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I have a mixed record when it comes to fermenting vegetables. My first experience with fermenting vegetables was homemade sauerkraut, which ended up a moldy mess of cabbage shreds. I also made a batch of fermented carrots once. They were okay, but without a reference point to compare them with, I was so paranoid that I hadn’t done something right, so I just threw out the whole batch!
A few years ago, I tried again, this time using a fermented dill pickle recipe. They didn’t just turn out okay. They turned out delicious…and so did my Dad’s homemade kombucha. I realized maybe this fermenting thing deserved a second chance? Maybe my fermenting skills weren’t hopeless after all?
So I tried again. This year I tried a lot more fermenting vegetables recipes, most recently fermented radishes that I absolutely love. (More on that in a moment.) While I’m still learning about fermenting vegetables, there are some things looking back that I wish I’d known from the beginning. It would have made things a LOT easier.
Tip #1: Fermented Veggies Taste Better After Cold Storage
While fermenting vegetables, I’ve tasted freshly brined pickles from the room temperature crock, and they just don’t taste right. They’re lukewarm, and they usually taste rotten…without the rich, deep flavor reminiscent of aged cheese, for example. The flavor of fermented vegetables develops best in cold storage. I’ve learned that if I put a jar of lactofermented veggies in the fridge for at least a few weeks, it makes them taste better.
Tip #2: Saltwater Prevents Spoilage
Something in our modern mind grimaces when we see veggies, in a jar, bubbling on the kitchen countertop, at room temperature. It seems contrary to everything we’ve learned about food safety since childhood. But if you get the saltwater brine right, it will not spoil. That’s your safety net. It works.
Tip #3: Scum & Mold Happen When Fermenting Vegetables
Now, even if you don’t experience spoilage while fermenting vegetables…that doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t experience scum or even some mold on your ferments. How you handle the mold in particular? That’s up to you.
I used to be really skirmish about it, throwing away anything with a hint of mold. But now, I’m a little more comfortable scraping off the scummy top and throwing it away, even if there are some questionable fuzzy bits. As long as the mixture doesn’t seem spoiled in any other way, I’m fine with it. The saltwater brine does its job. (Disclaimer: Do what you’re most comfortable with, however, and never eat spoiled food!)
Tip #4: Always. Keep. Veggies. Submerged.
This is the #1 way to ensure success while fermenting vegetables. You want to keep the food under the surface of the liquid. This is what locks out oxygen and prevents mold from forming. This isn’t easy, especially if you’re using a regular Mason jar. I’ve heard of pickling weights, glass weights that fit through the lid on the jar, and fermenting lids, lids that form an airlock system on top of the jar. But I don’t have any of those things yet. So I just use whatever I can find.
In the past, I’ve used a small shot glass, a clean rock, or even a small glass dish, though I’ve heard of other people who use slices of turnip, pieces of cabbage, or a bag filled with saltwater brine too.
Tip #5: Use the Perfect Jars
Speaking of keeping things submerged, certain jar styles work better than others (depending on what kind of weight you’re using to keep the food under the brine). But you don’t necessarily need a weight (it depends–I’ve had both successes and failures in it) if you can find an old-fashioned clamp lid jar with a rubber seal. When I ferment in my Mom’s jar, I don’t have to use a weight at all! It locks out enough oxygen that it won’t spoil, though it does require frequent burping.
Tip #6: You Can Store Fermented Vegetables for a Long Time
The first time I made saltwater brine pickles, we were eating off the batch for over a year. Sure, by the end of that period, their flavor was flat, and the cucumbers just didn’t seem as fresh as before. But they were still fairly good.
Stored in the right place, like the back of our fridge, you can keep fermented vegetables for quite a while before they go south. That means fermenting vegetables from the garden, and then eating off of those pickles for several months in the future.
Tip #7: Ask Someone Who Knows About Fermenting Vegetables
I can’t emphasize this enough. When you’re learning how to ferment vegetables, you need to start with trusted recipes, like the pickle recipe I mentioned above. Find people who know what they’re talking about and follow their advice. Don’t be afraid to ask your friends or even online experts for help.
For example, earlier this year I sent photos of my sauerkraut to a friend, asking her if this looked normal to her or not. She was able to share what her jars usually looked like in comparison, as well as experiences with her own ferments, which were made under similar bacterial and temperature conditions to my own because we live in the same area of the country.
Tip #8: Use Distilled Water
This isn’t something I learned the hard way, but I thought it wise to mention that you should use distilled water, NOT tap water. Tap water contains chlorine and other chemicals that could kill beneficial bacteria, preventing proper fermentation.
Tip #9: Keep Everything Clean, Especially in Storage
Once you’ve gone to the trouble of fermenting vegetables, always keep things clean, even in cold storage. Since I make ONE big batch of dill pickles every year, for example, I’m incredibly careful to only use clean utensils to remove pickles from the jar. I never put leftovers back into the jar if we don’t eat them all. Keep your fingers out of the liquid too. I don’t know that it would actually spoil anything, but I’m not willing to risk my year’s supply of dill pickles just because I couldn’t find a fork! 😉
Tip #10: Experiment When Fermenting Vegetables!
When it comes to fermenting vegetables, the best way to learn…is to just try it. Don’t worry about messing it up. And even if it’s something you don’t think you’ll enjoy eating, consider trying it anyway.
I had an abundance of radishes this fall, and radishes don’t preserve well in other methods. I tried fermenting a few batches of radishes. I wasn’t very impressed when I tried them fresh from the jar, but I made a few more jars anyway, because I had so many radishes just going to waste. Well, I’ve been eating more fermented radishes than I have dill pickles this fall. See recipe here. They’re SO good…and I didn’t think I’d even like them.