Beginners Guide to Fermenting Vegetables – Or, How to Do (Almost) Everything Wrong the First Time

With all of the ruckus going on with gut health, one of the classic food preparations that has come back to the forefront is fermentation.  The thought process behind eating fermented foods (alcoholic beverages withstanding) is that we are introducing healthy bacteria into our digestive tract that will ideally flourish and keep bad bacteria out.  Simply put, fermentation creates a cadre of real-food based probiotics – kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and more.  There’s a lot of research showing the benefits of probiotics, so if you can create a real-food version of them, why not?

A detailed primer on the benefits of probiotics and fermentation can be found here.

But it’s not just about eating the good bacteria (probiotics), but also keeping them well fed with things like fiber, fruits, veggies, garlic, etc.  The foods that keep the good bacteria healthy are called prebiotics (check out my article on prebiotics here).  So once you get the good bacteria in, keep them going strong.

Now, let’s get back to the heart of the matter – my first foray into becoming a healthy bacteria farmer. Looking at all of the potential projects, I decided to start with fermenting vegetables.  Veggies are healthy, so fermenting is a bonus!  I’ve broken down the post into 3 parts: The Research Process, The Attempt and Lessons Learned.

The (Limited) Research Process

I take solace in the notion that the most important part of any journey is the first step.  Even if it’s a staggering, minimally guided step.  I started where any modern day research experiment begins – Google.  After inserting “fermenting vegetables” and “making sauerkraut” and flipping around a few sites, I ended up using Cultures for Health as my primary resource for making two recipes:

Within each recipe there were a number of “you could to this, or this, or this, or this” steps.  While it makes my coaching side proud (yay, choice), it made my student side scream – “I don’t give a sh*t, just tell me what to do and make it easy!”  I never said I was an easy student, lol.

The Attempt
First Ferment Day 1 - Near Shot

First Ferment Day 1

Considering I wanted to get this thing started the same day I was researching it, some of the fancy options were immediately knocked off the table.  I decided to go with a basic salt ferment in a couple glass jars (thanks Smith and Chang!).  So I got my cabbage, green beans, spices and jars and started chopping, salting, massaging (the cabbage) and jarring.

This first picture shows how it looked at the onset.  Not too bad, huh?  Well I decided to do some further research on how to ferment correctly (and common mistakes) and by Day 2, I wasn’t so sure of myself.

A silly little detail that I forgot from my food science days was that fermentation is supposed to be an anaerobic process – in other words, no oxygen allowed! Otherwise, mold will grow, not our lovely, healthy bacteria.  This means your fermentables need to stay completely submerged under fluid (water is most common) and there needs to be room at the top of the jar for the carbon dioxide created by the fermentation process to escape.  Considerations I took for neither, whoops.  Serendipitously, I did it for the green beans – maybe because I just didn’t buy enough green beans to stuff it to the top.

I read that mold will often turn the vegetables pink or brown so I decided to hold my breath and let time, and color be my guide.  I also read that it traditionally takes 3 to 10 days for vegetables to ferment depending on temperature (60 to 80 degrees Farenheit is preferred).

First Ferment - Day 3

First Ferment – Day 3

First Fermenting Sauerkraut - Day 3

Fermenting Sauerkraut – Day 3 – See the Bubbles?

On Day 3, I was relieved to see that the sauerkraut hadn’t turned into a LiteBrite.  However, it did have bubbles floating in the liquid and fizzing out of the side, so I t

hought that was a sign I should check to make sure it wasn’t possessed.  As soon as I opened the jar I got an initial whiff of sulfur (that rotten egg smell) that evolved into a tangy, sauerkraut smell.

I pulled the top layer of sauerkraut off since I figured that had access to a ton of oxygen (above the water line) and then tried a couple of pinches that lied beneath.  Tasted pretty good – a crispier version of sauerkraut.  And more importantly, I didn’t die.  Though I did notice I belched a fair amount for about half an hour – maybe the new bacteria was making friends?  I added more water to fill the jar back up, closed it, and put it in the fridge to slow/stop the fermentation process.  There will be a few more taste tests, but I’ll probably end up chucking most of it in the name of not consuming colorless/odorless mold since I colored outside most of the lines on my first go-around.

