Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - the Process, the Benefits

Fermenting is something that has been done for a very long time and is considered to be one of the oldest methods of food preservation.  Due to its health benefit's, fermented foods are making a resurgence in many forms such as vegetables, live yogurt, kefir, cheese, sourdough bread and kombucha, to name a few.  I could certainly buy many so called fermented foods but a lot of them have the health benefits added back in rather than having the live healthy bacteria.  For me, although I sometimes buy yogurt with live bacteria I have decided that making my own fermented cabbage and other vegetables from my garden was an economic, easy way for me to consume fermented foods that are nutrient dense and good for me

What is fermenting? 

Most people are familiar with sauerkraut.  Sauerkraut or fermented cabbage, is made by adding salt to extract the water and then allowing it to sit to allow beneficial bacteria to preserve the cabbage.  But in addition, fermentation defined as "a metabolic process that produces chemical changes in organic substrates through the action of enzymes." is also used "for preservation in a process that produces lactic acid found in such sour foods as pickled cucumbers, kombucha, kimchi, and yogurt, as well as for producing alcoholic beverages such as wine and beer.". 

But for fermenting my garden vegetables, it employs a process called lacto-fermentation.  As described in this Healthline.com article What is Lacto-fermentation?, "Lacto-fermentation is the process by which bacteria break down the sugars in foods and form lactic acid." and goes on to say that "the simplest method of lacto-fermentation is to submerge a food that naturally contains lactic acid bacteria, such as cabbage or cucumber, into a brine of water and salt.".

By using a salt brine and keeping the vegetables under the brine, the article What is lacto-fermentation? goes on to further say that "During lacto-fermentation, lactic acid bacteria break down carbs into lactic acid and carbon dioxide. This creates an acidic, low-oxygen environment that encourages the growth of good bacteria and prevents the growth of other microorganisms." making it a convenient and inexpensive way of preserving my garden vegetables.

However, because fermenting will continue to progress unless it is kept cool, cabbage and other vegetables will eventually break down or become so strong so as to be unpalatable, it is not a great method for super long term storage.  And for this reason, canning will always be used in addition to fermentation in my kitchen.  I have had ferments last in the fridge for 9 months but have read reports of certain ferments, like carrots, lasting over a year.  The "shelf life"  of fermented food is dependent on what foods are being fermented and the temperatures under which they are stored.

With the live bacteria that is ever present in fermented foods, this is why you never see truly fermenting foods on the store shelves, other than yogurt.  At least I have never seen it.  Yes, I have seen foods that were fermented to give it the flavor of a fermented food, but it further undergoes a process of pasteurization or canning as guided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to take it over 160 F(71 C) to make it shelf stable and extend it's shelf life.  As explained in this USDA report Processing and Safety, "Some very sensitive species die rapidly at a temperature of 120 F (49 C)" and that "lactic acid bacteria used in vegetable fermentations, are readily destroyed by heating to 160 F (71 C)" but in doing so, as the Healthline.com article What is lacto-fermentation? explains, "Some fermented foods are pasteurized after fermentation, which kills all live bacteria and allows for a longer storage time. However, these foods don’t provide the health benefits of live bacteria cultures.".

Health benefits of fermenting

Although eating a small amount of fermented foods at every meal is optimal, by eating even just a forkful of fermented cabbage and other vegetables once a day the health benefits are great.  As the Healthline.com What is lacto-fermentation? explains "fermented foods like dairy, sauerkraut, and olives are rich sources of living bacteria. These bacteria may contribute to health in a manner similar to that of probiotics, supporting gut and immune function." and goes on to further explain that "Lacto-fermentation may increase the nutrient availability of foods, improve heart and brain health, and have anti-inflammatory, cancer-fighting, immune-boosting, antidiabetic, and anti-obesity benefits.".

By making a ferment from vegetables picked fresh with nutrient levels at their peak I feel that I can maximize the health benefits of the fermented cabbage and other vegetables I am consuming.  For as  "These microbes act as probiotics, supporting gut health.", as explained in Medical News Today, "the benefits of fermented foods may include treating or reducing the symptoms of Clostridium difficile (a bacterial infection), diarrhea due to antibiotics, infectious diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease" .  But also goes on to further say that "Weaker evidence suggests that beneficial gut bacteria may play a broader role in overall health. Probiotic-rich foods, such as fermented products, might reduce the symptoms of numerous conditions, including depression, urinary tract infections, osteoporosis, respiratory health issues, hormonal disorders, kidney and liver dysfunction, diabetes, cavities and gingivitis".

