Fermentation. What a word! It’s a word that sounds disgusting and delicious (if you’ve ever eaten fermented foods, that is) all at the same time!!
It’s a word that takes you right back to Junior High biology class where you probably first learned about the world of microorganisms and decay.
Despite the word sounding very scientific and at times downright scary, it’s actually a fascinating and very simple process.
Learning the skill of fermenting foods is not hard at all. Once you learn it, you will wonder why you didn’t learn how to do this earlier. And after you start fermenting foods, you will want to learn how to ferment more and more.
It’s slightly addicting!
And super fascinating.
And very healthy!
Not to mention delicious!!
So what exactly is fermentation?
Fermentation is the process of a food being broken down by bacteria and other microorganisms until it is preserved.
And at the risk of sounding too scientific, the official dictionary definition is “the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the giving off of heat.”
Yep, sounds pretty weird, right?
So why would someone want to learn how to ferment food? Well, there are quite a few reasons, actually.
- To preserve fresh food for a long period of time. Historically, before we had refrigeration, people had to learn how to preserve food when it was available for times when food was scarce. Fermenting food was a very simple way to preserve the harvest.
- For health benefits. Certain kinds of fermented foods are filled with healthy gut bacteria and can increase health and boost your immune system. Some people eat fermented foods purely for the probiotics that they contain.
- Cost. Learning how to ferment foods at home is a huge time saver. For example, one jar of live, active sauerkraut from the store is around $9.00 where I live. If I make a batch of sauerkraut, it probably costs me $3.00 for the cabbage and makes around 3 times the amount.
- It’s fun. It really is a fascinating process and as I mentioned…it’s very simple to learn how to ferment food. Fermenting food kind of makes me feel like a superhero or a mad scientist.
- It’s delicious. Once you start consuming fermented foods, your body will start to crave the probiotics and other easy to digest vitamins and minerals that are contained in the fermented foods. You’ll find yourself adding them to your salads, smoothies, sandwiches, or even just as a side condiment to your meal. Your gut bacteria will LOVE you!
What types of foods are fermented?
So, what types of foods are fermented, you ask? Well, more than you might think! I was really surprised to see just how many foods are fermented. Here is just a partial list:
- Sourdough bread
- Fermented pickles
- Other alcohols
- Vinegar (sort of). Vinegar is a byproduct of fermented foods
- Chocolate (yep, this was a surprise to me too!)
And if you are wondering what foods you can ferment at home, the list is just as long. You can learn to ferment anything on this list (except probably chocolate) although some will be more challenging than others. Here are some simple ferments to make at home.
- Cabbage for sauerkraut
- Cucumbers for fermented pickles
- Other vegetables
- Beets for Beet Kvass
- Fermented honey garlic
- Sourdough bread
I personally try to stay away from fermenting things with sugar or fruit in them because I don’t drink alcohol for religious reasons. I personally don’t want to risk fermenting my food into alcohol. Foods or drinks with sugar ferment to alcohol surprisingly fast!
But feel free to experiment with these types of ferments on your own though if you’d like.
Fermented foods I recommend starting with if you are a beginner
If you have never fermented foods before, I recommend starting with one of the following recipes. Which one you choose depends on which one most appeals to you.
- If you like crunchy foods, I recommend sauerkraut, fermented pickles, or carrots
- If you like spicy/garlicy foods, I recommend kimchi
- If you like fresh drinks, I recommend beet kvass
- If you like dairy, I recommend yogurt or milk kefir
There really are SO MANY options.
I’d recommend just picking one that you are most interested in and just giving it a try. All of the ones listed here are great for beginners!
Which one are you going to start with??
How to ferment foods at home
The process of fermentation is usually quite simple.
For vegetable ferments, the process usually includes first chopping the vegetables and packing them in a jar or crock, making a salty brine (or for sauerkraut, salting the cabbage and squeezing out the brine), covering the vegetables with the brine and weighing them down and then waiting the appropriate time.
For dairy ferments such as yogurt or cheese, it usually requires heating milk to a particular temperature, followed by adding a starter, then for yogurt holding the milk at the required temperature for several hours, or for cheese straining the curds and whey and further processing the cheese curds. But milk kefir is slightly different because you need to start with kefir grains and add milk to them then wait for the culturing/fermenting process to complete.
Sourdough bread is its own unique process but it follows the same basic process. First, make a dough, add a bit of starter dough, wait the appropriate time to allow the dough to grow enough yeast and bacteria, then bake.
The idea is that we are trying to create an environment that allows the correct yeast or bacteria to grow and flourish.
And most of the time, it’s simply adding a bit of starter to whatever you are making and then waiting for the yeast bacteria to grow.
That’s why it’s sometimes referred to as “cultured food.”
Because you are literally culturing or nurturing an entire colony of unseen organisms.
