Comparison of Vegetable Fermentation Methods

ng_salsa (homemade, lacto-fermented salsa)

Once you know the amazing benefits of lacto-fermentation (I really just named a few yesterday, Benefits of Lacto-Fermentation), the next question is how to get started and which method works best.

Today I would like to share specifically about the fermentation methods for vegetables. I thought I would share some of the different ways I have made lacto-fermented vegetables, the pro’s and con’s of the different methods, plus some new ideas that I am excited to dig deeper into!  As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and experience too.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty details, I also wanted to mention one online store where you can buy an item needed for one of the methods listed below, which is Cultures For Health. I am really impressed with their selection of sourdough starters, yogurt starters for raw milk, milk and water kefir grains, and kombucha mushrooms as well!  (And yes, one of the methods below does use one of those listed products! I am excited to try it!).

First there are two main methods I am aware of, both of which I have worked with.

Mason Jar Method: This is the method that Nourishing Traditions and the Body Ecology Diet uses.

Pros: It’s very easy to do. You simple fill your jars up and ferment right in the jar. No special equipment needed. I’ve gotten some great tasting fermented salsa, beets and pickles using this method.

Con’s: I haven’t always gotten as good as tasting sauerkraut with this method. It’s often had to rest in the refrigerator for months before it tasted right to us. This may be especially true since I don’t use the whey, which speeds up the process a bit.  To counter this, you can try to ferment it on the counter for longer then the three days. But you will need to release the pressure in the jars, because the longer it sits, the more pressure builds up and the more likely it is to explode your jar. I’ve also had the jars leak a lot.

Traditional Crock Method: Wild Fermentation uses this method. Click link to get detailed instructions. Go here to look at the book (which I love, by the way).

Pro’s: I have had great success getting some great tasting sauerkraut with this method. I feel like I have a little more control over it, because I am tasting it everyday, after about day 3-5. Then when it tastes just right, I put it in jars. It’s definitely produced our favorite sauerkraut thus far. And this is the method I plan to continue to use the most, especially for sauerkraut.

Con’s: You may need special equipment. This is going to be the easiest with a real crock. I’ve so far been using a large bowl with a plate and weight, but it’s harder to work with.

Now I would like to give a brief overview of different methods using different ingredients.

Salt Ferments

This is the method that I have mostly used. It’s also the traditional way to produce ferments. The salt not only keeps the product more crispy, but it also preserves the vegetables until the good bacteria starts to grow.

Pro’s: First I would have to say that since this is the traditional way to produce ferments (using the crock method), I have a bias towards it. It does produce a very tasty product, and even though it does take a bit longer to ferment, perhaps that longer time period is giving us advantages we don’t know of. Another advantages: Very easy to make, you don’t need extra ingredients, just vegetables and salt, and the finished product tastes great.

Con’s: Some find it too salty. I am a firm believer that good, unrefined, high quality salt is good for you, so I have no problem with salt in my ferments. But taste-wise, some don’t like it as salty. Many, however, don’t use high amounts of salt in a salt ferment, and it turns out great. So for those of you who are having a hard time with ferments coming out too salty, you can probably cut back on the salt significantly. Read Sandor Ellix Katz’s thoughts on simplifying the salting process (he is the author of Wild Fermentation). Salt ferments will also take longer.

Whey Ferments

This is the method that Nourishing Tradition uses.

Pro’s: It adds good bacteria into the ferments, thereby speeding up the fermentation, adding good bacteria, and also allowing you to use less salt.

Con’s: Those who are dairy intolerant can’t use it. You need to make sure you have good tasting whey as well. My mother-in-law, who was successful in making whey ferments found that you need a good tasting whey to make a good tasting ferment. You should also make sure to strain the whey, as one family I knew had gotten some of the whole milk yogurt bits in their ferment and it had gone bad much more quickly.

