Fermenting is all the rage again, but it can also get a bad rap

We often hear about the mishaps of fermenting: the complexity of a recipe, the equipment you need, or the bacteria that may grow. But fermenting isn’t difficult or challenging at all—in fact, it’s so much easier than canning, it’s better for you, and it doesn’t require specific ingredients. Sounds easy enough, right? Just wait—you’ll want to ferment everything after reading this!

What is fermenting?

Fermenting is the original method of food preservation. That means when you’d have an abundant garden harvest or farm haul, into the fermentation vessels it went. By preserving your vegetables in liquid and salt or another starter culture, your vegetables will last for many months, which allows you to enjoy those tasty veggies long after gardening season has ended.

How does it work?

Normally in a ferment you just need salt, vegetables and water, although many will opt to add a splash of liquid from their finished pickle jar or sauerkraut to a new batch to get the ferment moving a bit faster. This is a completely personal preference as your veggies will ferment just fine without a starter, but it will just take a bit longer.

Salt is the main ingredient for keeping your preserves fresh and free of harmful bacteria. This doesn’t mean your ferment is bacteria-free though. Unlike with canning, where you are boiling everything to sterilize the contents so that your jar is shelf-stable, fermenting actually depends on bacteria (the good guys: lactobacillus) to colonize the jar of vegetables. They do the hard work of converting the vegetables’ sugars into lactic acid, which makes fermented foods much easier for us to eat and digest, while retaining all of their nutrients. Plus, fermenting unlocks extra nutrients from veggies that would otherwise be unattainable for our us to absorb.

How do you make brine?

This is always the overwhelming part when starting a new adventure, especially after hearing that you’re dealing with bacteria. The best advice you’ll hear from every fermenter is that if it’s under brine, you’re doing fine. That means any vegetables or leaves that are under the brine (the liquid that your veggies are submerged in) will stay good to eat. Any food item that floats above the brine is at risk of becoming moldy and inedible.

Brine (water and salt) can either be made and poured over your veggies (in the case of pickles or pickled vegetables), or in the case of krauts (shredded cabbage, carrot, beet, kohlrabi, etc,), you’ll often sprinkle salt over the shredded veggies, massage the mixture, cover for at least 40 minutes, massage again, and watch brine be extracted from the mixture.

What do you do about yeast or mold?

Another piece of advice: don’t be afraid of yeast, but be skeptical of mold. Yeast (kahn’s yeast) is a normal occurrence in a fermentation jar, especially if you are fermenting in a warm location. Be sure to look up a picture of what it looks like so that you know whether or not to be concerned.

Mold, on the other hand, needs to be discarded. Don’t throw out the whole jar just yet (as tempting as it is). There’s perfectly good food down there. Usually what gets moldy is the top leaf that’s holding the veggies under water—so as long as there’s no mold floating around in the middle of the jar, scoop off the top, make sure to get all of the mold out and check that the rest doesn’t have a funny smell to it, add a new leaf to keep the veggies submerged, and you’re good to go.

Equipment you’ll need

A jar or a crock: A Mason jar works great to start your fermenting journey. You can choose a smaller or larger glass jar. However, fermenting crocks are the more traditional vessel, as the jars are opaque and protect your fermenting foods from UV rays, which kills the beneficial bacteria and stops the fermentation process. Crocks also have a built-in vent for gas produced during fermentation to escape. Overall, crocks have the advantage, but they can be pricey if you’re just starting out.

Primary follower: Remember that leaf we were talking about? This is your primary follower. You usually need this for shredded veggies like cabbage since these small pieces are known to float up whereas pickles aren’t at risk of floating. You can use a cabbage leaf or a piece of silicone cut to size to keep your veggies submerged under the brine.

Secondary follower: This is your weight that keeps the leaf/primary follower pressed down. You can purchase glass weights, a spring/lid combination for mason jars, large ceramic weights for larger vessels, an airlock lid which keeps oxygen out but releases gasses, or use a sterilized rock.

A lid: A crock will come with the airlock lid, as will many of the other gadgets, but if you decide to go with what you have on hand, you can also use a clean cloth and rubber band to keep things out of your fermenting jar.

Wood utensil: This is to help tamp your vegetables down (again, mostly for your shredded veggies that need to be packed in tightly). Never use metal or aluminum, copper, or silver as they can react with the acids found in fermenting vegetable brines.

A dark space: Once your veggies are chopped, shredded, packed in, covered with brine, weighed down and covered, you’ll want to place the ferment in a cool and dark location away from sunlight. Depending on the recipe, your veggies ferment anywhere from four days to one month. As soon as they’re done fermenting, you can place them into the fridge where they’ll last up to a year, or if they’re in a cold cellar or basement, that will slow down the fermentation process enough to store them there.

Fermenting is incredibly forgiving. As long as you have enough salt brine and your veggies are covered, you don’t need to follow a direct recipe the way that you do with canning. Want to add dill and lemon to your sauerkraut? Go for it! Love the taste of celery and fennel seed in your pickles, add them in! Once you get the hang of fermenting, you’ll realize you can ferment just about anything and everything—from our basics like cabbage and beets all the way to new discoveries like basil or winter squash.