Since the kraut experiment was over, I decided to check in on the green beans.  I didn’t notice any air in the liquid, which means it must have risen into the area between the lid and the water!  This movement of CO2 was not just uplifiting for me – it had the green beans levitating too!

First Fermenting Green Beans - Day 3

First Fermenting Green Beans – Day 3 – Levitating Beans!

When I opened the jar, I heard a fizz (like the sound when you open a soda) which made it seem like everything was going according to plan.  I threw out the couple of green beans that were above the water line but then tried one of the submerged ones – tangy, dilly, garlicky.  Really good!  Becca agreed as well.  These will be consumed.

Since completing my initial foray into fermenting, I’ve also learned that length of time may also have a significant impact on the pH of the ferment and the bacteria most represented.  While most of the articles I read gave veggie ferments a 3 to 10 day recommended fermentation period, the Food Renegade recommends a longer fermentation period, up to 28 days.  The theory behind it is that ferments held longer should result in a lower pH – which would lead to a greater representation of beneficial bacteria (lactobacilli, etc.).  A good summary of this and many other mistakes I made can be found here.

Lessons Learned

I’m an engineer and I like process.  From my initial experiment I’ve determined that choosing what to ferment is the easiest part.  Everything else is what makes it a pain in the rear.  So let’s get it settled.

Lesson 1: What do I actually need?

1. Fermentable stuff (cabbage is a great starting point, but you can do beets, carrots, green beans, and more).

2. Fermenting medium.  Can be as simple as water and salt (I like simple), which results in the slowest ferment.  Other things can be added to speed up how fast the ferment takes, such as whey powder (apparently bacteria and bodybuilders are cut from the same cloth) or a bacteria starter (living probiotics – which means you don’t need to wait for them to grow).  Celery juice is another interesting idea instead of water (thanks Dr. Mercola!)

3. Fermenting vessel. A glass jar or other air-tight container you can ferment in.  It really doesn’t have to be fancy, but there are a number of specialized fermentation crocks available that makes it easier to get rid of the carbon dioxide without letting oxygen in.  We actually just ordered a 3 gallon one from Ohio Stoneware with a gift card we had from Williams Sonoma.  Yep, we’re in this for the long haul!

Simplest setup = veggies, water, salt, glass jar, something to hold the veggies down underwater (apparently olive oil makes a good seal too – the miracle of density!)

Lesson 2: Setup is everything.

Whatever you want to ferment needs to stay anerobic, but a byproduct of fermentation – carbon dioxide – must be able to escape.  How do you get one gas out without letting another one in?  I narrowed the setup down to three considerations:

1. How am I going to keep my fermentable foods under water?  Weights, water-filled plastic bags, a cabbage leaf, and even olive oil is used to create a barrier between the food and the air in the container.

Jason's Fermenting Diagram

Jason’s Handy Fermenting Layout Diagram

2. How am I going to let carbon dioxide escape?  Easiest way to do this is to leave room at the top of the jar or container.  Special pressurized release mechanisms exist that can be attached to jars or many specialty crocks take care of this for you.

3. How will I keep oxygen out?  Make sure your container is air tight and you’ve left enough room for the carbon dioxide to rise out – typically at least an inch between the top of the jar and the fluid line.  From my readings some people mention “burping” the container to release CO2 but others say not to.  Again, it’s about allowing the CO2 to get out (we don’t want exploding veggies), while minimizing oxygen.  Technically if the stuff stays under water, then it shouldn’t matter if you briefly open the top, right?

Lesson 3: Not too hot, not too cold.  And wait?

Thankfully I got some of this right.  Most of the fermentation sites explain you want to keep the temperature of what you’re fermenting between 60 to 80 Farenheit.  Too cold means the bacteria won’t grow.  Too hot kills the bacteria.  We just left it in a dark corner of our pantry.
Either out of self-preservation or impatience I transferred our first attempt to the fridge after 3 days.  Apparently that may not be long enough to get the full “beneficial” effects of the ferment (i.e. the right bacteria didn’t grow yet).  I need to do more research to see whether there is a “proven” length of time (3 days, 10 days, 28 days?), or if it’s all just conjecture.  Either way, it tasted good.  So that works too!

As I mentioned before, this was the post that opened my eyes to many of my mistakes.  In Mistake #1, she links to another woman’s site that shows the differences between bacteria growth in ferments of different ages.

Have you fermented?  Anything I can add to this article to make it better or more informative?

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