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Lacto-fermentation: Salsa, Whey and Sour Cream


Above, Liam sits and exudes joy for everyone. He's a good kitchen mate. It's a good thing, too. The family spent a good deal of time in the kitchen on Saturday. We had half a bushel of very ripe tomatoes needing to be processed and in our minds, there was only ONE THING we could do with them.

Lacto-fermented salsa. It's probably our most favorite home-preserved product out of everything we've ever tried canning.

We discovered this technique while reading a book called Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon. In a sentence, this book changed the course of our very lives. Click the link. Buy it. Be forever changed...for the better!

Tonight, I'm going to give you our recipe, which is built for a sliding scale of quantities based on the harvest you are bringing in. The first time we made lacto-fermented salsa, we had our dining room table full of ripe, heirloom tomatoes and about two, 5 gallon buckets full of bell peppers.


Above, this was taken in September of 2009. 2 year old Elly is standing on our 7 foot long couch behind the table, four leaves in place and both ends extended, with tomatoes piled two deep. It was overwhelming and awesome and blessed all at once. Obviously, we couldn't have given quantities for this amount of tomatoes. All I know is that by the end of the LONG night, we had sealed 55 quarts of salsa. Enough for one quart a week for a whole year. Isn't that what harvesting your own food is all about, though? Making it through the winter?

So, let's begin. This recipe is adapted from one in the Nourishing Traditions cookbook to fit our taste. You can adapt ours as well to fit what's sitting on your counter top. Got some summer squashes with no home? They work great in salsa. Sweet corn? Great! Not sure how to use kohlrabi? It's got a place in your salsa. (just peel it first).

There are four great things about this homemade salsa that I want to emphasize.
1. It's not cooked, so it saves on energy and spares you a hot kitchen in an already hot season.
2. It's not cooked, so all the natural enzymes and probiotic activity are still present in 6 hours and in 6 months.
3. It tastes and looks fresher than fresh when you open it. No mushy salsa here!
4. It's carbonated! Yes, naturally fizzy, which takes some getting used to, but makes for a great side dish or topping this way (as well as the obvious).


(all organic, of course! It's not homemade for the pesticide load)
1/2 bushel ripe tomatoes
10 bell peppers (green, red, yellow, whatever)
1 large onion (the kind that resemble softballs)
1 head garlic
2 bunches cilantro

In the canning jars
1 TBSP sea salt per quart jar (halve it for pint jars, etc)
4 TBSP raw whey per quart jar  

Now let me just stop you right there. This is not the whey you would find in the body-builder section of Target (if there is such a place). That stuff is processed and powdered and won't have active enzymatic activity. In fact, I don't know of anyone selling what we need to make this salsa complete. Lacto-fermentation is the process by which the micro-organisms that are on everything are allowed to flourish and make war and have an otherwise territorial battle for supremacy on your food. While doing that, they kill off any bad bacteria and leave only the beneficial bacteria. Think of it; probiotics all over your food, and it's whole, uncooked and ready to sit on your shelf for months. And all you had to do was add a little whey to a jar and screw the top on.

But whey-t! (I couldn't resist!). How does one acquire this amazing whey? Well, remember Miss Muffet? Her favorite food was curds and whey. Curds of what? MILK! Properly soured milk will divide itself and create two components: soured cream curds and yellowish whey. Both have a lot of good uses, but today we'll just talk about the one that gets us lacto-fermemented salsa.

How to Make Whey

I need to mention that this recipe for making whey is also found in Nourishing Traditions. Thank you Ms. Fallon! Below, I have a half gallon of fresh, raw milk sitting on my counter. It hasn't been there long, only about a day, so you can't see any separation going on yet.


You can see the cream line on top and we've discovered over the years that skimming the cream off is best as it does weird stuff when it sours. Use the cream fresh for whipping cream, in your coffee, alfredo sauce, etc.

After your milk has sat on the counter for about 4 days (less if it's warm outside, more if it's cold), you should notice a split in the milk either in the middle of the jar or on the bottom. In the split will be a clearish, yellowish liquid. This is your whey. The milk has successfully soured and you are ready to divide your curds from your whey.

**DO NOT try this with pasteurized milk. It will not sour. It will rot and be useful to no one.

Find your fine mesh strainer and straddle it across a deep mixing bowl. We find that the bowl of our stand mixer is perfect. Take a super clean tea towel or any fine grain towel and line the strainer evenly with the towel. Next, pour the entire contents of your milk jar into/onto it and the strainer. The curds should look something like this:


Our tea towels are packed away right now, so this hand towel did well in its absence. Once the entire curds and whey are out of the jar, you will notice that already the whey is dripping through the towel and strainer. You want as much of the whey out of that milk as possible, so the next step is to carefully pull up the sides of the towel and bring them together in a bundle. Secure the ends with string, rope, zip-ties, or whatever you can find. Be sure not to squeeze the towel as you'll get soured cream pushed through the fiber pores and that's counter-productive.


