Updated: Jan 28, 2020
Every culture has a long tradition of fermented and raw foods — foods that provide for healthy intestinal flora and decrease the load on your pancreas and liver. The modern equivalents of age-old fermented foods are nutritionally empty when compared to their historical counterparts.
Take grains, for example. Did you know that traditional societies either soaked, sprouted, or fermented their grains prior to consuming them? While the reasons our ancestors practiced this level of grain preparation are debatable, we do know that sprouting, fermenting, and soaking grains can increase vitamin and mineral content availability by 300-500%.
Cooked and over-processed to the extreme, the average American diet lacks the vitamins, minerals and enzymes natural to fermented and raw foods. Compare this to traditional diets around the world where raw and fermented foods make up 60-80% of their food intake.
People who start eating a diet high in raw & fermented foods reverse the course of cancer, stop diabetes in its tracks, and notice an increased level of heart fitness. Fermented vegetables add valuable probiotics and enzymes to your body, which help stamp out Candida, boost your immune system and curb your cravings for sweets.
The simple key to successful vegetable fermentation is to make sure your vegetables are submerged in liquid. That’s it, the big secret. Usually the liquid is salty water, also known as brine, but fermentation can be done without salt, or with other liquids, such as wine or whey.
Typically, when fresh vegetables are chopped or grated in preparation for fermentation—which creates greater surface area—salting pulls out the vegetable juices via osmosis, and pounding or tamping the vegetables breaks down cell walls to further release juices, so no additional water is required. However, if the vegetables have lost moisture during long storage, occasionally some water is needed; if brine hasn’t risen to submerge the weighted vegetables by the following day, add a little water. In the case of vegetables left whole (cabbage heads, cucumbers, green tomatoes, string beans, okra, zucchini, eggplant, peppers—try anything), the vegetables should be submerged in brine.
Pretty much any vegetable can be fermented. Use what is abundantly available and be bold in your experimentation. Seaweeds are a wonderful addition to ferments.
Kimchi typically includes red chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and scallions. Sauerkraut might include caraway seeds (my favorite), juniper berries, apples, or cranberries. New York–style sour pickles are spiced with dill, garlic, and sometimes hot peppers. To keep cucumbers crunchy, add to the brine some grape leaves or leaves of horseradish, oak, currant, or cherry.
Traditionally vegetables have been fermented with lots of salt. In addition to pulling water from the vegetables, salt hardens pectins in the vegetables, rendering them crunchier, and discourages the growth of bacteria other than lactobacilli. By inhibiting competing bacteria, salt enables the vegetables to ferment and to be stored for longer periods of time. Since preservation has historically been one of the important motivations for fermentation, ferments have tended to be quite salty. But for health-conscious people interested primarily in flavor and nutrition, less salt can be better. Salt lightly, to taste. It is easier to add salt than to take it away, but if you oversalt, you can dilute by adding water and/or more vegetables.
There is no magic proportion of salt the process requires—it’s just personal preference. As a starting point, try 3 tablespoons of salt per 5 pound of vegetables. More salt will slow the fermentation process; less (or none) will speed it up. Ferments with less salt may be more prone to surface molds. You can leave out the salt or use various mineral-rich substitutes such as celery juice (my favorite salt-free variation) or seaweed. Just be sure the vegetables are submerged in the liquid.
What kind of vessel should you use to hold your ferment? Avoid metal, as salt and the acids created by fermentation will corrode it. Heavy ceramic cylindrical crocks are the ideal fermentation vessels, though they can be hard to find and expensive. Glass containers work well, especially those with a cylindrical shape or with a wide mouth, and so do nesting bowls. Crock pots with ceramic interiors make effective fermentation vessels and can often be found in thrift stores. In a pinch, you can use plastic, but even food-grade plastics leach toxic chemicals.
If the vegetables float to the top and remain exposed to air, they are likely to develop mold. Sometimes, especially in hot weather, your ferment may develop a film of white mold on its surface. This is very common and will not hurt you or the kraut. Scrape off the mold as best you can, don’t worry about particles that mix into the vegetables, and enjoy the delicious, healing ferment beneath.
Whatever type of vessel you use, pack the vegetables into it with some force (unless they are whole), in order to break down cell walls and release juices. I use a blunt wooden tamping tool. You can improvise with a piece of wood or your fist, or you can manually massage and squeeze the vegetables.
Sour flavor—from lactic acid—develops over time. Longer fermentation translates to tangier flavor. This happens more quickly in warm temperatures than in cool ones.
When you are first experimenting, taste your ferments early and often. Serve some after three days, then three days later, and again three days after that. Familiarize yourself with the spectrum of flavors that fermentation can create and see what you like. How long you let it sit is up to you and your tastes, but for most vegetables 2-5 days seems to do the trick.
How to Make Kimchi, Saurkraut, & Cultured Vegetables… So How Do We Do This?
In a nutshell, raw cultured vegetables are made by shredding cabbage or a combination of cabbage and other veggies, and then packing them tightly into an airtight jar or crock. They are then left to ferment at room temperature for several days or longer. Easy.
During the fermentation process, friendly bacteria grow, multiply, and thrive in their new environment. They convert the sugars and starches to lactic acid and partially digest the veggies, softening them or “pickling” them in the process.
Try dark leafy greens like kale and collards. Soak, drain and chop up sea vegetables like dulse, wakame, hijikii and arame. Add either fresh or dried herbs such as dill, caraway, juniper berries, garlic, and ginger root. Let your imagination run wild!
Fermented vegetables can keep in your fridge for months. They become even more delicious with time. You can pull one of these living salads out whenever you’re hungry for a nutrient boost.
(**Information gathered from Sandor Katz and Donna Gates)
3 English cucumbers, thinly sliced 6 inches fresh ginger, grated 2 daikon radish, grated 4 scallions, chopped 3 cloves garlic, chopped 1/2 lemon, juiced 2 Tbsp cayenne 1 Tbsp sesame seed
Spicy Pink 3 heads red cabbage, shredded 6 carrots, grated 3 inches fresh ginger, grated 6 cloves garlic, chopped
Sweet Kraut 3 heads green cabbage, shredded 6 inches fresh ginger, grated 2 beets, grated 3 carrots, grated 1 Fuji apple, grated 1/2 lemon, juiced