Welcome to the wonderful world of fermenting vegetables! Not sure how to get started? No worries. The most important thing to remember when learning how to ferment vegetables is that getting started with the basics will teach you more than hours or weeks of reading or research can.
Yes, it really is that simple! In fermentation, we rely on nature itself to do the work of creating healthy probiotic blends with complex savory flavors. All you need are plants, salt, a container, and time. So get started with our “quick and dirty” easy vegetable ferment recipe and while you’re waiting for it to mature, go ahead and read on to catch up on the 101 in the vegetable ferment world.
If you make it to the end of this article, you’ll have achieved a level of wisdom that every culture has relied on on for thousands of years. Fermentation skills have long been a homesteader’s badge of honor and can give you more nutritious food with less waste and way more probiotics.
Super Simple Fermented Vegetable Recipe
I want to teach you the ins and outs of fermenting vegetables, but more importantly, I want to get you eating them as soon as possible! Here is a quick and dirty guide to preparing a simple fermented vegetable at home in less than an hour, for less than $10. You should be ready to eat your first batch in about 1 week.
- Thinly sliced, chopped, or grated vegetables (a good starter vegetable is cabbage, however, take a peek at the best vegetables to ferment section for more ideas. I’ll be using kale, red cabbage and onions in my example photos)
- 1 quart wide mouth mason jar
- 1.5 tablespoons of sea salt (or any non-iodized salt)
- A thin microfiber towel, kitchen towel, or paper towels
- Spices or herbs for flavoring (curry, rosemary, bay leaf, pepper, etc)
- A plastic ziplock bag or a cabbage leaf
- Slice, dice, or chop your vegetables to the desired size. I prefer shredded vegetables and either use a hand grater or my food processor.
- Place your vegetables in a large mixing bowl and pour your salt over them. Toss the vegetables in salt for even coverage, cover with a kitchen towel, and let the vegetables sit for 10 to 15 minutes.
- Return to the bowl and begin to squeeze the vegetables, “juicing” the water out of them, for about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add the vegetables to your jar, packing them very tightly with your fingers and fist. Feel free to grab a spoon to help with this part. Pour the remaining liquid in the mixing bowl over the vegetables. Make sure to leave at least ½ inch of space at the top of your jar.
- Press a small cabbage leaf onto your vegetables to keep them submerged in water. If you don’t have a cabbage leaf, you can fill a small ziplock bag with water and place it in the jar for the same effect. You can also use a smaller jar filled with water.
- Cover your jar with a piece of cloth or a paper towel. Seal off the cloth by using the metal ring from the mason jar or by using a rubber band to secure it. This will allow for air to move through your ferment while keeping it tight enough to avoid any pests entering it.
- Let your vegetables sit for 4 to 7 days. You will see bubbles start to form as well as color changes in your jar. Start tasting your ferment to decide if it’s strong enough for your palette.
- Once your ferment starts tasting great, seal the jar with a lid and place it in the refrigerator. This will significantly slow down the fermentation process and it will continue to slightly mellow and age in your fridge for a few more months.
What Are Fermented Vegetables?
Fermented vegetables are delicious and nutritious foods that are transformed by bacteria, fungi, and enzymes into products that are less toxic, more digestible, and better tasting than their fresh counterparts. This occurs through lacto-fermentation, where we allow for the lactobacillus bacteria to thrive in our food and protect it from other harmful pathogens.
Salt allows for this process to happen by allowing the lactobacilli to wipe out the bad bacteria. Once this process is complete, the lactobacillus converts the natural sugars in your vegetables into lactic acid. This acid serves as a natural preservative for the nutrients, texture and flavor in your food, allowing it to age into a delicious fermented delicacy.
Vegetable fermentation is a great starting point for the beginning fermenter and homesteader since it is quick, safe, affordable, and healthy. In the Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology, it is stated that “lactic acid bacteria starters with optimal performance may be considered to be a simple and valuable biotechnology for maintaining or improving the safety, nutritional, sensory, and shelf-life properties of vegetables and fruits and may be used to develop new products with functional and appealing properties.”
You can ferment almost any vegetable using the simple salt and jar method. The more sugar that your vegetable contains, the faster it will ferment. The smaller you cut your vegetable pieces into, the more quickly they will ferment as well. Temperature also affects the rate of fermentation. Because of all of these variables, the best way to choose the “doneness” of your ferment is by regularly tasting it and developing your own flavor preferences.