When you lift the towel up, you'll still have a steady stream of whey coming from the bundle. This is good. Move the whole aparatus (bowl and all) to a counter situated below a wall cupboard. You will tie the whole thing to the cupboard and allow the whey to continue to drip for about 4 hours. Don't worry, you'll be so busy you won't even notice the time flying by!


The Salsa

While your whey collects in the bowl (leave the strainer in place to reduce splashing), you now turn your attention to the bounty of produce sitting in your kitchen. The recipe above, I want to reiterate, is a starting point for ratios, but use whatever you have on hand. If you want hot peppers, add them. If you want no green peppers, eliminate them. Seriously, as long as you get the salt/whey ratio spot on, you'll be fine.

First dice your onions. Or do them last. Whatever. I'm just showing you the order of our salsa. It all goes in the same bowl.

Andy has a cheater trick for chopping onions. Below you see him slicing lines into a halved onion about a half inch thick. The onion is halved for greater stability. You will do the same thing for the other half soon. The lines he cuts are not through to the other side. Rather, they reach to about a half inch from the other edge of the onion. This keeps the onion together.


Next, turn the onion 90˚ and cut similar sized cuts the opposite direction. This time, however, try to follow in a radial pattern, the natural curvature of the onion. As you see below, with minimal cutting and effort, you have perfectly diced onion squares. Notice also the way he holds his hands. The one holding the onion has finger knuckles pushed out and fingertips turned inward, gripping the veggie. His knife slides along his knuckles, the blade securely below where his fingers meet the metal and thereby ensuring a safe cut over and over.


One big onion yields quite a bit of diced goodness!


Next, the cilantro can be chopped. If you take your bunches and bind them with a rubber band, you can easily chop off the desirable leaves with two quick diagonal cuts. Proceed to chop the leaves several times until you have broken up most of the big areas and are satisfied with the size of the plant. There really is no substitute for cilantro. To me, salsa isn't salsa without it. But you add it only if you like it! Some folks don't.



Next, take your green peppers. Cut the seed packet out with the stem and dice into squares similar to your onion. Here's another perspective for safe handling of veggies and knives. See how Andy's finger tips are safely pointed away from the blade, even at an angle? The knuckles provide a barrier to the blade and help stabilize it at the same time.


Be sure to share the fresh bounty with anyone helping make salsa!


Above, the finished product. You'll want to have a large, large mixing bowl set aside for combining all your ingredients. When we processed the tomatoes in 2009, we had to use four sanitized 5 gallon buckets!

Here come the tomatoes. These are probably the most finicky of the group because you want to get the skins off without actually cooking the little beasts. If you are the type of person who does well in an assembly line, this should actually be quite fun.

Get a large pot on the stove and boil some water. You want enough water to cover your largest tomatoes. While that comes to temp, plug your sink and fill half way with icy water. Now, grab your washed tomatoes and carefully core out the stem.


Cut out any bad parts and then slice a small "X" on the bottom of the tomato. You don't need to cut deep, just enough to break the skin. This will aid in getting a peeling started later.



Above, I used a nested colander to put about 8 tomatoes in at a time. Once the water is at a rolling boil, dip the tomatoes in (one by one if you have to with a slotted spoon) and let sit for no more than 5 seconds. This will loosen the skins but isn't long enough to kill off the enzymes. Immediately submerge the hot tomatoes in your ice bath.


They'll float and that's fine. You just want to stop any sort of cooking and this will do the trick. Once you have them all par-boiled and dunked, you can begin the skinning process. It doesn't take long if the tomatoes are super ripe. Nearly ripe or tomatoes with some green left on them will need longer than 5 seconds in the boiling water to loosen the skin. Here the "X" comes in handy finding an edge to pull from.


Everyone can help with this part of the job as it involved no knives, hot water or exact measurements. (I was referencing Ethan, not me!)



When the skins are off, you will then de-seed the 'maters. The best way that we've found is to physically shove your thumbs into each quadrant of the tomato and sort of scoop out the seeds. It's not pretty and you'll get full of juice, but the other methods we've tried are no less messy and far less controlled (meaning, seeds shooting all over the place).


Andy, in his eternal quest to find the most efficient method in every process, wondered if dicing all these skinless, seedless, slippery globs of tomatoes was the best route. He experimented with a food processor on short bursts of speeds and found the result to be satisfactory. The tomatoes were chopped and runny, but exactly the desired consistency for salsa. This little trick saved us quite a bit of time.


Here he pours a batch into the great big mixing bowl, being careful not to lose the blade.


Finally, take your head of garlic and remove the papery outside. Separate each clove and smash with the flat side of your knife blade. That's right, press the flat blade against the clove and slam down with the heel of your palm. This will split the clove in about four pieces and allow you to peel it with ease. Mince the cloves and add them to the big bowl.

Now you are ready to mix it up. The best way, really, is to use your hands. They are your best tools after all, and besides, you are so full of veggie goodness at this really won't care.


Well, we'd been working together for about 2 hours at this point and Andy got a little punchy.


