You don’t need to be a professional chef to make colorful, delicious, and creative ferments at home. It only takes a few simple tools and time. If you haven’t tried fermentation before, I hope you’ll consider trying my “cheater technique” below.
"As someone who loves making pantry staples at home, I’ve experimented with fermentation for years—with plenty of failures. My daughter came home from school recently telling us how she was taught, “you are not learning if you do not make mistakes,” and I couldn’t agree more." Dr. Amy Sapola
After much trial and error, I’m having pretty reliable success with a gluten-free buckwheat sourdough starter, yogurt, kombucha, fruit vinegar—and, of course, vegetables! Vegetable fermentation is my go-to when I’m looking to utilize vegetables in a new or different way that adds flavor and preserves them.
There are endless ways to prepare fermented vegetables, including making them into dressings, sauces, salsas, relishes, dips, and so much more. The beauty of fermentation is that it’s quick and easy and the flavor combinations are limitless. It does not require standing near a hot stove in the summer, and can be done with simple mason jars to make relatively small amounts rather than gallons of each ferment.
How to Countertop Ferment
Fermentation can sound intimidating but, after much trial and error, I have a very simple lacto-fermentation technique to share that creates deliciously fermented vegetables right before your eyes!
Essential countertop fermentation tools:
- Wide mouth mason jar with metal ring
- Silicone waterless airlock lid
- Glass fermentation weights
- Celtic sea salt (1-3 tablespoons per quart/32 oz)
- Filtered water (without chlorine)
- Knife, mandoline slicer, or food processor for cutting, shredding, or slicing vegetables into the desired size/shape.
- Vegetable tamper and muddler (or a wooden spoon)
What is Lacto-Fermentation?
The term “lacto-fermentation” may make you think about “lactose” or fermentation of dairy (yogurt, kefir, etc.); however, lacto-fermentation actually refers to using the Lactobacillus species of bacteria. Lactobacillus bacteria can use sugars naturally found in vegetables to create lactic acid, which prevents the growth of other harmful bacteria by creating an acidic environment, making this type of preservation one of the safest there is.
Why Ferment Vegetables?
Besides being one of the easiest preservation techniques and a delicious way to enjoy vegetables, fermented vegetables retain more nutrients than those that are canned or frozen.
As a regenerative farm, we take care not only of our land but of the Earth. An additional benefit of fermentation: it requires no additional energy input (i.e., running the freezer or stove), which is especially great during warm summer months and can be a great way to minimize food waste by helping vegetables last longer.
How to Ferment Vegetables
I jokingly call this my “cheater” technique because it’s so easy that I feel like I'm cheating. Although this technique is not really mine at all and is a well-established way to ferment vegetables, it has been the most consistently successful way I’ve fermented over the years. After you have used the cheater technique once, you can then use brine from your last batch of fermented vegetables to get your next batch off to a great start.
- Clean all of your equipment thoroughly with hot soapy water.
- Clean your vegetables to remove any visible soil (only water; we do not want to remove the natural Lactobacilli on the surface of the vegetable).
- Cut/shred/chop to size.
- If the vegetable has a lot of moisture (like cabbage), add one to three tablespoons of salt (per 32 oz/quart jar) to your vegetables and give them a good massage so they begin releasing their juices. If the vegetable does not naturally contain much water, create a brine by adding one to three tablespoons of salt to 32 ounces of water (for a 32 oz/quart size jar). You will not use all of the water because the vegetables take up space, but I’d rather have too much than run short—which I may have done a time or two.
- Pack your vegetables into the jar. If using shredded vegetables, consider using a vegetable muddler/tamper to remove as much air as you can from the jar and encourage the vegetable to release its natural juices.
- If using a salt brine, pour in the salt brine so that it fills the jar about halfway.
- Add ¼ cup of brine from a freshly store-bought neutral-flavored ferment (like basic sauerkraut).
- For future ferments, just use a little of the brine from your previous batch.
- Add glass weights to the jar, then bring the level of the brine up so that it completely covers the vegetables, making sure to leave about two inches of headspace between the glass weight and the airlock.
- Secure the silicone airlock onto the jar using the metal ring.
- Place the jar in a cool (60-70 degree) dark area to begin the fermentation process (this may not be your countertop, despite the name “countertop fermentation” but make sure it is someplace you will see it daily). If it is on your countertop, just cover it with a tea towel to minimize light exposure.
- Fermentation, depending on the vegetable, may take days to multiple weeks. After a week or two, I recommend tasting every three to five days until you reach the desired flavor (typically ready in two to six weeks).
Health Benefits from Fermenting Vegetables
“We must remember that the concept of pasteurization is relatively new to our species. It is not the natural state of organic matter on our planet to be free of life.” -Chef Tristan Acevedo
Our bodies are essentially scaffolding for the microbes that live on and in us, which outnumber our own cells. Vegetables naturally contain prebiotic fibers that feed healthy gut bacteria, but fermented vegetables provide the extra superpower, when eaten uncooked, of bringing along beneficial Lactobacilli to benefit the microbial balance in the gut.
Probiotics taken as a supplement may only contain a few species of bacteria; fermented foods, though, may contain many naturally occurring beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus plantarum, Lb. brevis, Lb. rhamnosus, Lb. acidophilus, Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Lc. citreum, Lc. fallax, Lc. kimchi, Pediococcus pentosaceus, P. acidilactici, Weissella confusa, and W. cibaria. This is a beautiful example of food as medicine. If looking for a probiotic benefit for general health and wellness, it is much less expensive and delicious to enjoy fermented foods; even just a forkful a day provides plenty of beneficial organisms.
Vegetables are inherently nutritious and, amazingly, fermentation can elevate the benefits of vegetables even more. Fermentation decreases sugar content and, potentially, anti-nutrients while increasing protein, peptides, amino acids, and vitamins (Bs and K).
The Lactobacilli bacteria involved in fermentation also make enzymes that humans cannot (such as cellulases and pectinases) that work on components of the vegetable to make them more easily digestible.
Depending on the bacteria involved and conditions of fermentation, antioxidant compounds (also known as phytochemicals) in the vegetables may be increased. Fermentation may make these compounds more available to the body for absorption. A great example of this is glucosinolates in cabbage; studies have shown increased levels of these beneficial compounds (often associated with improved detoxification, cancer prevention, and hormone balance) in individuals who consumed fermented cabbage.
It is well established that, as a nation, we do not consume enough vegetables—even though we know there are serious health benefits from doing so. Sadly, low fruit and vegetable consumption is one of the top ten risk factors for mortality.
Besides providing benefits to digestive health, fermented foods may provide additional benefits such as improved immune health, cancer prevention, lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and lower blood sugar.
Fermented vegetables are a double bonus when it comes to health: all the benefits of vegetables + all of the benefits from fermentation!
Fresh Vegetables From Farm to Doorstep
At The Chef’s Garden, we grow hundreds of different varieties of vegetables and herbs, a creative home fermenter's dream come true. We harvest our vegetables at the peak of freshness so that you receive the most nutrient-dense, high-quality vegetables imaginable. The most difficult decision? What to ferment first.
Make sure to tag us @Farmerjonesfarm and @amysapola on Instagram. We would love to see what you create! Join our Farmacy at The Chef’s Garden Facebook group, too.