How to Pickle Vegetables without Vinegar – A Guide to Lacto-fermentation
January 3, 2020
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No vinegar? No problem! We all love pickles, and there’s no better method to make your own than traditional lacto-fermentation. Here’s how to pickle vegetables without vinegar!
As long as I’ve remembered, I’ve enjoyed all sorts of pickles. Gherkins, onions, eggs, chillies, and now even more. However, up until earlier this year I hadn’t tried real pickles.
I mean the traditional type – the homemade pickles that the generations before us thrived on! These delicacies, are the result of an amazing process called “lacto-fermentation”.
What are Lacto-fermented Vegetables?
Lacto-fermented vegetables are simply any vegetable(s) that have been fermented by the natural bacteria present on them. The name comes from “Lactobacillus”, a range of bacteria the fermentation depends on.
The process is simple: vegetables are sliced, crushed, even left whole, and left in a sanitary brine solution. From there, the little guys (bacteria and enzymes) do the work!
As they develop and multiply, they convert sugars into lactic acid, which in turn keeps unwelcome bacteria at bay and prevents spoiling.
What results is natural preservation, crispy and crunchy delicacies, reduced carbohydrate content, and gut-friendly bacteria (probiotics).
This is a process which has been known to mankind for thousands of years.
Vinegar Pickles vs Fermented Pickles
Traditionally, a lot of food was preserved by nourishing beneficial bacteria, and only took a few easy ingredients. Fermented pickles make use of this ancient practice.
Think of all of these traditional foods:
- Bread (first made from sourdough)
- Soy sauce
- Porridge (yep!)
These are all fermented foods, which allowed us to preserve our supplies and build complex, health-boosting cuisines across the world.
On the other hand, vinegar pickles are more common now than they used to be.
Vinegar has been used in preservation for a very long time as well, but it is a more expensive process and provides less nutritional benefits. It works by preventing the growth of any bacteria, and, much like fermentation, imparts a pleasantly sour flavour.
In this article, we look at how to pickle vegetables without vinegar, to yield beneficial and natural health-foods!
Why Make Your Own?
So what’s the point? Well, I’m so glad you asked!
Most of us don’t need to preserve our food anymore and can simply pick up some pickles from the supermarket.
But here’s the catch: They’re nothing like “real” pickles (well, most of them). Traditional pickles pack plenty of flavour, health benefits, and fun.
Here are just a few of the reasons why your own homemade pickles and lacto-fermented vegetables come out world’s above what you’re likely to find in the store.
Probiotic and Other Health Benefits
One of the top reasons to learn how to ferment vegetables without vinegar is because it provides a wealth of health benefits!
It’s no secret that today’s healthiest populations and centenarians are in large part those who have been raised on traditional diets and lead an active, spiritual and mentally beneficial lifestyle. An important part of any traditional diet across the globe is fermentation.
Consuming beneficial bacteria (known as probiotics) has a major impact on health (^)* by:
- Boosting gut health (^)*
- Supporting the immune system and fighting bad bacteria (^)(^)(^)*
- Aiding the digestive system and diseases (^)*
- Supporting mental health (^)(^)(^)*
- and more… *
Furthermore, the vegetables take on an entirely new nutritional profile! Enzymes and bacteria naturally produce a range of vitamins (such as B vitamins), will increase protein content, and also reduce carbohydrate levels.
To learn more about how this occurs, and what makes traditional food so important for optimal health, I highly recommend reading the award-winning ‘Deep Nutrition’ book.
(Recommended reading on the power of traditional diets)
Fun Way to Learn
Fermentation is a rewarding experience. Firstly, you get to create some amazing food and snacks from your own projects. Secondly, you’ll always learn something new in the process.
Every time you make something new, you’ll find yourself thinking about what might work next, what could be better, and expanding your ideas!
Don’t forget that it could teach kids a lot, too!
If you want to spend time with your young ones, getting them involved hands on can gift them skills for life and they’ll have fun trying the end product.
The truth is that fermenting your own pickles is straightforward and easy to do.