This was nothing compared to the epic canning of 2009, though. Four, five gallon buckets of salsa goop and Andy nearly up to his armpits, stirring the ingredients together. That was a sight to see at 1am! I laugh to think of it now...but I digress.

Find your canning jars. Hopefully you already have them sanitized and tops at the ready. If not, sanitize and get your tops ready.


We have so many canning jars in our possession, but very few of them are NOT in the storage unit right now, so we scrambled to find any that would be empty for our use.

Turn your attention back to that dripping towel in the corner. By now it should be an intermittent drip and most of the whey is in your bowl. One half gallon of milk (with cream skimmed off) yields roughly 1 quart of whey. This is more than enough for the quantity we've spelled out here today. The remainder will successfully refrigerate for half a year!

Scoop out 4 tablespoons of whey from the bowl and dump it in your quart jar. If you use pints (we had a smattering of both), then only use 2 tablespoons.


Next, take your sea salt (I do mean sea salt; table salt is refined and has a bunch of added yuck to it) and add 1 tablespoon per quart jar. Just dump it on the bottom with the whey. Won't look pretty, but it doesn't have to. Again, half this for pints.


Once you have divied out the whey and salt, now is the time to add your salsa. We were missing our trusty canning funnel, so we had to carefully scoop the mixture into each jar, but no matter.


Now this is important: Be sure to leave at least one inch of headroom at the top of the jar. Lacto-fermentation builds up enzymatic activity in the exact opposite way that pressure canning reduces it. You literally need that room at the top for all the bacterial parties that will be starting as soon as you screw the lid on. If you fill it too full, you'll know it. The jar will leak. Not the end of the world and you won't lose the salsa. But it's messy in your cupboard or cellar. Below, Andy is scooping some salsa out. We filled it too full.


The beauty of filled jars and preserved food never ceases to catch my breath. The best part is, the food will look just this fresh the day you open it again, even if that day happens to be during a blizzard in February and the thought of a ripe tomato is completely foreign to your mind.



Wipe the tops of your lids clean and dry, then attach the lids and screw them down tight. TIGHT. Let the jars sit in a room temperature area for two full days, out of sunlight. Then place them into cold storage (for us, this meant our basement at the farmhouse, a steady 65˚ and that worked out well).

Within hours, you will see tiny bubbles forming on the sides of the jars. This is the bacteria gathering for their epic battles and you know only good things will come of it. By tomorrow, your jars will have a very distinct bulge on the top. Again, you want it to bulge up; opposite of pressure canning where the delectable "pop!" of no air means success.


One more thing to note is there might be a liquid gap on the bottom after a day or so as the vegetables rise to the top and the water/whey sit at the bottom. This is not a problem and a gentle flipping of the jar will mix everything back.

Congratulations! With minimal heat energy and just a couple hours of chopping and mixing, you now have about 6 quarts (give or take) of organic, home-made and fresher than fresh salsa to enjoy the rest of the year through! We like to use it not only for chips but as a topping in salads, over meatloaves, as a side by itself or in stews. The possibilities are vast.

But wait! There's more!

How to Make Sour Cream (or Soured Cream)

Lest we forget the title of this post: how one product becomes three, I shall conclude with a simple wrap up of the curds from the beginning.

If you want to wait until you see your bundle of soured cream dripping no more, you can go for another few hours, or up to about 12 full hours of room temperature hang time. When you have extracted as much whey as you please, carefully remove the towel from your cupboard and untie it on a clean surface.


When you open it up, you'll notice that the contents are much much drier than when you first poured them into the strainer. In fact, you wouldn't be able to pour them at all now. Depending on how much whey you extracted, you have soured cream all the way to a soured cream cheese. Above, the soured cream is about the consistency of Philadelphia Cream Cheese spread, just the way we like it. I had the towel hanging for about 6 hours, so right in the middle. After six hours, you won't really get much more whey out, but some folks like it drier for different purposes.

Next you want to store the soured cream in a container in your fridge. DO NOT use plastic! The plastic leaches off flavors into the soured cream and actually causes it to go rancid a lot faster. Glass is best. Ceramic will do as well.

Andy discovered awhile ago that a soup spoon works well to scoop up the soured cream from the towel without pushing too much of it through (and thereby rendering it useless). Cap your zesty creation and refrigerate. It will last a solid month, but you won't have to worry about that; it will be gone long before!


Be sure to wash the towel you used as soon as possible. Rinse it in the sink to get any visible cream chunks off and then wash. You may have to designate one towel for such deeds as souring because the odor lasts even through a couple washings.

Homemade soured cream can be used as is, or as an incredible base in dips, spreads and even in baking. Andy makes a sour cream coffee cake that is just divine!

Well, there you go! How one amazing product (raw milk) gives you three life-giving foods all at once. And this is just one lacto-fermentation recipe. Wait til I tell you about lacto-fermented sauerkraut! And your very own lacto-fermented lemonade! But that's a post for another night.

Let me know how your recipes turned out! Comment on here or email me. I'd love to know, and learn from your variations.

Good night!

Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on .