Lacto-Fermentation: A Healthier & More Sustainable Way to Preserve

This post was originally published on July 16, 2010. Written by Shannon of Nourishing Days.

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 Lacto-Fermentation 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 of Lacto-Fermentation

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 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 notahipster

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. I also do sauerkraut this way. It is an easy way to make it without having a big stinky pot in the kitchen.
    To make it:
    Shred cabbage and put loosely pack into a sterile quart jar.
    Add 1 tsp of salt and 1 tsp of sugar
    Pour boiling water over the top, leave head space
    Put lid on and put it in a cool dark place for 6 months
    Enjoy!

  2. I really appreciate your help Aimee, in sharing this brilliant idea on how to ferment vegetables. for a healthy source. this will help me and my family a lot. i hope that someday you can come up with recipes regarding on vegetarian dishes.
    Celine @ Travel Wisconsin’s last post: tavor

  3. We have begun preserving this way and it is super easy and tastes so good. The salsa is great. We have ginger carrots in the fridge now that we need to try.

  4. Wow…this is really new to me, and looks so easy. Do you have to let the vegetables sit for a while before eating, and how long will they last this way? I assume you are not going to get a seal on your can as in canning, so you would leave the ring on?

    I started canning a couple weeks ago thanks to your posts, and I love it, but I have lots of vegetables, and canning didn’t seem the way to go for me. I would like to try this.

  5. Carol Ohime says:

    OK…I am sure everyone else will know the answer to this but please help..when you say move to cold storage do you mean to move it to the fridge…and if so how in the world do I make salsa for the winter months using this method? We live in Indiana and do not have a basement as we live on the lake so a celler is not something people around here. I grew up in Michigan ..way up north ..and there we had a room in the basement that never got above 50degrees.
    Thanks
    Carol

    • Hi Carol,

      I do mean a refrigerator (or a root cellar, if you have it). I make most of my salsa in September with the last of the tomatoes and then store a few gallons in our refrigerator. I also store sauerkraut and a few other ferments by the gallons. These ferments do take up about half of my refrigerator (at least) through the winter months, but then again I don’t keep a lot of fresh produce in their during the winter anyway. Just some dairy, condiments, thawing meats, and odds and ends.
      Shannon’s last post: Real Food Meets Real Life: Getting Through Morning Sickness

  6. I am also curious how cold it needs to be to be considered cold storage? I have been wanting to do this since last year but don’t know if our storage room in the basement would be cool enough as every blog I have read says they have had theirs in the fridge.

  7. I have heard of using grape leaves but where do you find them and do they have to be a particular type? I live in southwest MI and there are a lot of vineyards in the area, could they be my source? Thank you for posting this for I am new at preserving and canning.

  8. I just made the cortido! Thanks for this post – looking forward to trying more.
    Amber DeGrace’s last post: The Netherlands: Let Us Talk About Love

  9. So this is good to keep veggies for 6 months but not longer? Any longer and you would have to do the boiling method?

  10. For the salsa recipe, do you think I could replace the lemons with limes? I’m a big fan of limes in my salsa.

    I’m excited to try this out. I’ve always wanted to can my salsa but everyone told me I would need to boil and use a preservative. Yuck! Too much work!

    Thanks for this post.

  11. I am really interested in trying the salsa. We go through A LOT of salsa in my family…like at least 2 quarts/week. My husband hasn’t really enjoyed any kind of fermented anything (except beer), so I am looking forward to trying the salsa. I eat a lot of kimchi and my daughter loves fermented pickles and green/wax beans.
    Heather’s last post: weekend

  12. I’m a little confused…everything I’ve read has said to leave the fermenting veggies covered with cheesecloth for long periods until well done. Have I been making more work for myself attempting it that way, and does this work with all veggies?

    • Kat – I don’t think there is any one way to ferment veggies. Much of the timing of fermentation is completely dependent on the temperature at which they are being fermented. That is why sauerkraut done in a crock in a root cellar or basement can take a couple of weeks to be ready whereas doing it in a 75 degree kitchen would only take a few days.
      Shannon’s last post: Real Food Meets Real Life: Getting Through Morning Sickness

  13. Hi ! I’m interested in the recipe for the top pic, is it radish?

  14. I haven’t tried lacto-fermentation, but I’m very much willing to try it! Thank you for sharing those delicious recipe. Those are really must try recipes. )
    Jen@Best Electric Cigarettes’s last post: Smoketip Review

  15. I have not tried this method but will. My only concern is I don’t have much extra refrigerator space. Do you have a 2nd one that you devote to this?

  16. Tried the salsa, and I pack all the veggies down, and then cover with water, but the chunks of tomato and onion float up to the top, which makes it unsafe, correct? Things have to be totally submerged to safely ferment, right? What am I doing wrong? I tried packing down everything after I put water in also, but that didn’t help either. :(

    • Angie – This is one of the trickiest parts, for me. It is possible that your veggies can poke a little above the brine and still be safe… at least in my experience. I have often taken a jam jar lid and placed it inside of my wide mouth canning jars to weight the veggies down.

