Lacto-Fermentation: An Easier, Healthier, and More Sustainable Way to Preserve

In March we ate the last of 5 1/2 gallons of lacto-fermented vegetables. They stored for over six months in our refrigerator and I didn’t boil a single pot of water.

I think everyone should try lacto-fermentation for three reasons:

  1. The product is a living food, full of enzymes and probiotics.
  2. The process is much faster than waterbath or pressure canning.
  3. The process (and storage) can be done with zero energy usage.

A healthier product in less time and with less energy usage? Yes please!

How It Works

Before the advent of modern day canning, most of our fore-mothers preserved the harvest through lacto-fermentation. Dill pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi are all products of this preservation method.

Vegetables can be preserved simply with salt, water and spices – no boiling water baths necessary. The fermentation process creates lactic acid, nature’s preservative.

This was one of the only options for preserving food until canning and electricity were so widespread. There is no need to “process” the jars and they can be stored in a root cellar or other cool place.

Photo by JoePhoto

Health Benefits

When we lost touch with this food preservation technique we also lost touch with the unparalleled health benefits that came with it. Sally Fallon is a huge proponent of lacto-fermentation in her book Nourishing Traditions and for good reason:

The proliferation of lactobacilli in fermented vegetables enhances their digestibility and increases vitamin levels. These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.

Tips From One Beginner To Another

Because we have grown up in a culture that thinks you have to pasteurize everything, you may wonder if you are going to poison your family by using this method. To ease you into it, here are a few things that I learned along the way:

  • If you are intimidated by the process, know that you’ll get used to it. You will know if a batch has gone bad and you will find that once you figure out the basic process, there is little to it.
  • You can use whey (which you can get by straining yogurt through a coffee filter), which contains lactic acid and gets the ball rolling. I mostly replace the whey with a little bit of extra salt, but found that when starting out it is nice as “insurance.”
  • Don’t be confined to recipes. Preserve whatever it is that you have in abundance, in any combination. Add flavors and spices that you like. Just be careful not to cut beets too small as they contain a lot of sugar and can produce alcohol.
  • Be sure to leave 1-2 inches of head space. The fermentation process can cause the vegetables to “bubble up”.
  • Clean your jars and equipment very well. You want to avoid bad bacteria at all costs in order to allow the good bacteria to proliferate.
  • To help pickles keep their crunch, add clean grape leaves. The tannins in the leaves are said to perform this act.

Recipes

Last year I put up 1 1/2 gallons of cortido, 2 gallons of pickles, and 2 gallons of salsa. Salsa is by far our favorite, though no vegetable will be safe this year.

These are the recipes that got me (and my family) hooked on fermented vegetables.

Photo by bookgrl

Cultured Salsa

adapted from Nourishing Traditions
by Sally Fallon

  • 4 medium tomatoes, about 2 pounds total
  • 2 small onions, finely chopped
  • 1-2 bell peppers, seeded
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded (or not if you prefer more spice)
  • 1 bunch cilantro
  • juice of 2 lemons
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 4 tablespoons whey (if not available, use an additional 1 tablespoon salt)
  • 1/4 cup filtered water
  1. If you prefer peeled tomatoes: score the bottoms, drop into boiling water for about 15 seconds, remove and place in ice water. The peels should come off easily.
  2. Chop all ingredients by hand or with a food processor to desired consistency. Mix  and place in a very clean quart-sized, wide mouth mason jar. Press down with a wooden spoon, adding more water to cover the vegetables. Be sure to leave 1-2″ head space.
  3. Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for 2-3 days before transferring to cold storage.

Photo by bookgrl

Cortido

A Latin American Sauerkraut from Nourishing Traditions
by Sally Fallon

  • 1 large cabbage, cored and shredded
  • 1 cup carrots, grated
  • 2 medium onions, quartered lengthwise and very finely sliced
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 4 tablespoons whey (if not available, use an additional 1 tablespoon salt)
  1. In a large bowl mix cabbage with carrots, onions, oregano, red pepper flakes, sea salt and whey.
  2. Pound with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer for about 10 minutes to release juices.
  3. Place in 2 quart-sized, wide mouth mason jars and press down firmly with a pounder or meat hammer until juices come to the top of the cabbage. The top of the cabbage mixture should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jars.
  4. Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about 3 days before transferring to cold storage.

