Anyone can ferment food at home and do so safely and confidently. You may have already come across this process in making sourdough bread or even brewing your own beer. But, if you’ve never fermented anything, that’s okay too! Fermentation is an easy way to preserve food at home — and it’s great for your gut and overall health. As a matter of fact, there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests the microorganisms that flourish in the fermentation process, such as the bacteria Lactobacillus, reduce inflammation in our bodies.
Specifically, a Stanford University study found a decline in the inflammatory protein Interleukin 6. This protein is found elevated in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and Type 2 diabetes.
Essentially, when we eat fermented foods, we increase our intake of beneficial microorganisms, which may lead to less inflammation and physiological stress and less stress on our bodies, which means we can get the most out of living.
Fermented foods have also been shown to strengthen the lining of our stomach by increasing the diversity of healthy microbes. Without this diversity, the intestinal walls can be weakened and lead to leaky gut syndrome, a condition where contents of the digestive tract can leak into the bloodstream. I think we can all agree that’s not good for anyone’s health. Some of the physical signs of leaky gut syndrome are:
- Mind Fog
- Chronic Fatigue
- Anxiety and Depression
So, whether you’re looking for a way to preserve the fruits of your labor from a long-awaited harvest, or you’re looking to heal your gut, fermentation can help.
What Foods Can Be Fermented?
All foods! Yes, all foods. In fact, many cultures relied upon fermentation as a means of preservation. Though handy as that is for preservation, fermentation benefits us even more by transforming food into something else by way of bacteria.
Here are the three main types of fermentation:
- Lactic acid fermentation is the process of turning sugar or starch into lactic acid with yeast or bacteria in an anaerobic environment. Dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables can all be fermented because they contain glucose that bacteria like Lactobacilli readily break down into lactic acid.
- Acetic acid fermentation is the process of converting grains and fruit into sour-tasting vinegar by fermenting the starches and sugars. A popular example is apple cider becoming apple cider vinegar. This type of fermentation is popularly used to make condiments and can also be used to convert alcohol into vinegar.
- Ethyl alcohol fermentation is used when producing wine and beer. Yeast is used to convert pyruvate molecules, an output of glycolysis, found in sugar and starch, to make alcohol and carbon dioxide. This process is the only one of the three where a two-step fermentation is common, as the first step introduces some oxygen to encourage growth of the chosen yeast, while the second step requires an airtight, anaerobic environment.
When it comes to choosing which fermentation process to start with, it comes down to what you want to eat. Lactic acid fermentation has the widest range of food options, as you can go from making tofu or sourdough bread to even salami. That’s right, you can ferment meat. The process is very similar to that used in dairy, grain, fruit, and vegetable lactic acid fermentation, but it requires a watchful eye, a cold enclosure, an understanding of pH, and sodium nitrites to ward off spoilage.
So, we can even ferment meat, but that doesn’t mean we can, or should, just use any fermentation process. As mentioned before, lactic acid fermentation is the way to go in most cases, but if one were to try to combine alcohol or acetic acid fermentation in this case, there would be rancid meat in one’s future.
On the other hand, the process of making kombucha shows an overlap between all three types of fermentations because it is a balance of yeasts and bacteria, and their influence on taste and carbonation.
At its core, fermentation is about converting carbohydrates into acids or alcohols through the aid of living microorganisms like yeast and bacteria. This is generally referred to as Primary fermentation, as it does not require a lot of time for fresh produce to go bad. In Secondary fermentation, the length of time to ferment can take weeks as the chemical reactions begin to change as the microbes die off. This stage is often used in wine and beer.
Regardless of what fermentation process you choose to pursue, there are four variables you can manipulate to control the rate of fermentation.
These four aspects — water, sugar, temperature, and time — not only affect the rate of fermentation but also the final product’s flavor and texture.
In the case of crafting the ideal yogurt or cheese, the type of culture you purchase or cultivate at home can also determine the consistency (thick or thin) and the flavor (tangy or sweet).
The microbes in these cultures not only have flavor benefits, but also health benefits.
Some of the upsides to eating fermented foods are that they are:
When looking for these health benefits, we are going to mainly focus on transforming our vegetables and fruits into fermented foods with live microbes. In other words, fermented foods with probiotics. These microbes are what increase gut diversity, and aid in digestion so that your body gets the most nutrients out of what you put into your stomach.
The hard work put into your garden every year now gives back to you two-fold.
Prepare a Fermenting Space
If it’s too hot or too cold, the fermentation process won’t go as expected. If it’s too hot, then not only will there be some parts fermented more than others, but the possibility of mold also increases. Too cold, and the process will take months or not occur at all.
So how do you ferment safely at home?
Keep the temperature anywhere between 60 and 75 degrees F. It’s that straightforward.
To help maintain the consistency of the temperature, make sure to find a spot in your home that isn’t in direct sunlight, or in a room with a draft.
Once the process has been completed to your liking, in taste and in microbial density, the fridge is the best place to store fermented food, as the fermentation process will continue at the same rate if not quelled by the cold.
Not only will you be able to extend the shelf life of your fermented food, but the cold will also slow down the fermentation process and keep it at your desired taste.
Unlike canning, you won’t need to sterilize anything. Soap, warm water, and a good scrubbing will do.
What you will need to ferment at home:
- Mason jars or other glass or ceramic containers
- Cover or lid for your container
- Food scale
- Good cutting knife
- Bowls for mixing
Other items that may be helpful:
- Mason jar fermenting kit with lids, fermentation weights, and airlocks
The right container and supplies can depend on what you are fermenting, but for fermenting most vegetables, you need some sort of non-plastic container, a way to keep the vegetables in the brine, and a cover that will keep oxygen out.
