WHY FERMENT?

Fermented foods have been a part of all cultures for centuries, and for good reason! Not only do they function as a method of food preservation, they're also  rich in "good" bacteria ("probiotics") which support a healthy digestive system. More on all that to come! Plus, they taste yummy!!

Most people can definitely benefit from incorporating fermented foods into their diet. That said, it's likely best to favor small amounts as a steady part of your diet, rather than slamming your system with the kitchen sink all at once, especially in the beginning. (You don't want to be running to the bathroom at less-than-opportune moments!) And while fermented foods can be especially healing for those with gut issues (oh hey GAPS diet!), those with gut issues should similarly pay close attention to how they react. Fermented foods can also be high in histamine, so if you're histamine sensitive, keep that in mind.  

For ALL the info on fermentation and DIY methods, I recommend checking out Sandor Ellis Katz' overwhelmingly rich and thorough The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World, or  alternatively,  his shortened Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foodsfor a more #tothepoint guide. 

FASCINATING FERMENTED FOOD FACTS

  • Up to a whopping 33% of food throughout the world may be fermented! 
  • There are basically cultures in every culture! Think U.S. sourdough bread (Oh hey Little House On the Prairie!), German sauerkraut (oh hey my childhood!), Greek wine (oh hey What When Wine!), and Korean kimchi (I got nothing here.)
  • It's believed that our ability to process alcohol may be due to a genetic mutation which occurred millions of years ago when tree-dwelling monkeys shifted to live on the forest floor, and consequently had to eat fermented fruit (which produces alcohol), rather than virgin fruit found in the trees. 
  • Foods you might not realize are often fermented: salami, aged cheeses, olives, chocolate, vanilla, soy sauce, fish sauces, and more!
  • Fermenting food is great for preservation, as the fermenting bacteria crowd out pathogenic bacteria which could normally spoil food, while also producing byproducts (like acids and alcohol) which further deter nefarious invaders.

HEALTH BENEFITS 

  • Fermenting veggies can increase their amount of B vitamins.  
  • Fermenting food preserves the highly volatile vitamin C.
  • The ​probiotics in fermented food can help cultivate and maintain a friendly digestive environment. These "good" gut bacteria help us break down food and assimilate nutrients, while deterring nefarious "bad" bacteria.
  • For those with IBS and other gut issues, fermenting foods can help break down some of the more difficult to digest, ferment able carbohydrates (like inulin and pectin).

THE FERMENTATION PROCESS

All of the ingredients ya need for fermentation are actually already on your foods! So why does your cabbage not magically turn into sauerkraut on your counter, pumpkin-into-carriage style? It's because fermentation of foods occurs via anaerobic metabolism - the process of creating energy in an oxygen-less environment. And we don't live in space! (If you do - that's pretty cool.)

TYPES OF FERMENTATION 

There are actually many types of fermentation, as well as bacteria with the potential for fermentation:

Anaerobic Fermentation: Most fermentation (at least for our purposes!) is, as mentioned, anaerobic, meaning it happens when there's no oxygen around. These include fermented veggies (like sauerkraut) and yogurts.  Most common fermented foods are created from the presence of lactic acid bacteria, like Leuconostoc mesenteries, which are soon superseded by other forms, like Lactobacillus planetarium. 

Aerobic Fermentation: Some fermented products happen in the presence of oxygen. These include foods like tempeh, vinegar, and molded cheeses. 

Culturing: This is where you add extra bacteria or yeast yourself, to start the fermentation process.

Alcoholic fermentation: I bet this just may be the type of fermentation you're most familiar with. It occurs when sugars ferment into alcohol and acids. 

Pickling: While people often assume pickled foods are fermented, pickling actually just mandates preserving food with acidity.  Back in the day, this was indeed often via fermentation, but ever since  the mid century, it more often occurs simply using vinegar. This often involves heating the veggies,  which, unfortunately, tends to kill all the good bacteria, meaning pickled foods are often NOT a source of beneficial bacteria. {SIGH}

DIY FERMENTATION BASICS

Unlike your (Paleo-friendly!) cake recipe requiring very specific ingredients and steps, fermentation is much more of an experimental wildcard! Once you establish the appropriate environment for fermentation (which is achieved by factors including the proper vessel, lack or presence of oxygen, temperature, and light exposure), you can try out an unending mosaic of combinations! That said, you might want to start out with the go-to fermented food of basic vegetables (Oh hi sauerkraut!),  rather than the obscure exotic fruit only available at your local farmers market. 

