Lacto-Fermentation and an El Salvadorian Sauerkraut


Today we have Winnie Abramson here to teach us about the benefits of lacto-fermented foods and how to easily prepare them at home. Winnie has a degree in Naturopathic Medicine and is the writer of a fantastic blog – Healthy Green Kitchen. I believe fermented foods are a staple to a nourishing diet. I serve my family lacto-fermented foods such as sauerkraut and  pickles a few times daily and find it extremely helpful for the digestive system. I’m happy to have Winnie here today to educate us on the importance of fermented foods.

Lacto-fermented (aka cultured) foods have long been enjoyed throughout the world for many centuries. Dairy products like yogurt, and also many cheeses, are the result of culturing milk; miso (fermented soybean paste), kombucha (a fermented beverage made from tea) and vegetable preparations like kimchi, “live” pickles, and sauerkraut are more examples of familiar cultured foods.


Foods are fermented when lactobacilli bacteria convert their sugars and starches into lactic acid. The proliferation of lactic acid aids in the natural preservation of whatever is being cultured, and results in an end product that’s exceptionally nutritious. The process of lacto-fermentation also makes foods more digestible than they were to begin with (which is why many people who cannot tolerate milk do just fine with yogurt, for example).

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Fermented foods are healthy for everyone, but the high concentration of natural probiotics they contain makes them particularly beneficial for people who have issues with their digestion. Eating cultured foods may also be helpful for balancing blood sugar and for weight loss and, because your digestive system is closely linked to your immune system (around 75% of your immune system’s cells are found in your digestive tract!), consuming copious amounts of cultured foods can make you less prone to illnesses of all kinds. I try to include at least one serving of lacto-fermented foods in my diet each day as part of my healthy lifestyle.

Unfortunately, most of the pickles, sauerkraut, and many brands of yogurt that you’ll find at the supermarket aren’t lacto-fermented, so from a health perspective they’re not very useful (most are made with vinegar and/or sugar, and they’re pasteurized, which kills off the beneficial enzymes); if you want to take advantage of their health benefits, you must seek out versions of these foods made in small batches with “live cultures”. Or, you can make them yourself! I’ve been making my own yogurt, as well as a variety of cultured vegetables for many years, and I highly recommend you do so as well.


Cortido (aka curtido) is a cabbage salad that hails from El Salvador. It’s typically served with a dish there called pupusas. This lacto-fermented version is a variation on sauerkraut, inspired by a recipe that appears in the book Nourishing Traditions written by Sally Fallon. I love it spooned over eggs, salads, and on sandwiches. It’s best to use organic produce, if possible.

Nourishing Traditions has tons of great information on all the “the whys and hows” of lacto-fermentation, plus many fantastic recipes. I highly recommend this book if you don’t own it already! Another terrific resource is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

Do you have any favorite lacto-fermented foods? Please share!

Lacto-fermented Cortido (a variation on Sauerkraut)

Serving Size: Makes enough to fill a 1-quart glass jar

Lacto-fermented Cortido (a variation on Sauerkraut)


  • 1 head/about 1000 g of Napa cabbage, cored and outer leaves removed, then shredded by hand or in a food processor

  • 2 tablespoons fine Celtic sea salt
  • 1 cup/about 140 g chopped carrots

  • 1 green apple, peeled and sliced thin

  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced thin

  • 1 fresh jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced

  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano (use Mexican oregano if you can find it)

  • Juice of 1 lime
  • 1 sterilized quart size canning jar with a screw-top lid, preferably BPA-free


In a large non-metal bowl, mix the cabbage with the sea salt. Use clean hands to really work the salt into the cabbage, and then allow it to rest for 1-2 hours. The cabbage will wilt and brine (salty liquid) will develop.

Add the carrots, apple, onion, jalapeño, and lime juice to the cabbage and mix well.

Spoon the cabbage mixture into the jar, and as you do so, press down very firmly with a pounder (the back of a wooden spoon will also do) until the juices come to the top of the cabbage. Really stuff the cabbage mixture in there: you’ll be able to fit more than you think, but don’t fill the jar to the very top. The top of the cabbage should be at least 1-inch below the rim of the jar (this is because there will be some expansion while it is lacto-fermenting and you don't want any liquid to overflow out of the jar) so you may have a little of the cabbage mixture leftover that does not fit. If there is not enough liquid, add filtered water until the cabbage is just barely covered.

