Getting Started with Fermented Veggies
I get the question a lot, “How do I get my kids to like fermented foods?” And “How do you do your ferments?” I have learned a lot of what not to do over the years, so I thought it was time to share some tips from my own experience. Here they are! May they assist you on your real-food journey!
Kid Tip #1
Limit sweet stuff for a few days prior to the introduction of ferments, especially with picky and/or older kids. Ferments aren’t supposed to be sweet, and kids that are used to eating lots of sweet-tasting things will turn their noses up at the “strange” sour flavors of ferments. Sweets tend to mold your tastebuds’ preferences toward sweet things, and the elimination of sweet foods will make other foods taste more interesting and delightful as your body lets go of its sugar addiction. It’s important that fermented foods make a good first impression, as some children will never forget a food they “didn’t like.”
Kid Tip #2
Don’t make it a big deal. Or if your kid responds well to “big deals,” make it exciting. Tailor the introduction to your child’s personality. One of my boys is reluctant to try new things, so when I ignore the “new thing” and don’t make a big deal over it, he’s much more accepting of it. The other of my boys likes an adventure, so I treat new foods totally different for him; I make them exciting, thrilling! “This is so yummy, try this!” If I were introducing ferments to them for the first time, I would probably do it at separate times. But the key is to pay attention to your childs’ personality and use it to your advantage. If your child likes eating healthy things, tell them this is a food that will help keep them from getting sick. If your child likes the color pink, use red cabbage or beets, and make it a game.
Kid Tip #3
Ease in slowly. Start with more easily accepted foods like yogurt or pickles. You could even create dishes that incorporate those foods as an ingredient, like fruit salad or deviled eggs. Put a little sauerkraut in their taco. Your child doesn’t have to eat a heaping helping of sauerkraut every morning to get ferments into their diet. Take it one step at a time!
Kid Tip #4
Don’t sugar-coat it. Literally! Try to resist sweetening ferments just so your child will eat them. Sure, sweeten the yogurt a little bit, or perhaps you’ll have to start on the sweeter end, but slowly try to pull back on the sweet content. ALL FERMENTS TASTE TART, and you’ll need to allow your child to appreciate the sour flavor if fermented foods are to become a part of their life-long diet.
Babies love sour things, but adults are often afraid to give them full-force tartness because they have never learned to appreciate sour things, so they automatically jump right to the sweetened version. All three of my children have been introduced to sour-tasting, unsweetened ferments as part of their first foods, and guess what: They have all loved them! Babies sometimes make funny faces when eating tart yogurt for the first time, but judging how my babies have grunted loudly for the next bite, I’d say they like them. Don’t let a funny face deter you from introducing these special foods!
Kid Tip #5
Don’t “Do as I say, not as I do.” If you wrinkle your nose and gag over ferments, chances are your child is going to learn that behavior from you. Work on yourself first. Appreciate the goodness of ferments. Find some that you like. Your attitude is half the battle in getting yourself and your kids to truly enjoy these foods. If you think it’s gross, IT WILL BE GROSS. Your mental state is really key, and your kids will pick up on it easily.
Kid Tip #6
Get your spouse on the same page. Perhaps they’re resistant. At least go over this list of tips with them, and ask them to respect your efforts to introduce these foods. The kids may not notice that Dad’s not eating the pickled carrots, but they WILL notice that he comments on how gross they are when you get them out of the fridge. Attitude is everything. If you go in thinking something is disgusting, it will probably taste disgusting. Really what is happening is your mind is saying to you, “This new flavor should be categorized as disgusting because so-and-so says it is.” So be careful to preserve those positive first impressions!
Be mindful of ambient temperatures.
Ferments don’t like to be too warm or too cold. Most likely, too cool temperatures will be a bigger issue for you. They like to be at least 65 degrees, preferably closer to 70 or 75. If you keep your house very cool, use a seedling mat underneath your jars to keep them slightly warmer than ambient.
Know when to use a brine.
In my experience, cabbage does not turn out well when done with a salt brine. It does better when fermented with its own juices. This means more work for pounding the cabbage to release the juice, but it definitely turns out tastier. Come to think of it, most finely grated veggies will tend to be tastier when simply salted, pounded, and smashed down under their own juice, rather than adding a salt brine. Carrots and beets and pickles, on the other hand, require a brine.
Make sure you use enough (but not too much) salt.
If you do use a salt brine, for example for pickles, carrot sticks, or beets, your salt content will range somewhere between 1 and 4 Tbsp per quart of water. Take notes when you make things so you know what you did when things turn out well (or not so well).
Keep things clean, but they don’t have to be sterile.
You don’t need to sterilize everything in sight. Just make sure you use nice clean grease-free glass jars, clean lids and bags and utensils. And don’t set your spoon down in dirty dish water before using it again. It’s not rocket science, but you do need to make sure you don’t accidentally contaminate your ferments prior to fermentation. You want to give the right bacteria the best shot at survival.
Preserve long shelf life.
