how to ferment vegetables

Posted on April 24th, 2012

So, I ferment my roots. And I activate my nuts.

One of my mish mash lunches with sauerkraut (and bone broth)

And my guts love me for it. If there is one kooky, “witchy” thing you should try right now, it’s fermenting, or pickling. I’ve been playing around for a few months, making sauerkraut, pickled daikon, and the most lush beetroot relish. I eat a tablespoon or two with as many meals as I can…see some of my suggestions below…and I’ve noticed a tangible benefit with my digestion. Which, for those of you who are interested to know, is crap.

Anyone with auto immune issues, IBS, bloating, sugar cravings or any kind of digestive or allergy issue should truly try fermenting.

Before you start: you might like to make whey. Why whey? It really makes the best fermented veggies. Trust me.  It’s simple, too. Just make my homemade cream cheese. It produces whey on the side, which you can freeze until you’re ready to use.

What is fermenting?

Lacto-fermentation has been around for eons as a health trick – all cultures have a history of fermenting veggies, dairy, nuts, grains etc for medicinal and digestion purposes. The nerdy stuff: it’s a biological process by which sugars – glucose, fructose, and sucrose – are converted into cellular energy and a metabolic byproduct – lactic acid. When the acidity rises due to lactic acid-fermenting organisms, many harmful micro-organisms are killed – so it’s often been used as a preserving technique.

Why the good health rap?

Let’s do this in dot points:

* lactic acid enhances a food’s digestibility and increases vitamin C and vitamin A levels.

* it produces a stack of helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic substances.

* lactic acid promotes the growth of healthy flora in the intestine

* fermented foods are rich in vitamin K2 – a known cancer fighter

* it cuts the sugar content of foods quite dramatically (the same process sees wine end up as pretty much fructose-free)

* plus all you IQS kids:  it helps you beat sugar cravings!

What you actually do:

Basically, you mix veggies (in this case) with salt and/or whey and store in a mason jar (those pickling jars with the seal and spring lever). Let it sit for three days to ferment. Then store for months and months and eat as you like. Stupidly simple!

* The best veggies to use are: root veggies, radishes, daikon, cabbage, garlic, ginger, cauliflower

* The salt inhibits putrefying bacteria for several days until enough lactic acid is produced to preserve the vegetables for many months.

* The whey acts as an inoculant, reducing the time needed for sufficient lactic acid to be produced to ensure preservation.

A tip: I buy the Nuigini brand of coconut oil, which comes in a mason jar. Otherwise you can buy mason jars at homewares shops and Kmart etc for about $6.

Homemade sauerkraut

  • 1 medium cabbage, cored and shredded
  • 1 tbls caraway seeds
  • 1 tbls sea salt
  • 4 tbls whey (if you don’t have whey, use an extra tbls of salt instead)

Mix all ingredients in a sturdy bowl and pound with a wooden pounder or a meat hammer or just squeeze with your hands (this is actually very soothing and meditative) for about 10 minutes to release juices. This takes a little work and some patience. Spoon into a mason jar and using the pounder or meat hammer press down until juices come to the top of the cabbage and cover it. Cover tightly and keep at room temperature for about 3 days before transferring to cold storage.

What I learned the hard way:

I had a few dire experiments with the process. Learn from me and stick to these tips:

* using whey will result in consistently successful results, although you can do it with just salt.

* use the best quality organic vegetables, sea salt and water. Lactobacilli need plenty of nutrients and if you use old, dodgy, chemical-laden stuff, it just won’t do it’s thing.

* make sure you get a good centimetre of juices sitting above the veggies…otherwise mould grows, ruining the whole lot. Tho’, says Sally Fallon in Nourishing Traditions: “Some lacto-fermented products may get bubbly, particularly the chutneys. This is natural and no cause for concern. And do not be dismayed if little spots of white foam appear at the top of the pickling liquid. They are completely harmless and can be lifted off with a spoon. The occasional batch that goes bad presents no danger–the smell will be so awful that nothing could persuade you to eat it.”

If I don’t extract enough liquid I add a small amount of water with a pinch of salt dissolved in it.

Note: for some veggies, you don’t actually pound the mixture and instead a brine is added (salt and water). Check out the links below for these recipes.

* close the jars very tightly. Says Sally: “Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process and the presence of oxygen, once fermentation has begun, will ruin the final product.” That is, don’t open it while it’s sitting for it’s three days.

* scald all equipment you will use with boiling water to sterilize it before you begin.

Extra stuff:

* Yeah you can buy sauerkraut and kimchi in the shops…but look at the ingredients first. They often contain sugar and vinegar which produce a product that is more acidic, and some are often pasteurized, which kills the lactic-acid-producing bacteria, which defeats the whole damn purpose.