Screw lid onto the jar and keep on your counter at room temperature for 2-4 days. (Open the jars and see if the liquid is bubbly after 2 days, If it’s bubbly, you can transfer your jar to the refrigerator, where your cortido will continue to lacto-ferment at a slower rate. If it’s not bubbly yet, leave it on the counter for another day or two). You can eat your cortido right away, or wait a week or so for the flavors to develop further. Lacto-fermented vegetables like this will keep for 3-4 weeks in the refrigerator.


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  1. Jennifer

    I’m just trying to get into the whole fermenting thing. I’m just so confused by something, and maybe you can help me out. I thought the “lacto” fermentation used whey, but I see your (and a ton of other) recipes do not call for whey, but still call them lacto-fermented. I’ve been trying to figure out the difference. I’m lost. Would appreciate any help.

    • Yes, that is my question too! How can it be called lacto fermentation if there was not anything lacto-related included in the jar…
      I have liters of raw organic whey at home, from making raw organic cream cheese at home and thought I could get some clue how to use the whey into fermentation… So far I use the whey in baking goods, they make the best chocolate cake in the world…

      • Again, lacto-fermentation is not about lactose, it’s about lactic acid. I’ve seen recipes that use whey instead of salt but it’s my understanding that without the salt, the veggies can get mushy and are more susceptible to mold (no, thanks!). I’ve also seen recipes that use salt and whey together, but I’ve not tried that. I’d look at Nourishing Traditions or google “lacto-fermenting with whey” to get some insight into how much to use, and then give it a try :)

    • Lacto-fermentation relies on lactic acid to preserve the food, thus the name. You do not need whey to lacto-ferment vegetables and in my opinion it is not a good idea to use it. You should also not use brines from a previous ferment to jump start fermentation unless you are fermenting something that doesn’t have any viable bacteria already, such as cooked vegetables, in which case you’ll have no choice but to use some sort of starter.

      If you are on a low-sodium diet there are alternatives to using salt. One is to purchase vegetable culture starter and use that to jump start the acid production so that the window of opportunity provided by the lack of salt will not be wide enough for any bad microbes to gain a foothold in your ferment.

      But all other things being equal I prefer to use the tried-and-true method and allow wild fermentation to take it’s natural course. Once you get a rhythm going you can always have new ferments in the pipeline and you won’t have any reason to rush your ferments.

  2. Hi Jennifer,
    Lacto-fermentation “happens” when bacteria convert starches and sugars into lactic acid. Whey is not needed, though many recipes do use it, because it boosts the process. I don’t put whey into my lacto-fermented veggies. If you do, you can decrease the salt, but as I said, I don’t make mine that way. I generally use 2 tablespoons salt per quart of cultured veggies instead of adding whey and decreasing the salt. Either way (no pun intented) works fine.

    • Jennifer

      That makes sense. Before I read this post, I always related the lacto to lactose, so the whey made sense to me. But, you explain that it’s really lactic acid. Which are probably somehow related, as well, but I’m not there just yet! Thank you!

    • I understand very little about fermentation but I have eaten whey fermented veggies that does not use salt and they taste like heaven… The fermentation with salt tastes entirely different from the fermentation with whey, don’t you think?

      I never liked the saltiness of pickles (actually I hated pickled stuff my whole life) before I tried lactofermented with whey and without salt. I make no salt cream cheese and I end up pristine salt free whey, best milk bacterias in the world that help my trouble stomach a lot… I need to ask a friend of mine, who is on sabbatical in Hungary, for her recipe because she is the one who used to make the whey based salt free sauerkraut I love.

      BTW, I am very sensitive not only to salt, but to sugar and spicy, I can handle very very little salt, sugar or spicy… I eat most neutral food, no sugar, no salt, no chillies seasoned with loads of different oils… I am totally raw cold pressed fruit and nut oils freak…

  3. Nicole S.

    Is the shelf life really only 3-4 weeks? I’m sure it lasts longer than that…perhaps you are just suggesting that to be on the safe side? It takes me a lot longer than that to finish one jar, even eating some very day.

