How to Make Fermented Foods at Home
Fermenting foods is one of the easiest ways to preserve fruits and veggies. Once you've placed everything in the jar, all you do is wait. Follow these tips to try some DIY fermentation for the best homemade kimchi, kraut, and other fermented foods.
Unlike canning or freezing your food, fermenting uses naturally occurring gut-friendly organisms to convert the natural sugars in food into acids (and they're a good source of probiotics, too!). Though you might expect food to spoil after sitting around for a few days, the process actually creates an environment that’s less friendly to bacteria that causes spoilage. If you’re dabbling with fermenting for the first time, we put together a few of our most important fermenting basics to follow when you’re making your own sauerkraut, fermented pickles, kimchi, or any other foods.
1. Only Use Reliable Recipes From a Trusted Source
Similar to canning, you have to be mindful of food safety whenever you’re fermenting something. Don’t alter the vinegar, salt, produce, or water proportions used in the recipe you’re following, and only use recipes from trusted sources. All of our fermenting recipes have been tested for safety and accuracy, and you can trust recipes from sources like the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), too.
2. Use Pickling Salt or Natural Sea Salt
As you start the fermentation process, use pickling salt or natural fine sea salt for preservation, like Redmond's Real Sea Salt ($10.19, Amazon). Whichever one you choose, make sure it’s free of additives like potassium, iodine, and anticaking agents, because they can interfere with the fermentation process.
3. Choose the Right Containers
Before getting started, make sure you’ve got the right size and type of containers for fermentation. As a general rule, you should use a 1-gallon container for every five pounds of fresh produce, like this Leakproof Gallon Glass Jar ($12.99, Amazon). Stick to food-safe ceramic, glass, and plastic containers with straight edges—avoid metal containers because they have the potential to react with the acids in the foods.
4. Clean Your Produce Carefully
When fermenting, use only unblemished fruits and veggies. Any bruises or cuts on your produce can allow microorganisms and bacteria inside. It's important to start with firm but ripe fruits and vegetables. If any of your produce is overripe or soft, it can contain mold or yeasts that you don’t want included in the fermentation process. Thoroughly rinse any produce that you’re going to ferment, because most bacteria and microbial pathogens can be found on the surface of your fruits and veggies. When you can, peel or trim your produce before washing it to reduce the risk of surface contamination.
5. Keep Your Food Fully Submerged
Food that's fermenting must remain fully submerged (by at least ½ inch) under the brine during the process. To help with this, you can buy large or small fermentation weights that will keep your food safely beneath the brine, like this six-pack of glass fermentation weights ($14.99, Amazon).
6. Cover Your Container
While your produce is fermenting, make sure you cover the container to keep dust and other particles out. A clean towel or airlock lids Fermenter Wide Mouth Lids ($26.99, Amazon) will do the trick—they’ll keep dust out but allow carbon dioxide (a byproduct of fermentation) to escape. Do not use plastic wrap or airtight containers. Carbon dioxide has to be able to escape your jars, or the process will be disrupted—fermentation lid kits ($15.99, Amazon) have specially designed lids that will let carbon dioxide out, but nothing else in.
7. Monitor the Temperature
For fermentation to occur within a recipe’s suggested timeline, you’ll have to maintain a comfortable room temperature of 70°F to 75°F wherever your jars are going through the process. If the temp dips lower, like between 60°F and 65°F, the process will take significantly longer. To prevent spoilage, you shouldn’t ferment foods at temperatures higher than 75°F. Once the process is complete, store your food in the refrigerator to stop the fermenting process. Use your specific recipe to know how long you can store your homemade fermented eats.
8. Watch Out for White Stuff
Noticing a white residue on the surface of your sauerkraut or hot sauce? Chances are, it’s nothing to worry about—in most cases, it’s wild yeasts that can form at the higher end of the fermenting temperature range. They’re safe, and you can skim them off the top and keep fermenting. However, if you notice furry or colorful mold or if the food in your container has an unpleasant smell, throw it out and start over.
Fermenting is one of the most hands-off methods of food preservation, but it’s not the only one. You can also learn how to can foods (using either a water-bath canner or a pressure canner) and how to freeze foods for later. While fermenting is mostly for fruits and veggies, you can learn how to save just about anything using the other two methods, like how to can soup or how to freeze berries. Or, similar to fermenting, you can even learn how to pickle your food!