Brine-pickled Beets with Ginger and Orange

Fermented beets, dank and earthy and sour, number among my favorite ferments of vegetable.  While I will always love the fetid odor of a true sauerkraut, the clean and salty sharpness of Moroccan preserved lemons or the brackish must of a home-cured olive, it is fermented beets – lovingly spiced and brine-pickled – that makes me fall in love again with the lost art of true pickling.

It wasn’t long ago, you see, that a pickle inherited its characteristic sour saltiness from a long and slow process of microbial action.  This process – the purposeful introduction of bacteria into food – might be enough to make any public health worker cringe, but it is precisely that process of microbial action that shaped well-loved traditional foods across the globe, satisfying a dual need for enhanced nutrition and food preservation.  Indeed, traditional societies across the globe practiced the sacred culinary art of fermentation, handing it down parent-to-child, for thousands of years prior to the advent of refrigeration and the rather quick industrialization of our food supply.  West Africans fermented sorghum and millet into ogi. Pacific Islanders transformed the taro corm into poi while Asians and Europeans fermented beans, milk grains and vegetables into some of the favorite foods of today: miso, sourdough bread, yogurt – and, of course, pickles.

Traditionally prepared, pickled beets were not seasoned with vinegar and sugar, but, rather, they acquired their sour flavor through a process of fermentation.  Fermented beets feature widely in the culinary traditions of eastern Europe where tonics like beet kvass and dishes like rossel not only celebrate the humble beet, but transform it, too.  Fermentation extends the life of foods like beets; as beneficial bacteria consume the sugars naturally present in beets and other foods, they produce lactic and acetic acid which, like vinegar in modern pickles, preserves the beets for long-term storage.  As an adjunct benefit, those same bacteria also produce vitamins, particularly folate and vitamin K2, and help to populate the gut with microbes that can boost the immune system.

I tackle fermented beets in my traditional foods kitchen, from the tiny marble-sized Chioggias to the hefty blood-red beets the size, shape and heft of a man’s heart.  We season them with caraway and salt or dill and mustard seed, but it is ginger and orange that can elevate the earthiness of beets from their dank origin to something sweeter, something lighter and more vibrant.  And while many ferments of vegetables are produced through wild means, by crushing vegetable with salt and allowing the omnipresent beneficial bacteria naturally occurring on our skin, on our vegetables and in the air that surrounds us to do their transformational work, for these fermented beets I opt for a salt-free method which strengthens both their rugged sourness and crude sweetness without the briny flavor that is so characteristic of fermented foods.

The use of a starter culture such as probiotic-rich whey drawn off of raw milk yogurt, milk kefir or clabber, reduces the need for salt in fermented foods.  While fresh whey functions beautifully in many fermented foods, I find that vegetable starter culture which you can purchase online produces particularly successful and reliable results, especially among salt-free ferments like the recipe for fermented beets below.

fermented beets

fermented beets with ginger and orange

By Jenny Published: April 28, 2011

  • Yield: about 1 quart
  • Prep: 5 minutes mins
  • Cook: 7 to 10 days (fermentation) mins
  • Ready In: 12 mins

Fermented beets are a traditional food of eastern Europe. In this recipe for fermented beets, we pair the classic root vegetable with ginger and orange.

Ingredients

  • vegetable starter culture
  • 1 tbsp raw honey
  • 6 medium beets (trimmed, peeled and sliced in 1/8-inch rounds)
  • 1 1-inch knob ginger (peeled and cut into matchsticks)
  • zest of 1 medium orange
  • 2 tbsp pickling spice (cinnamon, mustard seed, allspice berries, cloves, black peppercorns etc.)

Instructions

  1. Dissolve vegetable starter culture into one-half cup filtered water and whisk in honey until the honey is thoroughly incorporated into the water. Allow the starter to sit at room temperature for about five minutes while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
  2. Toss together beets, ginger, orange zest and pickling spice together in a mixing bowl. Layer this mixture into a mason jar.
  3. Cover beets with the starter culture, adding filtered water, if needed, to completely submerge them beneath the liquid. Weigh the beets down, if necessary, so they rest below the level of liquid and allow them to ferment at room temperature for three to seven days before transferring to the refrigerator.

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What people are saying

  1. Yvette Chilcott says

    just a silly question; are the beets raw or cooked? This recipe intrigues me.
    thanks for posting it.

  2. Chris says

    Can I use raw, unpasturized apple cider vinegar instead of whey or buying a culture? It would be much easier and cheaper for me?

    • Jenny says

      No – a teeny bit of vinegar is okay in a ferment, but using vinegar in place of starter culture in this recipe would inhibit the growth of beneficial bacteria.

  3. Teresa says

    Can you tell me how to ferment/pickle the beets using raw milk kefir instead of the vegetable starter culture?

    • jenny says

      I don’t recommend using kefir instead of vegetable starter culture in this recipe, unless you also choose to use salt in the ferment. In which case use 1/4 cup whey from your kefir and 2 tbsps sea salt.

      • Jeanne says

        Could Water Kefir be used in the same way? 1/4 C Water Kefir + 2 Tbsp Salt?
        Doesn’t honey have natural anti-microbial properties? Wouldn’t organic cane sugar be a better choice?

