Fermenting Basics 101

So many today are a little nervous to use fermentation as a method of preserving their harvest simply because they are unfamiliar with it. Though there is a lot of science behind the process, it is not necessary to understand any of it in order to make your own probiotics at home. You may discover that the science is easier to understand once you have a little experience behind you … or you may not. Either way, just do it!

Success in this simple recipe will hopefully give you courage for further experimentation—because really, the fermenting possibilities are endless!

A few things to keep in mind before you begin:

Be sure to use vegetables your family likes! I prefer to combine a few common ones like carrots, cauliflower, and bell peppers, however just carrots is a nice starter ferment.

Some vegetables will bleed their color into the brine and other vegetables. For example, red cabbage will turn the brine pink. It will also turn cauliflower pink. The cabbage itself will become dull and nearly colorless. This is all normal.

Feel free to add a little chopped onion, fresh herbs, whole or sliced garlic cloves, and/or sliced ginger. But again, I believe it’s best to start out super simple and basic. In time you will learn what you like and do not like, so be sure to take notes!

Ferments need an anaerobic home to thrive. For this reason, pay special attention to keeping the vegetables totally submerged in the brine. Using an air-tight lid or an airlock is preferred. Airlocks are easy to make at home, or you can find them at a brewing supply store. Some have even found them at hardware stores.

Warning signs of too much oxygen exposure include brown spots forming on the vegetables (oxidation, just like when you cut an apple and it begins to brown), mold or slime forming on the top of the brine (a white film is ok), an off odor (yes, it will smell sour, but it will not be offensive or ‘yeasty’), or other discolorations that have nothing to do with the color of the vegetables.

Yes, you can scrape the mold off and everything will look, smell, and taste fine, however keep in mind that mold has roots. Just because you can scrape it off does not mean it is no longer there. If mold forms it’s better to be safe than sorry. Compost it and start over.

Ferments put off CO2; I’ll talk more about ‘burping jars’ and such later.

The fermentation process will happen quicker in warmer environments and slower in cooler environments. It’s best to keep it in an area that’s at least 68*, but preferably a little warmer.

 

For each half-gallon mason jar you will need:

Enough chopped vegetables to fill the jar to 1”
1.5 tablespoons salt (I prefer Redmond’s Real Salt or Pink Himalayan Salt)
1 quart filtered or well water
A cabbage leaf
An airlock or a lid and ring for the mason jar.

Procedure:

  1. Wash and chop the vegetables into bite-size pieces or sticks.
  2. Once your jar is filled with vegetables 1” from the top, mix the salt and water (the brine) well and pour over the vegetables, being sure to leave 1” head space at the top.
  3. Try to remove any air bubbles; a butter knife works well for this.
  4. Tuck the cabbage leaf on top of the vegetables to hold them all down, completely under the surface of the brine. Alternately, a few thin, longer carrot sticks crossed over and tucked in may be used. The point is the keep all of the vegetables totally covered with the brine and not exposed to oxygen.
  5. Cover with the ring and lid, or the airlock. If your lid is metal, be sure to put a layer or two of plastic wrap between the jar and the lid to prevent corrosion of the metal.
  6. Sometimes ferments get happy and want to spill over the airlock, or even bust a jar with a lid (see ‘burping’ in step #7). For this reason, I like to put the mason jar into a bowl that’s large enough to catch anything that might spill.
  7. If you are using a regular lid and ring, be sure to “burp” the jar every day or two to release the pressure (CO2). To do this, simply twist the lid a little until you hear or feel the pressure releasing (this may not happen the first time or two). In order to avoid as little air as possible from getting in, do not take the lid off all the way, just quickly twist only enough to release the pressure and then tighten again.

And now you wait! Pay close attention to the changes your ferment makes each day. The first few days there will not be much going on, however by the end of the second or third day, and as more time goes on, you should see noticeable changes. The vegetables will get duller and duller in color. Bubbles will start to form at the top along the brine edge. Bubbles will also start forming throughout the ferment; you will see some trapped between the vegetables and some going up to the surface. When you ‘burp’ the jar, you will notice a mass exodus of bubbles to the top. All of these things are good and normal. The CO2 must escape!

How Long Do You Ferment?

Well, that’s really a personal choice. Some suggest putting ferments into the refrigerator after only 3 or 4 days. Others say to wait a week or more. Studies have shown that there really is not a whole lot of lactic-acid producing bacteria going on after only a few days, and in fact waiting at least a month before putting in to cold storage is preferred for maximum benefit.

Storing Your Ferments

The refrigerator is cold enough to pretty much halt the fermentation process. On the other hand, fermentation will typically continue in a cellar, but at a much slower rate. As long as it still looks, smells, and tastes normal, it is fine to eat.

One final note. Do not throw out the brine!! An easy way to use up the brine is to simply drink a few tablespoons of it each day in place of the expensive probiotic pills. Some like to use it as a starter in the next batch, however I prefer to let each batch take on a personality of its own. It may however be used in place of whey for quick ferments like salsas and chutneys, or for soaking grains (a few tablespoons goes a long way!).

I pray this tutorial has inspired you to jump in!

______________________________________

Joanne Smith and her family own Heritage Homestead, located in Missouri. You can follow their adventures on their YouTube Channel and Facebook page.

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