It sort of reminds me of the Whos down in Whoville from Horton Hears a Who! 🙂
For some fermented foods, the culturing process requires a particular temperature. For other fermented foods, it is an anaerobic and salty environment.
All fermented foods require time but most of the time is hands off time and just checking on it occasionally.
I’m not going to describe the process of fermenting each and every type of food in this post but I will link to recipes I write as I go along. Or to others from the internet land that I love and recommend.
Here are some of the recipes that I recommend for beginners:
I recommend following the processes on these pages closely if you are just starting out! Yes, it’s simple, but being precise as you are learning will increase your chances of success!
And using a fermenting lid helps a lot too, just sayin’.
What equipment do I need to make fermented foods?
You need very little equipment for most ferments.
For example, for sauerkraut, you really only need cabbage salt and a jar or container. For yogurt, you need milk, a pot, a small amount of plain yogurt, whatever container you want to ferment it in, and a way to keep it warm at a consistent temperature for several hours.
When I first learned how to make yogurt, I literally used a small cooler I had in my garage and filled it with warm water. Ha, ha! My yogurt was in glass jars so this method worked really well for me.
If you’d like a list of equipment I recommend, you can check out the page of my recommendations here.
Most of the things listed here will make the process easier or more convenient but most are not critical to the fermentation process.
How do I know if my ferment is working? How to tell if it goes wrong!
If you follow the instructions closely, your ferment will usually turn out great! However, sometimes, for many reasons, a ferment may go sideways.
Here are some signs that your ferment has gone bad:
- Mold. If you see mold anywhere in your container, your ferment has definitely gone bad. As in the kind of mold you saw in college when things got shoved to the back of the fridge. If you see mold anywhere, it unfortunately has already affected the entire batch. Toss it all and start over.
- Strange colors. Pink is not a color you want to see (other than with red beets since those are naturally red). Neither is black/gray. If you see these colors, something has gone wrong. Toss your entire batch and start over.
- Strange smells. If you have ever smelled sauerkraut before, this is not the type of strange smell I’m talking about. Sauerkraut is one that gets pretty stinky because of the sulfur compounds in the cabbage. This is normal. Most other ferments do not smell like sauerkraut. Your experience will grow with time about what your ferment is supposed to smell like and when it smells “off.” If you smell your container and it smells like rot, gym socks, or mold, your ferment has gone bad. Toss the entire thing and start over.
Things that can help prevent your ferment from going bad:
- Adding enough salt. Undersalting the brine can cause big problems with the fermentation process. Most vegetables do well with a 3% brine but some need up to 5%. Check the recommended levels of salt using this helpful post.
- Mold or dirt on the original food. Be sure to start with the freshest produce you have available and wash it thoroughly. Some vegetables such as beets or carrots might do better after they’ve been peeled.
- Oxygen in the environment or pieces sticking up above the water. Access to the air is not great for anaerobic ferments. Be sure all of your produce is below the brine at all times. Using an airlock lid is very helpful to control the environment and will increase your chances for success!
- For dairy ferments, temperature is key. Follow your instructions carefully to get the dairy to the proper temperature and hold it there for the specified time.
If you have had a ferment go bad, don’t feel too terrible. It happens from time to time and it definitely happens even to people who are very experienced.
Sometimes the wrong bacteria get inside and start proliferating. Don’t fret too much.
Keep practicing and trying again.
Sometimes starting fresh with just the basic ingredients is the best thing to do. But whatever you do, DON’T GIVE UP!
Want to learn more?
My sister and I recorded a podcast episode all about fermentation. It’s worth a listen for sure! Here’s a link to the page for that podcast episode.
Check out any of the books on my recommendation page here.
Read my specific posts with recipes about fermenting. I’ll add to this list as I write more posts:
My sauerkraut story
The very first fermented food that I tried making was sauerkraut. I distinctly remember chopping the cabbage, weighing it out, and placing it in a large bowl. I added the salt and waited for it to wilt down a bit.
Then I started squeezing the brine out. I was really surprised at how much liquid was being released. I packed it into the jar as tightly as I could and found something creative to weigh it down with (because I hadn’t purchased any equipment yet).
Side note: You can save a large outer cabbage leaf and place it on top of your sauerkraut to help keep everything submerged.
Then it was time to wait.
It was so fascinating to see the cabbage change from bright green and fresh looking to more and more muted, finally turning a bit yellow.
The smells and the taste were also changes that were fascinating to observe.
It was seriously so satisfying to watch the fermentation process happen right before my eyes.
Knowing that I was creating something that would serve my gut flora well and would enhance the flavor of my food for the next few months.
It has been SO FUN to experiment with learning how to ferment foods over the years.
Well, how about you?
I’d love to hear your experiences with fermented foods in the comments!
Do you love fermented foods? Or, do you hate them? Do they scare you? Have you already learned how to ferment food? If so, what was your experience like?
Share in the comments below! I’m all ears!