Fermenting Vegetables: The WHY and the HOW basics

Fermented Vegetables. Cultured Veggies I prefer to say. Whatever it is that you DO call them, they are going crazy right now! Funny thing is they’ve been around for centuries and pre refrigeration and freezing, were the way to preserving vegetables well into the colder months. The thing about science is however, that we now know for a fact they’re worth so much more to us than simply handy preservation. They’re a health powerhouse.

Know everything about them and want yummy recipes? Click here to try 2 delicious cultured veggie recipes

I’ve made them on and off at home over the past 5 years but what has got me fermenting things more regularly is confidence. Over time, you just get it and the saving from retail ready mades, is too much to ignore, when once you get the hang of it, it’s simple. Veggies, kefir, beet kvass, all of which I’ll talk about here over the next couple of weeks are things that we make at our place. If you missed my first fermented food recipe check out the home made coconut yoghurt here.

This post is to serve as a back ground reasoning of WHY as well as a familiarisation of HOW and WITH WHAT before hooking into lots of recipes.

Being about 120 years now into refined ingredients such as white flour / sugar and vegetable oil, our western world guts aren’t in great nick, now spreading also to ‘developing’ countries sadly following our habits. Allergies, asthma and skin disorders are everywhere, as are gut / brain linked conditions like autism, bipolar, depression, schizophrenia… It’s not great, is it? Chronic disease is expensive and challenging to the families involved, not to mention the public health system.

How it has happened in the most basic terms which I can find to make sense of it myself, is that as each generation ate more and more refined foods, and disastrously over the past two generations, processed, additive-laden foods to boot, we have passed on a weaker and weaker inner ecosystem to our babies as they are born. You see, babies get a big dose of probiotics travelling through the birth canal to form the foundation of their little inner eco systems. When the babies are lifted out of the sunroof (C section) and don’t even get ANY flora from their mums on the ‘way out’ as it were, is also a factor. So, as each generation’s tummies became more volatile, our immune systems did too, given around 80% of our immune system is in the gut. Frustrated grandparents saying ‘we never had to worry about this in my day’ unfortunately just haven’t seen how massive and intergenerational this issue is. So, to get to my point, cultured veggies are one of your most effective weapon in getting your inner eco system cultured, stronger and more resilient, and so so importantly, passing that higher resilience onto your child through birth for mums to be of the future. How amazing is that!? (now please don’t feel bad if you have to have a C section. I did – one of those 2 day sagas that ended in an emergency. Safe babies are the goal in giving birth and I am grateful every day for the technology and skills of the people, that made a safe delivery possible. There’s a lot you can do to make up for it and even special Baby probiotics you can give a new born to establish healthy gut flora and in turn healthy immune system. Talk to your practitioner!) If you feel your digestive issues or someone in your family are of a continuing mystery and stress and your brain and greater immune system is being affected, this interview with Dr Natascha Campbell McBride is wonderful to help show you a path to healing, by healing your gut!

Here are more reasons to get into cultured veggies and cultured foods in general

1. Our veggies lack the nutritional intensity of 100 years ago, simply because the soil is lacking nutrients often, and especially with non organic veggies, where there are pesticides at play too. Cultured cabbage for example according to Dr Natasha Campbell McBride, has 20 times more bioavailable vitamin C than just eating plain raw or sautéed cabbage – talk about a nutritional powerhouse! Culturing also increases enzymes and anti carcinogenic properties. The lactic acid produced in the processed, keeps your veggies crisp and fresh for months in the fridge, in their cultured form.

2. They’re awesome for preserving vegetables past their season. This, indeed is what culturing was born for. In northern Europe when the season for a bounty of fresh produce is only a few months long, culturing to preserve was the perfect way to extend the time which you could obtain your essential vitamins into the cooler months. Captains took barrels of sauerkraut with them at sea – They weren’t silly at all, back in the day!

3. The digestion aid. If you think about the dishes that a basic like sauerkraut accompanies, it’s things like rich cassoulets in Alsace, wurst of all shapes and sizes in Germany, rich braised briskets and terrines, patés or rillettes. The digestion aid of the cultured veggies means these cooked and rich foods are digested far more easily, avoiding that tired ‘food coma’ feeling afterwards. So, poetically in winter you have less abundant fresh veggies so more fermented veggies and in winter you also have richer, heartier foods. Funny how when you have a little knowledge and you then look back into traditional foods, the answers for the best way to enhance digestion can be found – no science about it, just people doing what inherently FEELS right.

