Ever since I was a little kid in my home country of Poland, lacto fermented foods were a real staple. How could there be a Northern-European cuisine without sauerkraut, homemade brine pickles, and sourdough rye bread? Additionally, during the communist era when I was growing up there were often food shortages. Families all around knew to preserve and store food for the times when stores would be empty.
Even in our urban apartment building, almost everyone was dabbling in culturing foods, making preserves, and storing them in the little basement storage spaces, called cells. My family’s “cell” was lined with shelves full of jars of homemade jams, fruit and veggie preserves, and brined pickles. And there was a good-size barrel in the corner filled with sauerkraut.
Sound like fun right? It was fun once the process of fermenting was over but for weeks beforehand the basement was pretty stinky with all the fermenting food aromas. Maybe this is the reason why I did not take up fermenting my own food for a pretty long time. But, it doesn’t have to be this way. Actually, culturing foods should not be stinky in any way. Pungent and flavorful – yes. Stinky -no!
Last year when I started gardening for real, I quickly realized that there I’ll have to find a way to do something with all the abundant produce that my little garden was producing. We could only eat as many pounds of fresh tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cabbages, and beets. After gifting friends and neighbors, there was still plenty left to preserve for wintertime.
What are lacto fermented foods?
Lacto-fermentation is an ancient food preservation method. There are different types of fermentation or culturing, and probably the best known is yeast fermentation which turns sugars into alcohol like in the case of wine and beer. Lacto-fermentation happens thanks to bacteria from the Lactobacillus species. These little critters turn lactose in milk into lactic acid. This is how we get yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, sour cream, and cheese.
But, lacto-fermentation is not limited to dairy. In fact, you can culture lots of other foods, especially veggies and fruits, but also beverages and grains like soy or rye. Best known are probably fermented cucumbers – brined pickles – and fermented cabbage – sauerkraut and kimchi. And there are others, virtually in every culture in the world, from Alaska and Russia to India and Korea.
The diets of every traditional society have included some kind of lacto-fermented food. In Europe they have been primarily dairy, sauerkraut, grape leaves, herbs, and root vegetables. The Alaskan Inuit ferment fish and sea mammals. The Orient is known for pickled vegetables and kimchi in particular.Cultures for Health
Lacto-fermented foods are not only a good way to preserve the overabundance of veggies. They are also super healthy, rich in enzymes, and brimming with live probiotics that can enrich our gut flora in a very positive way.
What are the benefits of lacto-fermentation?
Known for millennia, fermented foods are here to stay because they are so good for human health. The ancients got it right and we can easily continue their love for cultured foods. SIne I am always on the lookout for a good diet to keep myself and my family healthy, fermented foods must be included for sure.
Lactic acid is very helpful in preserving food by inhibiting the growth of the “bad”, spoiling type of bacteria. Lacto-fermented foods can be stored for months if not years without going bad. No need to be afraid of these foods to sicken anyone. On rare occasions when a jar of sauerkraut goes bad, you’d know if by its smell. In that case, just dump it into your compost and feed the worms that live there. They’ll love it!
The important thing is not to be intimidated by lacto-fermentation. You are not going to make your family sick by giving them home-fermented foods. Unless it smells unmistakably putrid (in which case common sense says throw it away), fermented foods are some of the safest foods you can eat.Cultures for Health
Enriching the gut flora
Lactic acid also promotes the growth of the “good” bacteria which can either colonize our gut or feed other types of microorganisms within our gut flora. These beneficial microorganisms are called probiotics and are necessary for the optimal functioning of our GI tract.
The mechanisms by which probiotics exert their effects are largely unknown, but may involve modifying gut pH, antagonizing pathogens through production of antimicrobial compounds, competing for pathogen binding and receptor sites as well as for available nutrients and growth factors, stimulating immunomodulatory cells, and producing lactase.Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health
Adding fermented foods you’re your diet can be particularly helpful for those dealing with gut issues such as IBS.
Having a well-functioning, balanced gut flora is also helpful when it comes to immunity. Scientists have been discovering that our microbiome and our immune system are influencing, even shaping each other. The little bugs that we introduce to our gut when eating microbe-rich foods are helping our bodies rich a healthy equilibrium to ward off disease.