In fact, traditional food preparation is often quite simple! It had to be in many cases for our ancestors…
As you’ll see in the recipe below, you need very little equipment and only a few basic ingredients. Maintaining your ferment during the process takes very little time, as well.
You can get started with any pickle you’d like (what’s your favourite vegetable?), and leave it to ferment until the desired flavour develops.
Depending on the method, you’ll need to “burp” it once a day for a few seconds. Don’t worry, we’ll cover that later.
Boost Your Cooking – Sauces, Pickles, More…
Apart from making your cooking more fun and nutritious, learning how to pickle vegetables without vinegar can open up a whole new world of skills, recipes, and flavours.
This is because you get to discover how different vegetables, spices, and herbs can work together and the new flavours that they can each develop.
Certain vegetables will impart unique colour and texture, herbs and spices will infuse, and so on.
The best part is that once you understand the basic fermentation process, it’s transferable. As we’ll likely cover in future posts, you can easily learn to make things like:
- Hot sauces
- Pickled eggs
- Even meats and fish!
Pickling vegetables is easier, making it one of the best places to start.
Basically, you’ll be able to turn ordinary ingredients into an array extraordinary recipes.
As a fan of Japanese cuisine myself, I can tell you that making Japanese pickles (tsukemono) this way is always a delight. These pickles made it onto my list of the top (low-carb) keto Japanese foods, as well!
Use up Old Veggies
Some things never change – we all get vegetables that need using up sometimes.
Plus, it’s always nice to have a way to preserve extra vegetables (or those that you’ve grown yourself)!
Next time you have some leftover tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, or else and nothing to do with them – don’t throw them out! You can reduce your food waste (and save money) by pickling some of your vegetables.
Impress Friends and Family
It’s best to start with basic recipes that use only a few ingredients. However, after your first few recipes you’ll find it easy to start being creative.
From books, the internet, or your own recipes, all sorts of vegetables, herbs, and spices can make amazing kimchi or other pickles.
Not only are these rewarding personally, but they make great gifts or even party food. Adding a personal touch can really add some spirit to the food at celebrations or when you have guests over!
P.S. Admittedly, just as with any pickle, storing it well and using the right ingredients is important.
A warm pickle jar can sometimes have strong flavour or smell, for example – they are still pickles after all! It’s all part of the fun.
Discover a New Hobby
If you’re not sold on learning how to pickle vegetables without vinegar already, you sure will be after your first successful attempt.
From there, you’ll be part of the club! Many people enjoy fermenting foods as a hobby, and take pride in creating all sorts of wonderful dishes and beverages that require the certain skill-set that you’ll naturally acquire over time.
You can even join social media groups or clubs for people interested in one or many types of fermenting.
So what are you waiting for?
What Can You Pickle? It’s Not Just Cucumbers!
It’s not just cucumbers! Nonetheless, the most famous example of any pickle is easily the classic “Kosher dill pickle”, brought to the Americas in the 1800s by European Jews (hence the name).
They fermented cucumbers just as we learned: using a simple brine with spices like dill and garlic. In fact, they would ferment many vegetables, including cabbage “sauerkraut”.
And the best part is that these were staples of their diet. This is traditional food, providing flavourful, probitiotic, recipes year-round.
This is an example of what we should aim for every day! It’s one of the founding principles of Healthy Ronin: Live as your body has learned to over the ages, and it’ll reward you to its full potential.
In my latest recipe as of writing this, I made something similar to the Vietnamese pickled daikon and carrot: ‘Do Chua’.
Check out my other lacto-fermented recipes, such as How to Ferment Oats (which you should if you currently eat them raw as most do). You can even do it with Brown Rice (Recipe) and other wholegrains, nuts, and seeds.
How to Pickle Vegetables Without Vinegar
Let’s get technical – recipe notebooks out!
Below I’ve laid out all the three basics that you’ll need every time: Equipment, ingredients, and method. Once you’ve got those down, you’re all set.
I’ve also shared an easy recipe for you to follow along with, but feel free to adapt or substitute.
Learning how to pickle vegetables without vinegar is simple. So is the equipment you’ll need. The goal is to keep your veggies fully submerged and keep oxygen out.
