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Beginner’s Guide to Fermentation

image of fermenting cucumbers in mason jar with airlock lids

Fermentation is an old way of preserving food – really old, as in before refrigeration and before canning. Back in the day, you either dehydrated or fermented food to keep it from spoiling. Fermented foods include common items such as yogurt, cheese, and sauerkraut plus less common items such as kefir, kvass, and kimchi.

Years ago I started making milk kefir. In case you aren’t familiar with milk kefir, it’s fermented milk similar to yogurt. It’s so easy,  you put milk in a jar along with some kefir grains, put the lid on and leave it on your counter for a day or so and voila, you have wonderful probiotic rich milk to use in smoothies. You can learn how to make milk kefir here.

Since then I’ve been intrigued with food fermentation and have made yogurt (not as as cheap or easy as kefir in my opinion), kefir water (not as easy as milk kefir) and finally fermented vegetables.

Fermented vegetables seemed so much more involved – you need special equipment and make it in large batches and most of my family doesn’t like the taste of So fermenting vegetables has stayed on the “someday” list for longer than it needed to.

I discovered that I could make small batches of fermented food in mason jars using  the Easy Fermenter. This totally changed how I viewed fermenting vegetables. Here’s why…

  • I don’t need to buy an expensive crock
  • I can make several different ferments at a time (I have the 6 pack set)
  • I don’t need to transfer the fermented vegetables to another container for storage
  • I can ferment in small batches  (Remember the part about my family not liking anything tasting like vinegar? I feel like I can do some experimenting without wasting money.)
image of fermented food in mason jar with airlock lid

Why you should consider adding fermented food to your diet

To me this is the million dollar question. I don’t want to do something just because others are doing it or because it’s the new “magic bullet” in healthy living. I don’t believe that just because some cultures have a tradition of fermenting vegetables that all vegetables should be fermented or that you should only eat fermented vegetables. I do, however, believe that fermented foods have a place in a healthy lifestyle.

Unfortunately we live in a culture (if you are in the US) that is obsessed with getting rid of bacteria. And yet, we need the good bacteria (probiotics) to help us live heatly lives. Our intestinal tract is full of bacteria, most of it good, and it is our single most valuable defense against sickness. When we have good digestion our body gets the nourishment it needs to fight off viruses and bad bacteria. And fermented foods are full of probiotics that help with digestion.

Of course packaged probiotics can be purchased at the drugstore but the good ones are really expensive. It can easily cost 50 cents to a dollar a day PER person!

I can make enough fermented cabbage for everyone in my family to have two 1/4 cup serving a day for under $10. That’s quite a savings form the $100 a month I’d need to for supplements!

Fermenting food is also another way to preserve the harvest. There are some vegetables, like cabbage, that are hard to preserve by other methods. You pretty much have to just eat them as they are harvested or store them in a root cellar.

Fermented sauerkraut will last for 6 months (sometimes longer) in the refrigerator. I know you can make sauerkraut with vinegar and can it and it will last longer but you lose the nutritional benefit when you do that.

image of cut cauliflower ready to be fermented

How to make fermented vegetables

There are only a few things needed to ferment vegetables. You need the vegetable, iodine-free salt, chlorine-free water and a container.

  1. Chop or grate the vegetables
  2. Salt the vegetables if you are using a vegetables like cabbage that has a lot of water in it
  3. Make a brine with salt and water if you are using vegetables that do not have a lot of water, like peppers or cucumbers (a 2-3 % brine is the most common) in an appropriate container
  4. Store for 1 week to 1 month in a cool dark place to let the fermentation take place
  5. When the flavor is to your liking, store the vegetables in the refrigerator
  6. Enjoy!
image of fermenting peppers with airlock lids

Getting started with fermenting vegetables

There is a wealth of information online for fermenting vegetables. It can actually be overwhelming. Like many cultural and old practices there are often several ways of doing the same thing. So don’t let that get to you.

Here are some resouces to get you started on your fermention journey.