Speaking of keeping things clean, I always make sure we use a clean utensil to dip out finished ferments. In other words, no one licks the spoon or dips it in the mayo jar before dipping out another pickled beet. I also keep their lids on when out to reduce air spore contamination. I want to make sure my ferments keep as long as they should in storage. They can keep 6 months if you’re careful with them!
Use non-irradiated veggies.
I have had much better luck with farmers market veggies and organic veggies than conventional, store-bought veggies. Typically the very large produce handlers send the veggies through irradiation to reduce bacterial contaminants. But the native bacteria are just what you need to start your ferments! General rule of thumb, if you’re buying at the store, choose organic. If you’re buying at the farmers market, make sure the farmer really grew it. A note on cucumbers: almost all store-bought cucumbers will be waxed, even the organic ones. Best to choose local-grown or grow your own!
The best way to tell if your ferment is done is to taste it. And remember—it was just raw veggies before you started fermenting it, so it’s perfectly safe to taste along the way. When they get to a pleasant taste and texture, they’re done!
Use your sniffer.
Not sure if a batch has gone bad? Smell it! A healthy ferment will smell like yogurt, or in the case of cabbage, a bit like methane. It shouldn’t smell putrid.
Block out oxygen.
Mold is probably the number 1 problem among fermenters, amateur and expert alike. Mold grows on veggies that are exposed to oxygen. As veggies ferment, they produce protective CO2, so use this to your advantage and buy an “airlock” jar lid. Or you can do it cheaply by using a thick layer of olive oil on top of your ferment, but as the fermentation progresses, you will notice that the CO2 will cause the veggies to bubble up out of the brine. My favorite method is to use either a clean plastic baggie filled with water or rolled up outer cabbage leaves (you know–the ones you’d throw away anyway) in the airspace of the jar. The idea is to press the veggies down under the brine and displace oxygen. The veggies will tend to start floating as they ferment and release CO2, so even if they’re down under the water when you start, you’ll need to do something to keep them there.
Cabbage is key.
My most successful non-cabbage ferments still involve cabbage. I put a piece of organic cabbage into the jar with my carrots, beets, cucumbers, etc. Cabbage is a plentiful source of veggie-friendly bacteria and can serve as a much more reliable starter than whey. My experience with whey has been very poor, but with cabbage leaf added to my non-cabbage ferments, I’ve had great success. For this reason, I often purchase all the necessary veggies for a variety of ferments at once. I do carrots, kraut, beets, and pickles all at the same time so that I have access to fresh cabbage leaf to get my non-cabbage ferments going successfully.
Do small batches!
When you’re starting out with fermentation, do small batches to develop your skills and taste preferences. There is nothing more discouraging than having to throw out a whole gallon of carefully prepared veggies that didn’t work out well because of lack of equipment or overlooked steps. Start out small and work your way up to success.
What to do with leftover brine?
If the brine is very new, you can try fermenting more veggies in it, but I would still add some cabbage leaf to be sure the right bacteria take hold. For older brine, we like soaking peeled boiled eggs in it in the fridge to get a “pickled egg” flavor. Soak for 24 hours and consume eggs within 1 week, then discard brine. Do not use brine for fermenting after soaking eggs.
Organic carrots, quartered into sticks
2-3 whole cloves of garlic
1 cabbage leaf
Salt brine, made up at 2 Tbsp dissolved per quart filtered or well water
Place ingredients into clean glass jar, covering carrots with brine and tucking them under the brine with the cabbage leaf. Use a bag or weight to hold veggies under brine. Close lid loosely so it can burp and ferment for 1-5 days, depending on temperature. Refrigerate and use within 6 months to retain crispness.
Organic, local cucumbers (unwaxed is important!)
2-3 whole cloves of garlic
McCormick pickling spices (or add your choice of herbs, like cloves, mustard, allspice, dill, etc)
1 cabbage leaf
1 oak leaf (for tannins to keep the pickles crisp! You can also use tea, strawberry leaf, raspberry leaf, or other non-toxic tannin containing leaf)
Salt brine, made up at 2 Tbsp dissolved per quart filtered or well water
Place ingredients into clean glass jar, covering veggies with brine and tucking them under the brine with the cabbage leaf. Use a bag or weight to hold veggies under brine. Close lid loosely so it can burp and ferment for 1-3 days, depending on temperature. Refrigerate and use within 2 months to retain crispness.
1 whole organic cabbage
Sea salt to taste
Cut the cabbage into small pieces. We like “strings” of cabbage about 2 inches long and ¼ inch wide. Pound the cabbage in a bowl with a wide wooden tool (a spoon will work, but it will take a long time! Buy a kraut pounder!) until the juices are released. Salt as you work, tasting as you go. Aim for slightly saltier than you like, as our kraut always ends up not being quite salty enough. Once cabbage is moist and soft, pack it into a clean glass jar, smashing all the air out of it. Enough juice should rise to the top to cover the cabbage. Use a few of the tough outer leaves to further press the kraut into the jar under the juices. Close lid loosely so it can burp, and ferment for 3-21 days, depending on temperature. Refrigerate and use within 6 months.
Happy fermenting! What tips have you learned?