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Lactofermented Vegetables

Lactofermented Vegetables 

By Lynnet Bannion, March 2007 


Lactofermentation has been a part of human nutrition for many centuries, possibly back to prehistory.  The Romans used sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables and fish.  Fermented cabbage has been part of the Chinese diet as long as 6000 years, both as nutrition and as medicine.  Nearly every traditional diet in climates from subtropical to arctic has used lactic acid fermentation to preserve and enhance food.  Lactic acid fermentation has also been used for dairy products for millennia.   

Lactobacillus bacteria are the workers, transforming starches and sugars into lactic acid and numerous helpful enzymes.  The lactic acid prevents other kinds of decomposition from taking over and decaying the food.  Different strains of lactobacillus bacteria work on vegetables or dairy products. 

Lactofermented vegetables are easier to digest, and in fact improve the general digestion when taken regularly in small amounts.  Vitamins and minerals are more available.  Carbohydrates are broken down and therefore require less insulin for digestion, making lactofermented vegetables ideal for diabetics. Research has found that taking acetic acid (vinegar) or lactofermented vegetables or their juice, before or with meals, reduces blood glucose levels. In addition to the many health benefits, lactofermentation enhances the flavor of vegetables. 

The process starts with prepared vegetables, room temperature, and a specific concentration of salt.  Vegetables naturally carry these lactic acid bacteria, so no inoculant is needed.  The fermentation is an anaerobic process, so air should be excluded.  The salt prevents the putrefying bacteria from getting a start, until the lactic acid bacteria get well established.  The lactobacillus bacteria, and the lactic acid they produce, protect the vegetables from unpleasant yeasts and other less-friendly bacteria. Lactofermentation preserves vegetables for a long time (months, and sometimes even years), but not forever. 

I learned lactofermentation from Ursula Holmes, a farmer at Cresset Community Farm in Loveland, Colorado, a “master pickler”.  She learned her art in Germany and Sweden.  She freely gives this information, without copyright, and encourages people to try the recipes and techniques for themselves. 


The easiest way for a beginner to start is using half-gallon canning jars with standard wide-mouth lids.  These can be readily obtained, fit in standard-sized refrigerators, and make a reasonable amount of lactofermented vegetables for individual or family use.  A quart jar is too small to allow a good fermentation to get going; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

So a half-gallon jar is a good compromise. 

You also need a one or two-gallon plastic or stainless-steel bucket for the stamping process.  A wooden stamper or beetle is helpful, and saves your knuckles.  This is a cylinder of wood, maybe 2-3” in diameter, with a rounded end and narrower handle. 

Quality of ingredients is very important for successful lactofermentation. Vegetables must be organically grown and of good quality.  Storage vegetables such as beets or carrots need not be freshly picked, but should not be dried out or going bad.  It is essential that you use chlorine-free water, either from a good well, or filtered, or distilled; chlorine tends to kill off the bacteria you need to make a good fermentation.  You should use pickling salt or sea salt without additives (RealSalt is also good), not standard table salt.   

As a beginner, it is essential that you do NOT cut down on the amount of salt specified in the recipes.  Low-salt lactofermentation is an advanced skill, and it is very easy for the vegetables to go bad without the salt keeping the agents of decay in check.  If you are concerned with sodium levels, adjust them in other parts of your food.  For example, cook rice without salt, and use your salty kimchee as a condiment (as the Koreans do).   

Do not try to can these vegetables after they are pickled.  It will destroy their essential character, as well as most of the health benefits.  They keep fine for months under refrigeration or in a cool cellar.  You DO NOT need to add vinegar to these pickles, regardless of what the USDA Extension Service bulletin says.  These pickles make their own acid.  Adding vinegar will interfere with the fermentation. 


General description: vegetables are cut or shredded to expose a lot of surfaces, salted, pounded to release their juice, combined with spices as desired, then allowed to ferment.  After fermentation, the jars are closed and can be stored under refrigeration or in a cool cellar or root cellar where the temperature does not go above 50 degrees F; 40 degrees is better.  When properly stored, lactofermented vegetables keep for two to six months, sometimes even longer. It is important to use a clean fork or spoon each time to transfer vegetables from the storage jars.  You should also push any bits of vegetable that have gotten stranded up on the sides of the jar down into the main batch.  Air (and the inevitable molds or bacteria it carries) is a potential source of contaminants.   

