Welcome to Better Homesteading, a place where you can indulge your desires and passions (no, not those sort) to lead a simpler, healthier and more fulfilling life. You've found your way here some how through the dark and winding paths of the interwebz, in search of exciting new ways to add nutrition to your food.
I'm excited to have you here, as this whole fermented foods malarky is a real passion for me. I eat (sauerkraut and kimchi), sleep (dream about fermenting) and drink (kombucha and kefir) probiotic foods, so I'm super excited to be able perhaps, introduce you to fermentation.
It seems crazy complicated, but it's actually incredibly easy. Other than providing the right sort of environment, nature does the work for you. Let's dive in and get a little background before we learn how to make our own naturally fermented foods.
Table Of Contents
- A Brief History Of Fermentation
- Health Benefits Of Fermented Vegetables
- Understanding The Lacto-Fermentation Process
- How To Make Naturally Fermented Foods At Home - Equipment List
- The Water Sealed Fermentation Crock
- Fermenting Food In Mason Jars
- Vegetable Fermenting Basics
- How To Ferment Vegetables - Step By Step Instructions
- Recommended Fermenting Accessories
A Brief History Of Fermentation
Fermentation is a totally natural process that has been around since the beginning of time. Seriously, humans didn't create fermentation, although we have been able to harness it for our own personal needs, and have been doing so for thousands of years.
No, since organic matter existed on this earth, fermentation has occurred. Fruits and vegetables fall from the plant or vine and ferment if they sit for any length of time. Natural yeasts and bacterias which are found on the skins and leaves of plants become part of a process which breaks down the plant matter. These micro-organisms feast on the sweet sugars, breaking it down and eventually allowing it to return to the earth and become part of the soil.
Sometimes animals find them first, feast on them and become a little drunk on the alcohol that is produced.
Human consumption of fermented foods goes back into the depths of time, long before anyone was recording it. Early humans would have picked up this ripe, soft fruit and eaten it, gaining benefits from the probiotic organisms residing inside, but not knowing that this tasty snack was inherently healthy.
We know though, that cultures from around the globe have been purposely fermenting food for thousands of years. Kefir milk has been consumed in the Caucasus mountains of the former Soviet Union for hundreds of years. Vegetables like cabbage have been fermented for thousands of years in China. Kimchi is part of the Korean culture in many ways, as is Natto in Japan and sauerkraut in Germany.
The original fermenters probably seeing that this natural method that they had stumbled upon could preserve food and allow it to be stored for many months, even years.
This would have been a real boon, a way of taking the gluts from a good harvest and saving them for the lean times when food was not readily available. Fermenting extends the shelf life of dairy and vegetables considerably. Humans would also have been able to travel for longer distances in search of new food sources, taking their fermented supplies with them.
In more recent times, to the detriment of our health, populations have been moving away from the fermented foods that have helped sustain our ancestors for generations, preferring pizza over pickles, KFC over kimchi and chips over curtido (a Mexican fermented vegetable dish).
Additionally, in these crazy times of over-cleanliness, fear of germs and anything bacterial, manufacturers of sauerkraut and other ferments have taken to killing the beneficial bacteria that enhance our health by pasteurization. The want to kill any potential harmful bacteria but they kill the good ones too.
This leaves food that is dead with no life in it at all. This leaves our bodies with a serious deficiency on gut health enhancing probiotics.
Fermented foods or the natural, raw variety are making a comeback though, with people beginning to take control of their own health and food sources, and benefitting in many ways.
There are many strains of friendly bacteria in fermented foods, the LactoBacillus strains being the most well known. Scientific studies have proved time and time again that these, when ingested on a regular basis, play a major role in enhancing gut health.
The fear of germs and harmful bacteria in fermented foods is much overstated. With a little care and some basic common sense (which our governments seem to think that we lack), you can produce incredibly nutritious ferments at home. This is what we are going to learn in the rest of this article.
But first, we need to understand why fermented food is good for you and how this fermentation thing works.
Health Benefits Of Fermented Vegetables
There are plenty of good reasons to ferment your own food. You may know them, and that's the reason you are here, but if you are totally in the dark, here's the cliffnotes.
Fermented vegetables are rich in probiotic flora, digestive enzymes, as well as vitamins and minerals. This combination creates a superfood that is hard to beat for its nutritional value.
