Benefits of Fermenting Vegetables

Discover how fermentation boosts the flavor and health properties of raw vegetables.

By Amanda Feifer


July 2016

Ferment Your Vegetables cover

"Ferment Your Vegetables" by Amanda Feifer introduces vegetable enthusiasts to the art of fermentation. Filled with beautiful color photographs and delicious recipes, this introductory guide teaches readers how to preserve raw vegetables year-round.

Cover courtesy Quarto Publishing Group USA

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Ferment Your Vegetables (Quarto Publishing Group USA, 2015) by Amanda Feifer introduces vegetable enthusiasts to the art of fermentation. Filled with beautiful color photographs and delicious recipes, this introductory guide teaches readers how to preserve raw vegetables year-round. Troubleshooting tips, equipment information, and step-by-step instructions make fermenting vegetables easy and enjoyable.

You can purchase this book from the Mother Earth Living store: Ferment Your Vegetables.

What Is Fermentation?

Vegetable fermentation is the transformation of a raw vegetable into something infinitely healthier and more delicious. Lactic acid fermentation, the primary fermentation process covered in this book, transforms vegetables into pickles without even a drop of added vinegar.

This transformation owes everything to the microbes in the soil and sugars naturally present in the vegetables. The soil is rich with bacteria. When vegetablesare harvested, they come out of the ground covered in bacteria, including asmall population of lactic acid bacteria (LAB, frequently referred to as probiotic bacteria) on their skins and peels. These bacteria, given the right conditions, will kickstart fermentation by feasting on a vegetable’s natural sugars and converting them into a variety of things, including lactic acid, carbon dioxide (CO2), and even a very small amount of alcohol.

The right conditions for lacto-fermentation are quite simple to provide: an environment with little or no oxygen and sufficient time at room temperature (roughly between 64 and 75°F [17.8 and 23.9°C] usually makes them happiest, although both lower and higher temperatures are sometimes used). Unlike some of their dangerous, pathogenic bacterial brethren, lactic acid bacteria do fine in the presence of salt, even in relatively high concentrations, so most vegetable fermentation also involves salting the vegetables.

Your job as a fermenter is simply to give those good microbes what they need and then get out of the way while they do their work. Once you understand the basic, practical principles, it’s easy to see that fermentation is a process nature intended and one that you can nurture in a very hands-off way.

Why Ferment Vegetables?

Folks of all stripes choose to ferment vegetables for a wide variety of reasons. Some do it for the long list of unique health benefits, others for the taste. Some people want to eat more locally and some just get swept away by the feeling of power that comes from DIYing things that seem complicated (but are actually quite simple) 

Flavor

One great reason to ferment vegetables is immediately evident with your first bite: the taste! Vegetable fermentation lives in a realm of food science that can seem like magic. Put some cabbage and salt in a vat and voilà! One month later, unseen microbes have transformed a humble head of cabbage into that tangy superstar sauerkraut. These flavors are difficult, if not impossible, to replicate without fermentation. That is one reason why great chefs all over the world are in love with this process. The words “tangy,” “funky,” and “perfectly sour” all describe the singular flavors that occur when vegetables are fermented.

Health

Fermented vegetables offer a surprising number of health benefits; the most discussed is their high probiotic bacteria content. There is new research published seemingly every day on the importance of our gut microbiome (our community of intestinal microbes). While the role that fermented, probiotic foods play in the microbiome is not yet fully understood, there is good evidence that probiotic foods play a role in the creation and maintenance of a diverse and healthy population of gut bacteria and that such diversity is important for our general health and well-being.

In contrast, scientific evidence continues to show us that a depleted microbiome, lacking in diversity, may be linked to many of the modern ailments found primarily in developed nations — obesity, food allergies, and even depression have all been shown to have either likely or established links to the health and diversity of our gut bacteria.

But probiotics aren’t the only health benefits we get from eating fermented vegetables. These foods also have a higher vitamin content than their raw or cooked counterparts, meaning that when you eat raw cucumbers, for instance, you’re actually eating a vegetable that is lower in vitamins than its fermented counterpart. The fermentation process actually creates vitamins, and minerals become more digestible because of fermentation.

In addition, fermentation has also been shown to destroy or reduce certain compounds that are harmful to us, including pesticide residue.

This barely scratches the surface of the potential health claims currently being studied and the special properties that have already been identified. The area of health-related research on fermented foods is extremely exciting at present and will likely continue to expand in the coming years 

Preservation

A bunch of carrots left on the counter might get rather mushy and moldy after a week. In the fridge, they may last a couple weeks. If you ferment them, however, they’ll become increasingly zesty and delicious; they’ll turn into healthy, probiotic foods, and they’ll keep for months or more, maintaining their crispness for much of that time.

The practice of vegetable fermentation can be traced back thousands of years. Long before there were refrigerators, freezers, airlocks, or airtight jars, people used microbes to secure their food supply for the colder months or to prevent spoilage in sweltering, tropical climes.

The fact that this practice has stood the test of so much time is one good indication that it’s a safe and effective method for preserving food. If it didn’t work properly, the fermenters of yore wouldn’t have survived to pass their genes and their know-how down to us. For those of us who enjoy eating the produce of local farmers or maintaining a large garden, fermentation is a great way to keep those vegetables edible through the changing seasons. 

Fun and Ease

Fermentation is for everyone. You don’t need to be a sophisticated cook to make fermented vegetables, although the flavors that this process creates will have your friends and family thinking that you are. If you can chop a vegetable, you can ferment. Follow just a few basic and pretty flexible guidelines, and you’ll have endless fun fermenting vegetables to your heart — and gut’s — content. 

Proper Temperature

There are few things that impact a ferment more than temperature. Temperature influences the speed of fermentation and subsequently, its texture. The temperature at the start of fermentation even influences which strain or strains of lactic acid bacteria initiate fermentation.

This doesn’t mean that fermentation is a finicky process, however. Between temperatures of 64 and 78°F (17.8 and 25.6°C), fermentation will initiate without a hitch (though some ferments taste better when fermented at a slightly cooler or warmer temperature). I find that sauerkraut has optimal flavor and texture when fermented below 70°F (21.1°C), as close to 65°F (18.3°C) as possible, while, for my palate, kimchi is the opposite. My favorite kimchis have been fermented at slightly warmer temperatures, between 70 and 72°F (21.1 and 22.2°C).

Some science disagrees with me on this — at least one study indicates that 68°F (20°C) is the optimal fermentation temperature for delicious ‘chi, while others show a broad range, from 50 to 72°F (10 to 22.2°C), works best. This leads us back to a key principle of home fermentation: as long as you follow the basic, safe procedures laid out in this chapter, there is plenty of room for variation and preference. Often, we don’t have perfect control over temperature, and that is totally fine. If a vegetable takes a very long time to ferment (too cool) or ends up too soft (too warm), then explore different microclimates in your home, such as near an air-conditioning vent, where it’s cooler, or inside a turned-off oven or on top of a refrigerator, where it’s warmer. And remember, the slight variations that happen from batch to batch are part of what make fermentation fun!

More from Ferment Your Vegetables:

Bánh Mì Pickles Recipe
Simple Sauerkraut Recipe
Tomatillo Salsa Recipe


Excerpted with permission from by Amanda Feifer and published by Quarto Publishing Group, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Ferment Your Vegetables