Fermenting for Beginners: A No-Fail Guide to Get You Started Like a Pro
Preserving the harvest is an essential part of being a homesteader, but you don’t want to rely entirely on canning. Fermenting is a simple, quick preservation method, and homesteaders are re-discovering this method. Trust me, fermenting for beginners isn’t as hard as you might think.
I put off learning how to ferment for quite some time. It just seemed too intimidating.
Yes, I can process any type of food through a canner, whether it’s soup, meat, or a batch of jam. Creating jars of fermented food seemed like an entirely different world.
I was wrong.
Fermenting is simple, easy to learn, quick to do, and leads to healthier foods. It’s no wonder that fermented foods are enjoying a comeback.
Do you want to learn simple tricks for fermenting for beginners? Let’s dive in together; don’t be afraid!
- The Benefits of Fermenting Foods
- Fermenting for Beginners: The Supplies You Need
- What Can You Ferment Safely
- The 5 Vital Rules of Fermenting for Beginners
- Frequently Asked Questions about Fermenting
- Fermenting for Beginners Isn’t So Hard
The Benefits of Fermenting Foods
At first, I wasn’t convinced that I needed to learn how to ferment food. I canned everything, so are there any benefits to learning fermentation?
Yes, there are! Here are some of the most impressive benefits, at least in my eyes.
- Fermenting is one of the quickest and easiest methods of preservation that doesn’t require too many specialty tools or expensive upfront investment.
- Fermentation is the only method of food preservation that actually makes your food healthier for you than their original state.
- When you eat fermented food, you’re getting probiotics, digestive enzymes, and healthy acids that all contribute to your overall wellness.
- It’s a low-energy preservation method. You don’t need to use a stove for canners or a dehydrator.
Fermenting for Beginners: The Supplies You Need
I love that you don’t need to buy tons of supplies to start fermenting for beginners. No one really wants to invest a lot of money without knowing if they like fermenting!
Here is what you need.
First, you need some sort of vessel to ferment food. You don’t have to try anything fancy. Don’t use anything that is made out of plastic, metal (including stainless steel), or anything not food grade.
The best fermenting vessels are wood, ceramic, or glass.
Sure, you can purchase crocks, but they can be a bit pricey. Mason jars work just fine as a fermenting vessel, and they work with modern-day airlock lids.
Fermentation weights keep the fermenting food under the brine. Some use a saucer with water on top, a jar of water, or a cabbage leaf tucked over your veggies.
I preferred to purchase glass fermentation weights. I didn’t feel as if I had anything that classified as food-grade that I could comfortably use in the jars. You also can purchase ceramic or wood, so long as they’re food-grade.
Technically, you only need an airlock if you’re fermenting airlock, but I use a vented fermentation lid on my ferments. They might not be a necessity, but using an airlock adds an extra layer of protection from things such as mold.
If you do want to use airlocks, make sure you use a vessel that allows them. Ceramic crocks typically aren’t designed for airlocks. Your best bet is using glass mason jars
When you ferment anything that is either finely chopped or shredded, you’ll need something that easily fits into your vessel to pack it all together. You can buy a sauerkraut pounder, but a wooden spoon or any other wooden tool will work if it fits into the jar.
Other Fermenting Supplies
Chances are you have these other items lying around your kitchen. They’re using as canning supplies or cooking supplies.
- A sharp knife
- a cutting board
- measuring cups and spoons
What Can You Ferment Safely
One thing that I really do love about fermenting is there are few things that you can NOT ferment. Fermenting is less about lab testing and more about using your common sense and five senses.
You can ferment or culture, which means to ferment with specific strains of bacteria, yeasts, or milk, many foods. Here are some foods to add to your list of things you want to ferment at home.
Fermenting doesn’t discriminate. You can ferment raw and cooked foods. Most people ferment raw foods, but you can learn how to ferment cooked foods if that’s your preference!
Fermenting raw vegetables is the easiest, even though they all are easy. Its called Lacto-fermenting. “Lacto” refers to the lactobacillus bacteria that grows in the food.
No, it has nothing to do with dairy, even though it’s close to the word lactose.
The 5 Vital Rules of Fermenting for Beginners
1. Use Raw, Fresh Vegetables
It’s important that you use raw, ORGANIC vegetables. Non-organic veggies might be sprayed with pesticides, and since poison kills living things and ferments are alive, they don’t mix well.
Your finished ferment will only be as good as your starting produce. If you use sub-par veggies, the results won’t be as good as they can be with high-quality veggies.
TIP: You don’t have to ferment all of the same veggies in the same jar. You can make an “everything” jar for the odds and ends in your garden.
There aren’t really any vegetables that you cannot lacto-ferment, but some do require special techniques that I won’t cover in this fermenting for beginners guide. I’ll recommend some books at the bottom of this guide for you to dive further into fermenting if you want.
The veggies that need special techniques include:
- Veggies that you typically only eat cooked, such as potatoes or sweet potatoes. Raw potatoes = gross
- Ripe tomatoes need to be fermented more like fruit because of the high level of sugars
- Avocados will turn into mush when soaked
2. Ferment Uniform Sizes
All of the veggie pieces should be close to the same size. It makes sense because you want the foods to ferment at the same rate. Otherwise, the smaller pieces will finish fermenting before the larger ones.
It’s okay if your seasoning is smaller than your actual ferment, but keep the pieces of veggies the same size.
Some people say to keep the sizes of your veggies to that of a woman’s fist, but I have big hands, so that seems like a big size to me! I aim for smaller unless making barrel pickles with large cucumbers. Those take months to ferment.