      Another option I have seen is placing a plastic bag in the jar atop of the veggies + liquid. Then fill the plastic bag with water and it should conform to the top of the jar and weight down the veggies.
      Shannon’s last post: Real Food Meets Real Life: Getting Through Morning Sickness

  17. Thanks for the information about preserving Shannon. I also haven’t tried this, but we usually just put it on a tupperware. Have you heard about kimchi? It’s a Korean appetizer and it is fermented inside large jars(the traditional one). But nowadays, they don’t do that anymore. The longer it ferments, the better it tasted day by day. I want to try to make the salsa because it looks really nice.
    Skye’s last post: cheap car insurance

  18. When you talk about adding whey, are you talking about the liquid whey left over from making cheese or a powdered, purchased product? I have canned using this process before but have never used the whey.

  19. This is a great post and will definitely try this next time I’m preserving season’s produce!
    Maria @ Scandifoodie’s last post: Yellow & Green + Broccoli tartlets

  20. Do you know if this works in a foodsafe plastic container or a stainless. Steel container?
    Great website lots of cool stuff.

  21. Ooo….that salsa recipe sounds really good. I always buy a bunch of tortilla chips and run out of salsa before I finish them. I’m going to try this recipe along with the cucumber pickling one. I’ve never pickled anything though..hope it’ll go well~
    Claudia’s last post: Disney Costumes

  22. Quick question: What exactly is the “whey” you use in the recipe? I know whey is the liquid that separates from yogurt and Bob’s Red Mill sells whey protein concentrate in a powder form. What do you use? Thanks!

    • This is the liquid whey that you get when you strain yogurt to make yogurt cheese. You just simply place a container of plain yogurt in a strainer, lined with a tea towel, cover, set over a bowl to catch the whey. Place it in the fridge for 8 hours and you will have a sour cream and if you leave it for 24 hours or more you now have a cream cheese and PLENTY of liquid whey. :) Oh and if you don’t have a tea towel you can use a clean white cotton t-shirt or several unbleached coffee filters fanned out to cover your strainer. Hope this helps.

  23. Wow! I just finished some canning and this seems much simpler. Did it take your family a while to get use to the taste of the fermentation?

  24. Kathleen K says:

    Our family has enjoyed lacto-fermented foods for several years now. I didn’t realize the reason Nourishing Traditions had the grape leaves in some of the recipes–now we’ll include them for the crunch!

    For those who are debating lacto-fermentation vs canning: These are two different processes with two different results. Lacto-fermentation is a raw food with live enzymes. It is great for digestion and filling your digestive tract with essential probiotics. Canning cooks the food at high temps for a long time. There is nourishment in the food still, but not the same kind.

    With both lacto-fermentation and canning, use common sense. If it doesn’t look good, smell good, or taste good, DO NOT EAT IT. Spoilage can and does occur and can make you very ill. Find reliable recipes and follow them exactly until you have experience and then you can deviate and become creative.

  25. lukey dukey says:

    i make ricotta at home. would this be the same living whey or am i killing it by heating the milk and acid to 170F? Esentially pasteurizing the whey.

  26. I also enjoy making ferments and I choose not to use whey in vegetables because I have friends and family who are allergic to milk. I have also been told that the texture is softer/more mushy with whey. I find that an extra 1-3 teaspoons (3 t=1T) salt make the whey unnecessary. The amount depends on the quantity of what you are making as well as what it is and whether it will benefit from more salt. Taste it and don’t go past the amount that tastes good to you. Whey is actually used as a “starter”to give some bacteria to your ferment at the beginning as a “booster”, so it really isn’t necessary. However if you want the reassurance without the milk product, just pour in a little juice from your sauerkraut or other ferment. If you use whey, people with milk intolerance or allergies cannot eat your ferment. Enjoy. There’s nothing quite like your own home fermented vegetables!

  27. Wow, that was an interesting read ! lol, but good information. I have a “Sustainable living site” and one of the things we encourage is growing your own organic Vegetables, either in a “regular garden” or an Aquaponics system( a food productions system that incorporates the growing of fish and vegetables) I was searching for various ways to preserve the vegetables because wow with the aquaponics system, we’re really getting a whole lot more and quicker that we had anticipated.
    I’m glad I found this site, a lot of good, although a bit scary receipies
    Thanks for shareing

  28. We’re lactofermenting some asparagus right now, and the lid of the mason jar is getting pushed up and bent from all of the gas. We let the air out once, and it’s already happened again. Does this happen to you? Is there anything you can do, short of buying an airlock setup? Thanks!

  29. Just a quick note, it makes you sound really stupid to say in one sentence that it takes zero energy and in the next sentence that you store them in your fridge for six months. I suppose my neighbours in their 1949 built house with a cold storage room could make excellent use of this practice but for most people it would entail a great deal of energy for safe cool storage.

    It’s like saying your pineapples have zero carbon footprint because you walked to the store to buy them in January.

    Otherwise, it looks like a nice way to make some great salsa, and store garden veggies for the one house in a thousand nationwide with a root cellar or cold storage that doesnt take electricity.

    I’ll buy the health benefits of natural fermentation over pasteurization & prepared foods.. Kimchi is awesome stuff too….

    I don’t really find the idea of having to “burp” my canning every little while too appealing…

  30. For how many days we can preserve ?

  31. Hi thanks for your post. I’m looking forward to trying out the salsa. About the 2-3days its supposed to sit at room temperature…I live in Malaysia where room temperatures can reach 90 degrees plus easily. Do you think I’d only need to let it sit a day since the temperature is so much higher? Or is it even safe to try fermenting at such warm temperatures?

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