting vegetables. Any veggies that are sticking up through the liquid will likely develop mold. Skim off the mold and pull out any moldy vegetables.
Sometimes you’ll see a “bloom” on top of the liquid that doesn’t look like mold, more like pond scum or an oil slick. This is normal. You can skim the liquid if you like, just don’t remove so much liquid that you uncover the vegetables below.
Trust your tongue and your eyes. If you think your fermented vegetables taste moldy or spoiled, or if you see excessive mold growth on the top, play it safe. Throw out your vegetables, clean all your equipment well, and start over..