Fermenting lids and weights. I love the Easy Fermenter for several reasons, one being that the lid had a date on it that I can mark to know when to check the ferment. The second reason is that there’s no airlock to fill with water.

As you can see from the photos, I’ve also used Fermentools airlock system. I like it too but if the airlock gets bumped and you don’t notice, you can end up with a moldy mess on your hands.

The Ultimate Guide to Preserving Vegetables is my preserving book which is full of instructions and recipes for canning, dehydrating, freezing, and fermenting vegetables.

Fermenting Vegetables by Kristen Shockey. This book gave me a lot of fermentation confidence when I first began exploring fermenting vegetables. You can read my full review here.

The Herbal Academy has a fantastic fermentation course available. You can learn how to make mead, herbal beer and wine, water kefir, and fermented foods.

One of the unbreakable rules of fermentation is that the food needs to stay under the water (brine) so weights are important. Learning and Yearning has a great list of things you can use for fermentation weights.

Your climate will determine how quickly or slowly food ferments. Fermentation happens more quickly in a warm climate than it does in a cold climate. Practical Self Reliance has some good tips on fermenting food in cold climates.

Fermented food is NOT the same as rotting food, which is what some people think and it keeps them from trying truly good-for-your-gut food. Healing Harvest Homestead debunks eight common fermentation myths.

If learning by video is more your thing, J&J Acres is in the process of videoing their journey of fermenting vegetables.

Kohlrabi Hotsticks from Little Big Harvest – I might just grow kohlrabi next year so I can try these.

I have a set of worksheets I print each year to keep track of what I’ve preserved. You can get the worksheets emailed to you by filling out the form below. 

image of The Ultimate Guide to Preserving Vegetables and jars of home preserved vegetables

The Ultimate Guide to Preserving Vegetables

If you you’re looking for more preserving inspiration, I know you’ll love The Ultimate Guide to Preserving Vegetables. In this book I share how to can, dehydrate, freeze and ferment almost every vegetable. I also share 100 favorite recipes for preserving the vegetables in fun way that will save you time and money later. Get your copy here. Get your copy here.

Have you ever fermented food? I’d love to hear about it.

Thanks for sharing with your friends!

Sandra Dunn

Monday 19th of August 2019

I love fermented foods. I started with a beautiful red cabbage kraut that is simply delicious. I tried kimchi two different ways and found that I just do not like the chili powder taste. I got started late in the kefir realm, all I could think about was the clabber my grandparents made when I was a little girl and thought it was nasty like milk that had soured. Finally I decided to take a chance using the "instant" kefir, we found it made a pretty great milkshake when I added frozen fruit and honey. I still haven't eaten it like yogurt although I do make a kefir cheese that's good on toast with jelly and other ways too.

Angi Schneider

Tuesday 20th of August 2019

LOL...I agree with you about the milk kefir. I make it and we use it in smoothies, some use more, some use less. I've found that adding a banana and raw honey to whatever smoothie we're making takes the edge off the kefir. I've never heard of instant kefit. I'll have to look into that.

Rachel E.

Monday 12th of January 2015

I got a fermentation crock for my birthday last year. Nice heavy thing - made 20 pounds of saurkraut. It was a lot of work. I lost it all to mold because I didn't have time to can it. I was not happy. Not one bit.

Angi Schneider

Tuesday 13th of January 2015

Twenty pounds is A LOT! If you can the sauerkraut will you lose the probiotic benefit?

Juliana @ Te Amo Too

Monday 12th of January 2015

Hi Angi, I have been trying to make my own fermented foods. I have bought milk kefir from the grocery store before and I think its delicious! Do you think the homemade version is good as well? And I love this system for fermenting food. It seems easy to use and I feel like I could give it a try. Thank you so much for stopping by at my blog. I tried really hard to take those pictures! I am definitely linking again this Thursday :)

Angi Schneider

Tuesday 13th of January 2015

I've never had store bought kefir, so I don't know how they would compare. When I started making it you couldn't easily find it in the stores. To me the homemade kefir is like very strong plain yogurt, so we only drink it mixed up in a smoothie.