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 organisms are bad and pasteurization is good, wrapping our head 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. This 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 the food because what is known as “bad bacteria” cannot exist in an acidic environment.

With that in mind, these are the conditions you must create in order for your vegetables to lacto-ferment:

  • Submerged Vegetables. Whether your vegetables are self-brining or not, you must keep them 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 can also ensure the proliferation of lactic acid bacteria.
  • A Reasonable Temperature. In traditional cultures foods were fermented and stored in moderate temperatures. This was done via a root cellar, fermentation during a cooler season, or sinking the fermenting vessel into a hole in the ground. A temperature range of 60° to 80°F is acceptable; about 70ºF is ideal.

If you understand the conditions necessary to produce lacto-fermentation, ­­you can ferment any number of vegetables 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. The 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 very fine pieces. The increased surface area that is created by grating or very finely slicing vegetables allows the salt to penetrate the vegetable and draw out large amounts of liquid.

Examples of this type of fermented vegetable include sauerkraut, grated carrots and 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. That is where added brine comes in.

You can take a vegetable like a cucumber, carrot, or zucchini and cut it into large chunks. If you simply added salt to these large pieces of vegetables there is no way they could produce enough liquid to keep them submerged underneath the brine.

So you must create a separate salt brine that you can pour over these larger vegetable chunks in order to keep the anaerobic environment necessary for the lactic acid to proliferate.

A good rule of thumb for a brine is 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 you are picking from the garden or buying from the market.

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

Which type of fermented vegetable you choose to make is entirely up to your personal taste. Even cabbage, which forms the ubiquitous sauerkraut, can be left in large wedges if preferred.

By making a bit of both types of fermented vegetables you can experience a wide variety of textures and flavors. This can keep things exciting for those you serve them to and flexible for the home cook who desires to ferment whatever it is she happens to have on hand.

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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