4. They assist in the breaking down of proteins, so if you enjoy your ethical meats, cultured veg provide good yin yang on your dinner plate!

5. They drive out pathogenic bacteria, fungi, viruses. They’re extremely potent detoxifiers. This is why you need to exercise a little caution in incorporating them into your daily eating. Start with 1 teaspoon a day, increase 1 tsp x 2 meals, 3 teaspoons a day, 1 tablespoon x 2 meals and so on, with a few days on each dose as you increase the amount. This will ensure that the “die off” that occurs when the icky stuff being killed off is being driven out of the body, doesn’t cause you symptoms worse than the ones you’re currently experiencing!  I can speak from personal experience that the violent case of nausea and farting the first time I embraced cultured foods 5 years ago, was NOT the best experience, and had I gone slowly and let my ‘good guys’ build up in my gut a little more gradually, this wouldn’t have occurred.

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Beautiful raw materials ready to be fermented!

 

So, where on earth do I start, I hear you say?

Well, when I started I made Beet Kvass (a fermented Beet drink that is an incredible Blood tonic and liver detoxifier. Forget Green smoothies. This stuff is the real deal detox!) Then I made kefir, both coconut and milk. And then I moved onto simple brining combinations and then onto fermented veggies and onto coconut yoghurt as mentioned at the top. Now, that’s not because of degrees of difficulty or anything. It’s kind of more about what too my fancy.

There are a number of methods for culturing vegetables and I’ll be sharing more and more precise recipes over the coming weeks. I attended a fabulous day long workshop with the godfather of USA fermentation, Sandor Katz, last month with a big thank you to the amazing people from Milkwood Permaculture for bringing him out from the US.  Sandor explained all the major methods for vegetable ferments so simply, to which I’ve added one and the one I tend more and more towards as I learn more about the specific health benefits of using a really good starter culture in one’s home fermentation endeavours.

The no 1 rule in fermentation however, is that it’s not an exact science. It’s something you must get to know and get a feel for.

DRY SALTING

You can dry salt them (simply massaging salt and spices into grated or fine chopped veg until you can squeeze the juice out of it, putting it in a jar, weighing it down with something. About 1 tablespoon salt to 6-7 loosely packed cups of shredded vegetables. Closing lid and leaving on counter for 3 days for sweet vegetables, 5-6 days for lower sweetness veggies and then transfer to fridge). Hard core fermenters leave their ferments much longer and the thing is – you’re going to find your favourite length of time after your own experiments.

BRINING

A gorgeous Syrian friend Layla taught me this simple way, which is my favourite for making veggie sticks as it’s just so easy! This consists of preparing a brine of water, apple cider vinegar, salt, cutting veggies into thin sticks or little florets for broccoli / cauliflower or my favourite – celery sticks – and placing them in a big jar with enough of the brine then poured over them. She suggests keeping near by the stove for a week or 2 as it’s warm there a couple of times a day to keep the temperature warm and the culture proliferating. NOTE: adding the vinegar into your brine means your fermentation is an acetic one, not a lactobacilli. So, while it’s not as probiotically beneficial, it’s a great way of preserving and I’ll include variations for both styles with the recipe I’ll pop up next week for brining.

KIM CHI method

Where you soak your veggies in a salty water (about 5% salt to water, so 50g to 1 litre) and while they’re soaking make a small rice flour or tapioca flour paste with water and hot Asian spices, fresh ginger and garlic and then combine with veggies and salt them. You then mix through the cabbage (fine to add fennel, carrot and fresh chillies for variation) and ferment in a jar for varying lengths of time.

PICKLING

Love this one. A simple baby cucumber pickling is to place a couple of vine leaves or a tea bag (for tannin, to stop the cukes from going mushy) in the bottom of a clean jar. Squeeze in as many baby cucumbers as you can. Pour a pickling liquid of 5% salt, 5% apple cider vinegar and 90% water over the top until all cucumbers are below liquid level. Add a cabbage leaf on top if they need to be pressed down, and close jar and leave on the counter top for 5 days (7-8 in cold weather).  Then once the baby cucumbers have turned olive green, pop them in the fridge. Delicious!

LIQUID INFUSIONS

Liquid infusions are when you infuse a culturing liquid with a vegetable. The most well known one is Beet Kvass, a Ukrainian origin beverage and the first thing I ever fermented 5 years ago after reading Nourishing Traditions. If you have any digestive issues especially not going to the toilet enough, or are trying to detox your liver, THIS IS YOUR BABY!