If you’ve got these already, you’re set to go:
- Fermentation-safe container
- Suitable pickling weight (depending on container and ingredients)
- Airlock (optional)
(I’ll explain these in more detail below).
If you have none of the above, the best way to get started is with a simple mason jar and a fermentation set. Together, these give you everything you’ll need without you having to get each item seperately!
Amazon provide 4 Ball Mason Jars and 4 Complete 3-Piece Kits by Jillmo with Airlocks, Lids, and Grommets.
You can currently get the complete set for a total of just $40.94 (limited time).
If that’s a bit out-of-budget, there’s no need to worry. It’s easy to get started with any effective jar or fermentation-safe container (see below). For beginners, using an airlock does add extra “security”.
Info: The Container
The first thing you need is a fermentation-safe container – and ideally one that you can make near enough airtight. There are a few options here, including glass mason jars and fermentation crocks made from glass, ceramic, or wood.
Certain food-grade plastic containers will also work. Make sure to look up the type of plastic or contact the manufacturer.
If you have a jar, it should be designed for fermenting as we will need to sterilise it at high heat.
Then the most important thing is a weight. An excellent option available nowadays is a jar fermentation set. The Top-selling ‘Jillmo’ Kit is one of the most competitive on the market (especially for price, when others go for $40.00!).
Avoid using the following containers, as they may interact with fermentation:
- Steel or Iron (even galvanised)
- Non-food-grade plastics
The most popular option is to use a mason jar. They come in different sizes, allow for you to easily check your ferment, and are generally cheaper.
I personally use the classic Kilner Jars, but there are cheaper high-quality options online.
Amazon has an excellent selection to suit preferred sizes, types, and budgets. Don’t forget you can check local supermarkets or hardware stores such as Wilko for similar options.
Info: The Weight
Secondly, your ferment will need an anaerobic environment to ferment efficiently and prevent hazardous bacteria or mould. This means keeping your ingredients submerged.
Naturally, they’ll tend to float in brine if not packed tightly, however.
Fortunately, people use all sorts of solutions here to weigh down the vegetables.
- Small glass jars (if they will fit)
- Small ceramic plates (once again, must fit)
- Food grade plastic bags (filled with water or brine)
- Even other vegetables such as some cabbage tucked in on top or a large round apple slice (provided that you can keep them submerged).
The easiest option is to get yourself a fermentation / pickling weight, which you’ll likely find anywhere you would a jar.
For the online shoppers (hey isolation peeps!), SOLIGT’s Wide-Mouth Glass Jar Weights come in at only $16.99 at a discount. Plus, they’re pretty fancy with easy grip handles!
Info: The Airlock
An airlock serves two purposes in pickling and fermentation: to keep oxygen from getting in, and to let carbon dioxide out.
This in turn prevents your ferment from spoiling by preventing unwanted bacteria from growing.
At the same time, it releases built up gasses which beneficial bacteria naturally produce. This is important, as excess pressure can eventually cause airtight containers to explode!
The reason airlocks are optional when pickling without vinegar is because containers and methods vary. I don’t use them, and instead “burp” jars once every 1-2 days for their fermentation stage.
Simply put, all you have to do is slightly open the jar to release gasses, which also lets you examine the smell or taste!
The easiest part is the ingredients, as you only need a few. These create your brine and your pickle, and include any extra seasonings.
- Water (dechlorinated* – either filtered or boiled)
- Salt (non-iodised – check ingredients for any iodine chemicals. Pure sea salt works fine)
- Spices and Herbs
*Most tap water contains added chlorine. This prevent bacterial growth, and therefore will stop any fermentation from taking place.
Fortunately, we can remove this chlorine water simply by boiling the water (and letting it cool before using). This evaporates any chlorine.
For convenience, especially if you plan to make many pickles, I’d recommend using a filter such as Make Water Pure’s Countertop Distiller. This will save both time and money.
Here we are! You’ve got your tools at the ready and your fresh vegetables to be pickled. A quick few steps and you’ll be fermenting away like a mad scientist at work!