How To Ferment Vegetables
Fermenting vegetables is a relatively simple process, so let’s review the basics:
- Choose your vegetable (and cut it as small as you’d like it)
- Add salt (or a probiotic starter)
- Place your vegetables and salt into a container
- Submerge your vegetables under the liquid
- Wait, taste, and test your ferment each day after day 3 to 5, for up to a month.
- Place the batch in the fridge when you’re ready to stop fermentation.
This shockingly simple process takes very little effort, however, it takes a good amount of time. This is why ferments are often expensive. They require time to cultivate and don’t provide instant gratification, which makes them better tasting to homesteaders, and less efficient to commercial sellers.
Benefits Of Fermented Foods
Fermented vegetables are considered probiotic, a term we have commonly heard in the supplement world. There are many benefits to consuming probiotic foods. It can help to replenish your intestines with natural and healthy bacteria if you have an infection, imbalance, or have taken harsh antibiotics that have wiped out much of your natural gut flora.
Probiotics also aid us in digestion, which can help reduce inflammation, take a load off of your organs, and allow for better nutrient absorption.
Probiotics can help reduce an unsightly side-effect of antibiotics – diarrhea. This medical journal stated that probiotics reduced traveler’s diarrhea by 8% and general diarrhea by 26%. The results were even more astonishing in kids, who noticed a reduction of 57%.
Although the correlation hasn’t been fully explained, there also seems to be a link between gut health and mental health. A study of 15 adults showed that 1 to 2 months of regular bifidobacterium and lactobacillus intake noticeably improved symptoms of memory loss, OCD, autism, depression, and anxiety.
Fermented foods may help support your immune system by inhibiting the growth of harmful gut bacteria. It also may help promote production of the body’s natural antibodies. They may also support immune cells in the body such as T lymphocytes and natural killer cells, which can help the body to defend itself against pathogens.
One study, including over 570 children, demonstrated that taking a probiotic reduced the severity of respiratory infections by 17%.
Additionally, the probiotic strain Lactobacillus crispatus has been shown to reduced the risk of UTIs (urinary tract infections) in women by 50%.
One main way that fermented foods can support weight loss is by blocking the absorption of dietary fat in the intestine, causing it to be excreted instead of stored in the body.
Another way is through the production of hormones. Probiotics may increase the hormone GLP-1, which can help you to feel fuller, burn more calories, and store less fat in the body.
Anecdotally, the weight loss experienced by those eating fermented foods may also be related to other factors such as improved digestion, mental health, and immunity. Feeling as good as possible in the body naturally leads to a less stressed environment that encourages weight loss.
What Are The Best Vegetables To Ferment?
Although cabbage often steals the show with the popularity of sauerkraut and kimchi, just about any vegetable (and many fruits) can be fermented. Some vegetables lend themselves better to this process with good tasting firm-textured results, Others may end up with a less than savory flavor and a mushy texture.
You’ll have the best success using cold weather vegetables that are harvested later in the season when temperatures begin to cool. These vegetables lend themselves better to long term storage and fermentation processes. This includes root vegetables such as beets, turnips, radishes, and more.
You also may want to focus on the nutritional value of the vegetables that you want to ferment. The process of fermentation makes the nutrients in your vegetables more bioavailable and digestible, making fermentation the perfect platform for getting the most vitamins out of your plants.
Here is our fermented foods list to help get you started in choosing vegetables that are most exciting to you:
Asparagus: This vegetable is an excellent starter ferment since it requires very little preparation. Fermented asparagus is made by cutting off the bottom of the stalk to fit it into a jar. You then cover the asparagus with a salt-water brine. It’s popular to add garlic to this ferment to add additional complexity of flavor. Fermented asparagus is a good source of folic acid, potassium, fiber, and thiamin.
Beets: Since beets contain a high amount of sugar, this ferment will move fast! It also may attract yeasts into the jar that will convert your sugar into a small amount of alcohol. Beets contain magnesium, potassium, and iron, along with soluble fiber. They are also rich in vitamins. A, C, and B6 and antioxidants. Beets contain an exceptionally high level of folic acid.