CULTURING WITH A STARTER

Now, lots of people, including the rustic god of fermenting himself, say that dry salting is enough. I think though if you’ve got limited time, space and want the absolute best probiotic power out of your ferments, than using a good starter culture is a great thing to consider. The probiotic difference is incomparable. I use Caldwell’s Starter culture for veggies.

Where do I get Caldwell’s starter culture? 

Kitsa’s Kitchen via mail order

USA readers: Donna Schwenk sells them with free shipping across the US. http://store.culturedfoodlife.com/product/caldwells-starter-culture/

Hygiene before you start

1. File your nails, including digging under them with the pointy bit to ensure no germs lurking there will proliferate in your ferment.

2. Wash jars with soap and water and dry them.

3. Filter your water. Chlorine is a steriliser and will not encourage good bacteria. Your water should be chlorine, pesticide and fluoride free. If you don’t have a filter at home use a bottled still water if you can (glass preferably for recyclability)

4. Get all your ingredients out and ready

5. Wash hands and dry on a new tea towel.

6. When and if checking the ferment on it’s road to fermenting and beyond, never use fingers and never double dip with a utensil if you’ve eaten from it.

7. Don’t be stressed about bacteria. You’ve done all the above, you’ll be fine. You WANT bacteria. The good stuff is your friend! Like Sandor Katz says, it’s all about encouraging the good bacteria, while discouraging the bad.

Tools, tips and tricks

TOOLS. You can ferment in anything really, except metal, which is reactive. Crocks are great. Jars are great. Anerobic jars like Pickl.It are fantastic which you can order from Kitsa’s Kitchen via email order. If you live in the USA, PLEASE do me a favour and buy one of the Kirby and Kraut Crocks and weights – It’s fermenting for seriously hip, cool people. How cute is that range? Anyway, I use simple jars like these most of the time because I get a good visual if I need to, they’re inexpensive and I’ve had no issue!

kirby and kraut

 

The beautiful Kirby and Kraut range from NYC. Photo from their website.

 

Organic produce works best as there are still natural bacteria on the vegetables from the soil. Conventional vegetables have chemicals on them and some of those might inhibit good bacteria growth. Funny story Sandor told us at his workshops, was that someone did a test to see if KFC pre washed cabbage could be fermented and it didn’t ferment. Wonder how many chemicals were in that pre wash. Mind boggling!

When trying to ‘weigh down your veggies’ so they remain under the liquid level in their jar, unless you have a gorgeous set up with crock and weight like these guys have created in New York, then you can use a cabbage leaf folded up and pushed on top of the veggies and then weighed down by a carrot stub or shot glass and close the lid gently over that. I often use my grandmère’s old paper weight shown below. As you close it will force the ‘weight’ down on the veggies and take them below the liquid level. If the carrot or top of the cabbage moulds, you can just replace it with a fresh duo. The shot glass tip comes from my fab fermentation queen friend Kitsa Yanniotis.

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Picture: My simple ‘weighing down’ of veggies here, with tuscan cabbage / cavolo nero leaf, folded and placed on top of ferment with paper weight on top all the way from aVatican gift shop from my Grandmère in the 70s! No fancy new stuff required!

Low sugar vs higher sugar vegetables… A mix is ideal as it will encourage a steady fermentation, however if you’re like me, you like to bend the rules. Doing only higher sugar veggies like beetroot and carrot might create an aggressive ferment and if shredded, might give you fermented veggie alcohol! If you do a sweet vegetable mix, then 2-3 days on the counter top will do it before popping in the fridge, says Kitsa. 5-6 days if doing a lower sugar vegetable mix. I’ve found the same.

What about using whey? While it’s used quite a bit by many fabulous peeps, there’s no need for it and when you use other methods, you also open things up for people who have to be or choose to be dairy free. Also, as Kitsa says, the probiotics in whey aren’t naturally found on vegetables. The probiotic strains in Caldwell’s starter culture are, so you’re amplifying existing strains, creating a more powerful probiotic result.