Digestive enzymes are needed to absorb food and nutrients. Many people have lost a lot of the enzymes that are needed due to long periods of poor eating habit. When the enzyme levels in your guts are high you are able to absorb more of the nutrients from the other foods that you eat.
Probiotic bacteria are needed by the body to function well and maintain optimal health. These amazing bacteria help with the digestion process and also help to boost the immune system.These super-powered healthy bacteria battle against bad bacteria that may try to set up home in your body.
Fermented foods are easily digested and help the body with the digestion process. They have already been partially digested as they fermented. You'll also absorb more nutrients from the other foods you eat with probiotic foods as part of your diet.
Useful Reading: Inclusion of Fermented Foods in Food Guides around the World
This video by John Bergman is long, but it has some really useful insights into why we should all be eating more fermented foods.
Understanding The Lacto-Fermentation Process
I've written about how fermentation works in the past, but let's briefly touch on it again, as a basic understanding of the concepts it going to make producing your own fermented goodies much easier. Knowledge is power and all that jazz!
Fermentation occurs when naturally occurring bacterias and microorganisms found on food break down the food by consuming the sugars in them. This special type of bacteria are called Lactobacteria. There are a number of different strains, but they all have one thing in common.
The byproduct of the fermentation process is lactic acid. Other byproducts are also created, notably a small quantity of alcohol and CO2 gas. No need to worry, you're not going to fail a breath test having eaten a bowl of sauerkraut for lunch.
There are 2 different types of fermentation. Aerobic, meaning in the presence of oxygen, and anaerobic, which occurs when oxygen is excluded, and this is the focus of our process for fermenting vegetables.
When fruits and/or vegetables are harvested and placed in an environment where oxygen is excluded, the bacteria on the leaves or skins begin to naturally break down the sugars in the plant fibers. As the process goes on, those simple sugars (mainly glucose and fructose) and converted into lactic acid.
Carbon dioxide is produced as the foods are broken down from their complex state into simple units. These are easily digested and turned into an energy source when we consume these foods. They are, to all intents and purposes, already partly digested before we eat them, due to the natural fermentation process.
As mentioned, many of the large scale manufacturers who are jumping on the probiotic bandwagon kill all the bacteria, but this is really a fear of litigation that isn't really in line with fact.
The lactic acid that is produced by these GOOD bacteria actually kills BAD bacteria. Harmful bacteria find it hard to grow and flourish in an acidic environment. So as well as being safe and healthy to eat, not to mention...tasty, fermented vegetables can last for a long time, as harmful bacteria that would cause mold are kept at bay.
Anyhoo, it's now time to get into the nitty-gritty of why you came. Let's discover the exciting world of how to make your own naturally fermented foods.
How To Make Naturally Fermented Foods At Home - Equipment List
I'm sorry, but this list is incredibly short. I'd love to tell you that you're going to need a sh*t-ton of stuff to get going, but I can't.
This list is pretty standard for all basic ferments. If you're fermenting beets, cabbage into sauerkraut, or pretty much any other basic vegetable, this list will suit you. If you are trying your hand at kimchi, you'll need some extra spices but the principles are the same.
In order to start to lacto-ferment vegetables at home, you will need:
- Water (preferably filtered)
- A fermentation vessel
Let's take a look at each of these in turn and put a bit of meat on the bones, metaphorically speaking of course, most fermented vegetable recipes are vegetarian and vegan, no meat or bone required.
Wow, what can I say? This is going to be a short section! You can ferment pretty much any vegetables. Cabbage is the obvious candidate as most people have heard of sauerkraut, but green beans, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, garlic, onion, you name it, you can ferment it.
The only thing I would say is that fresh vegetables in great condition should be your goal. Just because we are not eating them fresh doesn't mean we should be using lacklustre, limp, discolored vegetables that are past their best. You won't magically turn bad vegetables onto good fermented vegetables, that's a promise.
Avoid vegetables that bruised or have soft spots on them. Discolored or soft areas can be cut away, moldy or rotten ones should be discarded and never used. I like to see what is fresh and in season in my local area, and ideally, grow some of my own in my vegetable garden.
