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Ferment your veggies. It's good for you.

Did you know you can make your garden veggies even more nutritious and delicious than when they’re first pulled from the ground? It’s true, and it’s called lacto-fermentation, a mouthful of science that really means sauerkraut, kimchi, sour pickles, and the like. And people have been doing it for thousands of years.

Anyone who’s quaffed a beer or nibbled some cheese curd has benefited from fermentation. Had wine, bread, or yogurt? Those are fermented, too, and the list goes on. Most fermentations are activated by molds, yeasts, or bacteria working to convert carbohydrates into alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids.

In the case of lacto-fermentation we’re dealing with bacteria—lactobacilli. This bacteria is present on the surfaces of living things, especially the leaves and roots of plants like cabbage. When salt is added to plants, it creates a bacteria-friendly environment for the good guys; lactobacilli will reproduce and turn sugars and starches into lactic acid, a natural preservative. Bad bacteria, like the kind that spoils food, cannot survive the acidic environment. Salt also pulls water from the vegetables through osmosis and hardens the pectins, making them good and crunchy. The more salt you use, the longer your veggie fermentations will store.

So why is it so healthy? Increasing good bacteria in vegetables enhances the digestibility of the food, making nutrients more readily available to your system. The process also increases vitamin levels, like B12, produces helpful enzymes, and has been said to produce antibiotic and anticarcinogenic substances. The presence of lactic acid stimulates growth of healthy flora in the intestine.

How to do it:

Vegetable fermentation is easy and fun, and you can ferment almost anything. Always use fresh, organic vegetables because they have a higher nutrient content to feed the good bacteria. The basic recipe is salt + food – oxygen + time. Here are my inexact versions of some of the most popular veggie fermentations, but know that there are myriad renditions from around the world. And you can create your own ferments to taste. I usually throw together a mix of whatever vegetables are especially in season. Experiment!

Basic sauerkraut

Time frame: 1-4 weeks (or more)

5 lbs. cabbage (I like red cabbage because it turns hot pink)
Some carrot slices for color
3 tbsps. sea salt (or other non-iodized salt)

Shred cabbage and place into large bowl, adding salt as you go. Place cabbage/salt mix into large glass jars or crock and press down every hour or so for up to eight hours. The salt will draw water out from the cabbage to create a brine. If after a while the vegetables are not fully submerged, add spring water until they are. I press veggies down with a smaller glass inside the big jar and cover with a cloth. (Fermentation is an anaerobic process; anything exposed to air will rot.) Leave to ferment at room temperature until fermentation is complete. That means three to 14 days depending on heat; you’ll notice a ring of bubbles forming at the top as fermentation takes place, and when it begins to subside fermentation is mostly complete. Move to a cool place or the refrigerator to store. Enjoy. It will keep fresh for months.


When I make kimchi, I create a saltwater brine and pour it over the vegetables. Others do it in the same style as the sauerkraut. You use a brine whenever you think the addition of salt to veggies will not pull enough brine of its own. If you wanted to ferment whole radishes, for example, you’d use a brine.

Brine: Per 5 cups spring water, 2 tbsps. and 2 tsps. sea salt
1 lb. Chinese cabbage
1 lb. white radish
2 tbsps. minced ginger
garlic cloves or slices to taste
5 scallions, sliced
1 tbsps. hot pepper, or to taste.

Shred cabbage and slice radish. Put into a container and cover with enough brine so that, when pressed (use plate with weight on top) vegetables are completely submerged and leave for a few hours or overnight. The next day drain vegetables, setting brine aside. Prepare seasoning in a bowl: ginger, garlic, scallions, and hot pepper. Mix well. Mix seasoning with drained vegetables. Pack into large glass jars or crock. Press down into the container and add the brine as needed until vegetables are covered. Keep at room temperature until most of fermentation is complete and move to cool place.

Veggie fermentation in Buffalo

Not ready to make something on your own? Too busy? Too scared? Sung’s Oriental Grocery at 850 Niagara Falls Boulevard sells its own fresh Korean kimchi. I’m personally addicted to Sunja’s medium spicy kimchi at Lexington Co-op. The co-op also sells live, naturally fermented sauerkraut from the brand “Real Pickles.” Sauerkraut you can find pretty much anywhere, but make sure you get the unpasteurized version if you want all those healthy enzymes.


You’ll have lots of questions as you experiment. Like, why is there scum forming at the top of my jar? Or, what can I use instead of salt? Just remember fermentation is a process; you’re working with living bacteria. You’re a scientist. It won’t always work perfectly, but you’ll learn more from your mistakes. You might also want to check out the following resources I’ve found very helpful: Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz (; Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.

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