Resist the temptation to open the jars, says Kitsa (although Sandor Katz says, taste it every day, why not?) I have to go with Kitsa on this one. I don’t know whether it’s our old Art Deco place or what, but we seem to have a pretty active live yeast and mould environment in Eastern Suburbs, Sydney. For this reason, I don’t like to keep exposing new oxygen and air borne yeasts to the ferment. So, I usually check the look of the cabbage / carrot / paper weight on top and if it looks as though mould might be forming, I swap them for fresh ones, and then seal and pop back. Kitsa suggests resisting temptation by popping your ferments into an eski and above a cupboard to avoid temptation of ‘fiddling’. Do conservative short cycle ferments (2-5 days) with your first batches, and then brave longer… You’ll know pretty soon how long you like to leave them for by taste.

Mould on top! Now this is another bone of contention among professional fermenters. Some say as soon as you see mould toss it. Others say skim it off and others say it’s fine and to just mix it back in to kill it. I don’t love the last option, I gotta say. Doesn’t sit right with me. I draw the line at mixing mould back in. So, I go with options 1 and 2 depending. If I catch it on day 3, and there’s very little, especially if it’s on the cabbage leaf I’m weighing down with, I just skim it off or replace the leaf with a fresh washed one, and it’s gone. If there’s lots of it and / or any other colour of mould appearing (black, green for eg) I toss it, but that’s only happened once. The time when my son, then 3, was ‘helping’! ;-)

For added flavour, I LOVE LOVE LOVE adding in herb stalks and whole spices. well washed coriander root, parsley stalks and fennel and coriander seed are my favourites, however you can use anything you fancy to flavour your ferments.

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Picture: (beet. carrot. black Tuscan cabbage. fennel. herb stalks. spices .regular jar. 2.5 days. done) Recipe here!

Garlic and ginger are wonderful additions too, and their immune building power will be amplified in the process of fermentation, so for Autumn Winter ferments, it’s particularly awesome, and then for spring to combat Hay fever, Donna Schwenk swears by them too.

Did you know that according to Sandor Katz, no known food poisoning has occurred from fermented foods (USDA records)?

Lastly, I love what Sandor says when he says: “Fermenting foods is about encouraging good organisms and discouraging bad ones… We are creating a selective environment.” It is actually that simple. You will have the occasional batch that doesn’t work. That’s ok. Lucky a head of organic cabbage doesn’t cost the earth!

So, that’s the end of the marathon introduction. I’ve created 2 delicious and easy recipes here as well as a basic recipe you can follow using whatever you have at hand. If you’re already a fermenter why not add your tips and favourites here below.

Lastly I’d like to thank my friend Kitsa Yanniotis for taking the time to fact check with me and give her wonderful suggestions as always. If you are Sydney based, and you ever do run out and have a hankering, her cultured veggies are gorgeous!

Real Food. Lox Tox living.

Alexx x

 

p.s I use the term “inner ecosystem” a couple of times here. It’s a term I found in Donna Gates, Body Ecology’s books and I really like it. Nicer than ‘GUT’ and feels really nurturing.

pps. 4 good books to start with on why cultured foods are so important are

GAPS (Gut and Psychology / pshysiology Syndrome by Dr Natascha Campbell McBride

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz

The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates

Eat Fat Lose Fat by Sally Fallon and Dr Mary Enig

 

Comments

  1. says

    This is brilliant Alexx!!!! I will be sharing in my monthly roundup on the blog of awesome things. It’s one area I have not ventured into, but I must make some time to do it!! Thanks for always being a wealth of knowledge. Love your work. xxx

    • alexxstuart says

      Yay. You’re so super welcome Sonia. All this time I’ve been wondering why I haven’t been able to make time and write the darn fermentation guide… It’s because it took such a long time to finally get it all out on paper!!! :-)

  2. Shaeron says

    I am very new to fermenting – haven’t done any yet but very interested to try. I realise this is a rather basic question: how and how much of the fermented vegetables do you eat daily? And are they an acquired taste?

    • alexxstuart says

      Hi Shaeron, they are a little sour and tangy if I had to describe. Personally I eat a heaped tablespoon with each meal. You start with much much less than that though as I mention in the posts – Start small and let your tummy get used to it. Build up to a tablespoon or 3 a day, over the space of a month. Enjoy and do the beet recipe first. It’s sweeter and so, so delicious :-)

      • Leesa says

        Once you put them in the fridge, do they keep fermenting & also is there a time limit for how quickly you should eat it?

  3. Natalie says

    Hi, I have been ferementing a bit already, but I couldnt seem to get the vege starter from the USA, how do you purchase that from Donna Schwenk?