I realize that this may be a widely debated topic, both on the internet and in various fermentation books. So I want to preface my take on it by sharing where I am coming from. I see vegetable fermentation as an absolute gift to the homesteader. It creates a food rich in enzymes and probiotics, is a quick and simple means of food preservation, and can be done on any scale with any amount of harvest. Most critically, for those of us interested in sustainability, it requires zero energy inputs from heat or refrigeration.
So while I am absolutely an advocate for eating a wide variety of ferments every single day for health reasons, I also see fermentation as I assume many of our ancestors did – as a practical means of food preservation. I now personally believe that refrigeration is not only not required for keeping fermented vegetables, it might actually be a hindrance in achieving well-preserved, tastier ferments. This has to do with the basic process of fermentation, the operational temperature of the bacteria needed for a full lactic acid fermentation, and the temperature control of the modern refrigerator. I detail all of this in Traditionally Fermented Foods.
It wasn’t until I was four to five years into vegetable fermentation that I began to hold this position. The first four years or so that I dabbled in vegetable fermentation, I lived on-grid. I made pickles and salsas and krauts, fermented them until they were active and bubbly, and then stored gallons of them in the refrigerator for six months or more.
Then I moved off-grid and while I knew theoretically that our ancestors stored fermented vegetables without refrigeration, I had no practical experience with it. Without a refrigeration setup that allowed for large quantities of fermented vegetables to be stored at or below 40 degrees, I turned to makeshift root cellars and good old counter tops to store these probiotic pickles.
And guess what? They tasted better. I had fewer instances of mold. And I know I’m not alone in this because I have spoken with other homesteaders with similar experiences. There were also some batches that did not keep as well. After a few more tests, I figured out that there are specific conditions necessary for the fermentative bacteria to do their job proliferating and preserving the vegetable. A read through of the biology of the process confirmed my findings.
How you put together your ferments and the conditions under which you ferment them is absolutely critical to storing ferments long-term without refrigeration. This can be done in crocks or jars; with cabbage or carrots or even shelling beans, but the keys to success seemed to lie not in refrigeration but in careful consideration and brine levels, fermentation temperature, and utilizing simple canning jars to create an ideal environment for lactic acid fermentation to take place.
I write about the details of all of these considerations and key steps in Traditionally Fermented Foods, including how long to ferment, how you really know when a ferment is ready, and giving your lacto-fermented vegetables exactly what they need to succeed.
But for those of you who are looking to sustainably store your garden or farmer’s market vegetables, I wanted to encourage you in knowing that you don’t need fancy equipment, starter cultures (including whey), or even refrigeration to create tasty, healthy, well-preserved ferments. With garden vegetables, salt, and a full understanding of the biological needs of lactic acid fermentation as it pertains to vegetables, you can store up your harvest simply and sustainably.