Forgotten Superfoods: Lactofermented Vegetables

Lacto-fermented or cultured foods are another of THE forgotten, traditional Superfoods. 

  • Fermentation is a process in which bacteria (lacto-fermentation) or yeast (beer, wine) cause sugar and starches to break down into alcohol or organic acids (such as lactic acid)
  • Lacto-fermentation: Starches and sugars are converted into lactic acid by many species of lactic-acid-producing bacteria (lactobacilli) naturally present on the surface of leaves and roots of plants.
  • Lacto-fermentation doesn’t refer to the use of any milk products, but rather to the lactic acid fermentation responsible for culturing.
  • Lactic acid = natural preservative inhibiting putrefying bacteria
  • Industrial pickles are not lactofermented, but just marinated in sugar and vinegar => The end products are more acidic and not necessarily healthy in big quantities. Sauerkraut available in supermarkets is always cooked and pasteurized, which kills all beneficial lactobacilli.

Advantages of lacto-fermentation (“alchemy”):

  • Allows to preserve vegetables for many months without the need for refrigeration or canning (without energy)
  • Enhances digestibility: breaks down difficult to digest sugars/proteins AND produces digestive enzymes which help digesting other foods, esp. cooked foods (don’t contain many enzymes anymore) or difficult to digest grains / pulses.
  • Increases vitamin levels, e.g. vitamin C in sauerkraut
  • Natural pro-biotic: Improves gut flora through beneficial lactobacilli: A robust immune system, good digestion and overall well-being starts in the gut! The gut’s health is highly dependent on the right amount of good/beneficial bacteria to fight all kinds of intruders. Digestive enzymes need a certain ph in order to function correctly. Stress, a diet high in refined and processed foods (esp. sugar), but also too much “healthy” (unfermented) whole grains and fiber may negatively impact this important gut flora. If on top you had to take antibiotics, you can be sure that they have wiped out not only the bad bacteria, but also the good ones, leaving the immune system weaker than ever..
  • Production of antibiotic / anticarcinogenic / antibacterial / antiparasite substanceso   

Universality of this practice around the world

  • Europe: sauerkraut, pickled cucumbers, beets, turnips, green tomatoes, peppers…
  • Asia: pickled cabbage (kimchi), turnip, eggplant, cucumber, onion, squash and carrot, fruit chutneys, kefir, kombucha
  • America: Relishes

The ingredients

  • Organic vegetables (cabbage, carrots, red beets, zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, bell peppers, …)
  • Unrefined Sea Salt
  • Salt pulls out the moisture in food, denying bacteria the aqueous solution they need to live and grow.
  • Salt allows the natural bacteria that exist on the vegetables to do the fermenting. Only the desired salt-tolerant Lactobacilli strains will live and propagate.  
  • By suppressing the growth of other bacteria and mold, salt provides a slower fermentation process that is perfect for cultured vegetables that are to be stored for longer periods of time.
  • Salt hardens the pectins in the vegetables, leaving them crunchy and enhancing the flavor.
  • Too much salts impedes lacto-fermentation since it also “kills” the lactobacilli
  • Use 10g / kg shredded veggies (i.e. cabbage, carrots) or 20-40g / l in brine (more details see below)
  • Additional ingredients (optional):
  • Whey: rich in lactic acid and lactic-acid-producing bacteria. Serves as an inoculants, shortens time for the veggie to produce enough lactic acid. Allows reducing salt quantity, gives better and more consistent results. Essential for fruit recipes. Needs to be freshly made (= the liquid dripping off natural yogurt) – dried whey doesn’t work! Dairy based => not suited for everybody. Use 4 tablespoons per kg of vegetable along with ½ tablespoon of sea salt.
  • Brine from a previous ferment: The fermented vegetable juice from a previous batch can be added to a new batch as a starter. Add about 60ml brine per kg vegetables.
  • Other fermented liquids: Finished, unflavored water kefir or kombucha may be used as a starter culture for fermenting vegetables. Add about 60ml per kg vegetables.  
  • Purified water: If there is not enough brine to cover your veggies, you can add some purified water mixed with 20g/liter salt. Boil the water with salt for 10 min and let cool down completely before using.
  • Spices (e.g. caraway, pepper, mustard, fenugreek, ginger, turmeric…) 
  • Herbs (e.g. bay leaves, thyme, juniper berries…)
  • Fruit (small quantities, e.g. apple, dried raisins, cranberries)
  • Garlic

My new favorite: garlic flavored zucchini (summer squash) sticks! Beats any cucumber pickle!

How to do it

  • Optional: Produce whey by letting a whole fat, natural yogurt drip-off in a kitchen towel. The liquid is whey, the remaining part a delicious cream cheese.
  • Wash the vegetable / fruit and cut it or shred it with the help of a mandolin, a rasp,  a sharp knife or even a kitchen aid (depending on sort of vegetable: cabbage or carrots are shredded, red beets are cut into slices, courgettes can be cut into thin or thick slices or sticks, tomatoes can be used as they are)
  • Shredded vegetables are mixed with salt (10g/kg if no whey is used). Sliced or whole veggies are covered under a brine of 20g (onions, garlic, broccoli, cauliflower, red beets, carrots, green bean)-40g (cucumbers / peppers) salt per liter of purified water.
  • Pound to release juices (shredded veggies only) and pack tightly in airtight glass container (Weck jars, Ikea preservation jars or special fermentation jars, like available from Kilner)
  • Press down so produce is covered with juices (leaving 2 cms between juice and lid). You can keep the veggies down with a big, sterile stone, a small glass lid, or just a part of the cabbage stem or a folded big cabbage leaf. Courgette sticks often stay down without support if you pack them tightly enough. You can also add additional brine (20g salt/liter) to cover everything.
  • Cover tightly. 
  • Leave at room temperature (about 20-22°C) for 3 days, then transfer to a room of about 15°C for a month. If that’s not possible, you can also directly transfer them to the fridge. The produce is ready to eat after the initial 3 days, but can be stored for many more months in a cold cellar or top of refrigerator (about 4-5° C).
  • Flavor increases and the structure softens with time. Vegetables can be stored up to 1-2 years, fruits should be eaten within 2 months.
  • Eat in small quantities: 1-2 tablespoons with a meal (esp. with meat, grains, pulses).


  • Results are not always predictable, which is why this process can’t easily be industrialized. 
  • Some products might get bubbly or fizzy (e.g. chutneys) = ok, but indicator of alcohol
  • White foam on top of liquid = harmless, just lift off with spoon
  • Slimy consistence = bad
  • If gone bad, the batch will smell horrible and / or show mushrooms. Trust your senses!

A word about alcohol

  • Lacto-fermented foods, like all fermented foods (incl. over-ripe fruit) may contain small amounts of alcohol. They are different from alcoholic foods though (which are potentially intoxicating).
  • The more sugar the fermented food, and the longer fermented, the more alcohol (cabbage is low starch, thus less likely). Most likely: Fermented fruit chutneys, fermented fruit juices, fermented tomato salsa or ketchup, Kombucha, water kefir, fermented starchy vegetables, yogurt or milk kefir (only if fermented for a long time)
  • More fizz (tingle on tongue) = more alcohol

One word of caution: If due to your compromised immune system you already suffer from a yeast (Candida) overgrowth or are histamine intolerant, fermented foods are actually NOT a good idea for you right now (the yeast feeds on fermented foods and sugar). You would FIRST have to solve that problem before being able to benefit from fermented foods again.

I would also like to add that NO food is good for everybody. Certain metabolic or constitutional types do NOT do well on (huge amounts of) fermented foods.


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