Root vegetables should be peeled; leafy vegetables should be well washed. Your work surfaces and knives should be clean.  You do not want to introduce dirt into the fermentation as it could send it the wrong direction. 

After preparing the vegetables and filling your jar, place a canning jar lid (lid and ring as separate pieces) on the jar, or put one cup of brine (1 tsp salt to 2 cups water) into a plastic bag and fit it into the neck of the jar.  (I often use plastic wrap over a jar of kimchee.) Don’t use a solid one-piece lid, since the fermentation needs to outgas.  Put the jar onto a pie plate or dinner plate, and set it in a dark corner of your kitchen.  If your kitchen is very hot

(as in summer) you may need to choose a cooler place, but it should be at least 70 degrees F.  If your kitchen is very cold, put the jar on top of your refrigerator or other warm place.  Warmer temperatures cause fermentation to move faster, and cooler temperatures cause it to move slower, but if it stalls there is more possibility of problems. After about one week, put the lid on the jar (if it is not there already) and put it in a cool place, either a refrigerator or a cool cellar (under 50 degrees but above freezing).  In general, the vegetables are better after a four-week mellowing period. During this time, small amounts of yeast form which add to the flavor.  Kimchee is ready to use after its fermentation week. 

When to throw out your lactofermented vegetables: If your vegetables start to develop any kind of mold, smell bad or noxious in any way, or become slimy, compost them.  If they are just getting a little tired or soft, chickens love them.   

Once in a while, a fermentation goes awry.  It happens oftener if you use chlorinated water or non-organic vegetables, or do not keep the work surfaces clean.  Toss it out, and try again.  If you have a lot of problems with batches going bad, try a different source of water. I have never used a low-pH water, but it might cause problems. 

Vegetables suitable for lactofermentation:


Herbs and spices commonly used:


Other ingredients: 


Ursula’s Sauerkraut 

For a half-gallon jar, you need 3.5 pounds cabbage, 1 teaspoon caraway seed, 1 tablespoon sea salt.  You can add optional ingredients from the following list: peeled sliced garlic; washed, cored and sliced apples; peeled onions cut into eighths; dill seed; juniper berries; or other spices. 

Wash cabbage and cut into thin shreds, with a kraut cutter, mandoline, food processor, or by hand with a knife.  Mix cabbage shreds with the salt in a large bowl or small plastic bucket, and let stand for 15 minutes.  Then press the cabbage with your fist or a wooden stamper until the juice is flowing well.  It is important to crush the vegetables enough to create the juice. 

Pack the juicy shreds into your jar in layers, interspersing the caraway and any other ingredients you are using.  Pack tightly enough that all the air is pressed out. You should leave about two inches of space below the lid. If you don’t have enough, you can add a little brine: 1 tsp salt to one pint water.  Put the lid on and screw down, but not really tight.  Put the jar on a plate or pie tin, and keep in a dark corner of your kitchen for one week. Then put in a cold place for another four weeks to mellow.  Sauerkraut keeps many months under proper storage conditions (provided you keep out of it that long). 

Ursula’s Carrot Pickle 

For half-gallon jar: 2 pounds carrots, ½ pound rutabaga, 1 medium onion, ¾ pound Napa cabbage, 12 allspice berries, 1 teaspoon whole coriander, 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seed, 4 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon sea salt, 3-4 cloves peeled garlic. 

Peel, wash and grate or shred in food processor: carrots and rutabaga.  Trim and cut finely the Napa cabbage. Peel and quarter the onion.  Put the carrots, rutabaga and cabbage into a bucket.  Add the salt.  Press with your fist or with a wooden stamper until the juice is flowing well.  Pack into your jar in layers, one-fourth of the vegetables, one-fourth of the spices, until all are in. Press that last quarter of an onion into the vegetables.  Put lid on, put jar on a plate or pie tin, keep in a dark corner of your kitchen for one week.  Then put in a cold place for another four weeks to mellow. Carrot pickle keeps many months under proper storage conditions. 