  4. baijoz says

    HI Jenny,

    was cheking out your link re: starter culture but it seems to be dead – I realise it is an affiliate link so could it be it just has expired and you need to renew? Anyhow, I suspect also that it probably would link to a sale in US? As I am unlikely to order from overseas (delivery costs are just silly sometimes!) I was just wondering if you think that I could simply use some lacto-fermented brine from a batch of Kimchi I’ve just made to get the beet started? Great blog by the way!

    Thanks – B

  5. Cheryl Schaberg says

    I made this beautiful recipe with starter culture. This is the seventh day and I am putting it in the refrigerator. Now, I can eat the beets . Can I drink the liquid (kvass) as well? Can i reserves some beets and kvass and repeat this process?
    I love your recipe it smells so good. Thanks…I am very new at fermenting and love your site!

  6. Christine says

    Any idea how many pounds is equal to the 6 medium? I want to make sure they will fit in the jar. Did you use the Caldwell or Body Ecology starter or does it matter? Sorry for the silly questions…I am new at this. I have read that a lot of people seem to have trouble with beets for some reason…not sure why.

  7. Marybeth Durland says

    A bit off topic but where did you find the glass weights tht you use to hold the veggies down? I can’t seem to locate one that will fit into a mason jar or at least one that is safe for food.

    Thanks.

    • says

      I was wondering the same thing! I’m trying a recycled glass vitamin bottle filled with water to weigh mine down. It seems to work well, but now I’m not sure what to cover it with…just a cloth? Hmmm…

  8. Angela says

    I don’t get how just one half cup of liquid is anywhere near enough to cover the beets to the top of the jar? I used 6 pretty large beets and had to add almost 2 extra cups of water to cover the beets. Am I missing something? Thanks, Angela

  9. Sarah DIckinson says

    Hello Jenny,
    I have had these sitting on the shelf for 14 days now, but they don’t seem fermented, they taste fine, but not great and there is no fizz or anything. I put in one packet of starter, does that sound like I need more? Can I still eat these? Thanks so much! This has been my month for trying to ferment and pickle thanks to you (tried the pickles too!)
    Sarah

  10. ashley says

    Hello! Could I replace the culture starter with water kefir ? I ferment berries with water kefir and it always turns out great. Thanks:)

  11. christine says

    I was just wondering if one can use a starter such as kombucha to create the right environment for fermenting beets or other vegetables? I am currently brewing the tea, which is almost ready and I have a lot of beets to process and wanted to combine the two. Kombucha also consumes the sugars which creates the “baby” from the “mother” in the tea. It looks like a mushroom, but is a SCOBY, so technically, it should work, right?

    • jojo says

      Don’t use kombucha. Different type of ferment that requires oxygen. This one should be anaerobic, no oxygen. The best way to ferment is with salt in a pickl-it or Harsch crock. Esp. if you really want food to be loaded with probiotics. Other methods are hit or miss, which wastes a lot of time.

  12. Anne-Marie Fentiman says

    If anyone figures out a way to make this without the Veggie Starter Culture, without compromising the flavor, I would love to hear about it! I’ll have to try it with the salt method for now, though… :o)

  13. Anne-Marie Fentiman says

    Also, considering the antimicrobial properties of honey, I wonder if anyone knows whether using it could compromise the final product, if I use only salt, and don’t add any starter (either whey, or leftover sauerkraut juice)?

  14. Dannielle says

    I’ve done this a few ways. I’ve used whey, juice from kraut(my favorite, as all my kraut is naturally fermented, no starters) and allowed it to naturally ferment. for the latter I don’t mess with the skins too much and use locally grown, pesticide free beets. I usually pack them in tight and set a food safe ziplock bag filled with brine on top to keep the beets down, if nessesary. I’ve also used a clean rock from the river, scrubbed clean and boiled.

    I don’t see why you couldn’t use milk kefir whey for this, but I don’t see water kefir working very well. I could be wrong.

    By the way, this site is fantastic!

  15. angie says

    how would one use this to pickle eggs with? trying to get creative with getting some probiotic goodies in my husband’s belly.

  16. Melissa says

    I tried this recipe and it was ok, but we didn’t like the raw beets. Would it be ok to cook them first? Also adding more honey to make them a sweet beet?

  17. Dorothy Lloyd says

    I started the beets 8 days ago, and used whey and two tablespoons sea salt. On Day 5, the beets were quite hard so I melted down some coarse salt and added it. On Day 8, the beets are still quite hard. Could I add kraut juice?

  18. Chris says

    How long can these be stored in the fridge? What is the best long term storage solution? I usually can pickled beets and pressure can peeled beets……I would like to replace my home canned vegetables with fermented vegetables but I’m uncertain on long term storage options. Thank you.

    • Jenny says

      Properly fermented, they should store for 2+ years in the refrigerator. If space is concerned, consider a cool basement, root cellar or garage. Hope that helps!

  19. amy says

    All of my beets turned brown. Is this normal?
    There we a few that were sticking out of the top. I thought I’d remove them once the batch was done, but I’m wondering if they made the whole batch go bad?

  20. Anonymous says

    I am new to lacto-fermentation (and to cooking blogs in general) and am under the impression that adding salt to a ferment helps prevent the formation of mold. Can I still add salt to this ferment even if using a starter culture? Or is it more a case of using one or the other?

    Love your site – so inspiring!

    Cheers!

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