It’s important to do these in order so your hard work doesn’t go to waste! Each step also ensures safety as much as possible.
Step #1: Sanitisation
Safety first! We must always sanitise equipment before using it. The next section in this article explains how to safely ferment.
You can easily find sanitisation instructions online for any type of fermenting container.
Most people seem to use glass jars and boil them. You can also oven-sterilise. ‘Happy Kombucha’ provides great instructions when it comes to glass jars.
As a rule, don’t use any glass container such as a pasta sauce jar. These may explode or crack at high heat, so please use one made for fermentation.
Alternatively, for stoneware crocks, here is what to know.
I personally use the following way to boil my glass mason jars and seals. It should take no longer than 15 active minutes:
- Wash all equipment (cutlery and container) in soapy water / dishwasher
- Inspect for any damage to container or jar (use only if not damaged)
- Remove rubber seals
- Submerge jars in pot / pan of room-temperature water
- Bring to a boil, and continue to boil for 5-6 minutes
- Add in rubber seals, and boil for a further 5-6 minutes
- Turn off the heat and remove jars and seals with tongs (Take care, they will be HOT!)
- Allow to cool until warm to touch
And that’s it! Now you’re ready to safely begin the fun part: pickling. Below we’ll learn how to make the perfect brine, how to fill your container, and how to store them.
Step #2: Setting Your Pickles to Ferment
After sanitising, the next thing to do is create a brine which will turn our vegetables into delicious, crisp pickles.
We use brine containing salt for a few main reasons. These are to:
- Prevent unwanted bacteria from propagating
- Draw water and sugars out of the vegetables (which the bacteria feed on)
- Improve flavour, texture, and nutrition
The ideal salt amount is generally around 3.5% of the weight of the water used. This equates to roughly 2 tablespoons of salt for every 1 litre of water. For coarse salts you may find you need slightly more, and fine salts maybe a little less – you’ll figure out with works best for you over time.
Simply dissolve the salt into your dechlorinated (see above or recipe below) water.
Next: the veggies!
Remember, you can use any vegetable you’d like: Onions, broccoli, peppers, tomatoes, and so on. For vegetables that need cooking like potatoes, simply cook them once they are pickled.
Now, you can leave vegetables whole if they fit, or prepare them any way you like. Use sanitised equipment here, too.
I typically slice root vegetables into sticks, and tomatoes would probably be best left whole: whatever makes sense to you.
Creative ideas like spiralising or dicing also work well, provided you can keep the smaller pieces submerged.
This ‘how to pickle vegetables without vinegar’ recipe is an adaption of something I tried recently. Feel free to follow along!
We’re almost ready! But – as we’ve all heard time and time again growing up – safety first.
Fermentation is an amazing process, and we want to get it right without instead having mouldy veggies or any risk of food-borne illness.
This fear has put some people off of fermenting, but I’ll show you why it shouldn’t, and how to identify a problem if things do go wrong.
Why Fermentation is Actually Safe
First of all, recall that fermentation is one of the most ancient methods of preservation known to mankind. When done properly, it does a lot actually prevent negative bacteria and “bugs” from inhabiting the vegetables!
Lactobacilli (the bacteria we’re counting on pickles) thrive in an anaerobic environment and create a lot of acidity.
That kind of environment is the complete opposite to what many harmful bacteria require to live. And by adding salt, we are further preventing unwanted presences.
In this way, fermenting vegetables can actually kill harmful bacteria which may have been on them beforehand, and will keep them at bay.
An important factor is to try and use vegetables which haven’t been contaminated (such as through contact with manure) in the first place, just as a precaution. Also, don’t forget to rinse your vegetables.
A common misconception you may have heard is that lacto-fermentation is particularly risky because of botulism. This is a myth, as that same harmful bacteria also cannot survive in the environment we need.
For safe fermentation, here are the most important tips to follow:
- Use fresh, healthy ingredients – vegetables should be fresh, healthy, and, as much as you can help it, not contaminated by other sources such as rotten vegetables or manure.
- Don’t forget the salt – use the ratio given in the recipe, as too much or too little can ruin a ferment.
