A little bit about fermentation…
If you want a simple, but informative guide on how to ferment vegetables at home, you’ve come to the right place. If you’ve never fermented before, I hope this article inspires you to get started. I’ve written about the importance of including fermented food in your diet before. First of all, they are great for digestion and gut health because they contain probiotics and enzymes. Second, fermented foods are pre-digested, which makes their nutrients easier for us to absorb. The process of fermentation breaks down complex proteins into amino acids, which are much easier for us to digest. This process also creates new nutrients, specifically B vitamins (B12 in particular is an essential vitamin that is otherwise only present in animal products, fortified food, or supplements).
So, why should you bother to ferment vegetables at home? Here are a few good reasons:
- It adds nutrients, beneficial bacteria, and a unique flavor.
- It is a way to preserve food (or, a way to utilize extra vegetables from your garden or vegetables you bought that you want to use before they go bad).
- Finding fermented vegetables with the beneficial bacteria in tact at grocery stores can be difficult.
- It’s simple, inexpensive, and very rewarding.
What are fermented vegetables?
First, let’s distinguish fermented vegetables from what you might think of as “pickled” vegetables. The difference is the substance used to preserve them. Both rely on a certain level of acidity. For example, canned food needs a pH of 4.6 or lower to be considered safe to store at room temperature. While pickled vegetables use vinegar, fermented vegetables use salt to achieve an acidic environment.
Broadly, fermentation is a process in which yeasts, bacteria or other microorganisms break down a substance, causing a chemical change. This chemical change increases the acidity, which is what preserves the food. There are 3 main types of fermentation: lactic acid fermentation (sauerkraut/yogurt), ethanol/alcohol fermentation (beer/wine), and acetic acid fermentation (kombucha/vinegar). This article focuses on lactic acid fermentation.
Vegetables naturally contain microorganisms (bacteria, yeast, and mold). Some of these contribute to fermentation, while others cause rotting and spoilage. Basically, when you submerge vegetables in a brine (salt and water) and cut out the oxygen, this creates an environment that allows the fermenting organisms to grow and discourages the ones that cause the food to go bad.
We have over 500 different types of bacteria living inside of us. Roughly 10% are good (probiotic), 10% are bad, and the other 80% are “opportunists”. This is a healthy balance, but these percentages are constantly changing. Things like a poor diet, antibiotic use, drinking too much alcohol, smoking, stress, lack of exercise, and not getting enough sleep can all kill the good bacteria (more on that here). This gives the opportunists a chance to turn pathogenic, leading to all sorts of health problems – like a weak immune system.
Fermented foods have been an important part of our diets for thousands of years. So, it’s a good idea to start integrating them into yours! You can buy some things, like sauerkraut, at most grocery stores. But, why not make your own?
Here’s how to ferment vegetables yourself.
What you’ll need:
- A large container with a lid to put them in (preferably glass; no metal or plastic)
- Water (filtered)
- (optional) herbs and spices for flavoring
The process of fermentation:
Fermenting vegetables is really easy to do. Basically you just: 1) Cut up vegetables and add to jar 2) Dissolve salt in water (stir) and add to jar, and 3) Cover and store.
So simple! Let’s look at this process a little more closely:
- Have your glass jar washed, sterilized (optional), and ready to go.
- Prepare your ingredients. Cut your vegetables to the size you’d like and add to the jar. I like to add herbs and spices first.
- Make the brine – dissolve the salt in water by stirring. Add to jar. Leave a little space at the top (half an inch or so).
- IMPORTANT: Make sure everything is completely submerged under the brine to prevent mold from forming. There are glass weights you can buy to help with this.
- Close the lid and store at room temperature (60-75ºF), preferably in a dark place. The length of time will really depend on your taste preference. As a guideline, most vegetables will be best in the 1-4 week range.
- Check your ferment every couple of days. Carbon dioxide will build up, so you want to release it by unscrewing the lid (or it might explode!). Also, make sure everything is still submerged.
- The fermentation is most active during the first few days, so you can really start taste-testing whenever you want. Once you are happy with your ferment, you can move it to the refrigerator. Refrigeration significantly slows down fermentation.
Note on salt: The brine will be based on the specific recipe you are following, but in general you want to use a 2.5-5% concentration of salt when creating your own ferments (that’s 2.25-4.5 teaspoons of salt per 1 cup of water).
A basic ferment example:
This is a ferment I made this summer with peppers from our garden, following the process described above. I used a 32 oz. mason jar.
- Peppers – I used Hot Portugal Peppers (10) and Hot Cherry Pepper (5), but use whatever you’d like
- 1 Vidalia onion
- 5 cloves of garlic
- 3 Tbsp salt
- 4 cups of water
Basically, you can ferment any vegetable you want! This is where you can be creative and come up with your own ferments.
Fermentation tips and things to keep in mind:
Always Use Quality Ingredients:
- Water: At least use filtered water. Use distilled water if you can.
- Salt: You can really use any type of salt you want. Just make sure that salt is the only ingredient on the ingredient list.
- Fresh vegetables: Don’t use vegetables that have already started to go bad
Storage and Rate of Fermentation :
- Only use glass or ceramic vessels to ferment in.
- Store at room temperature (60-75℉). Temperature affects the speed that fermentation occurs. A warmer room will speed up fermentation, while a colder room will slow it down. Refrigerating pretty much stops fermentation completely.
- The amount of salt you use also affects the rate of fermentation. Too much salt will slow it down. Too little salt will speed it up, but could increase the chance that mold develops
Things to watch out for:
- The main thing you need to watch out for is mold. The key to avoiding mold is to keep everything completely submerged under the brine. You can buy glass weights to help with this. Personally, I’ve been successful without them, but it is nice to be sure that everything will stay submerged.
Finally, here are some great resources to help on your fermentation journey:
- The Complete Guide to Pickling by Julie Laing
- The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz
- Fermented by Charlotte Pike
I hope this article inspires you to make your own ferments at home. I really wanted to show how simple, yet creative, this process can be. The more you do it, the more you get a sense for it and the less “scientific” it needs to be. The most important thing to remember when you are first starting out: don’t worry. Really, the only thing that can go wrong is that mold develops and you have to throw out that batch. But, that is pretty easy to avoid if you follow the advice in this article. Fermentation is a learning experience that will stay with you all of your life. Now is a great time to start!
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