Saltless Ferments

Yes, you can actually make saltless ferments. The Body Ecology utilizes this method (get directions here) and in Wild Fermentation, there is at least one saltless variation (though he doesn’t necessarily recommend it).

Pro’s: Those who either don’t like the salty taste of ferments, or who try to not have as much salt, like this method. For the Body Ecology diet, you are eating a significant amount of cultured vegetables. If it was very salted, you would be eating a lot of salt. This way allows you to eat a lot of cultured vegetables without eating a lot of salt.

Con’s: Taste and texture might not be quite as agreeable. You also have to be very careful that everything you use is quite clean otherwise bad bacteria could grow before the good bacteria has a chance. Read this quote from Sander, the author of Wild Fermentation on saltless cultured vegetables,

“Some people promote the idea that salt-free sauerkrauts contain more beneficial organisms than salted krauts. I don’t believe that. The most specific beneficial bacteria we’re after, Lactobacillus, is salt-tolerant and abundantly present even in salty krauts; arguably, salt-free ferments are more biodiverse, but this diversity often results in mushy textures. Though it is possible to ferment vegetables without salt, a little salt results in far superior flavor and texture—and just as much beneficial bacteria. So again, salt to taste.” Source

The Body Ecology store also sells cultures that you can add to jump start the ferment with some good bacteria. It is a bit expensive, but I am sure that it would work great. Others actually just use a bit of coconut kefir, either bought from The Body Ecology store, or homemade. This is a dairy free option to the whey.


Finally, this is a very interesting method that I just learned about! In my last post Kaylin left a comment mentioning it. I was intrigued! I found this wonderful site talking about it (I’ve quoted them below). I think I just may have to try it.

Pro’s: Like adding the whey, culture, or coconut kefir, it helps the good bacteria grow quickly in your ferment. Some feel that it produces a better product in the end. You can make it saltless as well. When made the saltless way, it will ferment very quickly.

“On the opposite side of the chopping board however, kefirkraut is cultured with the addition of kefir grains incorporated as a starter-enhancer. This permits the culture-process to proceed much more rapidly and efficiently in comparison, and without the use of any salt, or, a small percentage of salt just for taste [or to extend shelf life] may be used, if desired. The culture-product can be tailor-cultured to suit personal preference of the Kefirkraut-Master. Incorporating kefir grains influences a more rapid fermentation and as a result produces culture-vegetables with optimal nutritional value, for oxidation of nutrients is minimised. I would not be surprised if like many kefir recipes, kefirkraut may too produce the powerful antioxidant common to milk kefir, soy kefir and rice milk kefir, as research has shown. This would make an interesting area for further research.”

Con’s: You do need to get your hand on some milk kefir or water kefir grains (like I mentioned earlier, Cultures for Health is one great place to get them). You could run into some of the same problems as saltless ferments (mushy texture), but you can also utilize this method with salt, though it will take a bit longer. Other then that, I don’t know of many disadvantages since I haven’t even tried it yet!  Except perhaps that it does conflict with my bias towards the most traditional methods of making sauerkraut.

So there are some of my thoughts and experience thus far in my lacto-fermenting journey. I would love to hear from you! What’s worked and what hasn’t for you?

This post is part of Works for me Wednesday and Real Food Wednesday!

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I love beautiful and simple food that is nourishing to the body and the soul. I wrote Fresh: Nourishing Salads for All Seasons and Ladled: Nourishing Soups for All Seasons as another outlet of sharing this love of mine. I also love sharing practical tips on how to make a real food diet work on a real life budget. Find me online elsewhere by clicking on the icons below!

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  1. Tanya says

    I made a batch of beets with 1/2 potassium chloride (salt substitute) and 1/2 sea salt. The batch seemed okay at first, but it was rotten a few days after I transferred it to the refrigerator. This is my only batch of lacto-fermented vegetables that has ever become rotten, and I’ve done hundreds of batches.

  2. Brad says

    Firstly, I love your site!