- Avoid iodised salt – for the right bacteria to survive, we don’t want the added chemicals.
- Likewise, avoid chlorinated water – this will kill beneficial bacteria.
- Use clean equipment – by using cleaning equipment we can prevent cross-contamination.
How to Identify Spoilage, and What to Do
With all that said, even the most experienced people make mistakes sometimes. If you ever find yourself unsure about the safety of a ferment or any food, don’t risk it.
If you find mould for example, it’s important not to skim it off and and eat the rest, as mould has roots which spread. Always discard spoiled vegetables, look at where you may have gone wrong, and simply give it another shot!
There are a few tell-tale signs to let you know when something is wrong. Some of these are easy to identify, so let’s take a look.
Visible Mould (Don’t Mistake for Kahm Yeast)
The most obvious sign of unwelcome bacteria when learning how to pickle vegetables without vinegar is mould.
These colonies of bacteria should be easy to tell apart from your vegetables, and will often have distinct features. Look out for the following:
- Colour – especially anything bright or vibrant such as green, pink, blue, or any other colour which stands out from your vegetables. White, black, or grey are bad, too.
- Texture – mould can take on multiple distinct textures. Most often they will appear fuzzy or hair-like, but some will be slimy or bubbly.
On the other hand, sometimes when fermenting in a liquid medium we get something called ‘Kahm Yeast’. This is a natural formation from yeasts found in the air and can sometimes find its way into to foods such as pickles.
Unlike mould, Kahm Yeast is totally harmless and can just be discarded. To identify it, it should appear as a thin, white kind of film, and should not produce bubbles or gas, or give off any odour or flavour.
Most of the time, this yeast will be present on the surface of the water, but it may find its way submerged, as well. As we now know, mould wouldn’t do the same.
Below is an example of what Kahm Yeast might look like:
Smell (Unpleasant Odours are Bad)
When we pickle vegetables, we expect a pleasant sour smell. It should be familiar. Using this natural method of fermentation, a slight yeasty smell is sometimes okay as well.
If however, you open your your pickles and are taken aback by a strong odour resembling anything unpleasant, discard the lot. Examples may be anything fishy, eggy, earthy, similar to decaying leaves, wood, old socks (for example), or even irritating to your nose.
As a rule of thumb: if it doesn’t smell appetising or pleasant, discard it.
Taste (Not Your First Port-of-call!)
If you’re happy with the way your vegetables have turned out, they look safe, and if have no unpleasant odour, it’s time for the final test – taste!
By this point, it’s likely that they are perfectly safe. And likely delicious! But you should still follow safety.
Lacto-fermented pickles often taste very similar to vinegar pickles, but may have some more natural pungency and a little less sourness. They should also still taste like the vegetables and herbs and spices that you use.
Any flavour descriptive of the smells above, or that otherwise seems “off” is a sign that somehow how your pictures got contaminated.
You’ll Only Get Better!
You’ll develop a keen sense for all of these over time as you you make more and discover what works well and what doesn’t.
If ever you’re unsure, don’t take the risk. You can always ask someone more experienced, or join social media groups who will be happy to help, as well!
I personally recommend the ‘Wild Fermentation Uncensored’ Facebook Group full of passionate and friendly fermenters!
The Recipe (Step-by-Step)
Lacto-fermented Pickled Vegetables without Vinegar: Carrot and Daikon Sticks (Đồ Chua)
- 1 Litre Fermentation Vessel (Airtight Mason Jar)
- Pickling Weight (preferred method)
- Measuring Jug or Scales
- Sharp Knife
- Chopping Board
- 2 medium-large Carrots
- 1/2 medium-large Daikon Radish a.k.a. mooli.
- 1 l Water dechlorinated (essential).
- 2 tbsp Salt non-iodised (essential).
- 4 cloves Garlic
- 1 cube Ginger 1-inch thumb-sized piece
- 1 tsp Mustard Seeds
- 1 bunch Fresh Basil Leaves to layer bottom of jar
- Sterilise your equipment – see notes, and use the jar whilst still warm (not HOT, as this will kill the bacteria and enzymes on the vegetables).
