Q: Canning, drying, and freezing preserve fruits and vegetables for future use, usually without major changes. Are there preservation methods that enhance flavor and/or nutritional value?
A: Two related techniques—fermenting and pickling—can enhance flavor. Both employ an acid solution, and both have long histories, require only basic utensils, and are safe when proven recipes are followed.
However, only fermentation improves the nutritional value of vegetables by contributing beneficial microbes and vitamin B12. Common fermented vegetables include sauerkraut and its fiery Korean cousin, kimchi, but the process works with an alphabet’s worth of vegetables, from arugula to zucchini.
In the process commonly known as pickling, processed vegetables are combined with a solution consisting of an acid (usually vinegar) and flavoring herbs and spices, often cooked, and then allowed to sit refrigerated to meld flavors. Fermentation relies upon combining the processed vegetable with a salt brine and allowing naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria to anaerobically feed on natural sugars in the vegetables and create an acid solution that preserves the vegetables while producing beneficial byproducts. Despite the similarity in words, lactose-intolerant individuals can safely consume lacto-fermented vegetables.
For a quick batch of pickled vegetables, combine 1 cup vinegar (cider, white wine, or rice) 1 cup water, 1 ½ tablespoons salt, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 teaspoon pickling spice, 1 jalapeno or serrano chili (seeds and membrane removed and finely sliced) and 3 garlic cloves in a stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer until the sugar has completely dissolved. Meanwhile, layer 4 cups of thoroughly washed vegetables (bell pepper, broccoli or cauliflower florets, carrot coins, celery, onion, and radishes are possibilities) cut into ½-inch pieces in a 1-quart canning jar. Pour the boiling liquid over the vegetables. Seal the jar and refrigerate for a few days before serving. Refrigerated pickles will keep for up to four weeks if covered by pickling liquid.
Reliable recipes for fermenting vegetable can be found online at university extension websites and in specialty cookbooks.