How to Easily and Inexpensively Ferment Your Own Vegetables
Caroline Barringer is a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP), and an expert in the preparation of the foods prescribed in Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride's Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) Nutritional Program.
I first met Caroline at the November 2011 Weston Price Wise Traditions event, where I had the opportunity to enjoy some amazing fermented vegetables that her company had prepared.
I immediately started incorporating them into my own diet, and after about six weeks, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this minor change had dramatically decreased plaque formation on my teeth, which has been a chronic problem for me.
Caroline has been involved with nutrition for about 20 years, and is now one of Dr. McBride's chief training partners, helping people understand the food preparation process, which relies heavily on fermented and traditionally-prepared whole foods.
Caroline's journey began when her health suffered a blow.
"First and foremost, I'm a professional singer and voice-over artist. In my younger years, when I first moved to New York (I'm originally from Florida), I had a rigorous performance schedule, and this schedule really took a toll on my health," she says.
"I noticed severe energy issues and chronic fatigue, acne, and a lot of reflux, a lot of digestive issues. So, I was searching for food to be my medicine.
I was a vegetarian for a while, so I first started out with Ann Wigmore's Living Foods Lifestyle. And of course, she's mostly vegan, but she's into the whole enzyme-rich foods, the probiotic-rich foods. And that was really pivotal for me, even though I was still a vegetarian and I did not realize the importance of animal fats and animal products in my diet. It was the beginning of the journey to health for me."
The Phenomenal Health Benefits of Fermented Vegetables
Cultured or fermented foods have a very long history in virtually all native diets, and have always been highly prized for their health benefits.
The culturing process produces beneficial microbes that are extremely important for human health as they help balance your intestinal flora, thereby boosting overall immunity. Moreover, your gut literally serves as your second brain, and even produces more of the neurotransmitter serotonin—known to have a beneficial influence on your mood—than your brain does, so maintaining a healthy gut will benefit your mind as well as your body.
Fermented foods are also some of the best chelators and detox agents available, meaning they can help rid your body of a wide variety of toxins, including heavy metals. This is part of what makes Dr. McBride's GAPS Nutritional Protocol so effective. It effectively restores your own detoxification system, and the fermented/cultured foods are instrumental in this self-healing process. And you don't need to consume large amounts either.
Caroline recommends eating about a quarter to half a cup (2 to 4 oz) of fermented vegetables or other cultured food, such as raw yoghurt, with one to three meals per day. Bear in mind that since cultured foods are very efficient detoxifiers, you may experience detox symptoms, or a "healing crisis," if you introduce too many at once. Caroline recommends beginning with very small servings and working your way up to the quarter- to half cup serving size. This way your intestinal microbiota has the chance to adjust.
"If they introduce too much, too fast, they will experience some die-off symptoms that can be uncomfortable and confusing. This is where we lose people. The innate intelligence of their bodies tells them to eat more cultured foods because they're in such a state of dysbiosis. So, they go to town and eat a whole jar of veggies. Then they go into a healing crisis and they are afraid to try cultured foods again," Caroline warns.
"... Start slow, and that way you won't have a headache or you won't have that outbreak... you will start to see yourself eliminating more naturally, and the proper stool will form, the shape will change, and it will be all be beneficial to you. Let your innate intelligence guide you, and if you see something or feel something that's not so right, don't dismiss the cultured foods and say, "Oh, that was bad for me, it caused a reaction." That's not what your body's telling you. Your body's telling you, "Slow down."
There are Many Varieties of Cultured Foods
Ideally, you'll want to include a variety of cultured foods and beverages in your diet, as each food will inoculate your gut with a variety of different microorganisms. Fermented foods you can easily make at home include:
- Cultured vegetables (including pureed baby foods)
- Condiments, such as salsa and mayonnaise
- Cultured dairy, such as yoghurt, kefir, and sour cream
- Fish, such as mackerel and Swedish gravlax
In this interview, Caroline discusses the process of fermenting your own vegetables in some detail, so for more information, please listen to the interview in its entirety, or read through the transcript. According to her, most people are very intimidated, if not downright frightened that the culturing process might lead to some horrific pathogenic infection... While understandable, this fear is undeserved. Caroline addresses this and other concerns in her article "Taking the Mystery out of Culturing Your Own Superfoods." Clearly, educating yourself about the process will help alleviate concerns about eating fermented foods, which are very much "alive."
