You already know all about the importance of probiotics, those good bacteria that can seriously upgrade your digestive health and overall well-being. And you’re doing your best to include fermented foods in your diet, but you’ve run into a problem. It turns out, buying high-quality fermented foods that actually contain the beneficial probiotic cultures you’re looking for can be quite an expensive habit. Luckily, we have a simple solution for you: making your own fermented vegetables at home.
8 Exciting Health Benefits of Fermented Vegetables
Fermented foods have been around for eons. Our ancestors relied on the fermentation process for food preservation. They fermented vegetables and dairy products to keep them fresh (remember, refrigerators didn’t exist yet). And many of our favorite foods today are made using fermentation. Not just the obvious ones, like yogurt (or uber-trendy kefir), but foodstuffs like beer, wine, cheese, bread, and even chocolate!
Fermented foods contain beneficial bacteria that improve your gut health and overall well-being. Scientists have successfully used probiotic cultures for health-promoting purposes in a number of highly exciting ways, including:
- Enhancing immune function
- Relieving pain
- Calming allergy symptoms
- Fighting fungal infections
- Quelling inflammation
- Alleviating symptoms of diabetes
- Lowering heart disease and cancer risk
As researchers have gained a better understanding of the gut-brain connection, they’ve begun to explore the mental health benefits of fermented foods. According to findings published in 2016, adding fermented foods to your diet can have powerful neuroprotective effects.
Important Facts About Lacto-Fermentation
The phrase “lacto-fermentation” can sound intimidating and even unappealing. It may conjure images of mason jars filled with milk, bacteria, and who knows what else left—an at-home science experiment far more likely to go wrong than to go right. But making fermented vegetables using the lacto-fermentation process couldn’t be simpler, and the results rival anything you can find at your local health foods store.
When you learn the basics of natural fermentation, you may be surprised by just how easy it is to make your own delicious fermented vegetables. You don’t need any special equipment or hard-to-find ingredients. Plus, fermented vegetable recipes are highly adaptable, so you can tweak them to suit your personal preferences.
Before we get into the details of how to make lacto-fermented vegetables at home, let’s clear one thing up: lacto-fermentation has nothing to do with dairy. The term “lacto” here refers to lactic acid, not lactose.
Fruits and vegetables naturally have beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus, living on their surfaces. When placed in an anaerobic environment (meaning an environment without oxygen), Lactobacillus bacteria turn the sugars in fruits and vegetables into lactic acid.
Lactic acid acts as a natural preservative by inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria. It’s also the reason for the signature tangy, sour flavor of fermented vegetables.
How to Ferment Vegetables at Home
Once you try making your own fermented vegetables at home, you’ll be left with one burning question: “What took me so long?”
First, you’ll need to decide which veggies to ferment. Practically any vegetable is fair game for fermentation, though some require a bit of extra effort. Veggies with a higher water content, like delicate leafy greens or summer squash, tend to get mushy during the fermentation process. Adding a tannin-rich ingredient, like grape leaves or black tea leaves, can help to keep them crisp.
If you need inspiration for your first foray into fermenting veggies, check out this list of our eight favorite vegetables to ferment:
- Beets: The fermentation process transforms earthy beets into tangy, tender little nuggets of goodness. Most fermented vegetable recipes recommend cooking the beets prior to pickling them.
- Cabbage: You’re probably familiar with fermented cabbage in the form of a dollop of tart sauerkraut. But have you ever tried kimchi? This traditional Korean fermented food is tangy, hot, salty, sweet, totally addictive, and totally good for you.
- Carrots: Not only do fermented carrots look absolutely gorgeous, but they’re also super tasty and can be prepared in a variety of ways. The biggest factor that determines the flavor of your carrots will be how you slice them. The smaller they are, the funkier the flavor will be.
- Cauliflower: Fermented cauliflower has a delightful crunch and its mild taste makes it a great canvas for playing with subtle flavor additions. We especially love fermenting it with lemon slices and peppercorns.
- Cucumbers: Even if you’re a total fermented food newbie, you’ve probably tried fermented cucumbers—also known as pickles. If you want to make your own pickles, make sure to buy unwaxed, pickling cucumbers.
- Green beans: Fermented green beans make a perfect pick-me-up during winter months when the fresh green taste of summer feels very far away. Keep a batch in your fridge so you always have a healthy, probiotic-loaded snack on hand.
- Peppers: You can ferment peppers on their own to use as a tangy, spicy condiment. Or pack them with other veggies to infuse the whole mixture with some heat.
- Radishes: We adore the crisp snap and tart, peppery taste of pickled radishes. They’re so flavorful, our favorite way to ferment this vegetable is to use only water and sea salt and let their natural taste shine through.
Once you’ve decided which veggies, or mix of veggies, you’re going to ferment, the next step is to cut them into even pieces. You want all your veggie bits to be the same shape and size so that they ferment at the same rate.
Next, pack all the vegetables into your fermenting jars. You can purchase jars specially fitted with airlocks, or simply use mason jars. We find wide-mouth mason jars work especially well! The important thing is to choose containers that won’t leech chemicals. Glass and ceramic are your best bets.
Then, cover them with salt water. You can ferment vegetables in plain water, but adding salt improves their taste and texture. Experts recommend using filtered water and sea salt for the best results. It’s important not to use too much salt, since that can actually halt the fermentation process. The standard amount to use is 3 teaspoons of salt per 5 pounds of vegetables. If you want to add only the bare minimum of salt, using a starter culture, like whey or kefir grains, will help ensure the good bacteria fully develop and harmful bacteria don’t get the chance.
A key part of lacto-fermentation is that it takes place in an anaerobic environment, so it’s important to make sure all the veggies are fully submerged in the salt brine and not exposed to oxygen. If they do come in contact with oxygen, you’ll start to see some unwanted developments, like mold growth. Don’t panic if that happens! You can simply scrape the mold away, then make sure the remaining vegetables are all covered with liquid. To ensure all your fermenting veggies stay underwater, try placing a glass weight in the jar or covering the veggies with a cabbage leaf.
There’s no precise length of time that veggies need to ferment for. Factors like the room temperature as well as the veggies you choose will impact the speed of the fermentation process. You’ll know they’re ready to eat when they taste good to you.
Once your fermented vegetables taste the way you want them to, stash them away in a cool place. The refrigerator is the most obvious option in most modern homes, but if you want (and your living situation allows), you can go old school and stash them in a root cellar. When stored properly, your fermented vegetables will last for months!