Pickling is the common method that comes to mind when people think of preserving vegetables for later in the year. If what also comes to mind are pots of liquid boiling over, hot metal, broken glass and sweating in a 100-degree kitchen, then you must have been around when my grandmother pickled her summer vegetables every year. There must be an easier way, right? Fermenting takes all the hassle out of preserving your summer garden, and it also has many health benefits over pickling.
The boiling liquid used in the pickling process is meant to kill germs. Along with killing those bad germs, though, it also kills nutrients and all the good germs. The good germs I’m talking about are those same bacteria found in yogurt. Digestive enzymes and probiotics that are touted for health benefits today were actually used for thousands of years by our ancestors to preserve their harvests and maintain health.
The simple combination of salt and vegetables create an environment where these healthy bacteria grow and thrive. The process is called lacto-fermentation. It does not involve any dairy, as the lacto part would imply, but instead refers to the natural lactic acid production that takes place during the fermentation process.
“Wild Fermentation” and “The Art of Fermentation,” both by Sandor Ellix Katz, explain the history and health benefits of the fermentation process. These books also explain the science behind fermentation and provide great recipes. If you want to start fermenting, then start with the purchase of these books.
Through my explorations in fermentation, I have learned a few useful tricks that apply to any vegetables you want to ferment.
• Firmer vegetables ferment the best. Think cabbage, cauliflower, radishes and root vegetables. Cucumbers are actually one of the hardest vegetables to ferment.
• Cut off any browning or bad parts of the vegetable: This can turn the whole batch bad.
• If you think your vegetables are too soft, then adding grape or mesquite leaves to the jar help in maintaining crispness.
• Cold stops the fermentation process. Fermented foods will last refrigerated for one to six months. If they’re still crunchy — you can still eat ’em!
• Vegetables must be completely submerged in the salt brine. Anything sticking out above the water may mold or rot, ruining your batch.
• Bubbles are good! That is the natural bacteria doing its work. If you don’t like the carbonation taste that accompanies some fermented foods, then once your vegetables are in the refrigerator, crack the lid of the jar for a few hours to release the CO2 trapped inside, and then continue to enjoy.
Fermenting is so easy — simply salt and vegetables — and you can experiment in many ways. For me, that is what makes fermenting so fun. Throw whatever you want in the jar and see how the vegetables turn out. Fresh herbs, whole gloves of garlic, or cinnamon sticks work well. Also, try using different vegetables, such as daikon radish or fennel. I’ve included two of my never-fail fermentation recipes that can be used as a foundation for experimentation or on their own.
Whether you find yourself with an overabundance of summer produce this harvest season, or you just want to enjoy your hard work later in the year, preserving your garden vegetables through fermentation will cover all the bases.