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Make Your Own Fermented Vegetables

Friday, July 22, 2022
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Fermentation is an ancient art of food preservation that has made a comeback recently, as more individuals have become aware of the health benefits of fermented foods that contain probiotics. Popular foods and beverages like cheese, yogurt, pickles, hot sauce, sauerkraut, sausage, wine, and beer have roots in traditional fermentation practices for preserving dairy, meat, and seasonal harvests of fruits and vegetables. This form of preservation allows for these foods to be enjoyed for an extended time. Since microorganisms are a key player in creating many fermented products, many fermented foods are a rich source of probiotics that can benefit your health.

When individuals come to me with interest in exploring the world of probiotic-rich fermented foods, and especially if they want to make their own, I often suggest trying fermented vegetables. Making fermented vegetables is a great place to start because it requires very little equipment, can be done through simple processes, and can be ready to eat in a few days or weeks. You can also choose from a large variety of vegetables and experiment with different flavorings, making the process a lot of fun.  

How Fermentation Works for Us

Most fermented vegetables are created through lactic acid fermentation, an anaerobic process in which lactic acid bacteria help to convert the natural sugars of vegetables into cellular energy, producing lactic acid in the process.1 In lactic acid fermentation, the pH of the vegetables drops, which prevents the growth of undesirable microbes and allows for the vegetables to be preserved.1 Most traditional vegetable fermentation techniques rely on naturally occurring bacteria on the vegetables and in the environment to do the work. For example, in the fermentation of kimchi, a popular fermented cabbage product originally from Korea, numerous lactic acid bacteria are involved, including several Leoconostoc, Lactobacillus, and Weissella species.2 

There are many health benefits to eating fermented foods. Lactic acid bacteria can enhance the nutritional quality of vegetables by synthesizing B vitamins such as folic acid, riboflavin, B6, and B12, and vitamin C, increasing the availability of nutrients to be absorbed.1 Lactic acid bacteria also produce antioxidants, which scavenge harmful free radicals to protect our health.1 In addition, lactic acid bacteria themselves promote healthy microbial balance in the gastrointestinal system which strengthens the immune system.3 Studies have suggested that regularly consuming fermented vegetables may reduce risk of chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.3 To reap the probiotic benefits of these foods, it is important to eat fermented vegetables that have not been pasteurized. 

Many cultures around the world have traditional practices of making fermented vegetables, and the techniques have been passed down through generations of knowledge and practice. Most of the techniques involve the use of salt or salt brine, or sun-drying for non-salted vegetables. Kimchi is traditionally made by first soaking cabbage in a salt brine, then combining the cabbage with hot chili peppers, garlic, ginger, scallions, radish, fermented fish, and other special ingredients, stuffing the vegetables in earthen pots, and then burying the pots underground to ferment and store through the winter.4 In the Himalayas, the fermented vegetable gundruk is made from local mustard-like greens, and made by wilting the greens outdoors for 1-2 days, crushing and pressing the wilted leaves into airtight containers to ferment for 2-3 weeks, then sun-drying the greens for 2-4 days before consumption.5 In Nigeria, fermentation is used to break down toxic compounds in cassava root. To make a popular food called gari, traditional Nigerian practices involve grating the cassava, collecting it in mesh sacks, squeezing out the starch by pressing the sacks between stones or logs or hanging the sacks, leaving the sacks to ferment for 3-4 days, and then further processing the fermented cassava for consumption.6 These are just a few of the many traditional practices of fermenting vegetables, with techniques also varying across local communities and households. Exploring cultural traditions of making fermented vegetables linked to your family heritage may offer opportunities for reconnection and healing.

How to Get Started

Getting started with making fermented vegetables can be very simple. The basic process of fermenting vegetables involves cleaning and chopping vegetables, drawing out the juices of the vegetables with salt and squeezing or pounding the vegetables, packing the vegetables tightly in a container submerged in its juices to ferment, and waiting until the desired taste and texture is achieved. While some fermentation techniques don’t require salt, many recipes use salt to help pull juices out of the vegetables, create a crispier texture, and create an environment that inhibits harmful bacteria (e.g., sauerkraut, miso).7 Warm temperatures speed up the fermentation process, and cool temperatures slow it down. Some people consider temperatures in the 50-65˚F range to be ideal for fermenting vegetables.7 When stored in the refrigerator or in a cool environment of approximately 35-50˚F, the vegetables can retain flavor and texture properties for months and sometimes years. 

Although the process of fermenting vegetables really is simple, it takes practice to get to know the qualities of different vegetables as a fermented product and to play with recipes and flavors. It took me a couple of growing seasons of practice and a few batches of non-tasty ferments before I could consistently make batches that my family and I love to eat. But don’t be intimidated and discouraged! You will be blown away by the flavors, cost-savings, and health-giving qualities of your own fermented vegetables. Some popular vegetables for making vegetable ferments that are grown in the northeast region of the U.S. include cabbage (green, red, and Asian varieties), radish, carrot, turnip, beet, cauliflower, and cucumber.