Photo by Shannon

Garlic-Dill Cucumber Pickles

adapted from Nourishing Traditions
by Sally Fallon

  • 4-5 pickling cucumbers or 15-20 gherkins
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, snipped
  • 1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon sea salt
  • 4 tablespoons whey (if not available, use an additional 1 tablespoon salt)
  • 1-2 clean grape or oak leaves
  • 1 cup filtered water
  1. Wash cucumbers well and place in a quart-sized wide mouth jar.
  2. Combine remaining ingredients and pour over cucumbers, adding more water if necessary to cover the cucumbers. The top of the liquid should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar.
  3. Cover tightly and keep and keep at room temperature for about 3 days before transferring to cold storage.

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Have you ever tried lacto-fermentation? Would you be willing to give it a shot?

About Shannon

Real food, sustainability, and homesteading are inextricably intertwined on the off-grid homestead Shannon, her husband and three children inhabit. She shares the insanely beautiful and shatteringly hard of it all on her blog Nourishing Days. She also works as a content writer and blog editor for Cultures for Health.

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Comments

  1. Tamara Chewning says

    I’m curious, how do you know when they are “ready?” Are they edible after the 3 days of sitting out, after you put them in the refrigerator… when? Also, how long do they keep for after you put them in the refrigerator? Or does it even have to be a refrigerator? Thanks!

  2. Tamara – Great question! You know they are done when they are bubbly. That indicates fermentation. You can do the fermentation in a slower process by keeping it in a cooler location. 2-3 days is for a room temperature situation. 2 days when it is really warm.

    They keep for months in the refrigerator. I think I mentioned in the article that I made my ferments in August – September and we finished the last of them off around March or April.

    You can also store them in a root cellar or cool basement, as our foremothers would have before refrigeration.

  3. So THAT’S the purpose of the grape leaves in pickles! I always wondered about that…

    How important is it that the water be filtered?

    • Jennifer Jo – I think fairly important :). I believe it is the chlorine and fluoride in city water that is both not recommended for health reasons and for the fact that the chemicals can interfere with the fermentation process.

  4. This sounds interesting! I knew that sauerkraut and kimchi were fermented (and won’t hurt me if I eat them), but I had no clue you could do it with other food too! Do these other recipes you’ve shared have strong flavors like sauerkraut? Where does one find grape leaves? I’ve never seen them on a bunch of grapes at the grocery store (and I don’t live near a vineyard). Also, what keeps the food from going bad during the fermentation? Is it the fact that the container is sealed and has the whey and salt?

    • Kara – Most fermented foods have a sour, “fermented” taste. Though I think salsa is the most forgiving and I would start there if I were you.

      I find grape leaves on wild grape vines growing in our backyard. You can also buy them in jars. Another option is oak leaves off an oak tree if you have one. Just wash them and use them the same way as the grape leaves.

      The food is kept from spoiling by the lactic acid present in the fermenting process. The salt keeps the bad bacteria from forming long enough for the lactic acid to take hold. Whey, if used, also contains lactic acid and is good “insurance” to make sure that it starts off on the right foot.

    • I’m late to the party but I wanted to point out that this process is actually intentionally making the veggies “go bad” but in a way that makes them more nutritious.

      Salt keeps down the bad bacteria long enough for your good bacteria to eat some sugars and make a bunch of acid which also kills or suppresses the bad bacteria.

      It’s not so much a matter of stopping the food from aging as it is forcing the transformation to be a nutritious and tasty one.

  5. I’m so excited about this! I’m in Florida, and the last thing I want to do is heat my house up any more than it already is with boiling all sorts of stuff. I do have a question–what about well water, which has no chlorine or flouride? Or do I need to buy grocery store filtered water? I just visited the farmer’s market yesterday, so I think I have everything else that I need to make the salsa!

    • Ivy Mae – I would say use your well water. Because it does not contain the chemicals it should be fine. After all those who came before us probably used well or creek water and did it for hundreds of years that way :).

  6. I am so excited about this post! I made sauerkraut last year and wanted to expand my horizons this year. We are just finishing the kraut I made last summer; the flavor just got better with time and it’s a year old this month! The purple cabbage kraut is very pretty, but we like the taste of the green cabbage best. I already have two more jars bubbling away for next year and a cabbage sitting on my counter waiting to be shredded. I love that this takes so little energy or effort and you get so much nutrition in return. I’ve been looking for a good fermented pickle recipe (thank you!) and I can’t wait to try the salsa. Yay Simple Bites!