STUFF NEEDED

You only need a few basic ingredients to commence your fermentation adventures! And you might even have all of this already in your proverbial or literal own backyard! Of course, you can also get more "professional" if you so desire, and buy many a fun thing which will make your fermentation adventures super easy, legit, and classy - but that's totally optional!

CUTTING BOARD: Unless you're just brining whole veggies, you need something to chop on! 

KNIFE/CHOPPER/GRATER/ETC: You'll need something to cut your veggies with, be it a knife, grater, food processor, or mandolin. 

POUNDER/HANDS/ETC: You'll also need something to "bruise" your veggies. You can squeeze them by hand, pound them with a bat, or even buy special things just for this.

WATER: You're gonna need some water, and it's gonna need to be filtered. AKA: Tap water is not an option, since it typically contains chlorine which just may kill your bacteria necessary for fermentation. 

SALT: While you don't have to use salt (more on that in a bit!), most methods do utilize the stuff. That said, modern table salt is highly processed and refined, sterilized to the point of just sodium chloride. It also contains added iodine which can potentially kill your microbes, as well as anti-caking agents which can cause further problems. As such, favor mineral-rich, natural salts like Himalayan, Redmond, or celtic sea salts!

CONTAINERS: You can really use almost anything for your fermentation vessel, though you do want to avoid metal (which corrodes) and plastic (which introduces toxins). Wide mouth containers are great for sauerkrauts, kombucha, and vinegars.  Mason jars are great because of their tops (see next point).  For fermenting larger amounts of stuff at one time, you can experiment with ceramic crocks. (Which I've never done - feel free to report back!) You can also  play around with dried gourds or fruits/vegetable rinds like watermelon, pumpkin, or eggplant to hold your fermentation. Check out The Art Of Fermentation for more on that!  

TOPS: Lids are super duper great for any fermentation requiring an absence of oxygen, like sauerkraut. But there's a slight caveat: the bacteria create CO2, which builds pressure in the container. You can address this by using mason jars with  separable tops composed of a rim and lid - this allows for expansion in the jar from the gasses produced: you simply give it a slight turn to make the lid pop up! (It's quite fun!) Alternatively, you can "burp" a normal top by unscrewing slightly, drill a hole in the top, or even  get fancy tops designed for this very purpose.  You can also simply use a coffee filter and rubber band for the top, but you might have deal with more mold and yeast (but don't worry - it's totally fine, and we've got a section on it!)  

WEIGHT/ROCKS: For fermented veggies, it's nice to use something to weigh down your fermented food, to keep it submerged in the brine. You can use anything from rocks, plastic bags filled with water (which work well, but I shudder at the chemicals), a heavy part of your veggie, or you can even buy special weights for this very purpose.

INCUBATORS/CURING CHAMBERS (Optional): More complicated fermentations mandate   specific temperatures, which can mean slightly more complicated equipment. Incubators keep things warm, like when making yogurt, and you can totally use an Instant Pot for this (or an oven). Other complex  methods require cool temperatures and curing chambers, like when making cheeses and dry cured meats.

STORAGE CONTAINER: While you can totally store your fermented veggies in the container you fermented them in, transferring them to smaller containers extends their shelf life by further discouraging fermentation. I like getting super tiny mason jars, which allow you to have single size servings. (Sidenote: I also do this for bone broth!)

LIGHT: Trick question! Most ferments require dark conditions, or at least no direct sunlight. (An exception is cucumber?)

TIME & PATIENCE: This one's totally free, though perhaps the most difficult to acquire! 

Chances are, the one fermented concoction you're likely familiar with (especially if in the US or Europe), is sauerkraut, which is common throughout Europe. (As a German girl myself, this was always the go-to, though I always thought it looked yucky.)

Basic sauerkraut often features just cabbage and salt, while additional common flavor ingredients include caraway seeds or juniper berries (which also flavor gin!). Other renditions include the sweet Bavarian sauerkraut (mixed with sugar) or the German weinkraut made with wine (which I TOTALLY want to try!)

You can ferment any veggie you like! You simply submerge shredded veggies in (typically) air-tight  containers (no oxygen!), often in their own juices, or alternatively in a brine.  The lactic acid bacteria naturally present on the veggies then begin the fermentation process, creating an ever-evolving enviornment of fluctuating flavor!  

WHAT VEGGIES TO FERMENT?

The possibilities really are endless here!  

  • Common: cabbage (Try green for more traditional and tame, and red for more adventurous and earthy), carrots, and radishes.
  • Cruciferous veggies: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, etc.
  • Root veggies: turnip, parsnip, rutabaga, etc.
  • Squash and Starch: spaghetti squash, butternut squash, sweet potato, yam, etc.
  • Random: okra, celery, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beets (may form a sticky brine)
  • Seaweeds: arame, kelp, etc. 