Broccoli: You can do a fast ferment (3-5 days) on broccoli ferments to add a bit of probiotic flavor without letting the delicate ends of the broccoli get to mushy. A much more interesting way to ferment your broccoli is by using the stems, and cutting them up into equal sizes so that they will ferment at the same pace. Broccoli is a good source of fiber as well as protein. It contains iron, potassium, calcium, selenium and magnesium as well as the vitamins A, C, E, K. It also includes a variety of B vitamins, including folic acid.
Cabbage: Fermenting cabbage is very common and most popularized in the sauerkraut and kimchi recipes. However, cabbage is an excellent base for adding any flavor you would want to to your ferment. Cabbage is great for boosting immunity, reducing inflammation, aiding in weight loss, preventing constipation, and much more.
Carrots: Fermented carrots provide a delicious balance of sweet and savory since they are sugar-rich vegetables. They can also be prepared in a variety of ways, ranging from shredded carrots to whole carrot sticks submerged in brine. They maintain a nice crunch as well, perfect for those who don’t like a “mushy” ferment.
Corn: Corn is very sweet and will ferment more quickly than other vegetables, so keep an eye on it and leave it in a dark space for between 5-10 days. If you want the kernels to remain whole you’ll need to ferment your corn in a water and salt brine. Because of the high fiber content in corn, it can aid with digestion. It also has a high amount of minerals such as magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron.
Cauliflower: Cauliflower will create a ferment that is crispy and substantial, very similar to pickled cauliflower you may have seen at restaurants. It does well with a clove of garlic and red peppers added during the ferment for a little extra flavor in the final product. Cauliflower is high in fiber, a good source of antioxidants, especially sulforaphane, which has anti cancer properties.
Cucumbers: Make sure to use pickling cucumbers when fermenting. They should be about 4 to 5 inches long and 1.5 to 2 inches in diameter. Probiotic pickles go great with fennel seeds, dill, garlic, mustard seeds, peppercorns, and coriander seeds. Make sure to follow a specific recipe when making fermented cucumbers. If you over-ferment them, they will end up very mushy. Cucumbers contain lots of antioxidants, promote hydration, can help lower blood sugar, and even support weight loss.
Garlic: Fermenting garlic can really expand on its nutritional value as well as its potent flavor. You can use your fermented garlic whole, or grind it into a paste that can be used as a cooking base, marinade, sauce, and much more. Save the brine you use for your garlic as well, and add it to bloody marys, salad dressings, oils, and marinades. Garlic is rich in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and is very helpful in preventing infections and the common cold.
Kale: I love using Kale in my ferments because I normally have lots of it leftover from the large bags I buy! It’s great as a mix-in with other vegetables, or on it’s own with some garlic and onion for extra flavor. It can also ferment quite quickly because of it’s thin leafy greens, making a good choice if you’re looking for a fast ferment. Some people also save the kale stems and ferment those on their own for a sour crunchy snack. Kale is full of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and vitamin K.
Onions: Onions are very versatile for fermenting. You can cut them into large slices, grate them down, or even use whole onions if you’re using a smaller bulb. Green onions are also great options if you would like to leave the bulb whole. Onions can add complexity to other ferments and I add some onion to almost every vegetable ferment that I make. Red onions are the healthiest variety to choose these ones if you’re looking for an extra nutritional boost.
Peppers: All peppers, from small to big, from spicy to mild, are great for fermenting. You can ferment them whole, in strips, in rings, or diced up. Of course, many fermented peppers are used to make hot sauce. The very popular hot sauce Sriracha is made from fermented chili peppers, as are many others. Peppers are high in vitamins, antioxidants, and are anti-inflammatory.
Radishes: Radishes “mellow out” when fermented, taking the spicy bite out of them and replacing the flavor with a tangy sourness. They have good crunch which makes them great for eating by hand or adding crunchy elements to salads or sandwiches. I like to use radishes to add volume and water content to ferments that I make using the dry-brining method. Radishes are rich in potassium, calcium, sodium, and vitamin C.
Green Beans: This vegetable is one of the “finger foods” of the fermentation world, making them an easy snack that can be eaten on their own. You can turn green beans into a ferment by cutting their ends and placing them in a liquid brine of salt and water. Fermented green beans are great sources of vitamin C, fiber, folate, silicon, and vitamin K, which all promote healthy bones, hair, and skin.