  7. Scary, but I’m going to give it a try.

  8. I love it that lacto-fermentation is taking hold! I’ve been experimenting with it as well, and I’m trying this salsa next. I have a batch of ginger soda brewing up right now, and I’m looking forward to trying it! Thanks for the post!

  9. This post is just packed with information, thanks Shannon!
    I particularly can’t wait to try the salsa, as I think it would be a hit with my hubby. Do you think I can get whey at my local health foods store? I’m going to check.

    • Aimee – I don’t know that you can buy liquid whey. To make the whey simply take plain yogurt and strain through a clean kitchen towel or a coffee filter within a sieve. The yellowish liquid that drips out will be whey. The stuff on top is like cream cheese – yum!

    • We make whey by putting raw milk in a jar on the counter for 3 days, then straining it through cheesecloth – you end up with curds (which make delicious cream cheese pastry) and whey.

      • Jennifer says

        I used some of the second generation culture from a batch of cream cheese I made using a purchased cheese culture. My bottles are bubbling away and I am trying to pluck up the courage to try out what I’ve produced (this is my first time trying lacto-fermentation) 🙂

  10. Looks tasty & healthy – I will have to get over the fear of stuff “going bad” and give it a try! My family loves fermented kimchi – can you recommend a recipe?

    • Robin – I made some last week, an adaptation of the recipe in Nourishing Traditions. I have yet to find a recipe that to me tastes dead on.

      • If you’re looking for Korean recipes, try http://www.maangchi.com. I lived in Seoul for years, and have been very happy with all of her recipes, and have only made minor changes, likely due to small regional taste differences between where her recipes originate and the stuff I got used to. Her cucumber kimchi cannot be beat, and the cabbage and daikon ones are wonderful, as well.

  11. One of the things that is so great about lacto-fermentation is that you can do small batches, which is easier to tackle if you have little ones, and also handy if you have a small garden and only have a dozen or so cucumbers to pickle at a time, as we did last summer. My kids love to help stuff the jars, and they really love these pickles. The only drawback IS the storage space, but an old fridge in the garage is an option we used for a while. The grape leaf tip – I haven’t heard that before, Shannon. Can’t wait to try!

  12. Well, I made the salsa last night, and now it’s sitting on my countertop looking gorgeous. Can’t wait to try it! Thanks for the recipe.

  13. Christine says

    I’m going to try the salsa and the pickles!

  14. This is intriguing–never heard of it before. Thanks for sharing–I might give the salsa a try! One question–how do you store them in a cold environment and yet figure zero energy usage?

    • Wendy – The cold environment would have to be a root cellar or cool basement, of course. I don’t have either of those so store them in the fridge. But hopefully some day :).

  15. Did I understand right? I don’t have to “process” (boil in my opinion) the jars? I’m trying to lacto-ferment peaches…

    • Chelly – No you do not have to boil them. You might be able to make a peach chutney. See Nourishing Traditions for some recipes. I am not experienced in fermenting fruit and it can be tricky because the high sugar content can cause it to go directly to alcohol instead of lactic acid.

  16. This is a great post, I’m going to have to try this! Last year I made sauerkraut, and I didn’t even know I was doing “lacto-fermentation”. I just went by what my boyfriend’s grandma told me to do! Although, she did tell me to process the jars after several days, but now I’m thinking I don’t need to.

    And I’m really excited to learn the oak leaf in the pickles trick. I have oak trees all over my yard!

  17. Great post:) I think I tried the NT recipes for fermentation and didn’t use whey, but instead used the salt; and if I remember correctly, they ended up tasting too salty. Have you come across that at all? If so, how much did you reduce the salt? I haven’t done any veggie fermentations this year but really want to start now before things are out of season.

    • Gina – Yes I know exactly what you mean. When I make a ferment that is too salty I use it like a condiment on stir fries, sandwiches, etc. The salt factor dissipates when used as a seasoning.

      I also play with the salt content a bit, veering away from NT’s recipes. I don’t think it has to be really salty, just salty enough to prevent the bad bacteria from taking hold. It also mellows the longer it sits.

  18. I’m excited to try a green cabbage sauerkraut. I’m hooked on the Eden Organic Sauerkraut and never understood why it’s so amazing when it’s just cabbage, salt and water. Now I realize it’s probably the lack of vinegar that makes it amazing. I’m going to try making it with whey since I’d like to cut back on salt a bit.