BASIC STEPS

Ok, this may look like a lot of steps, but they're pretty simple! Most of them are actually optional, and the last one is  just about storing anyway! That means you could do this in just a few steps at bare minimum!

1. GATHER 

Collect together your ingredients and supplies. These include the veggies to ferment, jars & tops, cutting board and chopping/cutting utensils,  weights.  (See "Stuff Needed" for all the details!)

2. BREAK DOWN (optional)

I always thought breaking down the veggies had some cool purpose  of encouraging the good bacteria to spawn and do their thing. Turns out it's simply to extract water from the veggies, so you can submerge them in their juices, and consequently instigate anaerobic fermentation.

You can do whatever break down method you like, to create whatever form/texture you like! You can chop with a knife or by hand (larger chunks might require a brine), grate in a food processor or with with a handheld grater (good for crunchy veggies like radishes and carrots), slice 'em up (think jalapeno slices or carrot sticks), or shred them into smithereens!  

You can also leave your veggies whole. This can work well for things like Brussels sprouts, small pickling cucumbers, or little onions! Just keep in mind that if you do chose this wholesome route (see what I did there?), you're gonna have to use a brine, to be discussed in step 4.

3. BRUISE

If you choose some sort of cut-up (rather than whole) veggies, you're gonna want to beat them up a bit to further release their juices. You can squeeze them by hand or pound them with a blunt tool, or even get fancy and buy something specific for this very purpose. Alternatively, you can "wilt" them, a la kimchi. (See that section!)

4. SALT (optional)

While salt is optional, it's typically used, thanks to quite a few benefits.

  • Salt pulls water from the veggies, so you can accumlate more liquid for submersion. 
  • If you fancy crispy ferments, salt deters digestive enzymes in the plants which can turn things mushy.
  • Salt slows the fermentation process in general, if such is your goal.
  • Salt helps discourage mold and other bad guys. (But don't freak out about that! See the WHAT section for all the details!)
  • Although they don't require it, salt encourages salt-loving beneficial lactic acid bacteria strains, like Lactobacilli .
SALTING OPTIONS

Dry Salt: Dry salting is simply where you sprinkle salt on top, and let the whole thing sit for a bit. Easy breezy! This is the common approach, especially for any sort of broken down veggies.

Create A Salt Brine: For whole veggies, you will want to add salt to water to create a salty liquid brine, which you will then submerge the veggies in.

HOW MUCH?

How much salt? You can simply salt to taste if you like, erring on the side of less rather than more. If you want to start with more specifics, you can try around 1.5-2 tsp salt per pound of veggies. If you find that you added too much, you can add some water and then drain it, and the salt along with it! Yey! 

WHAT TYPE?

While you can technically use table salt, such is a refined, nutrient-less form featuring anti-caking agents and sugar. Plus, the added iodine in table salt can potentially inhibit the growth of good bacteria. Because of this,  consider using Redmond saltwhich is my favorite (mineral-rich, with a slightly sweet taste),  Himalyan pink (another good option!), or Celtic salt.  I recommend using these salts in general, fermentation or no!

SALT-LESS

Still want to go salt less? Totally an option! Just keep in mind a few things:

  • You'll need to bruise and pound the veggies more, to extract the liquid.
  •  Fermentation time will likely be shorter (think 2-3 days).
  •  The final result may be more mushy.
  • It may be slightly more susceptible to bad guys.  (Again, don't freak out - see the MOLD section).  
  •  You can also substitute other things, like lemon juice or whey for acidity, celery juice, various seeds/spices (caraway/celery/dill seeds), or ocean veggies, like kelp, arame, etc.   (See the FLAVORING Step!) 
5. CULTURE (optional)

While I suggest starting your first ferments with the naturally occurring bacteria, especially when you're just figuring out the basic results, you can also experiement and add your own bacteria if ya like! This can create different flavors, and also to speed up the fermentation process. You can add probiotics, brine from an earlier ferment, or specifically ordered cultures

6. FLAVOR (optional) 

While you can totally create simple, traditional ferments from say, cabbage and salt, you can also experiment with a variety of spices, herbs, and natural flavorings. Consider trying out:

  • common flavorings: carrawy seeds, dill, peppercorn, and horseradish.
  • spices: garlic, oregano, mustard seed, cumin, coriander seeds, turmeric.
  • herbs: dill, leeks, coriander, cilantro, etc.
  • nuts
  • dried fruits (like berries!)

Keep in mind that the more delicate the flavoring, the more quickly its flavor will likely get lost in the fermented shuffle. (Craving a super intense cilantro ferment? You might want to ferment for a shorter period of time to retain the flavor.) 

