Kirsten Shockey on Making Fermented Vegetables the Right Way
At a glance
Kirsten Shockey, author of Fermented Vegetables, shared the secrets to making delicious fermented vegetables and how you can do the same.
What you’ll learn
- What tools to use
- How to decide the amount of salt to add
- Troubleshooting tips
- The one secret to ensuring the flavor of the fermented vegetables you make
I met Kirsten Shockey at a talk she gave at 2015 Boston Fermentation Festival, the one-day free event that offered education and workshops on fermentation and its health benefits. At that time, I was reading her book – Fermented Vegetables – for my research project on making fermented vegetables. The book is now one of my favorite not only because it is very informative and contains detailed and clear instructions on how to make fermented vegetables, but also because it makes me realize that there can be a lot of fun in playing around with vegetables of different textures, tastes, and colors. I was excited to be able to meet her in person inside the Boston Public Market at the festival on that day and felt very honored when she agreed to hop on a Skype interview with me to share how to make fermented vegetables properly.
Because of her years of experience in mastering the art of making different kinds of fermented vegetables, her tips and advice would be invaluable for those who are new to vegetable fermentation. Through Skype, Kirsten shared with me details you need to consider while making your fermented vegetables. She even shared tricks that aren’t mentioned in her book!
Note that the answers given by Kirsten below might not be the exact words that she used. But they convey the same meaning.
At last, to help you get the most out of the interview below, I’d recommend you familiarize yourself with the entire process of making a bottle of fermented vegetables to have a big picture first. Some of her advice focuses on particular steps in the process. It’ll make more sense to you after you see the procedure.
I see that a lid is usually used to make a jar of fermented vegetables. Do you always need a lid?
A lid is not always necessary. If you use a Ziploc bag filled with water or pebbles and place the bag on the top of the fermented vegetables inside the jar, you don’t need a lid. The bottom of the Ziploc bag sits on the top layers of the ferments will keep them submerged under the brine (salted solution) surface and away from oxygen. Wrinkles of the bag will let the carbon dioxide escape from the brine.
Usually, the bag will extend its body to the outside of the jar. When the Ziploc bag doesn’t fill the space between the brine surface and the rim of the jar, a lid is then recommended.
The Ziploc bags are made of plastics. Will they not react with the acid generated by fermented vegetables?
Ziploc bags have the rigid plastic which is much less volatile. And they can work really well to keep the vegetables submerged in the brine.
Tracy’s note: after my further research, I also learned that Ziploc bags are made of polypropylene (source), known for high levels of chemical resistance. Under lower temperature (about 67°F, the ideal temperature for fermentation), polypropylene demonstrates excellent resistance to acetic acid and lactic acid (source), two major acids formed during the vegetable fermentation process.
In the book, you mention that when we are fermenting vegetables, we should make sure to not expose them to direct sunlight. Can you elaborate more on that?
Light and heat can kill bacteria in the ferments. Avoid direct sunlight if you can. But you don’t have to be obsessed about that. You just don’t want an environment to heat them up.
How much salt is too much salt?
Ideally, the salt you need weights about 1.5-3% of the weight of the vegetables. If your salt content is above 5%, the ferments will be too salty. All of my recipes in my book contain about 1.5-3% of salt.
Tracy’s note: in Kirsten’s book, I’ve learned that adding at least 0.8% of salt can help inhibit the growth of the disease-causing bacteria and yeasts. However, if the salt content is 10% or above, it can inhibit the fermentation process.
How to choose what vegetables to combines?
The general rule of thumb is that you combine vegetables with similar textures. However, sometimes, when you cut ingredients into smaller pieces, a mix of different textures is actually good. For example, the softer veggies can give you the brine you need, whereas the harder vegetables can give you the crunchiness. At the end of the day, use your creativity to explore and have fun in the process.
What to do with the foams on the top of the ferments?
Foams are a part of the process of carbon dioxide production during fermentation. They are not harmful. You just scrape them out because they are not flavorful. If you make smaller batches, they may not form foams as much.
In your book, you mention that a few days after you make a bottle of fermented vegetables and place it on the kitchen counter, “you would have to lift the followers on top to taste samples to decide whether it is ready. If you feel that it is not yet ready, simply rinse the followers, put them back in place, and continue monitoring the progress.” Why do I have to rinse the followers?
Every time you take the followers out, foreign objects may be attached to them (e.g. dust, dirt, and etc). In addition, the fermentation process may generate foams or other impurities. They can be attached to the followers, too. Rinsing the followers allows you to get rid of impurities.
Tracy’s note: after you stuff prepared vegetables into the jar, you will have to add additional layers on the top of the veggies to keep them submerged in the brine. They are called “followers”. I usually use a few pieces of cabbage leaves as the followers. You can check out the recipe to learn more.
Anything else you want to share to help us ferment vegetables appropriately?
The golden rule to make fermented vegetables successfully is to manage the brine properly. Everything underneath should be anaerobic and well submerged.
During the fermentation process, carbon dioxide is formed and tries to escape, making the vegetables less packed. You may see that small bubbles and air pockets appear and are trapped inside the vegetables, causing the veggies not fully submerged in the brine.
This often happens to vegetables with more sugar content. For example, beets in the winter have more sugar than those in the summer. You may then get more air bubbles in the ferments in the winter.
When that happens, press the ferments down once a day and drive the bubbles and air pockets out to reintroduce the brine into the vegetables. It’s a secret to ensure the taste of the final ferments.
Kirsten is very detail-oriented. The advice and guidance from the interview and her book have helped me a lot in my process of learning how to ferment vegetables properly. If you are someone who likes to visualize the process before you start a project so that you can gain the most control, I do highly recommend her book. As you see from the interview, she shared what to expect and clearly addressed how to handle different issues that may come up along the way. I just love it!
Kirsten K. Shockey is the co-author of Fermented Vegetables and Fiery Ferments with her husband, Christopher Shockey. They got their start in fermenting foods with their farmstead food company, where they created over 40 varieties of cultured vegetables and krauts. Their current focus is on teaching the art of fermenting vegetables to others through classes and workshops at their farm. They live on a 40-acre hillside homestead in the Applegate Valley of southern Oregon.
You can find her via the following channels:
- A lid is not always necessary for making fermented vegetables. You may use a Ziploc bag filled with water or pebbles as the follower to keep ferments submerged.
- The plastics in Ziploc bags will not react to the acid generated in the fermentation process. Therefore, it’s safe to use them for your fermentation projects.
- Do not expose fermented vegetables to direct sunlight that will heat up the ferments.
- 1.5-3% of salt is ideal for vegetable fermentation.
- You may choose to combine vegetables with similar textures to make one batch of fermented vegetables. But there isn’t a fixed rule. Just use your creativity and have fun with your own variations.
- Foams formed on the surface are not harmful. You can simply scrape them out.
- If you temporarily take the followers out, be sure to rinse them well before you place them back to the top of the ferments.
- If you see a lot of air bubbles or air pockets in the vegetables, squeeze them out once a day to ensure the taste of the final ferments.
My questions to you
What is the one tip that you’ve found most helpful? How will you use the knowledge to help you ferment your next batch of veggies?
Know someone who has always wanted to eat healthy? Share this article with the ones you care!
Want to learn more about how eating fermented vegetables can bring you more health, energy, and happiness? Check out my new book.
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