Salt And Water
Salt is almost always used in anaerobic fermentation. Salt is either added to filtered water to make a brine, or sprinkled directly onto finely sliced vegetables to help them to release the natural water that is held inside. Vegetables and fruit, like us, are predominantly water, and you'll be amazed at how much they release.
Those pesky harmful bacteria that struggle to survive in an acidic environment don't much like salty water either. The lucky thing for us is that those healthy bacteria that we want to encourage don't seem to mind it at all.
By adding salt we are creating an environment that is conducive to beneficial bacteria but detrimental to harmful ones...Sweet!! Most salts without fillers and anti caking agents work, but here's a useful article of what I consider the best salts for fermenting vegetables. Check them out, you may already have some in the cupboard.
If there was no salt, the lactobacteria would have a bit more competition from those pesky harmful ones that we are trying to destroy.
The brine kills the harmful critters, allowing the beneficial ones to take hold. Their lactic acid production seals the fate of anything that might have escaped the salt attack.
Water wise, filtered water is ideal for using when fermenting foods. If you have town water with natural minerals in it, but free from those horrid additives like fluoride and chlorine (not to mention all the stuff we don't know about), then you might be ok. But a simple water filter jug is a good way to make sure you're not getting more than you bargained for from your town water supply.
The Fermentation Vessel.
There are a couple of options, well, more actually but once you understand the process, you can expand on the type of vessels you use.
As we've discussed, lacto-fermentation is anaerobic, it needs to occur without air getting in. If air does make it's way onto your vegetables, different bacteria can begin to grow and you'll end up with mold on your food, not good. For this reason, an airtight environment is essential.
The Water Sealed Fermentation Crock
There are a number of ways of doing this. The simplest being a german style water sealed fermentation crock, which has a gutter that is filled with water, in which the rim of the lid sits.
This water seal prevents air from entering the crock, but allows gases to escape. Fermentation produces gas (CO2 remember?) and this creates a positive pressure in the crock. This gas can bubble out of the crock, but no air is able to return inside. Cool er?
I'd definitely recommend purchasing the best fermentation crock you can afford, this is really a one off purchase, and scrimping on this is generally a mistake.
Here's a picture of the water seal on my crock at home.
The other alternative is fermenting in open vessels, or at the least, ones which do not have that nice water seal.
Fermenting Food In Mason Jars
Mason jars are a popular alternative to the german style water sealed fermentation crock. Cheaper, but with less capacity, they are a fair alternative if you have some already, or want to keep costs down. There are certainly some precautions you need to take if you are going to use sealed mason jars for fermenting.
As I have alluded to in the previous section, gas is produced during the process and this will build up if not released or allowed to escape. No issue if you are using a crock, but in a sealed mason jar, the internal pressures can be quite significant. Containers have certainly been known to explode of this pressure isn't released.
Less dangerous, but more likely is that when you open a sealed jar, you end up wearing much of the liquid from inside as it sprays out. Try getting red cabbage juice out of your favorite shirt of blouse.
I've covered making sauerkraut in a variety of fermentation vessesl HERE. Hop on over and take a read. It opens in a new tab so I'll be waiting here for when you get back.
Vegetable Fermenting Basics
There are, as with most things, more than one school of thought when it comes to fermentation. The wild fermentation and the assisted fermentation school.
Wild fermentation involves placing fruits or vegetables in brine and allowing the natural bacteria to do their thing and ferment them as nature intended. Vegetables, brine, salt, and Mother Nature's blessing. That's it!
The Assisted Fermentation school of thought is that by adding a starter culture to your vegetables, you give the process a nudge in the right direction. A starter culture is not essential, but does speed up the fermentation cycle a bit, as well as giving you more control over the the types of bacteria in your ferments.
Wild fermentation is a robust process, after all, nature has been doing it for millions of years. You are a little less sure of the diversity of lactobacteria you'll get, but the chances are it will be MORE diverse, making the end product even better for you.
Whichever method you choose (I always use the wild method), the process is pretty much the same, other than the addition of the starter culture for the assisted method.
How To Ferment Vegetables - Step By Step Instructions
Here are the basic steps to ferment vegetables:
1. Ensure that all the containers you will be using to process and store your fermented vegetables are clean. That goes for any utensils you'll be using too. This is basic kitchen and food hygiene. There really is no need to go down the whole sterilisation rabbit hole with this, just a simple cleaning routine with some warm soapy water, followed by a rinse with clean water is really all that is required.