Ferment consumption experiment

It is one thing to read the research, of which I have only highlighted a couple, but it is a totally different matter when you apply it personally.  So in the summer of 2021, after researching the months before, I decided that I would ferment myself a number of jars of vegetables and cabbage (sauerkraut).  I used a crock to ferment my cabbage and odd shaped glass jars to ferment the vegetables and greens.  After the ferment was done, I put the sauerkraut in jars and stored the fermented vegetables, fermented greens and fermented cabbage in the fridge, deciding that I would faithfully consume one forkful at least once a day.  And I did just that.  A couple months into it, I started to notice subtle changes.  Obviously in the gut department but also in how I felt overall.  I did not go to the doctor before hand to do any type of blood work nor did I go after eating fermented foods and so I can not supply you with a list of how things changed.  But I can say that I felt better, nothing specific, I just overall felt better.  I don't know if it had anything to do with eating the fermented cabbage and fermented vegetables or not, but during that time, restaurant food like pizza tasted like tin, were super sweet and just not an enjoyable experience.

So when I ran out of lacto-fermented vegetables in late winter, I continued to eat my fermented yogurt I bought or made myself, but that was about it.  I thought it would be interesting to see how I felt after a while of not eating the fermented cabbage and fermented vegetables so for next couple months I did not consume any fermented vegetables.  And as expected, gut department returned to what it was prior to this experiment and I went back to feeling the same as I did prior to consuming the first forkful.  And that pizza, it no longer tasted tinny or sweet,  although it still makes me tired.

Do I think that eating foods that have been preserved by fermentation are making a difference in my overall health? Well, the science says that it is making things easier to digest which is being confirmed by people who feed their chickens fermented grains such as Homesteading Family where they explore How to Ferment Chicken Feed for Cheaper Healthier Chickens.  Therefore, it would make sense to me that the same would hold true in application to myself.  Additionally,  being that it is widely known that gut health is central for all things in your body and that I did experience a subtle change in how I felt while consuming fermented vegetables, I can only deduce that full time consumption will only serve to continue with the health benefits. The trick will be to ensure that I ferment enough vegetables to ensure a full year supply. 

However, as I explored in In the garden - When Garden Planning does Not go as Planned, my 2022 garden is not the best so I may end up having to buy some organic grown vegetables from the store and farmer's market to complete my supply of ferments.  But for now, I will make what I can from the garden, starting with a fermented tomato salsa.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables with fermented tomato salsa

How do I ferment vegetables

Fermenting vegetables can be as simple as packing clean organic vegetables into a jar and adding a salt brine made from a good salt that does not contain anti caking agents or iodine.  I could use my pickling salt, but I prefer to use Redmond Real Salt for the extra minerals it contains.  The water used is important as well as you do not want to use water containing chlorine because the chlorine in the water will kill off the bacteria necessary for the lacto-fermentation process.  As I explored in Canning Water...Yes, Water! - Reusing odd shaped jars I use either a distilled water or bottled reverse osmosis water for my ferments, drinking and canning.

But with certain vegetables, like cabbage, the water content is quite high and simply by adding salt to the chopped vegetables and massaging the vegetables, the salt will extract enough water that making a separate brine is not necessary.  Although I like sauerkraut, I like to use mixed vegetables in my ferments so I find that I am doing a combination of both of theses methods, dependent on what I have for vegetables in the jar.

The container in which you ferment the vegetables can be whatever you have on hand.  It can be a crock but you do have to put the ferment into a jar of some sort for storage after it is done fermenting.  You can use odd shaped glass jars and although you do have to "burp" the jars daily to release the carbon dioxide that is released during active fermentation, it is a relatively minor inconvenience and involves simply loosening the lid slightly and then retightening after it has been "burped".  But it works well.  .Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables in odd shaped glass jars

Or you can buy a couple different tops for your canning jars that allow for the carbon dioxide created during the fermenting process to be released on its own.  No burping required.  After researching a couple of them including the air lock fermenting system as explored in the article 9 TOP Fermentation Lids for Mason Jar Fermentation [HOW AIRLOCKS WORK], I decided on the glass pickle pebble and pickle pipes as sold by Masontops.com.  I liked this system because it would allow me to use the pickle pebble to hold vegetables down inside odd shaped glass jars, thereby affording me a bit more flexibility.  But at the same time, if I wanted to use them on my wide mouth jars I could use the complete system.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - pickle pebble and pipe

Picking vegetables for the ferment

With my jars, pickle pipes and pickle pebbles washed and rinsed (no need to sterilize unless you want long term storage), I went out to the garden to decide on what vegetables I was going to ferment.  I like to think about how the ferment will taste and the health benefits of what I will be using in deciding on the vegetables and greens to use.  For today's ferment I decided to harvest a cabbage, some purple top turnips, some less than pretty cauliflower of which I will use the leaves as well and some common purslane for the health benefits it provides as I explored in Common Purslane AKA Portulaca (Portulaca Oleracea) - Benefits and Control of Purslane weed.  For extra flavor and health benefits, I will add some sweet basil and garlic.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - garden vegetables