The microbiome plays critical roles in the training and development of major components of the host’s innate and adaptive immune system.Interaction between microbiota and immunity in health and disease
It is especially the fermented foods that can help us improve general health. These positive impacts are achieved by introducing the live microorganisms that the fermented foods contain, “as well as the bioactive components released into the foods as by-products of the fermentation process”, as one NIH study concluded.
Aiding in digestion
Thanks to their high enzyme content, fermented foods help to digest enzyme deficient foods such as cooked starches and proteins. Adding sauerkraut to sausages in Germany or kimchi to Korean BBQ ribs makes the meat easier to digest.
There is a documented correlation between higher consumption of naturally fermented foods and the prevalence of gastric cancer. This is due to the fact that the Lactobacillus bacteria act as a counteragent to the H. pylori bacteria which can lead to gastric ulcers and in some cases gastric tumors. So, it is definitely something to consider when trying to find a good anti-cancer diet.
Most traditional fermented foods and beverages are natural sources of probiotic microbes. Microbes directly isolated from the fermented products are shown to have anti-H. pylori activity. Few studies showed that consumption of probiotics containing yogurt and kefir are somewhat beneficial in the context of H. pylori infection.NIH Study
What can you lacto-ferment?
Aside from all the health benefits of lacto-fermented foods, I just love their taste. They are salty and sour, oftentimes with that special umami taste. They can be made spicy or not, possibilities are endless. Maybe it’s my Polish blood but fermented foods are definitely something I’ll never stop enjoying.
It is also super easy to start the process and then the bacteria do all the work! So what veggies can be lacto fermented? Really any! My personal favorites are pickles and cabbage, but I also tried peppers and onions and zucchini. They all taste delicious in themselves or as a condiment to other foods.
What tools do you need to start culturing foods?
Some people swear by getting a special fermentation kit but really what you need is a fermentation jar of some sort. I tend to use a ceramic jug to make sauerkraut and simple glass jars to make cucumber pickles.
Aside from the jars, you’ll need salt and the veggies you want to ferment. The general rule is to use 2-3% salt brine for harder veggies such as cauliflower, radishes, jalapenos. For softer veggies like cucumbers, zucchinis, a 5% salt brine is best. For making sauerkraut you don’t even need a brine, only cabbage, and salt.
It’s okay to use some additives like herbs and flavorings. For me, it’s a must for cucumber pickles.
My favorite lacto fermented recipes
With all the veggies it is important to not over-clean them. I rinse them in cool water to get rid of the soil and debris but make sure to not overdo it. Otherwise, there will not be any bacteria left to do the work of fermenting. I believe that in general, we are currently too paranoid about “germs.” Eating a tomato, a pea, even a barely rinsed baby carrot fresh from the garden can only be good for our gut flora.
For the recipes that require salt, make sure not to use iodized salt because iodine inhibits the bacterial growth needed for the fermentation to succeed. Kosher salt is okay but the best is either Himalayan or sea salt.
Another important note for all recipes is to keep the veggies submerged at all times. This helps to create an anaerobic environment which is crucial for the fermentation to be successful. You will need to weigh the veggies down with some kind of weight to keep them submerged in the anaerobic environment.
Another option is to use airlock lids which allow the gases to escape the jar but do not allow air from outside to come in. This is a way to ferment while not having to keep the vegetables underneath the brine 100% of the time.
Lacto fermented pickles
By far my favorite veggie to culture. I grow my own cucumbers during my hot California summer, so between June and October, I have a constant supply of freshly fermented cucumbers. For the remainder of the year, I make jars and store them.
- 1 pound of small to medium size firm cucumbers (those are best because the bigger the cucumber the more seeds it develops)
- 1 quart of boiling water
- 1 TBS of salt
- 2 garlic cloves
- Half a bunch of fresh dill
- A piece of fresh horseradish root (optional but very effective in keeping the pickles crunchy)
- 1 quart or larger jar
For immediate use:
- Dissolve the salt in the hot water.
- Place the dill, garlic, and horseradish on the bottom of the jar.
- Pack cucumbers into the jar tightly.
- Cover with the salt brine, making sure that all cucumber are covered. If they float up, you’ll have to use some kind of weight to hold them down. A smaller jar filled with water can work. I have some cleaned round rocks which are useful for that purpose. Some people use glass rocks that can be found in aquarium shops.
- Cover the jar with a cotton or linen napkin to let the air in and keep any bugs away.
