Regulars and Shorts

Alchemical Kitchen: Fermenting Vegetables

By Rebecca Brenner

Grow your own low-cost, high-nutrition probiotics.
by Rebecca Brenner

A few years ago, I began the practice of fermenting the end-of-season vegetables from the farmer’s market. The idea came to me as I wandered through my local health food store. I examined a small jar of expensive pickled vegetables and thought, “I can do this at home, for a fraction of the price.” Fermenting my local produce preserves it through the winter as well as adds natural sources of probiotics, lactic acid and digestive enzymes to my diet.

Fermenting vegetables is an artisan craft that you, too, can easily do in your own kitchen.

Fermenting with salt or whey

Before the days of mass-produced vegetables and fruits, people were unable to buy fresh produce all winter long. Many depended on their own gardens and local farmers. Without refrigeration and canning machines, the fermenting of vegetables became a safe way to store produce till next harvest.

The process of fermenting begins with washing and cutting vegetables and fruits and mixing them with salt, herbs and spices. The vegetables are pounded until some of their juices are released, then pressed tightly into an airtight container. The salt inhibits the growth of putrefying bacteria until the vegetables release enough lactic acid to continue the preservation process. The starches and sugars in the vegetables are converted into lactic acid. Lactic acid is a natural food preservative and promotes the growth of the healthy bacteria lactobacilli.

Many fermented vegetable recipes call for whey instead of salt. Whey is the liquid by-product of cheese making (remember Little Ms. Muffet?). Whey is rich with lactic acid and lactobacilli, assuring a good batch of fermented vegetables.

Below you’ll find a simple ricotta cheese recipe. Please eat the cheese, but our purpose here is the whey, which you’ll want for the following fermented vegetable recipes. Later columns of the Alchemical Kitchen will look more closely at cheese making, but this will get you fermenting.

Benefits of fermenting

Health studies are beginning to reveal the importance of good bacteria in our inner ecosystem. A delicate balance must be kept between healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the digestive system. Focused efforts on building the healthy bacteria in the gut are revealing positive results for individuals with chronic digestive and immune issues.

Fermented vegetables are rich with lactobacilli. Lactobacilli are health-promoting probiotics. You may have heard the hype recently around probiotic-enhanced yogurt or yogurt-like drinks and supplements. Fermented vegetables are a natural, unprocessed source of lactobacilli at a fraction of the cost.

The lactic acid created by the fermentation process is a natural preservative. The body produces lactic acid through metabolic processes and exercise. When eaten, lactic acid lines the intestines, promoting the growth of healthy bacteria. The lactic acid also increases the digestibility of foods that are eaten with fermented vegetables.

Digestive enzymes also abound in fermented vegetables; they break down and assimilate the foods you eat. The increased digestibility supports the absorption of vitamins and minerals present in food. They also have a soothing effect on the tissues of the stomach and lining of the intestines.

How do I know I’ve fermented my vegetables correctly?

Each of the following recipes will yield five to nine one-quart Mason jars of fermented vegetables. The quantity that each recipe creates makes the fermenting of vegetables a great group activity. Invite your friends over and make several versions. Everyone will go home with a winter’s worth of fermented vegetables.

Once the vegetables are in the jars, leave them at room temperature (72 degrees) for 4-14 days. During summer months, I leave them on my kitchen counter to ferment. During the fall and winter, I snuggle my jars into towels and place them in an insulated picnic cooler. How long you allow them to ferment depends on how tangy you like your vegetables. I suggest opening a jar after three to five days but if you like the tanginess, allow them to ferment a bit longer. After 14 days, you can place all the jars in the refrigerator for up to eight months.

It is important to note that fermented vegetables have a very distinct smell and may bubble and fizz when first opened. When done correctly, they have a strong sour smell. I recommend eating your fermented vegetables at home. Your co-workers may not appreciate the strong aroma in the lunch room. Try a few different recipes and have a few tablespoons with each meal. They make a nutritious and tasty condiment.

The practice of fermenting vegetables can be found in the food history of almost all cultures

The most familiar fermented vegetable is sauerkraut. The Austrians coined the term – sauer (sour) and kraut (plants). Dutch seamen would carry fermented vegetables on long voyages to protect them from scurvy. (A large supply of pickles is said to have played an important role in the successful journey of Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage.) In Korea, the making of kimchi (cultured cabbage and roots) has been practiced for thousands of years. In Indonesia, soybeans are fermented to create tempeh. In Japan, we see the fermenting of umemboshi plums. In Russia and Poland tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce were commonly fermented. In Africa, fermented millet is made into porridge.

Rebecca Brenner, Ph.D. is a nutritionist and owner of Park City Holistic Health.

An artisan craft you can easily do in your own kitchen

Simple Ricotta Cheese
(and Whey)
You’ll need:
1 gallon of milk (raw, whole organic milk if possible)
1 teaspoon citric acid
1 teaspoon of salt
Place milk, citric acid, and salt in non-reactive pot. Slowly heat to 195 degrees.
Curds and whey (the liquid) will separate. Turn off the heat and let set for up to 10 minutes.
Line a colander with cheese cloth and ladle the curds into the colander.
Tie the cloth into a bag and hang to drain for ½ hour or more. The liquid is whey. KEEP THE WHEY.
When drained to desired consistency, your cheese is ready. Make approximately 2 pounds.
Pour whey into Mason jar, refrigerate, and use to ferment your vegetables.
Cultured Carrots, Garlic
and Ginger
(yields 1-3 qts.)
You’ll need:
6 cups of finely chopped carrots
2 tablespoons of finely chopped garlic
2 tablespoons of finely grated ginger
¼ cup of whey
Mix carrots, garlic, ginger and whey in large bowl.
Thoroughly hammer mixture with a meat tenderizer until juices from vegetables are released.
Place mixture in 1-quart Mason jars, tightly packing down with fist or tamper. Leave an inch of room at top of jar. Screw on lids tightly. Allow to ferment for 4-14 days at room temperature.

Cultured Greens and Seaweed
You’ll need:
3 large heads of cabbage finely chopped (save six whole leaves of cabbage)
1 large bunch of kale, finely chopped
2 cups of soaked and drained wakame, chopped
1 tablespoon of fresh dill
¾ cup of whey
Mix cabbage, kale, wakame, dill, and whey in large bowl.
With a meat tenderizer, thoroughly hammer mixture until juices from vegetables are released.
Place mixture in 1-quart Mason jars, tightly packing down with fist or tamper. Leave an inch of room at top of jar. Tightly roll cabbage leaves and pack 1-2 at the top of each jar.
Screw on lids tightly. Allow to ferment for 4-14 days at room temperature.
Old Fashioned Sauerkraut
You’ll need:
3 large green cabbages, finely chopped (save six whole leaves of cabbage)
3 tablespoon of fresh dill
3 tablespoon sea salt
¾ cup of whey
Mix cabbage, dill, sea salt, and whey in large bowl.
With a meat tenderizer, thoroughly hammer mixture until juices from vegetables are released.
Place mixture in mason jars and press down tightly, leaving an inch of room at top of jar.
Roll large leaves of cabbage and pack one or two at the top of each jar.
Tightly screw on lids and allow to ferment for 4-14 days at room temperature.
Note: No whey? Use an extra tablespoon of salt or a culture starter. I like the culture starter from

This article was originally published on January 30, 2009.