Vegetable prep 

After a thorough washing and peeling the vegetables it was time to start chopping everything.  I took the roots off of the common purslane prior to doing a rough chop on it.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - common purslane

I peeled the purple top turnip and cut it into slivers to add some "crunch" to the ferment.  The common purslane was also rough chopped.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - turnip and common purslane

The cauliflower was broken into little pieces and the leaves were saved.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - cauliflower

The cauliflower leaves were then rough chopped and everything was added to the bowl.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - chopped cauliflower leaves

The main ingredient of this ferment will be the whole head of cabbage.  It will not only add to the texture, flavor and health benefits of the ferment, it will add much needed water so that I do not have to make up additional brine. A rough chop was done on the cabbage and added to the bowl.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - chopped cabbage

And last, but certainly not least, was the addition of 3 cloves of garlic and a handful of fresh picked sweet basil leaves.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - basil and garlic

With all the fresh vegetables, greens and herbs in the bowl the prep was now complete and the next stages of making the ferment can proceed.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - combined vegetables

Adding salt to the ferment

Deciding what to use for vegetables was the easy part for me.  But deciding how much salt to use to ensure a successful ferment is the tough part.  Too little salt and the lacto-fermentation process would not happen and too much salt and I would not be able to eat it and/or the lacto-fermentation process would not happen either.  Although the research varies, the range for salinity is 0.8% to 5% with the average recommended being in the 1.5% - 2% range as explored in the article Fermenting for foodies.  I had even seen where the recommendation was made to have the vegetable mildly salty.  Although that somewhat works for cabbage, it is a little tougher for other vegetables and being it is such a relative term, I wanted to have something more specific.

When I am fermenting cabbage I have read recommendations of 1 tablespoon per medium head of cabbage, a relative term, and recently ran across one article, How to make Sauerkraut in a jar, that recommended 1 tablespoon per 1 3/4 pounds of cabbage. I found some research that suggested 1 - 3 tablespoons of salt per quart of water and other's that recommended 1 - 2 teaspoon for each cup of water.  So many suggestions and in trying them out, a few ferments just did not work.  But all part of the learning process.

At the end of the day, the ratio that I found worked best for me was 1 -2 teaspoons of salt per cup of water.  If the vegetables were drier I would use 1 teaspoon of salt and if water content of the vegetables was higher I would use 2 teaspoons of salt per cup of water.  And since doing this, things have worked out better for me.  Unless I am making a ferment that contained cabbage.

Because cabbage contains so much water, the amount of salt required to maintain the average 1.5 - 2% salinity needs to be more because the salt content will get watered down and thereby affect the lacto-fermentation process.  So keeping the 1 tablespoon per head in mind I had decided that for my ferment I would use 2 1/2 to 3 tablespoons of salt.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - adding salt

But I also decided to determine what percentage of salt I had and decided to weigh everything in grams.  As this article, Salt by Weight for Delicious Sauerkraut… Batch after Batch, explored every tablespoon of salt has a different weight and a tablespoon can be different from one set to another.  And so determining the amount of salt by weight is a more accurate method to ensure success. But being that I wanted to determine how I was doing I decided to measure everything and determine the percentages from what I added after I finished the project.

I weighed the vegetables and determined them to be 2236 grams.  To my bowl of vegetables I then added 2 1/2 tablespoons of salt and proceeded to massage the mixture with the salt.  After massaging a bit, I let it rest for about 1/2 hour which gave the salt time to extract the water from the cabbage and so I don't have to pack as much when packing the jars.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - massaging cabbage

Packing the ferment

Once I finished massaging the vegetables, I then pack the ferment into two, quart sized wide mouth jars.  It can be packed fairly tightly but when you have different vegetables, getting a good pack on the vegetables is more difficult and so I settle on a medium to tight pack in the jar.  I don't want it packed super tight either as I want the brine around the vegetables as well.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - packing jars

When the ferment is put into the jars I will assess whether there is enough liquid to have the vegetables covered by water.  I thought I was a little shy on the amount of water so I mixed up a brine of 1 teaspoon of salt to 1 cup of water and topped the jars off a wee bit.  I know better than to add the pickle pebble before the extra brine, but as usual, I added the brine and then the pickle pebble.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - adding pickle pebble

I would not have to use the pickle pebble to hold the vegetables down as things like carrot sticks, a whole cabbage leaf or a bag filled with marbles can be used.  As long as the brine can flow from underneath and cover everything whilst holding down the vegetables, it will work. I do like these pickle pebble for ease of use, but I have also used leaves as Carolyn from Homesteading family illustrates in her making sauerkraut video How To Make Your Own Lacto-Fermented Sauerkraut.

