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Eating fermented vegetables may be excellent for your health, but making them is also one of life’s pleasures. The more you make probiotic pickled vegetables, the more you’ll experiment and love making them. This post gives you several recipes, a template for how to make sauerkraut and fermented veggies (with a saltwater brine) and also shares the tools you’ll need and several tips for success. (Here are two of my recent favorite fermented vegetable recipes: Brussels Sprouts with Garlic and Ginger, and Golden Cauliflower Pickles with Turmeric!)
Why eat fermented vegetables?
- Protect the body against infection by stimulating the immune system.
- Improve the digestion process: Fermented veggies help to break down proteins and carbohydrates, thus requiring less insulin for digestion.
- Provide an excellent source of antioxidants.
- Help fight candida and other yeast overgrowth.
- Keep flora balanced throughout the digestive tract by eating them regularly.
- Increase the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals.
- Reduce blood glucose levels.
- Gradually overcome SIBO or histamine overload with the slow reintroduction of probiotic foods (more on this below).
What are fermented vegetables and how do you make them?
Vegetables, especially cabbage, naturally have lactic acid bacteria on their surfaces. Vegetables about to be fermented are cut or shredded to expose more surface area. The veggies are often pounded to break down their cellular walls, allowing their juices to release. They are salted during this process, which also helps to release their juices.
After being stored in jars or a fermentation crock, as detailed below, they are fermented at room temperature and then sometimes stored in the refrigerator, keeping for 2 to 6 months or longer.
During the fermentation process, lactobacillus bacteria transform starches and sugars into lactic acid.
The salt in the fermentation brine helps to hold any decomposition at bay until beneficial acids and enzymes develop, to continue the process of preservation. The bacteria are anaerobic which is why all air must be pressed out during the fermentation process. A warmer home, 70 degrees or higher, will speed up fermentation. A cooler home will slow it down.
Whey is sometimes used with fermented vegetables to jump start the right bacterial growth and inhibit unwanted bacteria. Whey is not needed if enough salt is used in one’s brine. Salt functions to deter negative bacteria while the vegetables’ own lactic acid bacteria increases.
Six species of lactic acid-producing bacteria may be naturally present in many vegetable fermentations: Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Pediococcus pentosaceus, Pediococcus acidilactici, Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus plantarum, and Lactobacillus pentosus. Various species of yeasts are also present in selected vegetable fermentations, such as those in the cucumber family. (source)
I have included some favorite recipes below. One thing I love about vegetable fermentation is you can be creative. As long as you follow basic principles (I outline these below), you will usually be successful. An occasional batch that doesn’t turn out is an educational experience.
You will need the following supplies:
- Sea Salt (not table)
- Non-chlorinated water
- Organic vegetables, well washed (and other optional food ingredients listed below), room temperature ideally
- A good flawless crock, or clean canning jars with lids and weights, or this Korean fermentation container
- Optional, depending on the method and vessel you choose: If you choose to stamp (I define this below), a two-gallon unscratched plastic bucket, stainless steel bucket, good deep wooden bowl or your fermenting crock (if you have one)
- Optional supplies that may be needed include: zip-lock plastic bags, dish towels and a wooden stamper
Basic Principles for Fermenting Success
- Have all your cooking surfaces, tools and vessels clean.
- Use non-chlorinated, filtered water.
- Don’t skimp on salt unless you’re using a starter. This will ensure negative bacteria are held at bay while your ferment gets going.
- Use fermentation weights, a fermentation crock with insert or another effective weighted system to create an anaerobic environment. Your veggies must be completely submerged under the brine and remain that way.
- Check your ferment a few times within the first 72 hours to make sure your veggies stay under the brine.