Within a few days, cucumbers will change color from bright green to a more yellowish color. The brine will start getting more cloudy in appearance. Starting on day three you can test the taste. Some people prefer the pickles barely brined. Others like theirs really sour. When the cukes reach the desired sourness, cover the jar with a lid and store in the fridge.
Use the exact same procedure but rather than keeping the jars open, cover them with lids right away. I turn them upside down and keep like that until the brine inside cools down completely. No need to give them any water bath. (Lacto-fermenting is preserving already, no need to “can”)
Lacto fermented sauerkraut
This is even easier to make than pickles. All you need is a head of cabbage, salt, and a jug or jars. The tasty condiment really makes itself so it is often recommended as the first DIY fermenting project.
- Discard the outer leaves of the cabbage.
- Shred the cabbage, leaving out the core. Do not wash.
- Place the shredded cabbage in a large bowl and sprinkle generously with salt (about 2 Tablespoons per one medium head of cabbage).
- Massage the salt into the cabbage with your clean bare hands for a few minutes until the cabbage feels a bit wilted.
- Now it’s time to start packing the cabbage into the jar or jug. Make sure to pack it very tightly, using a wooden spoon to pack it in.
- Weigh the cabbage down (again you can use a smaller jar filled with water or a clean smooth rock)
- Check the cabbage every few hours and pack it in. It will be releasing liquid and it is important to keep the cabbage submerged in the liquid. There should be enough liquid to cover the cabbage about 24 hours after the beginning of the process. If there isn’t add a bit of water to submerge the cabbage.
- Cover the jar with a kitchen towel or napkin to keep bugs away.
- Let it ferment for a week or two. It will be bubbling and will start smelling like sauerkraut within a few days.
- Once it reaches the desired taste, cover the jar with a lid and store in the fridge for up to a few months.
If salt is an issue, seaweed or celery juice can be used as an alternative. Just be mindful that the resulting cultured food might be a bit mushier than when made with salt brine. A celery-juice brine should be about half celery juice, half water.
Another easy recipe for those who like a spicy kick for a condiment. Last year I had such an abundance of jalapenos from just one plant, I had no idea what to do with all these spicy peppers. So I brined them in simple brine with some mustard seeds. They are still pretty spicy but definitely mellower than raw jalapenos. I fermented mine with seeds which is probably the reason why they still kept so much kick.
So, it’s up to you. For spicier fermented jalapenos, cut them up with seeds. For a mellower treat, remove the seeds. Use 3% brine (around 2 tsp salt for a quart of water).
When I was growing up in Europe, we sometimes would drink kvas which is a Russian drink made by fermenting rye bread. It sounds gross but it was actually very refreshing.
Here in the USA, I got introduced to Kombucha and it was love at first taste! Because it is such an “it” beverage, store-bought Kombucha can be rather pricy. It is so much more economical to make your own. All you need is to make some sweet tea and add a dried bacteria culture to it once and then you can make indefinite amounts of this delicious drink.
Kombucha is made from sweet tea and a bacteria specie called Gluconacetobacter and Zygosaccharomyces. In order to make the beverage, you need to introduce the bacteria in the form of dried culture called SCOBY (which stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”).
This SCOBY is placed into a jug of sweet tea for four weeks and as it rehydrates and the bacteria come alive, they feed on the sugar and turn it into lactic acid. The resulting beverage is an effervescent, crisp, carbonated drink. Super refreshing and good for your gut. You can flavor it with lemon, ginger, cucumber juice, fruit juice. The possibilities are truly endless.
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I get my scoby from Cutures for Health and I can highly recommend it.
One thing about Kombucha is that it takes an entire month to get the first batch to get going. If it’s too long to wait and you want to get a head start on this good-for-you soda replacement, try some of the amazing flavored Kombuchas from Health-Ade. They make really the best commercially available Kombucha out there.
These are some of the most popular lacto-fermented foods in the world. Even though I swore off dairy due to lactose intolerance, my gut tolerates yogurt and kefir very well. Precisely because lacto-fermented dairy is void of lactose and instead provides the good bacteria my compromised gut loves them. Because lacto-fermented dairy is such a big topic in itself, I will write a separate post on it in the near future.
So, there you have it. It is so easy and so good for you. It is really worth trying to make some of your own fermented foods. The ancients got it right. Why not get back to their smart ways? Let me know if you are already an avid consumer of fermented foods or just starting. What kind of foods have you tried or would like to try?