Because the salt will draw out more moisture from the vegetables and some bubbling will occur, I took a little liquid off and removed any "floaters" that were present.  Removing the "floaters" is an important step as you don't want anything floating that will have a chance to mold. Once that is complete, I then gave the rim a wipe and put on the pickle pipe, securing in place with a wide mouth band.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - pickle pipe attachment

I then placed the jars on a dinner plate and placed on my kitchen counter out of direct sunlight.  The plate is there to save a mess on the counter should more liquid come out and spill over.  And because I added the extra liquid, I had quite a bit of liquid come out of the ferment.  No big deal, I just drained a bit off and reattached the pickle pipe.  I will let it sit for a least a week, but may go longer depending on how it tastes during the fermenting process.  You could also just leave it for a shorter time if you don't like it too sour.  After a week of fermenting, the vegetables had definitely changed.Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - one week old ferment

Kahm yeast and fermentation

During the fermenting process, depending on the vegetables being used, the ferment may develop a white substance on the top of the ferment called Kahm yeast.  As the article What is Kahm yeast & is Kahm yeast safe? explains, "Kahm yeast is not a type of mold, but rather an aerobic yeast that forms when the sugar is used up and the PH of the ferment drops because of the lactic acid formation. Certain vegetables are more prone to getting kahm yeast, particularly if they are sweeter like beets, carrots, and peppers. It tends to form more often on open-air ferments, when the temperature is too warm, or in a low salt brine.".  But bottom line is that it is not harmful to you or the ferment and simply removing it, as best as possible, will ensure that your ferment remains in good shape and good for you.

Once the fermenting slows down or it is soured enough to my taste, I will take the pickle pipe off and place a solid lid on the jar and place in the fridge or cool place.  Although the lactic acid producing bacteria (primarily the Lactobacillus genus) will slow down in the cool temperatures, the ferment will remain shelf stable for up to about a year but will experience subtle flavor changes as the fermentation process continues.

Salt by weight for my ferment

As the article Salt by Weight for Delicious Sauerkraut… Batch after Batch identifies, determining salt by weight is "the most reliable and consistent way to determine the right amount of salt to use in any given batch of sauerkraut and allows you to effortlessly make any sized batch of sauerkraut.".  Being I wanted to know how my salt estimation of 2 1/2 tablespoons of salt I used in this ferment panned out, I weighed everything during the process.

The bowl of vegetables I prepared weighed 2236 grams, which at a 2% salinity would equate to 44.72 grams of salt.  I added 2 1/2 tablespoons of salt  which weighed in at 45 grams,  just slightly higher than the calculated weight of salt required.  The brine I made up, was made up of 1 cup of water weighing in at 247.5 grams which at 2% salinity would equate to 4.95 grams of salt.  As I added 1 teaspoon of salt to the water weighing in at 8 grams, my salinity for the water was more like 4%.  However, when combined together the salt percentage will be less.

After the calculation of total salt by weight divided by the total weight of vegetables, water and salt, the percentage of salt in this ferment is approximately 2.1%.  I am happy with that.  Now to wait until it finishes fermenting so that I can enjoy the taste and health benefits of the fermented cabbage and other vegetables.

Final thoughts about fermenting

I really like the idea that I am eating nutrient dense foods that through fermenting add some additional health benefits.  Luckily, I have only had two ferments not go as planned thus far and I took the opportunity to learn from it and develop my fermenting skills.  But I also realize I have a lot of things to learn. 

After recently attending the School of Traditional Skills summit, I have decided to attend the online school to develop my existing skills and learn some new ones. If you are interested in learning about this school and what it has to offer, be sure to check out www.schooloftraditionalskills.com.   One of the traditional skills I will be developing, and offered by the school, is my fermenting skills.  Within the school, Lisa Bass from Farmhouse on Boone teaches an in depth class into fermenting that is sure to answer any questions I may have.  But in addition, her blog and specifically the article Lacto-fermentation: A Guide To Fermenting Vegetables, offers another great resource for anyone wanting to start their own ferment.  

Developing the necessary skills not only takes research, but it takes doing.  And so this weekend I made up two more ferments from the last of the garden to add to the collection.  Gracing the counter to start fermenting is a dilled bean and a chard, cabbage, garlic combo.  I am curious, what is fermenting in your kitchen?Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - fermented dilled beans I hope you enjoyed my exploration of my journey into fermenting cabbage and other vegetables.  If you enjoy this content, please consider joining the My Boreal Homestead Life community.  By supplying your email address at the bottom of the page and hitting "sign up" or by clicking Join, you will ensure you get an email notification when I post new blogs to the My Boreal Homestead Life site. 

Thank you for joining me on the front porch of My Boreal Homestead Life as we explore this Homegrown, Homestead life, In a modern world.

Additional Resources

Fermenting cabbage and other vegetables - Pinterest link

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