Turnips: You can frequently find fermented turnips as an accent in middle eastern dishes, most commonly, the shawarma plate or sandwich. The crisp and sour flavor of this vegetable is a perfect compliment for the heavier well spiced flavors of this dish. Turnips are rich in fiber, many vitamins, and many minerals, making them an excellent source of nutrition.
Remember that for each of the above mentioned root vegetables, you can use the leafy green tops in your ferments as well!
Fermentation Equipment and Environment
One of the wonderful parts of vegetable fermentation is that you can often just use equipment you find around your house. You’ll need a jar, a plastic bag, a piece of cloth or paper towel, salt, and your vegetables to get started. I’ve used a t-shirt, leftover tomato sauce jar, and leftover vegetables before, clearly showing that you can work with what you have to make a vegetable ferment.
Of course, you can choose to invest in a wide variety of equipment to create the best experience and product possible when fermenting. It’s best to have a wide-mouth jar so that it’s easy to push the ferments into the jar and place a weight on top. You can also use a fermentation crock, which is a large ceramic container that ferments can safely mature in. Some people choose to use fermentation lids. These accessories will let air out of the jar without letting any air in, reducing the possibility of mold.
You can also get a veggie tamper, which will help you to press the vegetables deeply and firmly into a jar. The tamper is also helpful for the dry-bringing method where you squeeze the vegetables to extract liquid.
There are also many fermentation kits that are excellent for gifting and can also provide a stress-free start to the fermentation process.
The environment plays a huge role in veggie fermentation – almost as large of a role as the equipment plays! Ferments rely on and respond to the home they are in. They attract natural bacteria and wild yeasts and this is all dependent on cleanliness, temperature, and time. Let’s take a look into each of these factors:
While cleanliness is very important when doing any kind of fermentation, I have found that my vegetable ferments have been very forgiving without advanced sterilization. I usually prepare my equipment by boiling the items in a large pot. You can also place your supplies in the dishwasher and run them on hot with no soap added.
I also use antimicrobial soap and water to clean my fermentation supplies. It’s very important that you fully rinse these items an extra time or two, because if there is any leftover soap, it may stop the fermentation process.
The longer your vegetable ferment matures, the more naturally bacteria and mold-resistant it becomes, because of the power of the probiotics that you are cultivating. Small pests such as fruit flies will likely be attracted to your vegetables, so make sure there is always a cloth or fermentation lid securely covering your jar. It also helps to place your ferment in a cupboard where it is further protected from pests, dust, and microbiotics.
Temperature has a huge effect on the fermentation process. The lactobacillus in your vegetables will ferment much faster at temperatures above 70F. This will create a softer and smoother final product with a more pungent flavor and aroma.
If you place your ferment in an environment of 50F, you will have a very mellow smooth and tangy final product that has a complexity of flavor without being too overwhelming or pungent. However, this vegetable ferment could take as long as half a year to reach maturity!
Most fermenters choose to use a range between 60F and 70F for a balance of time and quality. A ferment in this range will reach completion within 2 to 6 weeks.
Salt: Dry Salt Method Vs. Wet Brining Method
Salt is a big player in the vegetable fermentation game and it controls the rate of fermentation depending on how much or little you put into your batch. Since salt slows down the rate of fermentation, it also protects your vegetables from harmful bacteria and keeps them crisp and crunchy.
I do recommend that if you don’t have a dietary restriction that you add salt to your ferment. However, for those who can’t handle a lot of sodium or who are more advanced fermenters, there are ways to make a vegetable ferment without salt. This requires adding a substance that has already begun the laco-fermentation process, such as whey, kombucha, or a previous ferment brine.
A rough ratio is to add 1 tablespoon of brine per pint of vegetables you are using to jump-start the batch. Another way to reduce sodium is to rinse the salt off of your ferment after it’s complete, although this method may reduce the amount of healthy probiotics in your final product.
So now, the brining vs. dry salt method! When I first learned how to make a vegetable ferment, I was taught the dry brining method, which doesn’t require water and can virtually be done anywhere! I have literally made a dry-brined ferment in foreign countries off-grid, where I couldn’t predict the quality of the water and wanted to make sure I had a safe batch.
