When most people think of fermenting vegetables they think of “pickled” vegetables. However, pickling can mean many things, with the most common home pickling method used today simply preserving veggies in jars with vinegar. Now, this may preserve the veggies, but it is not fermenting them.
In order to create traditional pickled veggies you simply use salt-water as opposed to vinegar and ferment the food via a method called:
How it works
The bacteria that are responsible for lacto-fermentation are lactic acid bacteria (LAB), which are naturally present on the surface of all vegetables and most other things. This type of bacteria is halophilic -salt tolerant- and anaerobic -requires an absence of oxygen.
When you submerge your veggies in salt water you are creating the perfect environment for these bacteria to thrive. In this optimal environment the lactic acid bacteria begins to consume starches and sugars from the vegetable, and as a byproduct it produces lactic acid and carbon dioxide. This lactic acid acts to preserve the veggies and gives pickled foods their unique sour taste.
This process can also be similarly utilized to ferment grains and legumes (beans), seeds and nuts. It is part of the fermentation process for sourdough bread and is also a similar process that occurs when you ferment dairy products.
In order to lacto-ferment vegetables at home all you have to do is:
1. Chop your desired veggies -and fruits and nuts!
Size depends on what your going for-ranging from small pieces for salsas or entire cucumbers for traditional pickles. Be careful with fruits that are high in sugar, as this can lead to alcoholic ferments.
2. Stuff your veggies tightly into a jar Ensuring that they are fully submerged* *Arguably the most important part of pickling veggies at home, as any veggie breaking the surface of the water is vulnerable to mold
2. Submerge your veggies in salt water (brine)
The salt to water ratio is extremely variable. 2.5 tbsp salt to 1 quart of water is a good place to start
3. Secure lid and let sit at room temperature
Make sure to “burp” the jar by loosening the lid a few times a day to release built up pressure, and make sure all veggies stay submerged!
4. Move to fridge and enjoy!
This timing is extremely variable, some people say as little as a few days, while some traditional methods call for weeks or even months*
*After the first couple days the jar is at room temperature (cold weather it will take longer, hot weather will be faster) your brine will get bubbly as the lactic acid bacteria produces carbon dioxide- be sure to open the jar to release built up pressure a couple times a day to avoid creating a pickle bomb!
After a few days of this bubbling it should “climax”, meaning each following day there is less and less activity. This is a good time to taste test your veggies. If they taste good, move them to the fridge where they will keep for months. If they don’t taste to your preference, continue to taste test periodically until they do.
Update 7/21/16: While I started off very flexible in the timing of my ferments (and never had any issues), I’ve begun to see a lot of people who are only letting their veggies sit out for a few days, which could pose some issues. The main problem is that if they do not ferment long enough, enough lactic acid to lower the PH to a level that efficiently preserves the food. Beyond that, in Michael Pollan’s book “Cooked” he explains that as fermentation occurs, their are different waves of bacteria. Some of the later stages may provide different nutritional properties, as well as preservation capabilities. Do some research if you want to really make sure you get the most out of your jar.
You can get creative with your lacto-ferments and use combinations of spices, fresh peppers, ginger, nuts, seeds, and even fruits -although if you use to much fruit the high sugar content can result in alcohol being produced. This method can also be utilized to create salsas, sauces, and other condiments.
The most important thing is to keep the veggies below the surface of the liquid! Check periodically to see if your veggies are floating to the top, if they are pack them down with a clean spoon.
Simple as that! You never have to buy pickles again!
The process of lacto-fermentation to promote the growth of lactic acid bacteria has several key benefits:
During lacto-fermentation the lactic acid bacteria create lactic acid in large quantities which create an acidic environment that sufficiently kills off any pathogens and prevents the future growth of harmful bacteria and mold. It also acts to preserve the nutrients and taste of the vegetables for long periods of time.
Lactic acid bacteria containing foods, such as lacto-fermented veggies are part of a group often called “live culture foods” or “probiotics”. These fermented foods are teeming with living bacteria and fungi that when consumed are believed to help to reinforce our intestinal tract with good bacteria that aid in healthy digestion.
The process of lacto-fermentation causes structural changes in foods that has been scientifically proven to increase the amounts of certain vitamins (specifically B vitamins) and enzymes. The process also has been shown to create unique micro-nutrients that are not found in the raw form of the food. As the complex colonies of bacteria break down the food they are actually increasing the bio-availability of many nutrients. Check out this study done on the nutrition of sorghum before and after fermentation.
Best part of all…
Pickling veggies at home is an cheap and easy way to experiment and create jars full of uniquely delicious foods that are the perfect accompaniment to any meal.