Whether you are trying to eat healthier these days or simply like how they taste, you have probably thought once or twice about how to make your own fermented vegetables.
Of course, you could just buy them from your local store, but – as you will see – there are many advantages to having them start out in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Besides, you get to take control over the food you are putting into your body and, why not, maybe even have some fun in the process too.
Fermented vegetables 101
Pickling veggies and plants of various kinds is obviously not something invented yesterday. In fact, many East European and Asian cultures employ fermented vegetables as staple ingredients in their traditional cuisines, which is a testament to their long-term usage in such dishes.
From Kimchi and Miso paste to sauerkraut and brine pickles or olives, the world is filled with all sorts of (delicious) variations on this theme. In short – if it’s a vegetable, there’s a high chance you can pickle it and have it taste amazing at the same time.
While nowadays we can rely on trusty fridges and international markets to get fresh produce all year around, things were different in the past when food had to be either very fresh or heavily preserved in order to be palatable.
Thus, the most common reason behind this process of preservation was that of keeping vegetables from going bad, as well as having access to them during seasons when they would otherwise be unavailable (for instance, during winter).
As a result, people could maintain their dietary habits even under unfavorable conditions and even create new combinations of vegetables to suit their taste.
You might be wondering by now: ‘okay, fermented vegetables are good and all – so why can’t I just buy them at my local store?’.
In all fairness, this seems like the easier thing to do if you are just looking to garnish your sandwich or add a spicy side dish to your dinner.
However, if you are interested in the nutritional and health side of these foods, then you might want to take matters into your own hands.
Why? Well, one major advantage of vegetable conservation is that this process actually involves the presence of beneficial microorganisms called ‘probiotics’.
These ‘good’ bacteria are not only an active component of fermentation, but also a natural part of the human gastrointestinal system, where they help regulate digestion, promote detoxification within the body, and improve immunity control.
External supplementation via foods like fermented vegetables can help your gut either maintain its normal microflora count or restore it after intestinal disturbances of different sorts (prolonged antibiotic treatments, food poisoning, infections, etc.).
Nevertheless, pickled vegetables that are being commercially distributed locally or at an international scale often contain more than your average brine ingredients like salt and water (vinegar destroys probiotics).
For instance, you might have the surprise of encountering preservatives like ‘potassium sorbate’ and ‘sodium benzoate’ on your product’s label, which some research considers being toxic when consumed excessively.
Aside from obtaining a much more wholesome product than you would by just buying one off the shelf, you also get much more freedom in terms of vegetable combinations.
Unless you live in a highly multicultural and/ or cuisine-focused area, then your choice of pickled goods could be somewhat limited. So why not take a chance and start stacking up on your own fermented creations?
How to make your own fermented vegetables
The idea of starting your own fermented vegetables from scratch can be a bit daunting at first, but keep in mind these useful steps for a successful pickling journey:
- Find the right tools
At the most basic level, you will need glass jars and plastic lids in order to get started with your pickling endeavors.
While some still use the ‘old-fashioned’ metallic, tight seal lids, they are at a bit of a disadvantage because these require daily releasing of the fermentation gasses building up inside (otherwise you might end up with a bursting jar).
As such, plastic versions are more health-friendly and appropriate for a correct fermentation process nowadays.
Besides, these can come with an airlock attached to them, which releases the fermentation gasses on its own and reduces the occurrence of yeast overgrowths as well.
You could use just a cloth cover for smaller containers for increased air exposure, but you still run the risk of mold infestations over time.
Plastic jars should usually be avoided because they can get easily scratched or contaminated with unwanted bacteria (hence leading to mold and over fermentation of the vegetables).
In addition, there is a high chance that they contain BPA (Bisphenol A), a synthetic compound linked to various health problems like elevated blood pressure and neurological disturbances.
In general, glass containers are fairly easy to come by in all shapes and sizes, depending on how big you want your batch of fermented vegetables to be. A number of people also prefer ceramic or porcelain recipients for the fermentation process, which are usually accessible in terms of purchasing and safe to use.
In addition to containers and lids, you also need sharp cutting utensils and some sort of pounding tool to stack up your veggies (if you choose to chop them up).
An optional instrument is that of fermentation weights that are used to keep the content completely submerged under the liquid; you can find them for purchase (‘pickle pebbles’, for instance) or simply make your own (water bags, glass jars, etc.) – as long as you don’t put anything potentially toxic or glue-contaminated next to your vegetables.
- Choose your vegetables
One of the great advantages of culturing your own vegetables is that you can select what type of produce you want to mix and match in order to get your perfect combination of pickled goodness.
Most vegetables ‘work’ with each other in terms of flavors, but it is also important to know whether they match in preparation format as well.