"If they could only grasp the important concept that it's NOT the microbe; rather, it is the terrain (immune system) we should be worried about!" she says.
How to Culture Your Own Vegetables
While you can do wild fermentation, which is allowing whatever is on the vegetable or fruit that you're culturing to just naturally take hold and culture the food, this method is very time consuming. Inoculating the food using a so-called starter culture speeds up the fermentation process.
Although you can use a crock pot, Caroline recommends culturing your veggies directly in the glass Mason jars, which eliminates the need for a crock pot and eliminates a transfer step in the process. This also allows you to make smaller batches, and it eliminates the presence of wild yeasts which can occur when using a crock. These yeasts tend to give the food a cheesy sort of flavor, which many find unpalatable.
Here's a quick summary of Caroline's recipe for how to make your own fermented veggies:
- Shred and cut your chosen veggies
- Juice some celery. This is used as the brine, as it contains natural sodium and keeps the vegetables anaerobic. This eliminates the need for sea salt, which prevents growth of pathogenic bacteria
- Pack the veggies and celery juice along with the inoculants (starter culture, such as kefir grains, whey, or commercial starter powder like our Complete Probiotics, all of which can be used for vegetables) into a 32 ounce wide-mouthed canning jar. A kraut pounder tool can be helpful to pack the jar and eliminate any air pockets. We hope to have our new starter culture which is optimized with strains of bacteria that will make high doses of vitamin K2 sometime in early 2013 assuming our testing goes well.
- Top with a cabbage leaf, tucking it down the sides. Make sure the veggies are completely covered with celery juice and that the juice is all the way to the top of the jar to eliminate trapped air
- Seal the jar store in a warm, slightly moist place for 24 to 96 hours, depending on the food being cultured. Ideal temperature range is 68-75 degrees Fahrenheit; 85 degrees max. Remember, heat kills the microbes!
- When done, store in the refrigerator to slow down the fermentation process
Here are a few of Caroline's suggestion for how to store the jars for optimal fermentation. (Remember, they don't require a heated environment and only need to be kept around 72 degrees):
"Simply put the jars into a [portable] cooler and place the cooler OFF the floor (the floor is usually too cold due to heat rising away from it). Wrap the jars inside the cooler in an old towel and place an additional jar of HOT water into the cooler to make the environment warm. You can replace the hot water jar when you "think" about it - no need to obsess.
You can also place the jars in a casserole dish or baking dish and wrap them in a towel and place them in your oven with the oven heat OFF of course, but switch the oven light on. The heat emitting from the appliance bulb will keep the veggies warm.
Another option is to place as many jars as possible into a dehydrator and set it to the lowest temperature setting, but most dehydrators only accommodate a couple of jars max. It's best to prepare many jars at one time due to the given fact that making veggies is a labor intensive process. I like the cooler or oven incubation processes best. They work well every time."
Last but not least, resist the temptation to eat out of the jar! This can introduce organisms from your mouth into the jar. Instead, always use a clean spoon to take out what you're going to eat, then, making sure the remaining veggies are covered with the brine solution, recap the jar.
One Dozen Tips and Tricks for Making Delicious Cultured Vegetables
Due to my own interest, Caroline has shared a lot of information with me. Here are a dozen more of her tips and tricks that she didn't share during the interview:
- Cabbage should comprise at least 80 percent of your vegetable blend. Carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, turnips and other hard root veggies can also serve as a great base for your cultured veggies, but they're not as economical.
- Five to six medium-sized heads of cabbage will yield about 10-14 quart-size (32 oz) jars of fermented veggies.
- You can use red or green cabbage, but make sure they're hard and heavy, with densely packed leaves. The lighter, leafier varieties will tend to turn into mush that doesn't ferment well.
- Add in other vegetables to suit your taste, such as: red, yellow or orange bell pepper, butter nut squash, dill, parsley, kale, collards and red or golden beets. Beware: use bell peppers sparingly as they have a very strong presence. One small pepper for 12 to 14 jars is plenty.