Preparing the Vegetables
- Thoroughly rinse vegetables (don’t scrub), and pat dry with a clean towel.
- Slice off of carrot tops, and chop into lengths to fit your mason jar lengthwise, allowing for few centimetres of headspace.
- Chop daikon to the same length as the carrot.
- Slice carrot and daikon into sticks to your desired thickness.
- Peel the garlic and keep whole. Slice ginger into thin strips (peeling is optional).
- Pour mustard seeds into the bottom of your jar and pack down with basil leaves. Start to add in your vegetable sticks as tightly as possible, tucking garlic and ginger in as you go along. It may help to turn the jar sideways after a while to fit more in.
Setting to Ferment
- In a jug, measure 1L of dechlorinated water. Add the salt and allow to dissolve into a brine.
- To your (upright!) jar, pour the brine and submerge all of your ingredients, adding about a 3 centimetre headspace.
- As necessary, weigh your vegetables down and keep ingredients submerged. Floating seeds or ingredients may be submerged with a large cabbage leaf, for example, before adding in weights.
- Finally, seal your container with a suitable airtight lid.
Storing and Checking
- Now you’re all set! Fermentation is ago.
- For the best results, keep your container somewhere warm and out of direct light. This could be on top of your fridge, in a cosy cupboard, a cellar or basement, or elsewhere.
- Leave for 24-48 hours, and then check in. If you have a clear container, look for bubbles and submersion (good signs) and anything resembling mould (a bad sign which shouldn’t appear if ingredients are fully submerged).
- Always toss and restart if there is mould – DON’T just scrape it, as it will have roots.
- For a jar without an airlock, slightly open the seal to let gasses out for a few seconds, and then shut tight.
- After another 24-48 hours, repeat steps 2-3 above. This time observe for smell, which may have had a chance to develop.
- It should smell pleasantly sour and resemble a pickle. Unpleasant odours indicate spoilage and will require you to restart (it happens to everyone).
- You can also dip a sterile wooden spoon in to the brine to taste at this point. As time increases, the flavour will become more complex.
- Repeat step 4 above for at least 2 weeks as a guide. Some people go until the desired flavour is achieved.
- Once they’re ready, refrigerate and enjoy! They’ll last up to 2 years if kept well.
That’s How It’s Done!
Look at you! Ready to ferment away with a newfound skill set already… (You’ll have bragging rights at the next dinner party)!
There are many benefits to fermenting foods, and learning how to pickle vegetables without vinegar is just the start!
As you make more pickles and recipes, don’t be afraid to experiment. Try new vegetables, spices, herbs, even fruit like apples! If you like Indian food, try kohlrabi with cumin seeds, fresh turmeric, chillies, and ginger, perhaps.
The only limit is your imagination and the ingredients you can access.
I’m delighted that you can now enjoy and understand the wonderful health benefits, too. Probiotic recipes can help to boost the health of our immune system, gut microbiome, overall digestion, brain, and more.
All the while, you’ll be packing in new vitamins and nutrients by simple natural processes! What’s not to love?
If you enjoyed learning how to pickle vegetables without vinegar, you’ll probably like our other recipes!
Let me know in the comments below how you found this guide to lacto-fermentation. Remember to leave a rating and help us improve your experience!
If you have any recipes or recommendations, share them and I’ll be sure to get back to you!
Until next time, stay healthy
Frequently Asked Questions:
Lacto-fermented vegetables are any vegetable(s) that have been fermented by the natural bacteria present on them. The name comes from “Lactobacillus”, a range of bacteria the fermentation depends on. Our recipe uses these as explained in this article.
Depending on the method and the type of salt, using salt will be required for pickling. Traditional fermented pickles such as in this recipe do require the right type of salt for safe fermentation, nutrition, texture, and flavour.
Traditional pickles come in all sorts. Vegetables are excellent, as they’re easy to make and any vegetable can be pickled. The best for beginners are those that don’t require cooking. For a nice “crunch”, try your favourite crisp vegetables such as carrots, turnips, radishes, onions, peppers, broccoli, ginger, garlic, and so on.
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