Spoilage and Kahm Yeast
Spoilage is not common. If your vegetables turn brown on top, it means they’ve been exposed to air. Scrape off the spoiled bit and push down the rest under the liquid so they can’t rise up again. If the batch is truly bad, it will smell and look awful. Some dilution in the bright colors is normal. Even a teeny bit of mold on the very top can be scraped off or removed with whatever it’s touching. Nothing bad can survive in your lactic acid brine if it’s generally going the right direction. Clean produce, knives and work surfaces, as well as non-chlorinated water will help get your batches off to the right start.
A white yeast called kahm yeast can also appear on the surface. Kahm yeast is harmless but isn’t tasty. It should be scraped off also. See more about kahm yeast here if you are worried about what you have growing. Images and information about kahm yeast and other growths will set your mind at ease or give you insight. With fermenting, the rule is: If it looks and smells awful, throw it away. Otherwise, scrape it off and add more brine or re-submerge the veggies. If you do have to wipe away a yeast or mold, sanitize the top of the jar with a small amount of food-grade alcohol, real vanilla extract or apple cider vinegar. This cleanse gets the container off to the right second start. A pleasant, sour smell is to be expected.
Fermented Vegetable Recipes —
from Basic Sauerkraut to Probiotic Vegetable Medley Pickles
The first recipe I share below is a recipe card that uses my favorite salt-based pickling brine. With it, I make Basic Sauerkraut and Probiotic Vegetable Medley Pickles (no stamping and no whey). What follows the recipe card are several other basic sauerkraut recipes and guidelines that use the stamper method. While sauerkraut usually uses the stamper method (where cabbage is pounded to release its juices), sauerkraut can more easily be made with a saltwater brine. Stamping isn’t necessary. You can read the recipes below and see which method and recipes appeal to you. The recipe card is a kind of template for using the brine method. While the recipes below it share the stamping process, they’re delicious recipes that can easily be adapted to the brine method.
Some cooks like the stamping process. It can be cathartic and feel old-fashioned in a nice way. While I enjoyed years of stamping, I do prefer the faster method! 🙂
The preparation is slightly different for making Basic Sauerkraut versus the Probiotic Vegetable Medley (veggie pickles!), but the same brine recipe is used, and overall it's the same process. I've included both guidelines in this one recipe card because the recipe is so similar when you don't stamp the cabbage for sauerkraut. Start with Step 1 to make a Probiotic Vegetable Medley or Step 3 for the Basic Sauerkraut. You can also double the brine and make both!
- 3 pounds vegetables : Choose any of your favorite seasonal vegetables, from your garden or the farmer’s market ideally, but even in the winter, good-quality market produce is fine: cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, green beans, asparagus, tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, onions, peppers, rutabaga, kale, broccoli, carrots etc. OR for sauerkraut, use 1 big head cabbage, grated or thinly sliced
- 1 quart filtered water
- 2 Tablespoons sea salt
- herbs or spices , optional
For Probiotic Vegetable Medley: Chop the vegetables into bite size pieces or long slender slices, whatever looks pleasant to you to eat and see, and depending on which vegetables you choose. Arrange them tightly in your empty clean jar(s) or fermenting crock, either decoratively or hodgepodge-style. Include optional garlic, spices and herbs as you pack them in. If you're making sauerkraut, the process is a little different: See Step 3.
Pour the brine over the vegetables to within two inches of the lid (or as high as you want for the crock). Anchor them down with extra-tight packing if you aren't using weights or an insert lid (like the one that comes with the Korean fermenting crock). Add weights or insert lid and press down as needed to release air bubbles, until the salt water level rises above your weights or insert.
For Sauerkraut: Finely shred cabbage, discarding core. Place cabbage in large bowl with water and sea salt. Stir. Cover and set aside for 30 minutes. Stir cabbage again. Re-cover and set aside for an additional 30 minutes. Pack into jars or fermenting crock of choice. Pour any remaining salted water from the large bowl over the cabbage. Press down firmly to pack tightly and remove air bubbles. Add weights or insert lid, until the saltwater level rises above your weights or insert. After 12 to 24 hours, pack cabbage down again to make sure that it is beneath the brine.