If you are a beginner at making fermented vegetables, here are some tips for getting started: 

  • Taste some of the fermented vegetable products out there to find types you enjoy eating. Most grocery stores in the U.S. carry sauerkraut, kimchi, and naturally fermented cucumber pickles in the refrigerated section. At health food stores you might find fermented radish, carrot, beet, turnip, and other root vegetables. Make sure the fermented vegetables have not been pasteurized (if they are jarred or canned at room temperature on the shelf, they are likely pasteurized).
  • Start with making small batches in quart or half-gallon sized jars. This will allow you to explore different recipes more quickly without investing a lot of time and money.
  • Start with simple recipes with few ingredients and easy steps, such as the cabbage kraut below. You will be encouraged to make your own if the process isn’t a hassle or overly complicated.  
  • Use vegetables that are in season and grown locally. Freshly harvested vegetables tend to taste better and are crunchier and more appealing when fermented. In-season vegetables tend to be cheaper. If you buy from a local farm, try to find vegetables that have been grown without pesticides and herbicides to minimize harmful contaminants and maximize beneficial bacteria.
  • Taste your vegetables daily and monitor the progression of fermentation. The time it takes to achieve the desired texture and flavor of fermented vegetables varies greatly and depends on personal preferences, environmental temperatures, and type of vegetable ferment. If your vegetable ferments quickly in warm temperatures, it’s best to transfer them to a fridge after 2 days or eat them up before they get too mushy. 
  • Start with fermenting cabbage. While you can ferment virtually any type of vegetable, some are harder to get the right texture and flavor. Cabbage is a relatively inexpensive and easy vegetable to ferment, and there are many options for creating flavors you might like. Experiment with herbs and spices such as ginger, garlic, hot pepper, caraway seeds, curry powder, and turmeric.  
  • Have fun! Explore different recipes and flavors and share your products with family and friends. Making fermented vegetables is an opportunity to learn about the science and art of fermentation, try new food flavors, reconnect with family traditions, and actively engage in your journey for health. 

Spicy Cabbage Kraut

Ingredients:

  • 1 head green or red cabbage, shredded (save aside 1-2 full sized leaves)
  • ¼ onion, minced
  • 1 tablespoon fresh ginger, grated 
  • 1 garlic clove, minced 
  • 1 red chili pepper, seeded and minced (optional if chilis are not tolerated)
  • 2 teaspoons unrefined sea salt

This recipe should make 2–3 quart sized jars or about 1 half-gallon jar.

Instructions:

  1. Grate, shred, or cut cabbage very finely, and place in a large bowl 
  2. Sprinkle salt on the cabbage as you go until all the salt has been added
  3. Massage cabbage with your hands or pound with a meat hammer until juices start coming out of the cabbage and it becomes very juicy
  4. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix thoroughly 
  5. Stuff the cabbage mixture tightly into cleaned glass jars and allow the mixture to be fully submerged by the juices. Add 1-2 full sized leaves to the top of the jar to help keep the shredded cabbage from floating above the juices. If you can’t keep the vegetables from floating above the juices, you can add a small weight on top, such as a small bag of water.
  6. Loosely place a lid on the jar. The fermented vegetables will release gasses that need to escape from the jar, so you want to have the lid loose enough that gasses can escape. 
  7. Taste the vegetables every day. Discard vegetables that have floated above the juices. Transfer the fermented vegetables to cold storage such as a refrigerator when the desired flavor and texture have been reached. This will likely take a few days to a few weeks, depending on the temperature.

 

References:

  1. Wang Y, Wu J, Lv M, Shao Z, Hungwe M, Wang J, Bai X, Xie J, Wang Y, Geng W. Metabolism characteristics of lactic acid bacteria and the expanding applications in food industry. Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology. 2021.9:612285. doi: 10.3389/fbioe.2021.612285
  2. Jung JY, Lee SH, Kim JM, Park MS, Bae JW, Hahn Y, Madsen EL, Jeon CO. Metagenomic analysis of kimchi, a traditional Korean fermented food. Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 2011.77(7):2264-74. doi:10.1128/AEM.02157-10
  3. Castellone V, Bancalari E, Rubert J, Gatti M, Neviani E, Bottari B. Eating fermented: Health benefits of LAB-fermented foods. Foods. 2021.10(11):2639. https:// doi.org/10.3390/foods10112639
  4. Choe San-Hun. Kimchi making at home was going out of style. Rural towns to the rescue. New York Times. Nov. 21, 2020. Accessed April 25, 2022 from: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/21/world/asia/kimchi-kimjang-south-korea.html
  5. Sajjad N, Rasool A, Fazili AB, Eijaz Ahmed Bhat EA. Fermentation of fruits and vegetables. Plant Archives. 2020.20:1338-42. ISSN:0972-5210
  6. Etejere EO, Bhat RB. Traditional preparation and uses of cassava in Nigeria. Economic Botany. 1985.39(2):157-64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4254732
  7. Katz SE. The art of fermentation: an in-depth exploration of essential concepts and processes from around the world. Chelsea Green Publishing. 2012.

Image Credit: Bi-sek Hsiao