Fermented vegetables are an incredible way to consume your veggies with an extra probiotics boost. There are many different ways to ferment food, and vegetables generally use the lacto-fermentation process, which refers to the presence of a specific species of fermenting bacteria, namely Lactobacillus. Lactobacillus bacteria can convert sugars into lactic acid, which can turn your raw cabbage into fermented sauerkraut! Fermented vegetables (also known as cultured vegetables) enhance your veggies’ nutritional properties, providing you with a hearty dose of gut-nourishing probiotics.
What is Fermentation?
Fermentation is as old as life itself and is a natural process that happens when yeast comes in contact with sugar. Over time, humans have harnessed this wisdom and used it to create delicious fermented foods, including chocolate, alcohol like wine and beer, fermented beverages like kombucha and kefir, and fermented vegetables.
Every traditional diet has included some form of lacto-fermented food. For example, the Alaskan Inuits consume fermented sea mammals and fish; Europeans lacto-ferment sauerkraut, grape leaves, herbs, and dairy; Oriental cultures are famous for their fermented sauces and vegetables (especially miso, soy sauce, and kimchi); and African communities have been making dishes with fermented grains.
What are Fermented Vegetables?
Fermented vegetables are simply vegetables that have undergone the fermentation process, whereby live cultures feed on the vegetable’s natural sugars, and the interim, generate a probiotic-rich, easy-to-digest, highly bioavailable version of the vegetable. Fermenting vegetables is also a way of preserving them and extending their shelf life.
The Best Vegetables to Ferment
Technically, you can ferment almost anything. However, if you are new to fermentation, you might want to stick to the best (easiest) vegetables to ferment.
The best vegetables to ferment are:
- Cabbage (green)
- Cabbage (red)
- Green beans
- Bell peppers
- Jalapeno peppers
- Whole pickling cucumbers
The Benefits of Fermenting Vegetables
One of the original benefits of fermenting vegetables was the extended shelf life of fresh vegetables. Before fridges, vegetables had to be consumed rather quickly before they began to rot. By fermenting them, vegetables could last a long time and enabled our ancestors to consume vegetables in winter, when there were fewer fresh crops available.
Nutritionally, fermented vegetables pack a larger punch than their raw or cooked counterparts. The nutritional content of micronutrients increases dramatically, especially vitamins C and B. Since the fermentation process also pre-digests the foods, fermented vegetables are much easier to digest, increasing the bioavailability of the nutrients (how many of them you can actually absorb).
Fermented vegetables also contain beneficial enzymes (lost in the cooking process) and all the added probiotic benefits that occur during the fermentation process. Enzymes mean you will absorb more micronutrients from your food, easing the digestive burden. Probiotic-rich foods balance and heal your gut microbiome and promote general health.
How to Ferment Vegetables
The concept of fermenting can sound daunting, but once you try it, you will see that it’s nothing to be afraid of. Of course, the process depends slightly on which vegetable you choose to ferment and which starter culture you choose, but these six steps will give you a basic idea of how to ferment your vegetables at home.
Step 1: Prepare Your Fermentation Equipment
Fermentation does not require fancy equipment, but you will need sterilized glass jars (like mason jars) and wooden or plastic spoons/ packing equipment. You can seal your jars with either cloth or a specialized silicone fermentation cap that you can purchase online in DIY kits. Sterilization ensures the equipment has no other bacteria that might spoil your vegetables or generate mold.
Step 2: Prepare Your Vegetables For Fermentation
There are many ways to prepare your veggies for fermentation, like grating, shredding, chopping, slicing, or leaving them whole. The choice is very personal, but some vegetables lend themselves better to be grated, and others whole (generally, higher water content vegetables are best kept in larger pieces). If your vegetables are organic, you can keep the skins on and rinse them. Otherwise, you will want to peel the skins off to avoid any added pesticides and herbicides.
Step 3: Decide On Your Fermentation Culture: Salt, Whey, or A Starter Culture
Different recipes call for other fermenting agents, but your vegetables require salt, whey, or a starter culture. Which culture you use depends on your preference, dietary restrictions (whey is dairy based), and also which type of vegetable(s) you plan to ferment. If using salt, make sure it is unprocessed, like sea salt.