    I have only done the whey fermentation a handful of times and it has been hit or miss for me. It really does come down to the taste of the whey. The first batch of whey that I used tasted great and I made some excellent, sauerkraut, cortido, kimchi, tsukemono, ginger carrots and pickled pearl onions (all from Nourishing Traditions). My second batch of whey did not taste as good (I think the temperature was wrong and I may have let it separate for too long waiting for cheese to form.) My attempt at pickled garlic, cucumbers and beets turned out horrible! And really, the whey didn’t taste terrible. It was just a bit off. Also, this whey did not last long in the fridge. Sally Fallon says whey will last 6 months in the fridge. This one lasted about 3 weeks and became foul smelling. I plan on trying the salt method and sticking with it in the future as it sounds like people have better results with taste.

    Here’s my question: Is the salt method still considered “lacto-fermentation” since it produces an abundance of lactobacilus? I’m curious because Sally Fallon is always talking about the benefits of “lacto-fermentation” and I just wonder if salt fermentation is just as good as whey. She does suggest using more salt if you don’t have whey in all her recipes.

    Thanks again for the great site and all the help!

  3. Julia R. says

    Hi. Thank you for the good information. I am new at this culturing process. I am starting the body ecology diet due to long time battle with fibromyalgia and candidiasis. I need some advice on how to do this. I just spent lots of money on vegetables to culture and don’t have the right containers, all I have is plastic seal tight. I started with what I had but now am afraid this will be toxic or something. What exactly will happen to my veggies because of the plastic. Is there any way to salvage this food? And also, I have young coconuts ready for kefir. The starter I have for it is Yogourmet, which says has skim milk and yeast, is this ok to use in the beginning of candidiasis die off?
    Any input would be gratefully appreciated. Thanks!

  4. Tracie says

    I am going to have to disagree on these. Lactic Acid Bacteria need anaerobic environments. Mason jars and crocks can’t lock out all oxygen. That is why mason jars need to be boiled when canning. Crocks are great if you have a wine cellar or kimchi cave in your backyard. As to whey and starters……that jump starts your ferments skipping very vital steps in the fermentation process. Lactic acid bacteria have specific needs….the ways mentioned do not provide this. Why risk having unwanted yeasts/bacteria in your ferments?!? The whole reason we are fermenting is to get the health benefits and taste. Inferior ferment vessel = inferior product. What would be the purpose of that?!?

    Check out this link. No affiliation……..just LOVE their product, their passion about ferments and the science (the why’s and what’s of fermentation).

    • says

      I have to agree with Tracie! That is exactly right – mason jars are not the proper vessel for anaerobic fermentation….Nourishing Traditions is trying to get people started on the path to nutrient dense foods but when it was written – there was no easy or affordable way to ferment properly…hence the whey to try to vaccinate your food in the hopes of giving the bad bacteria a less desirable environment – traditional cultures did not let air into their lactoferments…the pickl-its are a great resource and there is lot so research and info available on the site for free – please take the time to learn more.

      • wildyeastiesfiend says

        I’ve been fermenting for years in crocks and jars, using only salt or salted water (brine). Indeed, there are hundreds of years of fermenting traditions prior to airlock technology. Salt creates a selective environment. You could even say that brine pickling creates an ‘anaerobic’ environment, under the brine itself. Oil has a similar effect. I am very suspicious of anyone who tells me otherwise – I find they are either selling me something, or have been sold something themselves. That’s not to disrespect those who use airlock methods (my mom makes killer low-salt dill carrots using an air locked mason jar)…. My philosophy is experiment experiment experiment.

      • lithog says

        In Alaska people are suffering more from botulism poisoning in fermented fish probably because they are using airtight containers instead of their traditional methods. Which allowed some air. In canning you boil to kill bacteria. Check out the National Center for Home Preservation.

