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​Why and How to Home Ferment Your Vegetables with a Starter Culture

Posted by Christina Boyes on

When you decide to make fermented vegetables at home, the process can be intimidating at first. Getting the culture right, making sure you’ve added the right ingredients, heck – knowing what to add, choosing what to ferment... it can be a rough road.

Fermented Vegetables, Probiotics, Health, and a Little History

fore we get busy fermenting our veggies, let’s talk a little about WHY you should eat more cultured vegetables. Chances are that you’ve heard of ancestral nutrition, evolutionary nutrition, the Paleo diet, the Primal diet, or the whole foods diet. More than a meal plan, these attempts at reaching back to a different way of eating are about connecting with the food that humans ate before we began processing everything beyond recognition.

You may not be a paleo dieter, but chances are that you recognize the problems with most processed foods. If not,  hop over to my earlier entry on the real cost of processed food. It’s more than a few extra pounds and a couch potato figure.

According to Alexx Stuart, there are 5 main reasons you need more cultured foods and cultured vegetables in your life:

1. Modern veggies are nutritional wimps when compared to their cultured counterparts.

2. Fermented vegetables help preserve veggies past their season.

3. Your gut will love you for them, because fermented and cultured vegetables help with digestion.

4. Eating fermented vegetables can help you break down proteins more efficiently.

5. Cultured vegetables chase away pathogenic bacteria and fungi, making them great for detox.

I’m not advocating that you radically shift your diet, or start following my ideas of good nutrition – but I do suggest that you think about your body like an extraordinarily complex machine; one that science and medicine are still working hard to understand. A car is a machine, too. You put fuel in it, and it runs. Your body needs fuel, too. What fuel do you put in your car? Would sugar work? Potato chips? Would your car run well on butane? What about crude oil?

Machines work best when given the right fuel. Medicine is starting to recognize that for humans that fuel includes probiotics, prebiotics, and a good mix of healthy bacteria and fungi, as well as all the vitamins and minerals you learned about as a kid, and the calories necessary to keep you on the go. You also need hydration.

For now, let’s focus on the pre- and probiotics.

How many times in your life have you been sick? Can’t count them? Me neither. Infections are part of life. We get colds, the sniffles, flu, and a host of other illnesses, and most of us take medicine to help us get healthy. In recent years, we’ve learned that taking too many antibiotics can actually increase your risk of obesity (children are particularly prone to this nasty little side effect), stain permanent teeth before they erupt, and lower the body’s ability to fight illnesses on its own. Many allergic reactions are being tied to missing gut bacteria, too (there’s an amazing study on mouse gut bacteria and peanut allergies that I recommend for anyone who is nearly as nerdy as I am).

Antibiotics can help us get better, but if we aren’t careful, they can also make us sick.

The gut microbiome isn’t well understood, but  we know that many of the bacteria that dwell in it help us stay healthy. They fight excess weight, defend against ulcers, and help the body process sugars effectively. They’re also among the first victims of antibiotics. And when they disappear, bad bacteria have the opportunity to flourish and fungal growth can spiral out of control.


Prebiotics and probiotics help replenish the bacteria your gut needs, but no one is really certain what the perfect internal cocktail of gut flora and fauna looks like. One thing we do know is that many of the negative side effects we’re noticing as a result of missing gut bacteria began to increase sharply with the increased use and prevalence of processed food.

The connection between the two isn’t clear. Some researchers think that processed foods, due to their high sugar content and low nutritional value, keep the gut microbiome out of whack and give the bad bacteria and fungi an advantage. Others think that we don’t replenish with the right mix of flora and fauna, leading to long-term consequences. I’m no scientist, and I’m not a doctor either, so I’m not going to pretend to know the secret behind the mechanism.

What I do know is that fermented vegetables almost entirely disappeared with the rise of processed foods. When processed foods arrived on the scene, most of our parents or grandparents were busy home preserving vegetables grown in their gardens or bought from the local greengrocer. Winter was harsh, and offered fewer fresh options. Store-bought foods became the go-to option for most families. Vinegar pickles and quick kraut took the place of two classic lacto-fermented vegetables, while frozen, dehydrated, and canned vegetables edged out many other traditional fermented vegetable choices. In essence, we lost a major food group when we started to heavily industrialize food.

Fermented vegetables are loaded with probiotics, rich in vitamins and minerals. My guess is that, even if their absence isn’t the answer, it still might have something to do with what’s missing in the gut microbiome. Here’s something else to consider – the bacteria found in lacto-fermented vegetables help to make them easier to digest, can increase the amount of enzymes and vitamins present in the vegetables, and may even make them more readily bioavailable.

Whatever fermented vegetable starter culture you choose to use, you’ve got health benefits galore in store!

Time to Start Choosing Your Fermented Vegetables

Now that you know fermented vegetables’ health benefits, it’s time to start thinking about what to ferment and how. It’s a lot easier than it sounds.