Ursula’s Beet Relish 

For half-gallon jar, 2 to 2 ½  pounds beets, ½ pound Napa cabbage, 3 ounces chopped apple, 3 ounces chopped onion, 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sea salt, and mustard seed, bay leaves or pickling spice to taste.  Beets, with all their sugars, turn out a fierce fermentation.  It is good to add other vegetables such as the Napa in this recipe, or rutabaga or turnip, so that you are not using only beet. 

Peel, wash and grate or shred the beets in food processor.  Trim and cut finely the Napa cabbage.  Put beets and cabbage into a bucket with the salt, and press with your fist or a wooden stamper until the juice is flowing well.

Pack into your jar in layers, interspersing the apple, onion, and spices.  Be sure to leave at least two inches below the lid.  Put lid on jar loosely, and be SURE to put the jar into a pie tin.  Beets can run over the top of the jar since they have a vigorous fermentation.  Put the jar in a dark place in your refrigerator for one week.  Then wash the sides of the jar if needed, and keep in a cold place for another four weeks to mellow.  Keeps many months under proper storage conditions. 

Ursula’s Summer Mixed Pickles 

These pickles are fun; use what you have around the garden.  Possible ingredients are: 


You’ll want about 3 ½ pounds of vegetables for a half-gallon jar. Augment with dill seed, mustard seed, or other spices as desired.   You will be using 1 tablespoon sea salt.  If you have 2 tablespoons whey, you can add it to these pickles. 

Prepare all vegetables by washing and cutting.  Blanch green beans if you are using them.  Add salt, and stamp vegetables lightly, not enough to turn them into a homogeneous mush.  Pack the vegetables tightly into the jar. If the juices do not come to within two inches of the lid, fill with brine (1/2 teaspoon sea salt per cup of water).  Put lid on, put jar on a plate or pie tin, and let ferment in a dark place for one week.  Then cap tightly, and keep in a cold place.   

Lactofermented Cucumbers 

For half-gallon jar, 2 ½ pounds pickling cucumbers, one medium onion, sea salt, 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds, dill blossoms to taste. You can choose optional ingredients from the following list:  2-3 cloves peeled garlic; 1 teaspoon coriander seeds; 3 bay leaves, raspberry, currant or grape leaves; 1 or 2 small hot red peppers (dried is okay); one Anaheim or sweet green pepper, seeded and sliced. The cucumbers should be the pickling variety, and absolutely must be unwaxed.  You can use smaller cucumbers or larger ones cut into pieces, but they should be of consistent size in each batch.  Peel and cut the onion in quarters. If you are using small whole cucumbers, poke a couple of holes in each with a sharp knife.  If you are using large cucumbers, cut them into chunks.  If the cucumbers are getting old and tough, you can still use them, by peeling and seeding them. 

Pack the cucumbers tightly into your jar, along with your choice of seasonings.  Make a brine of 2 tablespoons sea salt per quart of water.  Pour this brine over the vegetables.  If you need a little more, make it using the same proportions: ½ tablespoon salt per cup of water.  If you have raspberry, currant or grape leaves, layer them on the top.  Cap jar, put on plate or pie tin, keep in a dark place for one week.  If a little layer of white yeast (kahm yeast) shows up on the leaves, don’t worry.  It should not affect the cucumbers. After the fermentation week, remove leaves, cap jar and keep in a cold place.  Cucumbers are ready to eat after two weeks mellowing. In my experience, they do not keep quite as well as sauerkraut or other pickles, so plan to eat them within a few months (Ursula says her pickled cucumbers can last for up to 2 years).  

Lynnet’s Simple Kimchee 

For half-gallon jar, 1 ½ pounds Napa cabbage, 1 pound daikon radish, 3 tablespoons sea salt, 1 ½ tablespoons peeled and sliced garlic, 6 scallions trimmed and sliced or ½ cup trimmed sliced leek, 2 tablespoons peeled and thinly sliced ginger, 1 tablespoon fine quality medium hot chile powder, 1 teaspoon sugar. 