        • calsurf13 says

          I lived in Alaska for three years and know of cases where people have suffered botulism poisoning from fermented fish, otherwise known as “stink head” in the Yupiko Eskimo villages I lived in. The old way practiced by the elders at summer fish camp is to dig a pit in the sandy riverbank, line it with grass, add salmon heads, then the salmon guts and then more grass covered loosely with sand. The stink head is left for 2-3 weeks and then dug up to eat. Apparently all the bad juices soak into the sand away from the fish heads. It is horrible smelling when they dig it up, I mean it almost makes you throw up. Not many people eat it anymore, mainly for the elders who claim they have visions when they eat it. You can smell someone who has eaten stink head from a mile away!

          People got sick because they were trying to make stink head in the winter in plastic buckets inside their house. The juices just sit there and spoil. A few people have died over the years. They actually have public service announcements warning people not to make traditional fermented food in plastic buckets.

  5. says

    I am new at fermenting, and am doing sour kraut and kim chee using mason jars, loosely tightened to avoid explosions. I’m leaving the jars out on our counter to encourage fermentation. Am I making major mistakes, or is this a good first step toward fermenting at home, (prior to investing in proper crocks etc.)

  6. Richard says

    Fermentation vessels. I started my fermentation almost two years ago. I have done a ample amount of research, including Wild Fermentation and Nourishing Traditions. My last batch of kraut, which was the best I, and many others, have ever tasted was done in three 1 gallon pickle jars. 22 pounds worth. Here is what I did. I shredded and salted the cabbage in stages, allowing the cabbage to produce its own brine. I then packed the cabbage as tightly as I could in each of the glass jars. When all the cabbage was in, it was covered by about 3/4″ worth of brine. Next, I filled three sandwich sized ziploc bags with a brine I made myself and used that as the weight to keep the cabbage down. I fermented the cabbage for almost two months and towards the end of fermentation, with the warming spring, I had to add brine to the jar a few times due to evaporation. This is a method I adapted myself and it incorporates the mason jar ideas from NT and the crock idea of traditional fermentation. I do have a tall 1-gal. crock-pot crock I use as well, which I found at a thrift store. I have a plate that fits nicely inside with little space between the edge which serves as my crock weight. With all that being said, fermentation is readily accessible to anyone caring to get into it. I have looked into the Pickl-it method and deemed it pricey and unnecessary.

    • Randy says

      I too like to use glass jars. I do basically the same thing you do except I cover it with coconut oil. It provides an oxygen free atmosphere, lets the CO2 bubbles out, prevents mold, is a natural anti-bacterial agent that the lacto organisms tolerate well and is easy to get back off of the kraut. I like to put my jars in a large pot or cooler that I can cover. This way they are kept in the dark and any leakage is easily cleaned up.

      • wildyeastiesfiend says

        I’ve heard mustard oil works really well, too. And I’ve had great success with olive oil. Sunlight is a natural anti microbial….I find fermenting in jars on my window sill makes for amazing pickles. They take a bit longer, perhaps. But they keep their crunch, and I love the mellow tang of a slow ferment in a totally different way than the effervescence of a quick pickle like, say, kimchi…. Gotta go pickle something now, ha ha. Will try your coconut oil tip, thanks!

      • nativ says

        Oh…but coconut oil is solid how can you make it permanently liquidy inside a coolish mason jar??

        Sounds like a GREAT idea…might have to try it out soon…

    • MJB says

      The one thing I’d suggest changing is replacing the plastic bags with another weight, as I’d be concerned about chemicals leaching out of the plastic due to the acid that develops. I think it’s worth it to use a container with straight, vertical sides to a plate can be used as a weight. If this isn’t enough weight, use several plates or top the plate with a glass jar full of water or marbles or whatever.

  7. Lisa says

    Our ansestors did not have special equipment. I have been making lacto fermented pickles and sauerkraut for years and no special vessel was needed. I now make them in 2 gallon glass jars, 1 gallon mason jars and as long as you weigh the produce down under the brine it’s fine. The scum is just skimmed. My secret is grape leaves. I freeze and salt brine preserve grape leaves for the top and bottom of my krauts and pickles.