Stock up on Salt
Whether it’s to preserve food or make it tastier, salt will also help to kill off the bacteria we don’t want in our fermentation process. Not only does it add flavor, but it also protects our food.
However, avoid table salt, as it has additives not recommended for fermenting vegetables.
Consider instead pink Himalayan salt and sea salt.
For example, when making sauerkraut, 5 lbs. of cabbage will do best with 3 tablespoons of salt, with less or more depending on personal preferences. The salt will draw out the water and provide the juices necessary to submerge the cabbage in the mason jar.
It’s crucial to not significantly alter the amount of salt recommended, as the proportion chosen is meant to ensure quality and flavor.
Fermenting at Home Tip #1:
Add flavor with garlic and ginger but refrain from using the same amount as you would in a meal. The fermentation process will explode those flavors, and unless you like eating garlic whole, the final product might not be so tempting. Less is more in this case.
Maintain an Anaerobic Environment
All vegetables have Lactobacillus bacteria present on them, but that’s not all that’s on our food. To ward off the bad bacteria and ferment safely, we must allow for Lactobacillus to flourish on its own.
That means creating an environment without oxygen.
When it comes to lactic acid fermentation, oxygen exposure will create an unfriendly environment. Fermenting food at home can be safely done and is a completely manageable project for families to do together.
Keep the food submerged under water or weigh it down with other parts of the vegetable.
Oxygen may be our friend, but in the case of the fermenting process, it’s an invisible intruder that will encourage bacterial growth that we don’t want, so be sure the cap is screwed on tight.
Fermenting at Home Tip #2:
Avoid wooden bowls for mixing as the brine may absorb into the bowl. Stay away from metal containers as well, as there could be interactions with the acidic brine or fermentation process.
Keep Track on the Calendar
Fermenting can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a month depending on what you’re fermenting or the recipe you’re following.
The shortest wait time could be just under a day in the case of kefir and dosas.
Sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi will take quite a few more days, but some experimentation should be expected as you discover what you like.
The longer you ferment, the tangier your sauerkraut becomes, and the fizzier your kombucha will be.
The longer the food ferments, the more live microbes to aid in gut health. So, if you love acidic foods, let that food ferment for a couple of weeks.
The longer you choose to ferment, though, the greater the need to watch out for mold. Mold is a signal something went wrong in the process. Safely fermenting at home means keeping an eye out for colorful growth and not being hard on yourself if something does grow.
Fermenting at Home Tip #3:
The white foam that may gather at the top is yeast from the conversion of starches. This isn’t harmful, but it is a good idea to scoop it out so you can see what growth may or may not be occurring at the water’s edge.
Choose the Freshest Produce in the Home
To start off on a good note, pick out the best vegetables. If they’ve just come from the garden, all the better! Wash them off nicely and get to chopping.
Fermenting at Home Tip #4:
After you’ve picked out what vegetables or fruits you’d like to ferment, make sure to use them as soon as possible. The first 24 hours after harvesting is the best time to use them.
Simple Fermenting Recipes to Try at Home
Here are five basic recipes to start with that can be worked into your everyday meals:
Unlike yogurt, kefir has a thinner consistency and is jam-packed with more probiotics. Not only is it more nutritious than yogurt, but it has also been shown to help with irritable bowel syndrome and digestive issues. It is also friendly to those who are lactose intolerant and can be made entirely lactose free with non-dairy alternatives such as coconut water or rice milk.
Dosa is an Indian crepe-like popular street food typically made with red lentils and rice. It can easily be a meal or a quick snack when paired with sweet or savory fillings. Not only is this red lentil and rice dosa recipe gluten-free, but it is also vegan.
Popular in countries such as Ukraine, kvass is a type of fermented drink that is non-alcoholic and tart in flavor with a light sweetness. It has a lot of the benefits of kombucha, but does not have as involved of a process. Yeast or whey can be used to start the lacto-fermentation process, and in this recipe, you can use beets or carrots from the garden.
Otherwise known as honey wine, this sweet beverage recipe has a two-step bottling process that will leave you with a nicely aged mead and it requires just a cup of chopped rhubarb. Wine yeast is recommended instead of traditional baking yeast for a more palatable flavor. While rhubarb mead isn’t the first recipe I’d choose if my focus was solely on gut health, it’s a fun recipe to make that you can share with friends and family as you enjoy a healthy meal together.
Of all the ways to preserve tomatoes, fermenting them is certainly a tasty and practical option. You can eat them as is, or further develop the flavors of the fermentation process by making tomato sauces and jams. Whether you have a tomato crop boom or grow just a few, this recipe is a great way to make the most out of that tomato flavor.
Transforming Your Food Will Transform Your Gut
Happy accidents occur all the time, and that’s certainly the case with fermenting food. Who could have guessed that preservation would go hand in hand with a strong gut?
Whether you are brushing up on the basics of fermenting, or you’re jumping into fermenting food that’s completely new to you, start in small batches and have fun experimenting as our ancestors once did. Thanks to them, we now have a plethora of inspiration to work with, much of which comes directly from our own gardens.
About the Author
Gabriela Nunez is a writer and illustrator with a passion for storytelling, helping others connect the dots to understand meaningful concepts, and diving deeply into understanding the emotions that drive human behavior.
From a young age, Gabriela has found joy and connection to the world around her by spending time outdoors. From finding fragments of the past left behind in the dirt to being inspired by the life growing all around her, exploring nature feeds her soul and writing.
When Gabriela isn’t writing or spending time in nature, she’s making her favorite foods to feed her soul and nourish her body.