Apart from the fact that they are tangy and delicious, making fermented vegetables is an easy way to preserve vegetables for many weeks or even months and in doing so, avoid waste. Fermentation works well even if foods aren’t at their freshest (provided they haven’t gone mouldy or slimy) so it’s a perfect way to give wrinkly veg a new lease of life.
What is food fermentation?
Fermentation is a natural process whereby microorganisms – like bacteria and yeast – break down carbohydrates into acids or alcohol. As well as preserving the foods, the acids or alcohol give fermented foods a tart, pickle-like flavour.
Fermented foods can be beneficial for your health. As vegetables are fermented raw, many of the nutrients contained within them are preserved during the process. In fact, fermentation helps to break down nutrients in food, making them easier to digest. In addition to this, the probiotics (i.e. beneficial bacteria) in fermented foods have been associated with improvements in immunity, digestive health and more.
Fermenting vegetables in brine
In order to create an environment where ‘good’ bacteria thrive and harmful bacteria that can spoil the food and make you unwell don’t survive, vegetables are submerged in a brine of salt and water. In some recipes (such as sauerkraut) no water is added – instead, the vegetables are pounded so that they release their juices.
Table salt contains iodine which can prevent the growth of beneficial bacteria, so it is recommended to use non-iodized salt, such as unrefined sea salt.
How to make a brine:
Add salt to your desired amount of water, adding 2-5% of the weight of the water in salt. 1 litre of water weighs about 1000 grams, so for 1 litre of water you would add 20-50 grams of salt. How much you use is according to taste, but be aware that if you use less than 2% your vegetables risk going off, and if you use more than 5% fermentation may not occur as the fermentation bacteria will struggle to survive.
How does a ‘normal’ vegetable ferment look, smell and taste?
Vegetable fermentation is generally considered low-risk, but as the acidic flavour may be new to some of us, it’s helpful to know how to tell the difference between a ‘normal’ ferment and one that’s spoiled.
A normal ferment:
- A pleasantly sour smell and taste
- White film on the top of the jar (a natural yeast by-product of the fermentation process – just skim off and discard)
- Sediment at the bottom of the jar or cloudy liquid – this is a sign of bacteria and is nothing to worry about.
A spoiled ferment:
- Visible mould floating on the top. Some people scrape the top off and eat the ferment, but if in doubt, throw it out.
- Extremely smelly
- Bad taste
- Slimy, discoloured vegetables. Note that it is normal for some green vegetables – like green beans and cabbage – to go slightly brown or pale when fermented.
Recipe: fermented beans
- 175g beans – french/green or runner
- 1 small red chilli (diced)
- 3-5 roughly chopped garlic cloves
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Brine: 300 ml water + 6-15 grams of salt (2-5% of the weight of water)
- 10-12 grams of sea salt, according to taste
- If you have it, a few tablespoons of liquid from another ferment – the bacteria and yeasts within will help get the party started!
- (Optional) a handful of diced cherry tomatoes or (cool) roasted red peppers
- 500ml mason or kilner jar, or fermenting crock. It is not recommended to use jars with metal lids, as the acids produced during fermentation may corrode metals. We do not know if they can also corrode plastics, but it may be best to avoid plastic containers for fermentation, particularly if they are not ‘food grade’.
- Fermenting weight/small jar and a cabbage leaf to keep the vegetables submerged under the water. This prevents them from going mouldy.
- Wash the jar and utensils in hot, soapy water. You may choose to sterilize the jar in boiling water, but many don’t do this – the salt in the ferment should prevent spoilage.
- Add the oregano, garlic and chilli to the jar.
- Pack the beans (whole or chopped) and cherry tomatoes (if using) into the jar, pressing down so that it contains as little air as possible.
- Add the brine to the jar, leaving about 1 inch of headroom at the top of the jar to gases to escape.
- Place a cabbage leaf on top of the vegetables, trying to get it below the surface of the water. Place the fermentation weight on it to keep it submerged.
- Screw the lid onto the jar but not completely. As the fermentation process gets going, carbon dioxide will be produced. If it can’t escape, it could cause the jar to break.
Leaving the vegetables to ferment (any recipe)
- Leave the jar at room temperature away from direct sunlight. After a few days the liquid should go cloudy and bubbles should rise to the surface. The warmer the temperature, the faster the fermentation will happen. Vegetables fermented at 15-20 degrees should be ready in 5-6 days, those fermented at cooler temperatures may take several weeks and may have a more complex flavour.
- ‘Burp’ the jars daily (open them to release any trapped carbon dioxide) or leave the lids very loosely fit so that air can escape.
- Taste the ferment every few days to see when it tastes ready. When the ferment is ready (you like the taste), put it in cold storage, such as a fridge or cellar, where it can keep for up to a month.
Other recipes to try – these are crowd pleasers!
- Fermented chilli sauce
- Easy kimchi – a quick-to-make version of the popular Korean ferment, made from napa cabbage, chilli, ginger and garlic.