    My favourite breakfast is toast from sturdy wholegrain bread, topped with
    – tahini
    – light miso (tiny bit)
    – sauerkraut (a couple of tablespoon per slice of toast)
    – a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds and nori seaweed

    This may be the weirdest breakfast you’ve heard of, but if you already know and like all these ingredients, give it a shot. I can’t get enough.

  19. Thanks for the salsa recipey – I’ll definitely try it. We currently have a 3-gallon crock of pickles dilling and I hope it works, or else that’s a lot of cukes gone bad. We tried to make salsa the regular way last night and it just seemed to take a long time and turned to mush. So I want to try something new that doesn’t require cooking. Do you find that it tastes fresher?

  20. Can I cut the cukes? Or is it better to leave them whole?

    • I tried cutting the cucumbers, and it seemed to work well. I used whey, but I thought they were still a little too salty… am wondering now if adding some vinegar would be good at all.

  21. Hi Shannon! what a LOVELY blog you have! I was just googling for a fermented peach salsa recipe and stumbled upon it! I am now following you. I think you would also like to visit my blog and link up to our real food love Two for Tuesday recipe blog hop! Please come by and check it out! 🙂 [email protected]

  22. Can I use green tomatoes for the salsa or do they need to be ripe?

  23. I made the salsa, this is my first time lacto-fermenting.. but I left it out one day too long.. when we opened it, it was bubbly and fizzy when we out it in our mouths.. I have always been told that when food fizzes it means it is bad? Is it supposed to be this way? It doesn’t taste or smell bad, just kind of strange to have your food bubble on your tongue.. the sauerkraut I made came out great though, no fizz, and still slightly crunchy, tho a little too salty but my hubby loves it! :o) Thanks!

    • Katie – Bubbles are good! That means it has fermented. If it is actually spoiled you will smell or see it in the form of mold. Store it away in the fridge and you’re good to go.

  24. So I can just use more salt instead of whey to make it dairy-free? The “lacto” part is throwing me off…

  25. We live overseas and cannot buy mason jars very easily. How critical are they? Are there any other jars we can use?

  26. My husband can’t stand vinegar (he has geographic tongue, and he has too many “fermented” tastebuds- it is overwhelming to him! So I ventured into lactofermented pickles this summer to see if I could make pickles he liked-he loves them, and so does everyone else I give them to! Thanks for the salsa recipe, and the cortado-I’m trying it all!

  27. Toshiaki Kobayashi says

    What happens if I ferment it longer than just three days?
    Would that have any known benefits?

  28. Quick question. . .I was inspired by your site to do lacto fermented garlic from the Nourishing traditions book, but I’m afraid I did something wrong. I followed her directions exactly but there were not very many bubbles, it never turned green as I had read that it would and now some of the garlic cloves look like they are bad, mushy and brown and the oregano looks funky too. It doesn’t smell bad but I’m not sure I did things right. I am just wondering if that sounds normal at all to you. I could send a pic. thanks.

  29. I just fermented carrots for the first time. They “bubbled up” like you said they might but should they have a carbonated taste/feel?

  30. I made 6 qts of fermented beets but they taste like alcohol. What does this mean? Is it unsafe to eat?
    Also, should the juice around the beets be thick and creamy or thin and watery?

  31. Terri T. says

    I’m new to canning/preserving and have been doing the water bath method for some time now but, living in Arizona, the idea of boiling anything indoors when it’s 110 in the shade isn’t so appealing, hence my interest in lacto-fermenting. Don’t know if this has been asked before, but, instead of draining yogurt for the whey can you use the protein supplement-type whey products from the health food store ? Or can the whey be bought in tablet or powder form? Where? Thanks for the great suggestions and recipes.

    • Hi Terri,

      The whey protein supplements are very different from whey off of live yogurt or other cultured dairy. The idea with the whey is to add something already containing cultures to the vegetables to kick start their fermenting process. The whey protein powders do not contain the cultures you are looking for and I believe the tablets do not either. I would stick with whey or try it without and add a bit of extra salt. Just be sure in both cases that the vegetables remain below the liquid level.

  32. I have seen various blender salsa recipes that sound a lot easier than chopping all those vegetables. Would lacto-fermentation work with a blender salsa? How much whey would you use per quart of salsa?

    Love this post! Thanks!