Step 4: Prepare Your Brine With Water
Brine is the solution in which you mix your starter culture with water, which creates the environment your vegetables will ferment. The water you use must be pure and free from contaminants like chlorine. Chlorinated tap water will kill the bacteria and make it impossible for your vegetables to ferment. Instead, opt for properly filtered water, or better yet, use spring water.
Step 5: Weigh Down Your Vegetables In Brine
Once your vegetables are prepared and placed in your brine solution, you need to weigh them down to make sure all the vegetables are submerged. If your vegetables are exposed to air (even a little), this will invite mold and unwanted pathogens, ruining your ferment. There are many ways to weigh them down, including special fermentation weights you can purchase online. These weights must also be sterilized! Anything you introduce into the jar should be free of bacteria. Otherwise, your cultured vegetables will probably go bad.
Step 6: Store Your Fermenting Vegetables In A Cool, Dark Place
Once your vegetables are weighed down in the brine, it is time to store them in a cool, dark place until the fermentation process is finished. The time required will vary depending on which vegetables you use, which culture you use, and the ambient temperature.
Fermented Vegetable Recipe
Sauerkraut is a classic and delicious fermented food, and this recipe is a fool-proof way to maximize the nutritional power of many of our favorite veggies. Give it a try!
Jarred Sauerkraut Recipe
Makes approximately 1/2 gallon
- Two medium heads of cabbage, one pureed or pulverized, the other shredded*
- 1 English Cucumber, shredded
- 3 Spring Onions, pureed or pulverized*
- 1 Red or Yellow Bell Pepper, pureed or pulverized*
- 8-9 small Carrots (approximately 1.5 cups), shredded
- 2 cups Spinach, pureed or pulverized
- 4-5 tablespoons Celtic Sea Salt
- 2 Quart-sized Mason Jars or 1 half-gallon Mason Jar
“Whey Water Option” 1 – Cup Whey Water such as SueroGold for a more nutritious and living vegetable IMPORTANT reduce salt to only 2 – teaspoons if adding whey water. The salt promotes the lactic acid bacteria that “outcompete” any bad bacteria.
- Using the blade attachment on a food processor, pulverize chunks of cabbage (if you don’t have a food processor, you can shred the cabbage, then pound it with a meat cleaver in a sturdy, flat-yet-bowled-dish, allowing the juices within the cabbage to be released. You would then do the same with other ingredients that call for pureeing or pulverizing.)
- Once complete, pour out into a large, non-plastic bowl, then pulverize the onions, pepper, and spinach, and scoop this mixture onto the pulverized cabbage.
- Next, attach the shredding component to the processor. Next, shred the other head of cabbage, cucumber, and carrots. Pour this mixture onto the pulverized mixture, sprinkle with Celtic sea salt, and mix well.
- Allow all ingredients to sit for a few minutes for the salt to release the juices from the vegetables. When you see pools of liquid in the mixture, carefully transfer everything into clean glass jars, compressing down the mix, making sure all the vegetables are covered by their juices by at least an inch, and allowing at least another inch of space at the top for the mixture to rise a little during the fermentation process.
- Place in a dark, cool cupboard and do not disturb for at least three days (a week if you’re putting everything into one big, half-gallon jar), during which the lacto-fermentation process will be well underway. When complete, please remove it from the cupboard for storage in the refrigerator. Be careful when removing the lid–carbonation from the fermentation process may likely lead to juices spilling over the top.
- Enjoy with grass-fed meats, as a dollop on fresh salads or soups, or as a pairing with raw cheeses. Plan to consume in its entirety within two weeks so that the healthy bacteria remain strong.
*This recipe can also be made without a food processor. Instead, thinly shred all the ingredients, sprinkle with salt, and pulverize with a meat tenderizer until juices begin to run from the vegetables.
Fermented foods are a traditional way of preserving and increasing their nutritional bioavailability and probiotic content. Fermented vegetables are easy to create delicious, nutritionally dense variations of everyday vegetables that keep all the enzymes and nutrients and provide gut-healing microbes. Fermenting can easily be done at home and is an incredible tool to super-charge your vegetable’s micronutrients!