How to Ferment Vegetables: The Basic Culturing Process


Fermenting not only preserves food but also enhances the nutrient content. The action of the culture organisms makes the minerals in cultured foods more readily available to the body. During the fermenting process the bacteria also produce B vitamins and enzymes that are beneficial for digestion.

Culturing or fermenting a food involves the chemical process of breaking a complicated substance down into simpler parts, usually with the help of bacteria, yeasts, or fungi. Fermented food is considered a live food and the culturing process continues during storage to enhance the food’s nutrient content. All cultured vegetables have a natural tart flavor as the sugars and carbohydrates have been broken down and used up in the process. The lactic acid also contributes to the tartness of fermented foods. Cultured vegetables are a great option for low-carbohydrate diets.

Almost any vegetable can be fermented. Fermenting local, farm-fresh produce is a great way to provide good nutrition year-round. You can ferment just one vegetable or a mix of many different kinds. A tantalizing mixture is beets with carrots, ginger, garlic, leeks, onions, dulse (seaweed), and jalapeños. Kimchi recipes include cabbage, red chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and onion. Pickles can be spiced with dill and garlic; sauerkrauts can include juniper berries, caraway seeds, and more!

Basic Equipment

  • Vegetable chopper such as a knife, mandolin slicer, or a food processor
  • Chopping board
  • In the case of cabbage, shredded carrots, or similar vegetables, a blunt meat pounder or potato masher to pound juices out of the vegetables, or a kraut pounder
  • Large container to hold vegetables for pounding
  • Unrefined sea salt or pickling salt
  • Starter cultures such as whey, kefir grains, freeze-dried culture, etc. (optional, click here for more information)
  • Filtered water to wash vegetables
  • Fermenting vessel such as a crock or glass jar and a weight and cover system (click here for more information on choosing a fermenting vessel)

Click here for more information on choosing your equipment and supplies.

How to Make Your Ferment

  • Wash your vegetables in filtered water. Do not sterilize them or cook them as that will destroy the natural bacteria necessary for the fermentation process. 
  • Cut up all the veggies except hot peppers (if you use hot peppers).
  • Place the veggies in a big bowl and squeeze with your hands or pound with a meat hammer or kraut pounder to release the juices.
  • Add salt to taste or celery juice for a salt-free alternative (click here for more information).
  • Mix in a starter culture such as whey, kefir grains, or a freeze-dried culture if desired (click here for more information).
  • At the very end, chop up any hot peppers (after removing the seeds) and mix in with the other veggies, being careful not to get it on your hands. (It will temporarily make the skin burn.)
  • Put ingredients in a glass mason jar or other vessel leaving at least 3 inches at the top.
  • Push the vegetables down until their juices rise to the top.
  • Weight the vegetables down under the liquid (click here for more information).
  • Cover with a lid that keeps bugs out, allows the gas to escape, and limits the amount of oxygen reaching the vegetables (click here for more information).

Place the jar with the vegetables in your kitchen or other warm area. Taste the ferment every day and keep it submerged under the liquid (if you are not using special equipment). When it starts to taste tart or tangy, you can move it to the refrigerator or ferment the batch in a cooler spot for a longer period of time.

How Long Does It Take?

The length of time for the ferment to be considered “done” depends on several factors and can generally range from 2 to 21 days. 

  • Using a starter culture such as whey, kefir grains, or a freeze-dried starter will speed the culturing process. Please note: if you are using a freeze-dried culture we do recommend adhering to the instructions that come with the culture to determine the appropriate length of time to allow the vegetables to ferment. This helps to ensure optimal bacteria development.
  • Using greater amounts of salt will slow the fermentation process.
  • Cooler room temperatures will slow the process. A warmer room temperature will speed the process. Please note: it is important not to ferment vegetables in a very warm room. Ideally the room should be no warmer than standard room temperature.
  • In general, once your ferment tastes tart and tangy, it is ready to eat. This can vary depending on personal taste preferences. Pickles are a great example. Some people prefer the taste of pickles after just a week, while others prefer a more tart and tangy pickle, which can take 2 to 3 weeks. It can be helpful to start tasting your fermented food after the first few days to help determine when to stop the process.


Storing Your Fermented Vegetables

If you decide to store the finished product, many people find that putting their fermented vegetables in a root cellar or refrigerator for 4 to 6 weeks really improves the flavor. In storage, the ferments continue to culture at a very slow rate.

A ferment with 1% to 2% salt should keep well for at least 4 to 9 months, respectively, in a refrigerator. A 2% salted version should keep well in a dark cool area for at least 3 months if the vegetables are kept submerged under liquid.


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




Slicing Cabbage for Naturally Fermented Sauerkraut

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Harch Fermenting Crock Fermenting Crocks
Caldwell Vegetable Starter Culture Caldwell's Vegetable Starter Culture
Wild Fermentation Sandor Katz Book Wild Fermentation

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