  33. They appear to be ok. We tried them and they tasted salty, but fine. We took them out of the bulk containers, rinsed them and repacked them in canning jars with new brine and stuck them in the fridge.

    • Great for posting those pics. My cukes look exactly like this, the brine has turned turbid and I am concerned about those white flakes which are neither yeast or lactobacillus, as far as my limited understanding of microbiology goes. Question for you experienced fermenters, can you overdo the process? Some recipes say one week, others specify three to four weeks of fermentation with pickles (It already tastes great and fizzy after one week)

  34. Thanks for this. Just curious – what is it in the two jars that make up the first photo?

  35. I was very excited to put forth my first effort into fermenting… day 3 and my salsa has mold on top – both jars. Quite bummed about that! I used whey that I made from plain yogurt. Followed your recipe. There was only a small amount of bubbling (never done it before, so no idea how much I’m actually supposed to see). Can you help?

    • Mold seems to be fairly common. At least every blog that’s talked about has said to just scrape off the mold and the rest underneath it should be still good. HTH

  36. Have you ever come across a good fermented bread and butter pickle recipe? I follow a pickle recipe that someone came up with based on Bubbie’s pickles. I actually adjust that one too, and I use raspberry leaves. Just tasted the batch that I started on the 28th. Fizzy and tastes great. And guess what? I didn’t have enough cukes, so I finished the top off with sliced zucchini, and it tastes just like a pickle!

  37. i have about 20 lbs of apples….could i culture them? i was wondering about the sugar content….also could i culture nuts? thank you in advance….. elissa

  38. Richard Washburn says

    I have a great new product for doing lacto fermentation of vegtables in canning
    jars.

    The product is glass weights, shaped like a disc, that are made to keep the
    vegtables down in the jar during fermentation.

    If you go to this link:

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/110737857697?var=410035989773&ssPageName=STRK:MESOX:IT&_\
    trksid=p3984.m1559.l2649

    you can see a picture of how they work.

    Richard
    central Maine

  39. hi.. i am lacto fermenting some cukes right now and looking for an answer to this question: how can i store my pickles over the winter without having to refrigerate them?– Its a problem of space. Then i found your site and appreciated your cross-references of Sally Fallon and Sandor Katz. It confuses me now that your recipes ask for tightly closed jars, and i wonder if you could explain that for me, and maybe help with my original question too!\

    I am so grateful to everyone that posts so much information on the web.. thankyou

  40. Would it be okay to use cayenne pepper in place of the red pepper flakes in the Cortido recipe? Thanks

  41. If you are latose intolerant and gluten free, does the whey from yogurt affect these systems

  42. Wow – I had my doubts that putting vegetables in salt water would do anything, but it worked, and tastes great! I’m vegan so I used just sea salt, no whey. Chopped up some red peppers, red kale, onions, celery, garlic, and added some dried dill plus 2 tbsp of sea salt. Crushed them a bit with a wooden spoon in a bowl (didn’t produce much juice), and put them in a quart jar and covered with my unfiltered well water. I put a small lidless pimento jar on top of the veggies to hold them down. Left it for 3 days (exactly) on top of my fridge (kind of cool here this time of year). A few bubbles formed. Tried it this morning and it was delicious! Salty and a little tangy/sour. One of the best pickled veggies I’ve ever had – these won’t last long. Thanks for the tip.

  43. I started with fermenting sauerkraut and now I am on to many many others veggies and herbs (harvest). I’ve been processing them all the same as I did for the sauerkraut: ferment on counter for at least 11 days. It has been warm, but they are away from direct sun and on granite. Am I fermenting too long? How can I tell; smell, sight, taste?

  44. good morning i made a abatch of dill pickles from cukes i got from my local farmers market i got the recipe from the oct issue of saveur mag it is a lactobacillas fermentation i followed the recipe but i cut thr cukes in half and put them in a sterilized plastic jug with a akitchen towel on top and let them site on my counter 4 three weeks as the recipe said i was excited for a taste but the pickles where mushy anad bad i tasted a little piece it was not good can you tell me what i did wrong u say to refridg after 3 days ive seen pickles in brine at my locale italian deli in big barrels at room temp and thought this might work ive had great luck with refridge pickles also can u tell me when i make refridge pickles when i put in the brine should it be cold or hot ive tryed it both ways thank you for your help will try your recipe next

  45. fascinating … daughter “pickled” our cucs and peppers using a vinegar solution … this looks simple enough … can you tell me why you would not use vinegar?

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