A staple of life since the beginning of human civilization, knowing how to ferment vegetables was historically a means to keep food from spoiling. Today, we have learned that this ancient technique goes well beyond preservation, and the fact that people rely on cool temperatures via their refrigerator to keep food fresh is a telltale sign that we have lost touch with the true significance of fermentation: boosting our healthy bacteria in our guts!
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Fermentation History & How To
You can call me crazy, but I’m convinced that the most dangerous household appliance is the refrigerator. No, not because it omits undetectable fumes or deadly radiation, but because it has literally convinced people that they don’t need to ferment foods anymore so let’s discuss how to ferment vegetables.
Fermentation techniques to make bread rise are as old as the development of agriculture itself, and people have been making alcoholic beverages since 8,000 B.C. (1) Normally an anaerobic process, fermentation usually takes place in an environment where there is no oxygen present. However, with enough sugar, yeasts and other microorganisms can produce alcohol in the presence of oxygen, which is known as the Crabtree effect. (2)
When microorganisms like bacteria or yeast are chemically broken down, some heat and an effervescence are emitted.Scientifically, this is known as “fermentation,” the natural process of converting sugar to acid, alcohol and gas. (3)
The type of microbes that are used largely determines the type of food that is produced. Yeast, for example, are used as the fermenting agent in baked goods, beer and wine. Bacteria, on the other hand, is the agent of choice when fermenting vegetables, and the “lacto” species are usually used:
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Lactobacillus reuteri
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Lactobacillus salivarius
Prebiotics Vs. Probiotics
Referred commonly as “good” bacteria, probiotics have become all the rage in the natural health world. And for good reason. They boost the immune system, help the body absorb nutrition and are necessary for proper metabolism. (4) Essentially, the gut is the cornerstone of our health and probiotics are a pivotal player in the mix. Today, most health-conscious people take probiotic “supplements” in the form of a capsule where billions of bacteria are housed.
This is a far cry from what our ancestors did, who regularly ate probiotic-rich foods such as: (5)
- Miso soup
- Raw cheese
Known as probiotic “food” – literally the nutrition that good bacteria need to exist – prebiotics are indigestible fibers that have only recently gained the credit that they truly deserve. Without them, our microfloral inner ecology cannot thrive, which is why many store-bought probiotics contain prebiotics. However, you don’t need to take a pill to enjoy the benefits of prebiotics, because you can find them naturally in raw foods like: (6)
- Chicory root (64.6% prebiotics by weight)
- Jerusalem artichoke (31.5%)
- Dandelion green (24.3%)
- Garlic (17.5%)
- Leek (11.7%)
- Onion (8.6%)
- Asparagus (5%)
Boost Immunity with Ferments
Health authorities, state that, “The primary benefit of probiotics and prebiotics appears to be helping you maintain a healthy digestive system.” (7) This is a gross understatement because a proper microfloral balance literally keeps you alive.
Johns Hopkins Integrative Medicine & Digestive Center puts it into perspective by stating,
“Because 70 percent of the cells that make up the body’s immune system are found in the wall of the gut, what we eat also may affect the body’s immune response.” (8)
In a nutshell, because your microflora is affected by chronic stress, drugs, and processed/toxic foods, then 70% of your immune system will be at risk if you don’t have enough prebiotics and probiotics in your system.
An interesting tidbit about fermented vegetables benefits in probiotics is that they are also extremely adept at boosting immunity by themselves – in addition to feeding the necessary probiotics in your gut – because they are anti-inflammatory agents. (9) What most consider to be the actual #1 cause of most diseases today, chronic inflammation has been linked to a plethora of health conditions such as:
- Alzheimer’s Disease
- Ankylosing Spondylitis
- Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
- Celiac Disease
- Dental issues
- Heart disease
- Gastrointestinal conditions
- Pain conditions
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Thyroid disorders
- Type 2 diabetes
It’s not an understatement to state that chronic inflammation has the potential to alter nearly every aspect of our health, which is why eating a diet rich in naturally occurring prebiotics and probiotics (like homemade fermented veggies) is a must! (10)
As long as there are naturally-occurring sugars, virtually any vegetable can be broken down chemically through a process known as “lacto-fermentation.”
The name for fermented vegetables benefits comes from one of the many lactobacillus strains of bacteria that most plants contain naturally. It is simply vegetable fermentation by one of these species.
Lacto-fermentation really is more art than science. The science part is simple: lactobacillus (from a prepared culture, fresh whey, or just naturally occurring) plus sugar (naturally present in vegetables and fruits), plus a little salt, minus oxygen (anaerobic process), plus time, equal lactic acid fermentation.
- The length of fermentation can vary from a few hours to two months or more.
- The temperature of the room where fermentation occurs will determine the length of time.
- The ideal temperature is around 72°F, but warmer or cooler temperature will still work. (Some strains of bacteria require specific temperature ranges.)
- The length of time is dependent more on the flavor you prefer than anything else and since the flavor level of lacto-fermented vegetables increases with time you will want to sample often until you are experienced enough to know what works for your tastes.
Just keep in mind that you don’t want to introduce a lot of oxygen to the fermentation process as this increases the chance of spoilage. Lacto-fermentation is generally done in an airtight container or a crock with a water seal that prevents air from contaminating the culture. If you have a reliable recipe to follow, you can make minor adjustments as you see fit.
Finally, this last thought about how to ferment vegetables is important to consider:
The important thing is not to be intimidated by lacto-fermentation. You are not going to make your family sick by giving them home-fermented foods. Unless it smells unmistakably putrid (in which case common sense says throw it away), fermented foods are some of the safest foods you can eat. They are easy for even a beginner to prepare and it doesn’t take long to gain enough confidence to venture beyond basic yogurt or sauerkraut to an endless variety of vegetable and/or fruit combinations.
Top 5 Vegetables to Ferment
Of all the veggies that people can ferment, these 5 typically out:
- Garlic & Onions
As it turns out, when you combine all five you’re well on your way to enjoying the traditional dish Kimchi, which the Koreans have enjoyed for hundreds of years!
This isn’t to say that these 5 are the “best” veggies to ferment, just some of the most popular. Have fun with fermenting and try to create your own homemade blends that you and your family will enjoy. If you don’t know where to start, or are looking for a little guidance, there are hundreds of books and blog posts that are devoted to offering tips.
One of my favorite fermentation resources is from my good buddy Wardee Harmon from Traditional Cooking School. Wardee has put together something super cool for all of us gut health enthusiasts that I wholeheartedly endorse, her “Create Your Own” Ferments Fermenting Formulas CHEAT SHEET!
This cheat sheet will give you formulas for all types of ferments (even fruit preserves, pickled meats, and condiments) – so you can “create your own” ferments with confidence. Get your Fermenting Cheat Sheet by clicking here.