* Most recipes ask for the final product to be stored in a cool cellar. Don’t have one, or live in a hot climate? The top shelf of the fridge is fine.

* Fermented veggies improve with age…I have several jars in the fridge and as one runs out, make another couple of batches.

For more…

Definitely check out Nourished Kitchen’s e-course on the subject. Definitive!
Nourished Kitchen’s Jenny has also shared a number of great recipes…her beetroot relish is divine!!
I like this very simple recipe for chucking in a bunch of vegetables with just salt and water in a standard jar and using clingwrap to seal.
Also check out the Body Ecology Diet…their newsletter’s pretty helpful.
And, of course, Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions has a host of amazing recipes.

You fermented? What’s your experience?

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  • Tanya

    I’ve pickled home grown sliced apple cucumbers using whey. I couldn’t eat them, they were so soggy and mushy, definately fermented though due to the number of bubbles.

    I’d love to experiment more but so far in my trials i’ve found it tricky to …..
    “make sure you get a good centimetre of juices sitting above the veggies”.

    How do you do this? My jar was nearly full but the cucumbers still just rose to the top.


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    It’s different with root veggies – which you have to pound. Try Nourishing kitchen’s blog to see if she does cucumbers…you certainly wouldn’t pound these and I think you make in water?


    Susan Reply:

    Hi, A tip I picked up in browsing is to part-fill a plastic bag with water and put it in top of the veggies to keep them under the liquid. Not sure about this because of the plastic…??? But it works. I’m now looking for a terracotta ‘biscuit’ I once had for warming in the oven and putting in a basket of hot rolls to keep the heat in them. Perhaps that on string?


  • Mel

    OMG…you are so full of hidden talents. Who needs to watch Masterchef when there’s Sarah Wilson! Brilliant.


  • Elle G

    Have also started fermenting cabbage for sauerkraut. The pounding was hard work! Its OK. Next time I will make kimchi as I would like it spicier. I bought a fermenting culture to use as well – have been told that is really helps with the process.
    Thanks for the post Sarah, makes me keen to find some daikon and organic Beetroot to also ferment them.


  • Mel Hockey

    Hi Sarah – sorry to use this blog but I dont use Facebook or even know how to Tweet :).

    I have been quietly doing the no sugar thing (only with a couple of major setbacks)however I do have to watch how many sugar replacement ‘treats’ I am adding back into my diet. In your I Quit Sugar book you refer to a pumpkin stir fry (with eggs added). This sounds intriguing and possibly delicious. Grateful if you could share this recipe with me, even if you don’t have an actual recipe just a bit of guidance would be appreciated.



    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    Mel, I think it’s in one of former posts…mish-mash meals or something…search under “pumpkin”


  • Miranda

    Oh Sarah – if only I could
    Fermenting and anything pickled is no good if you have salycilate sensitivity

    And, oh how I love some of those flavours in fermentation!


    Marnie Reply:

    I was thinking the same when I saw the word sauerkraut. I suspect I have an amine intolerance and have been told sauerkraut = hell. 🙁


  • Rebecca

    Sarah, quite frankly You. Are. A. Star!
    Thank you.


  • Lisa

    I have a girl crush on Sally Fallon – her IIN lecture made so much sense. Nourishing Traditions is an amazing cookbook and I have just this week rounded up some glass jars to make me some sauerkraut. So the timing for this post, with the extra tips, is most appreciated! Think I have to try the beetroot relish now too…
    I am also loving your example of taking the best bits of lots of the different dietary theories. For so many reasons your blog is keeping me sane!
    Thanks Sarah x


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    you know I’m interviewing her Thursday!!


    Lisa Reply:

    Oh brilliant! Well done you. Cannot wait for the post!! x


  • casey

    My mother has gut issues and reflux, and her doctor advised her to stay away from fermented foods. It’s so hard to know who to believe, with all the information out there.


  • This is so funny I literally just went to a class today and learnt how to do this! The lady said that if you can’t get enough liquid to cover the vegetables, you can add some filtered water with salt added (saline solution), but to make sure you have at least 5 cm till the top of the jar


    Sarah Wilson

    Sarah Wilson Reply:

    correct! In fact, I might add this to the post.


  • Lisa miotto

    I’ve been reading your blog for about a year. I absolutely think your wonderful and brilliant. Thanks


  • Something I was told which helped immeasurably was to dissolve a capsule of a good pro-biotic when you make the fermented whateveritis. It seems to stave off a whole lot of potential problems and means the amount of salt needed is less. Good for those of us who can’t take whey yet.

    But I’m never sure about sauerkraut for those of us with thyroid problems (I’m hypo), since it’s a cruciferous veggie. No-one’s been able to tell me whether the fermentation process stops the cabbage lowering thyroid function or not.