The choice of chile powder is important for the eventual taste of your kimchee.  Many recipes call for cayenne pepper, which makes a ferociously hot kimchee.  I use New Mexico chile powder (usually Ancho but Hatch is good too) from Native Seeds/SEARCH, which is available for online ordering. Their chile powders are intensely flavored, of varying degrees of heat.  Choose one to your taste. 

Wash Napa cabbage and cut in half lengthwise.  Cut out the core, chop the rest in approximate 1.5” squares.  Peel daikon and slice ¼” thick.  In a large nonreactive bowl, mix 6 cups water and 2 tablespoons and 2 teaspoons salt. Then put in the radish and Napa, dunking them in the water.  Let stand 8-12 hours, dunking occasionally.  At the end of this period, prepare the rest of the spices along with 1 teaspoon sea salt and 1 teaspoon sugar into a mixing bowl (a second bowl).  Scoop the vegetables out of the brine into the bowl with the spices, mix well.  Reserve the brine.   

Pack the vegetables reasonably tightly into your jar. Be sure to pour in any liquid left in the bottom of your mixing bowl.  Then fill the jar up to the neck with the reserved brine.  Cover jar loosely, put on a plate or pie tin, and keep in a dark place.  Kimchee takes from five to nine days to ferment, depending on the ambient temperature.  At five days, start tasting the brine with a clean spoon.  When it is sour enough to your taste, your kimchee is done.  Cap tightly and keep in a cold place.  It is ready to use at once, and will keep many months under refrigeration (or buried out in your yard if you live in Korea).   

Korean Turnip Pickle 

This pickle can be made in a quart size, or smaller.  For one quart, have 1 pound smallish, youngish turnips, 1 tablespoon sea salt, 2 whole dried hot red peppers, 2 tablespoons minced scallions or leeks, 5 cloves garlic peeled and minced, and ½ teaspoon sugar.   

It is nice made with nice young small turnips, but can be nearly as good with middle-aged middle-sized turnips, and is not very good with old, large, pithy turnips.  I like to use the Catarina peppers from Native Seeds/SEARCH, flavorful and medium hot, but you could use other dried hot red peppers.  Crush the peppers coarsely (wash your hands carefully afterward, and don’t touch your eyes!).   

Peel turnips, cut in half, and sliced crosswise very thinly.  Put turnips in a small nonreactive bowl and sprinkle 2 teaspoons sea salt over them, rubbing the salt in with your fingers.  Let stand 3 hours, turning over occasionally.  Drain the turnips, rinse, and drain again.  In a bowl, mix turnips with 1 teaspoon salt, red peppers, scallions, garlic, and ½ teaspoon sugar.  Pack into a quart jar.  Add enough water to cover the turnips.  Cover loosely, put jar on a plate, and keep in a dark place in your kitchen for approximately 7 days.  After 5 days, start testing brine with a clean spoon daily, and when it is sour enough for your taste, cap jar and keep in the refrigerator.  A plastic cap is better, since metal caps tend to corrode.

Use as a condiment, like other kimchees. 

Russian Brined Lemons 

Just for fun, if you have access to small thin-skinned UNWAXED lemons, you can make a delicious Russian pickle.  Wash and dry the lemons.  Pack into a jar (quart or half-gallon).  Do not cut them up.  Mix up a brine at the rate of 1 tablespoon sea salt per 8 ounce cup of water.  Fill your jar with the brine.  Put some more brine into a plastic bag, fit it into the neck of the jar to keep the lemons submerged.  Store in your refrigerator.  After three weeks take the brine bag off, and put a lid on the jar.  They’ll keep a long time, even more than a year, with this much salt on them. 

How to use: You can make a wonderful lemonade with these lemons.  For one quart of lemonade, puree one or two lemons in a little water in your blender, strain to remove the seeds, sweeten to taste.  Most refreshing with the salt, the sugar, and the lemon flavor.  (Don’t peel the lemons.)  They are also good sliced thinly in the broth when you cook chicken.  I’m sure you’ll come up with other uses too.  For those who have lemon trees of their own, it’s a great way to save the crop for future use. 