    • sandra says

      Hi Lisa,

      I just started with lacto-veggies this year and wonder why my dill pickles get cloudy after they are opened. I made them in quart and 1/2 qt mason jars with whey, salt, spices, garlic, hot pepper and grape leaves. They are SO delicious and we love them. I have kept them in the frig after 2-3 days (depending on the temperature in the kitchen). But I wonder about their safety…because one jar started to taste a little funky. Any ideas? Thanks…

  8. Sarah says

    I love using kefir whey for cultured veggies. I use 2 tsp salt per cup of water, rather than 3 tsp. It’s especially good with beets, ferment in wedges.
    Kefir has become my cultured milk of choice I make a cup a day from organic whole milk. It’s so much easier to make and maintain than yogurt. I make kefir cheese on weekends, for the whey. Kefir grains continue to grow, so I always have kefir, and always have then to pass on to my friends. The whey is excellent in flavor. The stronger kefir flavor seems to stay with the cheese. I often use whey as a part of a salad dressing, I ad it to home made mayonnaise.

  9. mimi says

    I’m just starting with fermented veg – esp cabbage and chutneys (from Nourishing Traditions). I’ve been adding the whey from soya kefir – I’m dairy intolerant – does that work OK – I’m not sure yet as none of my pots have lasted more than 2 or 3 weeks before they are all gobbled up!! I have to say the Pineapple Chutney from Nourishing Traditions is gorgeous.

  10. says

    Hello everyone!

    I will be making my own fermented vegetables for the first time! Will coconut kefir starter work in place of the regular starter?

  11. says

    Hello everyone! Will coconut kefir starter be just as effetive in making raw, fermented vegetables? This will be my 1st time and I’m so excited! I’m dong everything I can to allow my body to heal of Multiple Sclerosis! You all give great advice!

  12. C. English says

    Can granulated yeast be used as a starter? If so, where can I read about it? I am hypersensitive to salt!

  13. Chris says

    I buy a superior probiotic supplement, Innate Choice created by Dr. James Chestnut. My question is for a starter much like the principle behind Body Ecology’s starter can I simply open a capsule and mix it in with my veggies prior to packing in mason jars?

  14. Hannah says

    I agree with the first two posters. I also want to add the fact that our ancestors did use anaerobic fermentation vessels. They would bury their jars, cover them with fat, and use skins; they may have used other methods, as well. LABS cannot develop properly in an aerobic environment– mason jars allow air in.

  15. cathy says

    Thanks ffor yor info, I need it badly. I’m on gaps and can’t have salt or dairy [ whey ]. Any helpful hints? Have to ferment.

    • BeverlyAnn says

      Hi Cathy, I considered GAPS but instead am doing Body Ecology. Try the Body Ecology Diet (B.E.D.) Starter which is considered diary-free. Another thing you could do is make the Young Coconut Kefir (using B.E.D Kefir starter) and use some of that Kefir to make your cultured vegetables.

      • nativ says

        Hi MJB, have you tried using the water kefir? How did it go? Was is consistently successful as the Body ecology starter?

        Ita so EASY to make the water kefir.. It just seems too good to be true that you can use this for fermentation..

  16. subtle dawn says

    For those who are interested in trying recipes that use whey but don’t want to use dairy, (I’ve read that fruits especially are better with whey, haven’t tried it yet), I recently realized that the almond yogurt I buy d has a ton of excess liquid in it, and I was wondering if anyone has tried using something like this in place of dairy whey? I think it would work since the liquid should contain the bacteria used in the yogurt.

  17. Kim says

    Hi there
    I have been looking for an easy way to have it explained to me on this process and you did it. Thanks for the information on this. It is new to me but sounds fasinating and healthy at the same time.

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