2. Wash your vegetables. A rinse under clean running water and a little fit of agitation to remove mud and grime is all you need. Avoid getting into using chemicals to clean the veggies as some people do. You want them to be clean, but don't want to kill the bacteria that reside on the leaves or skins.
For more stubborn muck on the surface, you can just soak them in cold water for a while. Using a soft brush or sponge to remove dirt is fine. Warm or cold water is what you should be using, not hot, as this could kill the bacteria too. If you do that, then you're going to have to rely on a starter culture to get the whole process going.
Remove ant leaves or skin that are obviously beyond saving. Retain a couple of the clean outer leaves to use for covering the vegetables in the crock a little later.
3. Processing your vegetables is the next step on this exciting journey. Trimming the ends off bean and carrots, peeling garlic cloves, or shredding cabbage. To me, this is really fun and exciting. I'm creating the bare bones of my ferment, putting the ingredients together ready to wish them well on their transformation into something even better.
The gist of the processing stage is to take large pieces and convert them into much smaller pieces. Not rocket science. The smaller or finer the pieces, the easier the fermentation is, due to a larger surface area being exposed to the brine solution.
I've used all sorts of methods to shred cabbage and other veg. From a food processor to a mandolin (watch those fingers), and now, for the most part, I use a large kitchen knife. It seems a little bit of a regressive step when there are all sorts of more modern gadgets to make my life easier, but I've really found that a decent knife and a good chopping board are the easiest way.
Check out my post on how to make sauerkraut for more information on the specific process I use.
The next step has TWO options, pick whichever you like.
4. Option 1 - Place vegetables in a large container and add salt. I mention the large container due to experience and the vomiting of expletives when I used a bowl that was just too small. I spent so much time picking cabbage off the floor I nearly gave up.
When you are shredding a couple of heads of cabbage, it might not seem like a lot until you've finished shredding it. Then it seems like a mountain. I not use a large plastic tub that I picked up from a local store. I won't be fermenting the veggies in their so no need to worry about chemicals being leached.
Anyway, back to it. Add around 1 tablespoon of salt to every 2 pounds of cabbage ( a medium head is usually around 2 lbs in weight) You can measure this out at the start and sprinkle it on as you add cabbage to the container, or just chuck it in at the end and mix it in with your hands.
If you want to take the easy route, cover the container and leave it for an hour or so. Come back, turn the cabbage with your hands again and re-cover. The cabbage will wilt and water will be released as the leaves are bathed in the salt.
If you're feeling vigorous, you can squeeze and massage the cabbage by hand to get the same result. I find it takes 10-15 minutes of good hand work to get the vegetables to that soft state ready for throwing into the crock or mason jar.
Option 2 - Involves salting the vegetables but then directly placing them into a fermentation crock, and using a cabbage pounder to pound them to release the water. Many fermentistas do it this way for kraut, either works fine. With this option you are just taking one stage out of the process, but not necessarily much time. The pounding still takes time and unless you have a monster crock, you can only add a little at a time.
I prefer option 1, but play with it and see which you prefer.
5. Place the vegetables in the fermenting vessel. If you didn't use option 2, then you should have some nice wilted vegetables with plenty of liquid in the container. This is perfect. If there isn't much brine, you can also soak the vegetables for a few more hours or overnight until more is released.
Pack these veggies into your crock or mason jar, ideally using a cabbage pounder, a potato masher or something similar (even your fist) to press them down tightly into the vessel/jar.
Keep packing them down, you'll likely see some liquid starting to rise in the jar as you go. Fill to within a couple of inches of the top of the jar or neck of the crock. Then take the water that is sitting in the processing container and pour enough of it in so that the vegetables are covered. This is essential for the anaerobic process to occur, the liquid preventing air getting to the vegetables.
6. Add more brine of necessary. If you don't have enough brine for that, you can make some up with some salt and filtered water and top up the vessel. Make a simple brine solution by adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt to a cup of water.
7. Add starter culture if you are going for the assisted fermentation method. A starter culture doesn't need to be some purchased product. You can use some liquid from a ferment that has just finished, some kefir grains, or some whey that you've acquired when making your own kefir milk.