Vegetable Medley and Sauerkraut: Place the vegetables in a dark warm place for about one week, depending on the temperature of your home, until all bubbling action has ended. Optional: Transfer to your refrigerator for 3 to 4 weeks to mellow and develop the flavors before eating.
If you have extra brine leftover after your fermentation process, you can use it for various things:
Stamping Method for Sauerkraut
Specific recipes follow this method description. This method is what most kraut makers learn when first making sauerkraut. However, after years of stamping, I learned an easier method (which uses brine) which I share in the recipe above. Nonetheless, you may enjoy this old-fashioned technique, and I certainly want to share it here as a basic preparation method.
- For every quart of water and about 3 pounds of vegetables, you will need 1 to 2 tablespoons of sea salt. Fruit may also be used, especially apples, unwaxed organic lemons, and quinces … but even berries. Seaweeds such as dulse, kelp, and wakame are fun additions and add iodine as well as other minerals.
- Place two big handfuls of the veggies, about 2 cups, into your crock or bucket. Sprinkle with about 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon of sea salt. Now use your hands or a wooden mallet/stamper to squeeze or pound the vegetables. This is a slow but satisfying experience.
- As juices begin to appear, add two more handfuls of veggies and more salt. Repeat the process of squeezing or stamping.
- Depending on how much you want to make, one ½ gallon ball jar, multiple quart jars, or a big crock, continue in this manner until all the vegetables have been stamped and are swimming in a generous amount of saltwater brine. The whole squeezing or stamping process will take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, depending on how big your batch is.
- At this point feel free to add additional spices for added nutrition or flavor such as the following: juniper berries, turmeric, spirulina, mustard seeds, pickling spices, fresh ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, cumin etc. Fresh herbs, chopped dried fruit or raisins, lemon juice, or unwaxed rind, whey (not AIP), and even dried seafood may be added.
- Pack the vegetables and their juices into jars or your crock, using your clenched fist, fingers or the very handy stamper to press down firmly on the contents as you go, releasing all air.
- By the time you’ve packed your veggies to the top, the juice should rise above them by one inch and still leave two inches head space in the jar (if this is your storage container).
- The last step for some people is the trickiest, keeping the veggies DOWN. Be creative: Use folded outer cabbage leaves or grape leaves dipped in the brine; used dried fruit; use carrots sliced thinly length-wise, so they are flat and long; use a small all-glass jar perfectly fitted; use the optional ziplock bag listed above filled with saltwater; it will function as a weight (1 tsp. salt to 2 cups water), or just compact the produce so thoroughly that they don’t even think about rising up in aerobic rebellion. (The bag can be used on a plate if in the crock, if you can find one that perfectly fits the inside diameter of the crock. If in a jar, the bag is pushed down directly inside the jar and with a dishtowel draped over, no lid, till the fermentation is done. The saltwater is used in the case that the bag should break.) If using mason jars with lids, secure them, but not tightly. NOTE: To avoid the hassle of the above options, I eventually switched to this crock and these weights. However, the above options are part of sauerkraut making history and important to pass down for times when handy tools can’t be obtained.
- Now your sauerkraut or veggies are prepped. Put them in a dark, warm place, ideally around 70 degrees Fahrenheit for about a week, until the bubbles are done rising to the surface. The process can take a lot longer than a week if your home is chilly or if it gets cold each night and reheats each morning. Usually a longer fermentation works out fine. Keep checking that the veggies are under the brine and amend the situation (no worries!) if not; this is a common issue. I had one batch take four weeks to ferment because the house was so cold each night, but it still turned out great. Just make sure that the bubbles have stopped rising and the fermentation action has ceased before moving the product to refrigeration. If the fermentation process is stopped short, the bubbling will continue in your stomach.