3. Double the Salt or Use a Starter Brine
Making the brine is what I found most intimidating when I started fermenting. It turns out that it’s not as hard as I suspected.
The first choice is to use a starter brine on our ferments. A starter is a liquid that comes from any other lacto-fermented or cultured product. You might take liquid off another veggie ferment, the whey from a live culture yogurt, plain kombucha, or hooch from a sourdough starter.
I recommend that you use 1/4 cup of starter for each quart of ferment.
If you don’t have a starter, don’t panic. You can make a brine with salt, but make sure you are using a nice quality, chemical-free salt. Avoid iodized salt or table salt because they’ll kill the bacteria in your ferment.
Try these instead:
- Pure Sea Salt
- Kosher Salt
- Pickling Salt
- Real Salt
- Celtic Sea Salt
- Himalayan Salt
We use salt because most microbes cannot handle too much salt, but our trusty lactobacillus loves low to medium levels of salt. So, by adding salt to our ferments, we kill off anything that we don’t want in our ferments while encouraging our lactobacillus to visit.
So, no starter means no problems!
All you have to do is double the salt amounts for your recipe. It might taste saltier, but then you’ll have liquid to use for your next ferment.
The General Salt Recommendations for Fermenting
A big part of fermenting for beginners is learning how much salt to use. Here are the recommendations.
For Dry Salting
- Use 1 scant tablespoon salt per 2.5 lbs shredded or finely diced veggies
For a Basic Brine
- 1-quart non-chlorinated water
- 3 tablespoons salt (4.5 TBSP if you use coarse salt)
4. Everything Stays Below the Brine
The next rule, and it’s quite important, is that all produce needs to stay under the brine. Anything that comes to the top and is exposed to air can and will eventually mold. Mold isn’t the end of the world, but you probably don’t want to deal with it when you’re finally learning how to ferment.
This is why you want to use fermentation weights or whatever you picked.
5. Cool Storage After Initial Fermentation
During the actual process of fermentation, you need to learn your ferments at room temperature. Mine stays on my countertop or a bookshelf. The bacteria need time to establish a colony, and warmer temperatures encourage faster development.
Once you reach a taste that you like, you move the ferments to cool storage. If you continue to leave them at room temperature, the produce breaks down, turns to mush, and the flavor becomes way too strong.
Start tasting your ferments on day 3. When you find the flavor you like, look for a place that is 55 degrees F or below but above freezing. The colder the location, the longer your ferment stays at the same flavor.
You can store your ferments in many places, such as:
- Cool Basement
- Wine Cooler
Frequently Asked Questions about Fermenting
How Do I Know My Ferment is Done?
There is no real perfect answer to this question. Your fermentation is finished when you like the flavor of the product.
It’s better to start tasting your fermentation after 3-4 days and continue to taste it until you like what you find. You should find it to be a pleasant taste. If it needs to be sourer, leave it out longer at room temperature.
The longer that you leave it out, the more probiotics develop. The lactic acid and enzymes develop, but it also changes the flavor.
Once you like the taste, put your ferment into cold storage.
How Long Do Fermented Foods Last?
So long as your ferments stay under the brine, they will last for a long time. In some situations, ferments can last for years.
Even if you store your ferments in the perfect cold storage location, the food will continue to ferment just at a very slow speed.
At some point, your ferments will develop a flavor that is too strong or sour for your likenings. The consistency will change, breaking down and turning into a mushy texture.
Old-school fermenters will tell you that sauerkraut doesn’t taste right until it has fermented for AT LEAST 6 months.
What If My Ferment Molds?
As you spend more time fermenting, mold happens. A vegetable or two might float to the surface and develop mold. Sometimes, you’ll find a layer of white fuzzy mold on the top of your jar.
Your ferment is still good even if there is mold present in the vessel.
If you find the white layer on the surface of your ferment, skim it off and toss it into the compost or feed it to your chickens. It’s a normal part of fermenting and does no harm.
Any white or green mold is completely fixable on your ferment. Mold requires oxygen to form, so something came over the weight and met oxygen.
However, if you find strange colored molds in your ferment, such as red, pink, or black mold, you need to toss it all into your compost. It’s never a good idea to eat those ferments.
How Much Fermented Foods Can I Eat?
If you have fermented foods, you need to eat them. You should start off small as you introduce fermented foods to your diet. It’s best not to eat too many fermented foods at one time because it can cause issues with your digestive system.
Start with 1-2 tablespoons per day for a week. Then, you can slowly increase how much you can eat.
Fermenting for Beginners Isn’t So Hard
You might feel intimidated to start fermenting, but I hope my simple guide to the basics of fermenting gave you some mental relief. Fermenting for beginners is easy, far easier than most preservation methods.
You don’t have to stand near a testy pressure canner or ladle jars of hot food. You don’t need to run a dehydrator for hours to come out with jerky. All you have to do is learn how to ferment, and you’ll be on you to healthier, preserved good,
I am confused about the Basic Brine. You show 3T/Qt of water.
Do you double the salt in this if you don’t use starter brine?
Or do you use half this amount of salt if you add starter brine?
Can you clarify this for use with and without starter brine.
Have tried green tomatoes so far using 3T/Qt and they turned out great using your guide – thanks.
Wanted to see if I could reduce salt now that I have starter brine.
If you already have a starter brine, I would half the amount of salt since the starter is salty and has what it needs to get started.
I actually make the brine in large gallons, but still, use the same ratios of 3T to 1Q water. You can keep it in the fridge until you want to use it. I don’t double the salt; I typically don’t use a starter, but you can use one and just reduce the salt used.