8. Ensure all air pockets are removed. Double check that you've pressed the vegetables down as tightly as you can, doing your best to remove any spaces or voids. This is simple if you are using mason jars as you can see them, but just make sure you avoid air pockets where harmful critters could set up home.
9. Add the retained cabbage leaves, spreading them on top of the vegetables, and using your fingers or a spatula to press the edges down the site of the crock or jar. This keeps the veg locked down and less likely to float up and come into contact with the air.
10. Place your fermenting weight on top of the whole leaves and press down. These weights will keep the veg below the surface of the brine during the ferment. With the best fermentation crocks you get weight stones included, but some people used slightly smaller jars filled with water as weights.
Other options include river rocks in ziplock bags, or plastic sandwich bags placed in the mason jar, with an elastic band around the neck, and the bag filled with water. As long a you are keeping the vegetables under the surface you are good to go..
11. Add brine to the jar so that it is over the top of the weight. This is relevant if you are using weight stones, but for the other methods, you just want to ensure that the vegetables are well covers with liquid.
It is important not to overfill the jar or crock. Aim to leave an inch or two of headspace at the top to allow for expansion and for gasses to build up without causing the jar to explode.
12. Place the lid on the vessel. If you are using a water sealed crock, add water to the gutter first and place the lid.
For mason jars, screw the lid on tightly, you might need to 'burp' these every couple of days, just cracking the lid to let out any built up gas. Then reseal.
Some people like to use a special lid with an airlock, a bit like the ones you see home beer brewers using. You can buy these for many standard sized mason jars. Just add a little water to the airlock and gas can release naturally.
13. Time to store your ferment. A dark place is best, definitely out of direct sunlight. Aim for an ambient temperature of between 65 - 72 degrees F. Temperature has a big effect on fermentation time. Too high a temperature will result in a quick ferment, but the product is often slimy and not particularly appetizing. If your sauerkraut is not bubbling you may have stored it in too cool a place, although that vigorous activity only usually occurs in the first week or so.
The average ferment takes around 20 days, but it's important to keep an eye on things, and perhaps even do some taste tests to make sure your vegetables are at the crunchiness and sourness level that you like.
14. Ferment complete? Time to store ready for eating. Once you are satisfied with your ferment, it's time to place the end product into jars ready for storing for the longer term. If you've fermented in mason jars, then all you need to do is move them from the relative warmth to a cool place where fermentation will slow down to a snail's pace.
If you used a water-sealed fermentation or open crock, you'll need to jar up this product into jars (even mason jars) with sealed lids and store in a cool place. I generally refrigerate my sauerkraut and kimchi after I have jarred it up, but a cellar or cool outbuilding is fine too.
You're done! I know it sounds like a lot to take in if you've never done this before, but it's actually really easy to get going, and you learn little tips and tricks along the way. Ways to speed up and slow your fermentation process, how much salt give you the taste you like, which containers work best. On that note, I want to say that I really don't like airtight containers for fermenting, preferring some sort of airlock system.
I use a crock like these, but airlock lids are great. If you don't want to invest in a crock, then a mason jar with an airlock lid is great You use the airlock while fermenting, then just screw the normal lid on when you store the final product.
Wow, that was a lot of information, I hope you've found it useful and learned something. I also hope that I've written it in a simple enough way that you don't feel overwhelmed by the idea of fermenting your own food naturally, instead of buying some half-a**ed brand that has no nutritional benefits at all.
We are living in a time where processed and heavily marketed food-like substances are the go-to food source for most families. But we are also in a time where more and more people (like you and me) are realizing that the more traditional ways of eating are not only better for us, but enjoyable and tasty too.
So, go forth and ferment, it's a wonderful and exciting journey with twists, turns and adventures. Mistakes will be made, but those mistakes are rarely terminal (not in the dying sense, but in the sense that most are reversible).
Good luck, and have fun!
Recommended Fermenting Accessories
Here are a few cool things that you might want to consider if you decide to start fermenting. I love my cabbage pounder and also have a shredder similar to the one below. I've used a knife for a long time, but the shredder speeds the process.
Himalayan salt is the best in my view, check out my article on the best type of salt for fermenting if you'd like to learn more.