- Always use ORGANIC vegetables!
- Peel your vegetables as the skins can add a bitter flavor.
- When adding aromatics, such as onion, garlic and ginger, remember that fermenting increases the flavor multiple-fold, so a little goes a long way. Don't overdo it! A few medium-size cloves is enough to infuse a dozen jars or more with a mild garlic flavor.
- Onion tends to overpower, no matter how little is used, so Caroline doesn't use it in any of her blends.
- When adding herbs, only use fresh organic herbs, in small amounts. Tasty additions include: basil, sage, rosemary, thyme and oregano.
- Add sea vegetables or seaweed to increase the mineral, vitamin and fiber content. You can add pieces of whole dulse, or use flakes. Wakame and sea palm, which do not have any kind of fishy flavor, need to be presoaked and diced into desired size. Arame and hijaki do have a fishy flavor.
- Use two packets of starter culture for a 12-14 jar batch during summer season. In the winter, you'll need three packets.
- During summer, veggies are typically done in three to four days. In the winter, they may need up to seven days. Just open up the jar and have a taste. Once you're happy with the flavor and consistency, move the jars into the fridge.
Tools of the Trade
Having the right tools can make the process easier. You don't need much, but canning jars, and a food processor to slice and dice large amounts of vegetables are recommended.
Canning jars can be found at your local hardware store and at some grocery stores as well. Amazon.com and other online sources also carry them. The 32 oz jars work really well, but you can find both smaller and larger, depending on your needs. Do get the wide-mouthed version, as they are much easier to work with. It allows you to get your hand down into the jar, and it's very important to pack the jar firmly with vegetables to eliminate any air pockets.
"You want to squeeze all the oxygen out, and you want your cultured veggies or whatever you're culturing to be anaerobic, meaning oxygen-free. Underneath water is the best way to do that, or underneath the liquid in the jar. And that wide-mouthed allows you to keep pressing down... A kraut pounder [can be helpful]. It looks like a tiny baseball bat. You can go to krautpounder.com, I believe, and you can buy a little kraut pounder, and you just use that to press down to get all the oxygen out. That way, when you seal up this jar, you have this perfect, anaerobic environment within that vessel for it to culture."
Caroline recommends a couple of models of food processors, emphasizing quality and power for optimal performance:
- Cuisinart Home Kitchen Models, Elite series: This is for general home use and usually available on Amazon.com. Very reliable, powerful and it has a large 14-cup capacity so you don't have to keep taking it apart to dump out the processed contents.
- Waring Cuisinart Commercial Food Processor with feed chute: Heavy-duty and high quality, this food processor is worth the investment ($599 and up) if you plan to make veggies often and in larger batches. This one is NOT available on Amazon.com. You will need to purchase online from a restaurant supply store.
Another tip includes using the shredding disc rather than the "S" shaped blade. Make sure the food processor model you buy comes with a shredding disc, as some don't. In worst case, purchase it separately. According to Caroline, "the shredding blade makes a "slaw/traditional kraut-like" texture to the veggies. The "S" blade finely minces veggies into a more pulp-like, crushed consistency. This can be too soupy and during the culturing process, become more like a mushy salsa. Definitely SHRED your veggies for the best results - unless you like the crushed version."
In addition to the wealth of information shared in the interview above, I highly recommend getting the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, which provides all the necessary details for the GAPS protocol. We were finally able to convince Dr. Campbell-McBride to print it in the U.S., so I now offer it for sale in my store. It saves you a few dollars, compared to ordering it from the U.K..
www.Immunitrition.com is another helpful resource where you can learn more about cultured and fermented foods. If you're so inclined, you can also find information about how to become a Certified Healing Foods Specialist here.
Additionally, if for whatever reason you just don't have the time, effort, energy, ambition, motivation, or discipline to ferment your own foods, but you understand and appreciate the value of them, Caroline has a company that sells them. I used hers for a month before I started making my own. So, if you just want to put your toe in the water and see if you like them, you can order a jar or two and try them out.
I feel very strongly that if we can catalyze a movement to get more people to implement this ancient dietary wisdom to their normal eating patterns, then we'll start seeing a radical change in health.