  4. James Barlow

    How timely. Just got a big head of cabage from our winter CSA yesterday.

    I do have a few questions though.

    The jars in the picture are typical canning/mason jars with a lid and band on. Are those good to use? I had read other articles about special valves or containers to use. When screwing the lid on should it be tight, loose, or in between?

    Second, again other recipes talk about putting a weight on top to keep everything submerged. Something about if the cabbage is exposed to air it won’t work. You say to just barely cover everything with water. Do you do anything else to ensure nothing floats and is exposed to air or is that not a problem if a lid is used.

    • I’ve been using these types of jars for years because I like to make small batches. I’ve seen the special crocks and also the special valves but I haven’t used them…I like to keep things simple. I screw my lids on “finger tight”…which is not super tight, but it’s not loose either. It is indeed in between. You can indeed put some sort of weight on top to ensure none of the cabbage is exposed to air but i haven’t found that to be necessary. If you pack the cabbage very tight and the liquid level is above it, everything should be fine….there’s simply no floating with every thing packed tight.

  5. Stephanie

    Imigine my surprised when I saw a food staple from my native El Salvador featured here! Indeed, curtido is served over pupusas which are corn dough tortillas stuffed with beans, cheese, and pork…now I’m hungry! However, El Salvadorian curtido is pickled in apple cider vinegar, no exceptions. Also, it is made with cabbage, carrots and red onions, no apples are included. Perhaps you may want to clarify that?

    • Hi there, thanks for pointing out this isn’t a traditional cortido. You are correct, of course: it’s an adaptation. I’ve actually made a lacto-fermented version and included some apple cider vinegar, but I prefer it without (plus there are more health benefits this way). And yes, there are usually no apples, but I like the sweetness they add (I generally add them to my sauerkraut, too, though many would say that’s not traditional). I like playing with recipes to make them my own…hope you’re ok with that!

  6. Karen

    Hello Carrie – I’m really enjoying these “Unprocessed Kitchen” posts. You are doing an amazing job with them! I have wanted to know more about the fermentation process, this one really helps. I love the K.I.S.S. method (Keep it simple sweetie).

    Have you talked about Salt, yet? I know you have mentioned using Celtic Sea Salt in most your recipes. I just finished reading Dr. David Brownsteins’ book ‘Salt Your Way to Health’, it’s an easy read full of important information on using the “right” salt for health and healing. It might make a good future post. :o)

  7. Kristie

    Hi! I have some shredded carrots, cabbage, and onions left over from making cole slaw. The onions and carrots are already mixed in with the cabbage… Can I salt the cabbage/carrot/onion mixture with the same results or would the cabbage have to be salted on it’s own?

  8. Shalene

    Thanks for the great post! I really want to try this, especially since I have a cabbage just waiting to be fermented! A few questions though, I have Ball canning jars with metal lids. Can I use those? I’ve read that the metal can corrode during the fermentation process. Also, how much freedom is there in the ingredient list? Can I swap a green apple for a red Fuji and leave out the pepper? Thanks again!

    • I have not had a problem with the metal lids corroding except when a recipe contains vinegar. You should be ok using them with lacto-fermented foods, though I prefer to use the BPA-free plastic ones as often as I can. I think a red apple would be ok and sure you can leave out the pepper, but then it will taste more like a “regular” sauerkraut.

  9. I’ve had this bookmarked for a while, and I finally have a chance to try the Cortido today. The cabbage is chopped and the salt is doing it’s thing! I can’t wait to try it cause it’s sounds fantastic! I’m a huge fan of fermented veggies, but I tend to be more plain with my ferments.

  10. Jennifer

    I finally got around to trying a batch of this on Saturday – I’ve been so looking forward to it, just kept forgetting to gather everything I needed. On Monday (day 2) I peeked at it – no bubbles, so I left it alone. Same on Tuesday (day 3). Today when I got home from work I looked, and the whole top is covered with mold :(
    Any ideas on what I did wrong??

  11. Jenny

    I just made this and I don’t think I sealed it tight enough because on day two I had liquid coming out of the jar. Since air probably got in do you think it’s still safe to eat? Also, should I add in some water or do you think it’s okay. I put it in the fridge after day two. Thanks for your help!


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