For example, cabbage, gherkins, radishes, asparagus, Brussel sprouts, and green beans handle the fermentation process better when left whole, while carrots and cauliflower need to be chopped for optimal results.
Another great rule of thumb would be to keep harder vegetables sliced thinly and softer ones in thicker variants because, in this way, you avoid under fermentation or the veggies turning all mushy at the end.
On the other hand, some vegetables can be pickled either whole or sliced up, as is the case with onions, garlic or hot peppers of various types, for instance.
In the end, there is no single ‘right’ way of fermenting vegetables, so your personal taste – as well as a few ‘trial and error’ batches – will reveal the best recipe in this case.
- Pick a method
Speaking of the recipe, you should keep in mind that what you add as a fermentation starter for the vegetables also plays an essential role in both the quality and flavor of your end product.
As mentioned before, you should stay away from vinegar if you want your fermented vegetables to still contain probiotics. The most popular alternative choices to this are salt (brine) and whey, each with its own perks and drawbacks.
Salt is the ideal choice for crunchier vegetables and a slower fermentation process, as well as one heavily based on Lactobacillus probiotics.
Even so, some people cannot have too much salt in their dietary regimes as a result of health issues (elevated blood pressure, for example), which is where replacements like seaweed, celery juice, and herbal sources come in handy.
Typically, a good brine mixture contains 1-3 tablespoons of salt to 1 quarter(~60ml) measurement of water.
Whey represents and equally adequate fermentation starter because it enables ‘good’ bacteria to thrive and therefore boosts the pickling process. It can be used on its own or in addition to salt for firmer vegetables.
The downside to whey is that it derives from dairy (which can be inappropriate for those who suffer from lactose intolerance) and can also exhibit a distinct taste that some do not enjoy.
For a more ‘foolproof’ method, go for premade starter cultures (freeze-dried) that are available in the supermarket or specialized stores. These are generally accompanied by specific instructions to make your job easier.
Moreover, you can even use the leftover liquid from your previously pickled vegetables as the starter culture for a new series. In this case, you can use 1 quarter of fermented starter per 1 quarter of water for the ideal pickling liquid.
- Check the water
These days, water sources can be contaminated for a number of reasons like pollution or harmful bacteria, so be sure to take into consideration this aspect as well before adding it to your vegetables.
The most common options you have are most likely tap water and bottled water, but these too might contain added ‘ingredients’ such as fluoride and chlorine.
Remember to boil and/ or filter your water source beforehand in order to make sure the fermentation process runs smoothly later on.
- Fix in place
Having decided on your vegetables and fermentation process, it is time to put them all together and seal the deal – quite literally. Make sure your liquid completely covers the veggies before adding on the lid or cloth, then secure well.
Most lids screw right onto their container, with the cloth option requiring just a bit more tweaking here and there (rubbers bands can be very helpful in this instance).
If you choose this option of covering the jar or a lid with an incorporated airlock system, then your job is pretty much done at this point.
However, a normal plastic lid or metallic one will require that you open the container each day so as to release the air formed by fermentation (also known as ‘burping’ the jars).
- Store in a cool place
Needless to say, the temperature is crucial when it comes to a correctly fermented vegetable. Going too low (50°F/10°C) will considerably slow down the fermentation process, which means that you could be enjoying that jar of pickles veggies only half a year or more from the moment you initially put the ingredients together.
Conversely, going too hot (above 70°F/20°C) will speed up said process and create a stronger flavor or ‘bite’, mushier vegetables, and quicker evaporation of the fermentation liquid.
A good middle ground between these two extremes is around 60-70°F/15-20°C, the ‘good’ bacteria formations hence working their magic in a couple of weeks to a month from the initial starting point.
The longer you let them ferment, the more intensely this transformation impacts the vegetables, so, therefore, try consuming your pickled foods before making new ones.
Keep in mind!
- Start small – if you are new to the whole fermenting business, then try your hand on more reduced quantities at first so see whether you like your end products after all. Don’t worry if things don’t turn out perfectly from the get go and keep persisting until you end up with that perfect jar or probiotic deliciousness.
- Keep your containers clean – wash your hands and utensils before starting off the pickling process, otherwise, you might end up contaminating the containers or vegetables themselves with unwanted bacteria that cause yeast overgrowths at the surface of the fermentation liquid in time.
- Get creative – just because you haven’t tried a certain vegetable combination yet doesn’t mean it won’t be good. Make small batches of ‘crazy’ mixes and see how they turn out. Who knows? You might have a winning pickle in your jar.
- Make it fun – the idea behind creating your own fermented vegetables is to both get a healthier and more personalized food than you would by just purchasing it at a store, but also to have an enjoyable experience at the same time. So, whether you get your family and friends to help or make this activity about some much required ‘me time’, remember to keep it light, fun, and a good way to de-stress while preparing something wholesome for the future.