When you have been successful with several batches of half-gallon pickles, you may wish to try the 5-gallon plastic bucket.  This makes sense if you have a large garden, a large group to feed, and a cool storage area for your buckets.  If you have a large fermentation crock, you could also use that. 

Scale up the amounts by approximately 10 times, except that you may not need to increase the spices by quite that much.  Be sure to scale up the salt correctly. You can stamp the vegetables directly in the bucket.  Be sure to stamp the vegetables adequately to get the juices flowing.  Start with one three-inch layer of vegetables, one-fourth of your salt, and stamp well.  Add one-fourth of your spices. Then add the next three to four inch layer of vegetables and repeat.  When you have filled your bucket a few inches from the rim, that’s enough. Use a large plate which fits closely inside the bucket, and press the plate down so that air is excluded from the vegetables.  Then cover the bucket with its lid, and put the bucket somewhere that won’t be damaged if the juice overflows slightly. 

Ferment the bucket of vegetables in a warm place, around 70 degrees F though it will be okay up to 80 degrees.  After one week, put the bucket into a cool place, under 50 degrees but above freezing.  Let the vegetables mellow for four weeks for the best flavor as in the half-gallon size.  To use vegetables, with a clean spoon, dip enough for a week or two out of your bucket, replacing the lid.  Be sure to push any extra vegetable from the sides back into the main body of vegetables. Keep your week’s supply in a jar in the refrigerator.  You don’t want to open the bucket too often, running the chance of introducing something unfriendly into the bucket.   

If you use a standard fermentation crock, you will need a tight-fitting cover (which is usually wood) that fits down inside the crock, and a couple of  clean stones to keep the cover pressed tightly against the vegetables.  Kahm yeast may form, which is a white thready yeast that is harmless but changes the flavor unpleasantly.  Check on your vegetables every week or two, and if there is any sign of kahm yeast, wash the lid and stones thoroughly and scoop off the affected vegetables. Then replace the lid and stones, making sure to exclude the air.  The crock is so much more work than a standard 5-gallon white bucket, that I would not recommend it.   

Fermentation crocks with airlocks are also available.  This avoids the problem of kahm yeast, and the nuisance of washing and skimming.   


You can use your vegetables as pickles or condiments on the plate with most kinds of food.  Lactofermented beets can be used to make borscht, and in fact this was the origin of borscht, forgotten now.  You can add most shredded vegetable pickles to salads of various types.  Sauerkraut is well known with German and Middle European food, cooked with meats, used as a condiment, or put in salads.  

Cucumbers of course can be eaten as themselves, or cut up in deviled eggs, egg salad, potato salad, and other such foods.   

Kimchees are often eaten with rice dishes, especially with Korean food.  Kimchee pancakes are delicious.  Mix 1 cup rice flour or wheat flour with 1/2 cup water, stir in 1 cup chopped cabbage kimchee, and cook in a greased skillet in pancakes 3-4” across.  Turn over once.   

The juice from lactofermented pickles, particularly cucumber pickles, is delicious in salad dressing, deviled eggs, or potato salad.  It is a nice substitute for vinegar in most uses. 


Making Sauerkraut and Pickled Vegetables at Home, Klaus Kaufmann and Annelies Schoneck, Alive Books, 2002.  This is a particularly nice book, covering every aspect of lactofermentation.   

Nourishing Traditions, Sally Fallon, New Trends Publishing Company, 1999.  She has a full chapter on fermented vegetables and fruits.  Her recipes call for fermenting the vegetables only two to four days; by my experience that is not enough. 

Wild Fermentation, Sandor Ellix Katz, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2003.  In addition to a chapter on vegetable ferments, he covers dairy ferments, grain ferments, wines, vinegars, beers, and more. 

The Kimchee Cookbook, Kim Man-Jo, Lee Kyou-Tae, Lee O-Young. Periplus Editions Ltd, distributed in the U.S. by Turtle Publishing,  1999.

More than eighty recipes for all seasons and a variety of vegetables are included in this book, along with historical and cultural information on the importance of kimchee to Korean society. This is an amazing book. 

Acidic Foods web page, by David Mendosa.  Includes an article by Kay Schmidt on using lactofermented vegetables in diabetes.