Dry Salt: This method works best for shredded vegetables that can be easily smashed and squeezed. Add about 2 tablespoons of salt to your shredded vegetables (you’ll need enough produce to fit into a quart-sized jar). Let them sit for a few minutes and they will begin to “sweat”, releasing water into the bowl. Help the process by kneading, squeezing, and pounding your vegetables for about ten more minutes.
When a good amount of water has escaped from the plant walls of your vegetables, it’s time to pack your veggies into a quart-sized jar. Push them in very tightly and pour the remaining liquid in your bowl into the jar. Move forward with the above mentioned weight and storage process.
Wet Brining: This method works great for whole vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and green beans. Mix about 2 tablespoons of salt into 1 quart of water until fully dissolved. Place your vegetables in a 1-quart jar and submerge them completely with your saltwater brine. Place a weight on top of the vegetables and cover the jar with a cloth.
How To Stop Fermentation
There is no way to truly stop fermentation other than heating it up, which will kill off the nutritious probiotics you’ve spent weeks nurturing and cultivating. So instead of stopping fermentation, we slow it down significantly by placing it in a cold environment, such as a fridge, or a cold cellar in the winter.
In a cold environment, your vegetable ferment will continue to “age”, which means that they will ferment at an incredibly slow rate that will continue to mellow out and integrate the flavors you’ve added into your jar, such as spices and fresh herbs. Since the fermentation process never fully stops, the vegetables remain relatively immune to bad bacteria and mold. If you plan on keeping your ferment in the fridge for a half year, go ahead and mix it regularly, about every week or so, to prevent mold buildup on the top.
Your ferment can last indefinitely! Keep an eye (and your nose) on the ferment to learn about it as it changes and ages over a longer period of time, finding the perfect flavor and texture balance for your personal pallet.
How To Flavor Your Vegetable Ferments
One of the most exciting parts of creating your own vegetable ferments is being able to customize it. While we can easily get sauerkraut from most grocery stores, I know it will be nearly impossible to find curried sauerkraut, my favorite variety! Here are some great ideas for flavoring agents that you can experiment with in your next batch:
Caraway Seeds: These seeds are a very traditional additive in sauerkraut and refreshingly balance the saltiness of any vegetable ferment
Carrots: These add sweetness and smoothness to a ferment, and can also help a sluggish ferment move faster due to their sugar content. They also add a nice color to your final product.
Chiles: Peppers are excellent fermentors and the chili pepper is a great way to add some heat to your batch. The hotness will mellow the longer you let your ferment sit.
Curries: As mentioned above, I love adding curry blends to my ferments! This can impart a meaty flavor and add lots of aromatics to your ferment, and you may forget you’re even eating a vegetable when you try this blend!
Dill: This herb will add a flavor reminiscent of dill pickles to any vegetable ferment.
Fennel: Fennel can add sweetness and a small amount of anise flavor to your batch, creating a better balance with the salty and sour components of your ferment.
Fruit: Consider adding small amounts of apple, pineapple, or pear to your savory ferment to help it to ferment faster and add a salty-sweet component. Check a ferment with fruit in it at least every other day!
Garlic: This root can seriously add flavor and create an umami complexity beyond that of onions.
Ginger: Adding ginger to your veggie ferment will maximize the digestive benefits of your batch while adding a little tanginess and sweetness.
Onions & Scallions: Can add moisture as well as an umami complexity to your ferments
Radishes: These vegetables are great for the dry-salt method because they add a lot of moisture to your batch of veggies.
Rosemary: This herb will add a lot of aromatics to your ferment and are great for those who love bright earthy flavors.
Smoked Sea Salt: Adding smoked salt is another easy way to add a complexity of flavor to your ferment. A “smoked” ferment goes beautifully over a meat, mixed in with tacos, and tastes great in about a million other ways. Purchase some or make it on your own in your backyard grill!
If you’ve made it all the way down here, you’ve accumulated the knowledge and a skill-set that has been cherished by all major civilizations for thousands of years! Taking the baton of fermentation is no small thing, and is a great way to cultivate your personal health while nurturing a tradition that will serve many generations to come.
Ultimately, fermenting vegetables is an empowering way of reclaiming your health and making less than savory veggies work for you by bringing strong delicious flavors as well as probiotics into the story.
What vegetable ferments make you smile the most? How do you prefer to season and flavor your batches? The world of fermentation is a culture of sharing, so please share your experiences in the comments below!