    I was wondering, since you say your digestion is crap (ahem), whether you’ve looked into GAPS. I’ve been doing it for just over a year and though it’s hardcore, time devouring, anti-social and just plain awful at times, a lot of symptoms I would never have thought gut related have gone. Things like life-long insomnia, joint pains, brain fog (not entirely) and suchlike.


    Nikki Reply:

    PP I would love to know who you are seeing re GAPS. I’m researching a gaps practitioner in Sydney and would appreciate any guidance available…. Thank you x


  • Kelly

    The blog and facebook page Cultured food life by donna schwenk has excellent recipes for pickled veg, kefir, kombucha and sourdough and sprouted breads.


  • Jess Lowe

    This is awesome! Thanks Sarah! I have been looking for some easy-to-follow fermenting ideas for aaages. I feel I now have some easy practical steps to begin to enjoy the wonderful health benefits of fermenting veggies! Wooohooo!


  • Karina

    Thanks so much for the great (simple) recipe! Made a batch of sauerkraut today. I got lots of water, which was good, but some of the cabbage floating in it in the jar. They wouldn’t seem to pack down at the bottom. Will this be a problem?


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  • For all things cultured you might like to take a look at my facebook page as my website is not up yet.

    I make organic raw cultured vegetables using traditional methods with modern insights. All our vegetables are cultured at a controlled temperature in glass jars with special airlocks to provide an anaerobic environment. I use a live culture starter to ferment the vegetables as this guarantees a high probiotic count as well as correct ratio of bacterial strains. Once cultured they are then cured in the fridge to neutralize any histamines and anti nutrients created in the early stages of fermentation. My products are stocked in some organic stores in Sydney and I regularly post interstate as well.

    I also sell the equipment and cultures for people who’d like to make their own and am happy to explain the process.

    I’m a GAPS practitioner as well and I’m currently setting up GAPS support groups/ chapters in Sydney with 2 other practitioners in the north, south and east for anyone interested.


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  • I love this post!

    I just made my first batch of pickled daikon the other day and posted about it. It’s the first time I’ve eaten raw celery and enjoyed it!


  • Sara

    Just tried a beetroot and apple mix. Left it for 4 full days but it’s been pretty cold so I’m not sure if it has actually worked – how can I tell if it has, in your words, ‘done its thing?’ I only used salt and there’s certainly no mould but I’m just not sure if it has cut a lot fermented? Really excited to make this work, thanks Sarah!


    Sara Reply:

    I mean ‘actually fermented’. Somehow that defaulted to cut a lot fermented!


  • this is an excellent site for instructions that are practical and recipes that work! Thankyou!


  • cj

    there is not a website that tells you what is whey and where to get it could you please let me know thank you so much


    Kitsa Reply:

    Hi Sharon you make whey by straining yoghurt through cheesecloth and let it strain for at least 6 hours. I make cultured vegetables commercially and I would never recommend the use of whey to culture vegetables as whey should only be used with dairy ferments as the bacterial strains need to be compatible.
    Vegetables need a starter made from soil based organisms to match the strains naturally found on vegetables. This is a really important point which most people teaching fermenting get wrong. You get a more probiotic dense and a much tastier result when you use the correct bacterial strains to culture.


  • Noemi

    I make my own sauerkraut regularly with organic cabbage. I just had some with my lunch, its so good. I really recommend making your own. I find making the batch in a large earthenware pot the best and using a small plate to press down with a heavy mortle and pestle to weigh down. I use only cabbage and celtic sea salt. I also find using a mandolin for slicing is the best.


  • Due to hypothyroid issues, I have been advised not to eat raw cruciferous veg due to their goitrogenic qualities, and have been told that fermenting such veg increases the goitrogens (where cooking reduces). What are your thoughts on this?


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  • Lisa

    Can I use the whey from kefir milk to make the sauerkraut?


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  • Nicole

    I currently have my first batch of Kefir fementing in the cupboard. I sniffed it and it is scary! I need an expert to make it for me so I can try it and make sure its ok before I eat it. Is there any way you can convince me of how its supposed to taste and if my batch is ok?


  • Selina

    Can I buy Whey or do you have to make it??


    Selina Reply:

    Just saw Kitsa response from earlier thanks


  • Carolyn McKenzie

    Please sign me up for the free Friday newsletter. Thank you


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  • Robbi

    Im looking forward to learning more about this.


  • I know you’ve said in the past that your books and recipes are targeted towards people with fructose malabsorption but I’m wondering if fermenting garlic would make it safer for people with fructose malabsorption to eat. If it breaks down the fructose then that’s the same as breaking down the fructans isn’t it?

