A Basic Formula for Fermenting Vegetables


Many people find that the hardest part of fermenting vegetables is getting started. Because we have spent decades in the mindset that bacteria are bad and pasteurization is good, wrapping our heads around the concept of fermentation in the first place is half the battle.

At its very basic level, fermentation is controlled decomposition. Instead of allowing food to go straight to spoilage we introduce a preservation element such as salt, whey, or a starter culture, which directs food towards fermentation rather than rot.

The Basics of Fermented Vegetables

Vegetable fermentation happens through an anaerobic system in which the naturally occurring lactobacilli of the food create lactic acid. This acid then preserves and protects the food, because what is known as “bad bacteria” cannot exist in an acidic environment.

With that in mind, these are the conditions that must be created in order for vegetables to lacto-ferment:

  • Submerged Vegetables. Whether vegetables are self-brining or not, they must be kept under the level of the brine in order to prevent mold and encourage lactic acid production.
  • Introduction of a Preservation Agent. Most ferments should include at least a little bit of salt. Salt is a preservative, but it also improves flavor and texture. Adding the whey from a cultured dairy product such as yogurt or milk kefir can also ensure the proliferation of lactic acid bacteria.
  • A Reasonable Temperature. In traditional cultures, foods were fermented and stored in moderate temperatures, such as in a root cellar, fermentation during a cooler season, or sinking the fermenting vessel into a hole in the ground. While higher temperatures may work for fermenting vegetables, a temperature range of 60° to 70°F is ideal.

Once the conditions necessary to produce lacto-fermentation are understood, ­­any number of vegetables may be fermented through two techniques: self-brine or added brine.

Self-brined Fermented Vegetables

Vegetables that are fresh and have not been dried out can actually create their own brine when salt is introduced. Salt naturally draws the water out of vegetables, thereby creating a natural brine.

The main thing to keep in mind when making a self-brined fermented vegetable is that the vegetables have to be shredded into fine pieces. The increased surface area created by grating or finely slicing vegetables allows the salt to penetrate the vegetable and draw out larger amounts of liquid.

Examples of this type of fermented vegetable include sauerkraut, grated carrots with ginger, or a grated zucchini relish.

Added-brine Fermented Vegetables

Not every vegetable shines when it is finely diced or shredded. Many vegetables, like cucumbers, cry out to be left whole or in larger chunks. In this case, added brine is a better method.

For a vegetable like cucumbers, carrots, or zucchini, cut into large chunks. Simply adding salt to these large pieces of vegetables would never produce enough liquid to submerge the vegetables underneath the brine.

A separate salt brine must be created, one that you can pour over these larger vegetable chunks, in order to maintain the anaerobic environment necessary for the lactic acid to proliferate.

A good rule of thumb for a brine is 1-3 tablespoons of sea salt to 1 quart of water. This brine can be used to cover any number of vegetables: cucumbers, peppers, tomato chunks, celery, carrots, garlic, onions, and just about anything else from the garden or market.

This method is often preferred because the preparation of the vegetables tends to go a lot faster. Shredding vegetables can seem tedious when one could simply prepare a brine and pour it over chopped vegetables.

The method of preparing fermented vegetables is entirely a matter of personal taste. Even cabbage, which forms the ubiquitous sauerkraut, can be left in large wedges if preferred.

Choose both methods, to experience a wide variety of textures and flavors. Variation keeps meals and snacks interesting and makes preparing fermented vegetables more flexible.

Ready to make your own cultured vegetables?  Click here for our collection of fermented vegetable recipes.




Homemade Sauerkraut with Green Onions

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