Fermentation and lacto-fermentation have been around for a very long time mainly as a means to preserve food over long periods of time when refrigeration wasn’t available. Today more and more people are rediscovering those old methods of preserving food because the taste is amazing, but also because it’s a great way to consume probiotics.
Lacto-fermented foods are fermented by lactobacillus bacteria, which is a category of beneficial bacteria that feeds on sugar and that produces lactic acid as a byproduct. This is why lacto-fermented foods taste acidic.
Just about any vegetables and even fruits can be lacto-fermented, but fruits will need much less fermentation time as they contain much more sugar. You can play around and try all sorts of funky combinations to discover some amazing tastes. Spices and herbs are also often used extensively to give an even greater flavor to the final product. For example, sour pickles are often flavored with dill, garlic and a combination of pickling spices. Some examples of pickling spices are bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, whole peppercorns, coriander seeds and mustard seeds. A popular variation of sauerkraut (lacto-fermented cabbage) is made with apples and Juniper berries.
General guidelines for lacto-fermentation
Even though the whole process might seem long and complex, fermenting food at home takes nothing but a few basic instruments and ingredients. At its basis, most lacto-fermented foods are nothing more than whole, chopped, sliced or grated vegetables placed in a brine of salt and water for a period of time at room temperature to let the beneficial bacteria develop. The important thing to keep in mind is that the vegetables should stay submerged all along to prevent mold from forming. Lactobacillus bacteria is a facultative anaerobic category of bacteria, meaning that it doesn’t need oxygen for energy production.
If you decide to chop, slice or grate your vegetables, you should add salt as you place the cut vegetables in your chosen fermentation vessel and pound everything heavily with your fists or with a potato masher to break up the vegetables, release their juices and to eliminate any pocket of air that may form. When using whole vegetables, like with sour pickles, you’ll simply place them in your vessel and submerge them with a brine.
You’ll probably come across a lot of recipes calling for fresh whey as a starter for the ferment, but simply using salt gives out the same desired result. Whey is only a way to bring more lactobacillus bacteria right at the beginning of the process, but that desired bacteria is already present on the surface of the vegetables you’re fermenting and will multiply fast enough when given the opportunity.
You don’t have to use much salt either and in fact you could even ferment food without salt, but using at least some salt prevents undesired bacteria from gaining power over the lactobacillus. Using salt also helps the vegetables stay crunchy and helps draw water out of the vegetables. This extracted water can then act as the liquid for the brine. The quantity of salt to use is up to you, but 3 tablespoons per 5 pounds of vegetables is a good ratio to follow.
As an alternative to salt, you can also use a Kefir culture. These will create kefir kraut and will add extra probiotics, but they are not necessary at all when using salt. As yet another alternative to salt, seaweeds are also a great choice as they are high in sodium. Seaweeds are also packed full of micro-nutrients and are a great source of much needed iodine.
The other very important element is the fermentation vessel. You’ll want to choose a large ceramic or glass jar where you can fit a cap or plate on top to be able to press on the vegetables and keep them under the brine at all times. In any case, you’ll probably want to press on the cap or plate by putting a rock or a jug of water on top. The salt will continue to extract water from the vegetables several hours after you put them in the fermentation vessel, but you should verify that the liquid covers your vegetables the following day and add water if it’s not the case. Some mold can also form on the surface after some time in the form of a white film, but it’s usually not a problem and removing it as best as you can is good enough. It’s also a good idea to place the chosen fermentation pot or jar on a plate or thick towel as the ferment usually expands and spills can happen.
Some special ceramic pots (like the fermentation crocks we sell) are designed especially for lacto-fermentation and to keep the vegetables under the brine at all times with special stones, they are also salt glazed meaning you can add less salt. Our fermentation Crocks also have a special lipped top to collect any water that spills out from the container. These pots make fermentation much easier.
The fermentation time will vary based on a lot of factors: temperature, starter used, quantity of salt, and nature of the vegetable or fruit. The best way to go about it when trying original combinations is to taste it along the process and to go with the taste as the best indicator. When it tastes acidic enough for your liking, it’s ready to be enjoyed and placed in the refrigerator to stop the fermentation. Taste it after 3 days, then taste it 3 days later and so on. The finished product will keep for months when stored in the refrigerator.