    I can handle a bit of garlic but in large doses I can’t have it. It would be great to finally find a way to eat the real thing – instead of just the garlic oil! Garlic’s meant to offer some really great health benefits too.


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  • In this article sarah Wilson tells about the different vegetables, how to make these vegetables. Different dips discussed to make the vegetable. Most usage of vegetable is a good for human health.


  • peta

    What is function of Apple cider vinegar in treating leaky gut? Has been recommended to me.


  • Nicola

    Must it be made using a Mason jar or will the extra large re-used gherkin jar with screw top lid I have be OK?


  • Melinda

    I fermented cabbage using just celery juice – delish!

    Also, try placing a whole cabbage leaf on top of the veg being fermented as this prevents air from reaching them.


  • I love fermented foods! eating fermented foods, especially kefir has completely got rid of my IBS. You can get lots of starter cultures from here –


  • Carly

    If I start with the juice and levels get low before eating the veg do I keep topping up with salt water? Thanks Carly
    Ps re the thyroid situation – I think the good out ways the bad here if you just have a few spoonfuls of either the juice or a spoon on veg daily.


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  • Serena

    where do i buy the whey to ferment the veggies in in Australia thanks


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  • catapurple

    But if u read and I am extremely new to this it puts the good things back into your gut, so u would think a big yes too! Doctors don’t get it right and go on their own knowledge, beliefs and undetstandings Add some slowly to her diet maybe


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  • Anna

    the plastic bag idea is brilliant as it ‘will fill’ out the shape left at the top of the jar – I’m going to try this as my own DIY weighting down efforts have only be so-so.


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  • Belinda

    Thank you so much for this. I had never imagined making cream cheese and cultured vegetables would be so easy.


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  • Melanie

    What type of whey is everyone using? All that I found are for drinks & have a thickner added. Is there such a thing as just 100 % powder whey? Thanks 🙂


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  • Melanie Kay

    I keep hearing that we should use starters with soil based organisms, but when I tried it, the cost was $5.00 per quart, and I don’t know how to make it more economical. Any suggestions? I know the leftover liquid can be used again, but I don’t know how many times or how to tell when it needs thrown out. I wish someone would tell me how to make my own soil based starter culture, until then, I will use whey because I have it in abundance, and I’m happy with the result.


  • Honeysuckle

    can you tell me please where to buy whey? I come in to Melb regularly from regional Vic


  • Laura FermentaCap

    We have found half gallon Ball Mason jars for about $10 per half dozen case. I sell a compact airlock lid for fermenting (Fermenta Cap), and that jar is the most popular jar for fermentation. Large enough to hold a good amount, but not so big that it floods you out. Ball brought them back specifically for fermentation, since they stopped making them when the USDA started to say you should not water bath can in them.


    Sarah Reply:

    Laura, are you in Australia or US? Its really tricky to find anything like the airlock fermenta cap here in Australia.


  • jms

    is it normal to become extremely bloated & flatulent after eating a couple of spoons of fermented veg?


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  • Melissa

    Hi Sarah. I haven’t read thru many comments so I don’t know if this method was offered, but when I started making sauerkraut a couple years ago, I struggled with the air & tight seal issue. My solution was to bag the mashed cabbage (I mashed it by bagging it in a zipper bag, then pressure-rolling it with a rolling pin – works great, but use a brand-new bag for the fermenting part), forcing every bit of air out & zipping it tightly, then submerging it in a rectangular bucket of water, holding it down underwater with a saucer weighed down by a cleaned rock. A brick or other some such would do too, or a container full of water. It works extremely well, & in fact, that’s where my kraut lives till I need more & pull some out to put in a jar. I live on a mountaintop, off-grid so no refrigeration; we use coolers to store our food, so ice & space are precious. Anything I can do to keep food without refrigerating it is very helpful (I also do a lot of canning). Hope this is helpful to some of your readers.
    I came here to learn about fermenting with whey, since I’m making lots of yogurt now, too. Greek yogurt & whey – yum, good quality food! Thanks for the tips. Melissa


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  • Tinaja

    Isabella Wentz has some great info on this in her latest book. If you have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (I do), then raw cruciferous vegetables are fine, unless you have an allergy. Cruciferous vegetables may block absorption of iodine, which affects non- autoimmune thyroid disorders. If you have standard hypothyroidism, then either cook or ferment them. So regardless of which type of thyroid disease you have, fermented cruciferous vegetables are fine.


  • I’m making the Indian Kimchi from the Simplicious recipe, but about three days into the ferment my laundry cupboard (where I am storing the jars) smells terrible! Is it normal for kimchi to smell while it is fermenting?


  • Elaina

    My sauerkraut is way too salty. Is it supposed to be?
    Thanks Heaps


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  • Rosie

    Where would you get whey from?


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