Fun fact: A "spice" is technically any dried aspect of a plant besides the leaves, if used to add flavor and not as the main component. This includes the roots, seeds, twigs, bark, and even berries! (I guess if you made a recipe of just turmeric, it would no longer be a spice?) An herb, on the other hand, is any green leafy part of a plant.

7. TRANSFER/ PACK  

Transfer your veggies into your fermentation container. You can pack the veggies entirely in their own juices, add water to cover if needed, or submerge them in a brine. Just make sure to keep them submerged.  The key is packing them uber tight , with no air bubbles! An oxygen-less state is key for both supporting the growth of the probiotic anaerobic bacteria, as well as stopping mold and yeasts from forming (more on that in a bit!). If you need to add water to completely submerge them, do it!

8. WEIGHT (optional)

You might need to put something on top of your veggies, to keep them submerged. This is where weights come into play. You've actually got tons of options, which is fun! You can use a large chunk of a heavy veggie (like the heart of a cabbage, a slice of horseradish, or some carrots), fill a plastic bag with water (which works well, but I'm not a fan of plastic), or even buy SPECIAL weights if ya really want to commit!

9. PROTECT (optional)

You can further decrease oxygen exposure by laying a cloth on top, or using the jar's lid. (Too obvious?) A basic lid works, a mason jar lid is a step better, and for the creme de la creme, try out these awesome lids!

10. FERMENT

The time has come! (Or is to come!) I hope you're a patient person!  You can ferment for as long as you like, simply taste daily to see how the flavor is progressing. You can go a few days, or more traditionally a few weeks... even a few months! The longer you ferment , the more changes occur in the bacteria population, and the softer the veggies will get. Fermentation time is slowed by more salt and cooler temperatures.  If dark mold or an off smell/taste develops, trash it and start over.

11. BURP (optional)

Assuming everything goes as planned (which it will!), CO2 is gonna build up in your container, if it features a sealed lid. You're gonna want to "burp" your creation every few days, by simply unscrewing the top for a sec.. (This is why mason jar tops are separated into two parts - which blew my mind!) Note that the CO2 released will be the most intense in the very beginning. 

12. STORE

When finished, simply tighten the lid, or transfer your marvelous creation to another container,  and then store in the fridge! One you move things to the fridge, the fermentation process will essentially cease (or trickle to a snail's pace), meaning it will keep for months, and potentially years (if you're not opening the top to let air in.) #Crazy

BRINING (including pickles!)

Brining is a form of fermentation where you use whole vegetables. Here are some tips!

  • You can add flavors and elements like garlic, dill, or apple cider vinegar.
  • You can add bacteria if you like.
  • Good veggies for brining: whole pickling or Persian cucumbers (which make pickles!), brussel sprouts, radishes, turnips, baby carrots, green beans.
  • Salt your brine to taste
  • Want to make PICKLES specifically?:  They can actually be a challenge, since cucumbers are watery and often get mushy. You can make it easier by choosing small cucumbers, and adding plants rich in tannins, like grape or cherry leaves, or horseradish. You can also use a lot of garlic. Soak cucumbers in cold water, then scrape away any residue. You can use a brine featuring 3 tablespoons for every 1 quart of water. Submerge the cucumbers completely, and ferment them in the light or dark, keeping in mind that hotter temperatures lead to faster fermentation (a few days). Refrigerate once the cucumbers begin to soften, and know that they're color will become darker. You can make things  easier by choosing small cucumbers, and adding small amounts of plants which contain the astringent tannins, like grape or cherry leaves, or horseradish. You can also use a lot of garlic!

CONCERNS

Worried your veggies are gonna turn into a toxic slime? Don't worry, I can pretty much assure you that you're NOT gonna die from toxic mold poisoning. (And this is coming from a girl who fears mold to a potentially unhealthy extent). Just consider how about how many people have actually died from raw veggies  compared to fermented ones. 

While mold or yeast may form on the surface of your stuff, it's ok. Simply remove it once it starts with a clean spoon. (Check for it when burping!) As long as the mold isn't black (toss that!), and your ferments don't taste "off" (toss that too!) you'll be just dandy. The pathogenic stuff don't form underneath the liquid without the oxygen. So the key to preventing mold is keeping your veggies submerged and avoiding all oxygen down under.

You can also form a protective barrier between your veggies and the air as discussed before, if you so desire. Some people do this with a simple cabbage leaf, or by layering some oil (like olive oil) on top. 

And please don't "sterilize" your veggies, which will get rid of the bacteria you need to properly ferment.