- Lastly, when the kraut is done, move it to the fridge. Most sources recommend leaving it to mellow for three weeks before eating it. But waiting is optional at this point. Keep in mind that each new recipe will be a knock-your-socks-off experience, taste-wise. Feel adventurous before taking the first bite!
Basic Traditional Sauerkraut — Stamper Method
Any of the below recipes can be made with brine, instead of salt plus stamping.
- 1 big head cabbage
- 2 tablespoons sea salt
- Caraway seeds, 1 Tablespoon (optional)
- Wash the cabbage. Shred it by hand with a knife or a food processor.
- Place in bucket with sea salt and mix well. Leave for 15 to 30 minutes (optional), to allow juices to begin to exude.
- Use stamper or clenched fist to pound and press the cabbage. This may take a full 5 to 10 minutes, until the juices are flowing well.
- Pack the cabbage into your jar(s), layering caraway seeds or other spices you may like (mustard, celery seed, coriander, bay leaf etc).
- Pack the cabbage down tightly so that all air is pressed out and the brine rises above the vegetable.
- Put the lid on, and screw down loosely, allowing natural gases to escape.
- Place the jar(s) on a plate or pan, lined with a dishtowel or rag. Keep in a dark cupboard, preferably somewhat warm, or on top of a warm fridge, covered loosely with a dishtowel for darkness, for one week.
- When the fermentation bubbles have stopped rising to the surface, transfer the jar(s) to your fridge. If the bubbles are still active, wait, as this stage could cause gas in your gut. Once refrigerated, wait 3 to 4 weeks before dipping in. I have had my fruit and vegetable concoctions take as long as one month to complete their fermentation because of our cold home temperatures during the nights, so be patient if necessary.
Variation- Russian Sauerkraut Ingredients
- Use the head of cabbage, sea salt and caraway shown in the master recipe (above). But also add 3 carrots, 1 grated beet and fresh or dried dill.
- Follow the master sauerkraut recipe, stamping the carrots and beets at the same time as the cabbage and adding the dill, to taste, with the caraway.
- 1 big head cabbage, grated
- 1-2 apples, sliced thinly or chopped
- ½ onion, sliced
- fresh lemon juice from one whole lemon and/or grated rind of 1 organic lemon or thin slices of 1 whole lemon
- 1 Tablespoon dried thyme or a sprig of fresh thyme into each jar
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- Sea salt
- Follow the master sauerkraut recipe, stamping the apples and onions with the cabbage. Add the allspice to the brined vegetables and mix. Layer the lemon slices, if using, with the thyme. Alternately, mix the lemon juice or rind with the cabbage mixture and allspice before packing it into jars.
Note: I love lemon in the krauts, salty lemon … it’s a new flavor experience; so be open-taste-budded and let yourself acquire a taste for this sophisticated treat!
How Much Sauerkraut Should You Eat?
For sensitive systems, like those starting out the GAPS Intro diet, start with only half a teaspoon of the fermented vegetable juice. Otherwise, eat a minimum of 1 teaspoon fermented vegetables with every meal, three times a day. Or enjoy a fermented dairy product or probiotic beverage with breakfast and save fermented veggies for lunch and dinner. Eat up to a quarter cup of the vegetables at each meal, for optimum health benefits.
For those with SIBO or histamine intolerance (also called histamine overload), introduction of probiotics needs to be very slow to prevent exacerbation of symptoms. A tiny, safe dose for most with SIBO is to start with a single strand of sauerkraut daily or at each meal. I personally followed this protocol for both SIBO and histamine intolerance with success. Do not hurry. I took nine months at this dose before very gradually increasing.
And some of you have asked me what to eat with sauerkraut! 🙂 Here are 10+ Ways to Use Sauerkraut.
Below are images of my favorite fermenting tools. First is my favorite crock. It does SUCH a good job of pushing all of the air out, ensuring success (no kahm yeast!) Also pictured are my favorite weights for fermenting in wide mouth mason jars.