Fermenting is a natural process. Given the right mix of salt, water, and bacteria in an oxygen-free environment, it happens on its own. In fact, humans probably discovered fermentation by accident. No one really knows, because we’ve been at it since prehistory. If you want to ferment and get the best nutrition out of it, however, you want to start with a reliable culture.

Lactobacillus bacteria occur naturally on many plants, and are the same bacteria that help create other lacto-fermented goodies like cheese, yogurt, and kefir. Trial and error has taught modern fermenters that having a specific vegetable starter with a good mix of the right bacteria yields a healthier, more nutrient and flavor dense batch of fermented vegetables, teeming with health benefits.

Did I mention that home fermented vegetables taste better than vinegar pickled veggies?

I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry. Let’s get started.

You need to pick your vegetables. Don’t just reach for cucumbers. They’re tasty, but there are hundreds of vegetables out there. Keep eating the same ones, and you’ll miss out on a whole pile of yum!

This fermented vegetables list should give you a good idea what you’ll like. It’s varied, and packed with some of my favorites:

lacto-fermented cucumbers with fresh herbs

1. Beets (I HATE beets when they’re fresh or canned. Fermented, on the other hand, they’re tasty.)

2. Carrots (Try adding a sprig of dill to up the flavor.)

3. Onions, garlic, and scapes

4. Cucumbers

5. Ginger (How’s that for a surprise? Delicious, loaded with curcuminoids, and one of my all-time favorites, ginger is a must-try. Seriously. Do it.)

6. Cabbage

7. Cauliflower

8. Radishes (daikon, red radishes, whatever floats your boat)

9. Mixed vegetables (I love making mixes – the flavors are much better.)

Word to the wise: Add fresh herbs and spices to your cultured vegetables. Trust me, it makes a world of difference. I’m a big fan of the rainbow plate philosophy – make your daily vegetable consumption a rainbow of colors and flavors. Not only will your palate be happier, you’ll also be eating a wider variety of nutrients. Not all vegetables are created equal.

Ready, Set, Ferment!

There are dozens of ways to ferment, from dry salt packing to brining or using a starter. I’m a fan of dedicated starters because they are relatively fool proof (something I need!)

The first thing I ever tried to ferment was cabbage. I made every mistake possible, had no clue what I was doing, and left my (shared) apartment smelling like a dirty gym sock for weeks after the experiment. That was a long time ago, but trust me – I learned the hard way that you need to follow directions when you ferment.

First things first, good hygiene. Wash your hands thoroughly, scrub under your nails, and keep your hands away from your face. The last thing you want growing in your vegetables is your germs.

Get your tools together. The list varies by household, but the basics are universal:

  • Distilled water
  • Your starter culture
  • Jars that can be sealed to prevent oxygen from entering (Preferably glass; mason jars are a GREAT pick.)
  • Your ORGANIC veggies (Yes, organic is a requirement.)
  • Your recipe

No matter what you are fermenting, the basic process is the same. Here it is, simple as can be:

1. Wash your hands (can’t emphasize this enough!)

2. Wash your jars and lids

3. Decide if you want to leave your veggies whole or chop, grate, shred, make a chutney out of, mince, or otherwise mutilate them. You’ll find that some vegetables are better when fermented whole, while others do better when diced, grated, shred, or chopped. It’s a personal taste thing. I tend to like most of mine shredded.

4. Get your salt, starter culture, or salt and whey ready. I’m limited in expertise – I’ve only made my wretched sauerkraut, followed by several batches of phenomenal veggies using starter cultures. I haven’t tried using whey or salt preps, so I can’t give you any tips on them. (Yet!)

5. Mix your distilled water with your starter culture.

6. Use something sterile, heavy, and nontoxic to weigh down your vegetables, so that they sit below the brine in your fermenting jars. I’ve seen everything from ceramic weights to glass paperweights and even a plate being used for this. Use what’s handy or order a special tool – the choice is yours.

7. Let the bacteria work their magic for a while. Room temperature is where they thrive.

8. Move to cold storage when the time is right. This can be as little as 2 days for some recipes, and as long as 4 weeks for others. Most fermenters I know recommend waiting a minimum of 7 days before moving a batch of fermented vegetables to cold storage – you want the good bacteria, after all, and they go dormant in the fridge.

9. CHECK YOUR BATCH FOR SAFETY. If you see mold, throw it out. If the color of the vegetable changes to blue, pink, or something else unnatural, throw it out. If you see a creamy film, throw it out. If the texture is slimy, throw it out. If it smells like yeast, throw it out. If it smells like an old gym sock, throw it out. If it looks brown, throw it out.

Otherwise, enjoy!

A little white residue (not slime!) on the bottom of your jar is normal. A white film is also ok.

If you’ve got any questions about home fermenting, send them our way. We’re happy to help you eat healthier, tastier, cultured vegetables. Send us photos, too – we’ll share them here on the site! If home fermenting seems a bit too difficult,  check out our selection of fermented vegetables. Prepared with your health in mind, they pack the probiotic and nutritional punch you need, without the hassle of prepping and fermenting everything yourself. 

Image credits: jeltovski and Scarletina on morgueFile

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