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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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:
If you have a vegetable
not on this list, give it a try. Bean or pea seeds, even when
fresh from the pod, are not suitable; uncooked beans have lectins that
interfere with nutrition, and the proteins in cooked beans can cause
dangers. Green beans, blanched, are fine.
Herbs and spices commonly used:
Again, feel free to try
your favorite spices and herbs.
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
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
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.
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).
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
web page, by David Mendosa. Includes an article by Kay Schmidt
on using lactofermented vegetables in diabetes. http://www.mendosa.com/acidic_foods.htm