Complete Guide to Get Started with Fermenting Foods at Home
If you're ready to try fermenting foods at home, you might have heard all about the many health benefits of fermentation, or just thought that it sounded like a fun project. To help you get started for the first time, or past the basics if you want to get a little deeper into it, I'm going to share with you my top four fermenting recipes for pickled cabbage (sauerkraut), fermented red cabbage with apple, classic sour pickles, and kefir, and some fermenting tips and lessons along the way to help you on your journey from beginner to fermenting pro.
Fermented foods have been part of the human diet for centuries. Initially produced as a method of food preservation, today they are credited for improving flavor and eliminating food toxins.
Fermentation is a process whereby microorganisms like yeast and natural bacteria in the food break down food components like sugars into other products, giving fermented foods their unique and desirable taste, aroma, texture, and appearance. The fermenting process enhances the food’s natural beneficial bacteria known as probiotics which aids in digestion and strengthens immunity.
There are always connections that can be made between healthy eating and healthy living. As a health coach focusing on holistic healthy living, I have thought a lot about how the process of fermenting foods can be applied to other areas of our lives and its applications in understanding our mind, body, and behaviors.
For example, oftentimes we need to go through a process of eliminating certain behaviors in order for change to happen. It takes small steps, consistency, time, and the right environment – just like the fermentation process – to develop the long-term resilience we need to experience certain joys that we may not otherwise have known. Each individual has a unique method that works best for them, much like the fermenting process will yield different results in each distinctive climate.
Each step we take reveals a new horizon. My interest in and excitement about the fermenting process began this past year, when I had the pleasure of being invited to do a health event on the quaint and beautiful Victoria Island, located on the southern tip of Vancouver, Canada. The event was called “Nourishment for Body and Soul,” and I lectured on what it means to live a balanced and healthy lifestyle in mind, body, and soul.
I shared my health journey and inspiring stories of my clients reaching their health goals, as well as tools, tips, and a food demonstration to inspire the audience to take actionable steps toward a healthier life. With less than 24 hours to spend there (which included traveling time), I made every attempt to savour each moment and absorb the beauty and charm the island had to offer.
Before I was scheduled to give my workshop, I was given a quick tour of the island, where I got to enjoy the picturesque views, magnificent lakes, mountains, and architecture. As I observed the people around me, I noticed a relaxed yet lively energy, and I found that combination quite unique.
After the event, a woman in the audience approached me. “I noticed you didn't mention anything about fermented foods when you discussed how to eat balanced and healthy,” she said. I thanked her for bringing this to my attention and took the interaction as a cue to begin exploring the fermentation process, which has brought me much joy and inspiration.
I had been wanting to experiment with fermented foods for a long time due to their health benefits, but I kept putting it on the back burner and hadn't put the thought or desire into action until this woman mentioned it to me. Sometimes it takes another city, or someone outside of our personal lives, to inspire us to take a new step in our lives in growth, creativity, and – in this instance – it was in healthy living.
Often times, we don’t need to spend a lot of time enjoying the things that inspire us, and I have found that a present state of mind can be a wonderful gift when exploring new places and gathering inspiration, and that presence was a part of what motivated me to gather the inspiration I needed and begin the process of fermenting foods, adding yet another dimension to my work as a health coach. There are thousands of different types of fermented foods; I’m sharing four of my favorites with you for you to start with!
PICKLED CABBAGE (SAUERKRAUT):
Another lovely lady at this event, Rachel, in her 80’s (who did not look one day older than 60), shared with me how she makes fermented cabbage. I was happy to learn from her. I jotted her recipe down and couldn't wait to get home to try it out!
It came out delicious with just the right amount of sweet and sour. I adapted Rachel’s recipe by replacing sugar with maple syrup, which is lower glycemic, and apple cider vinegar for its antioxidant effects.
- 1 small white cabbage
- 6–8 cloves garlic
- 1 handful fresh dill
- 4 tbsp maple syrup
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 tsp sea salt per 1 cup of water
- 4 carrots, sliced (optional)
- Hot pepper (optional)
Cut cabbage into strips or chunks and push the cabbage tightly into a glass container.
Fill with water to the top of the cabbage. Add 1 tsp salt per every cup of water. Add peeled garlic cloves, dill, maple syrup, and vinegar. Thick sliced carrots can also be added to the cabbage as well as hot pepper if desired.
Cover it with a brown paper tied with an elastic band or string and let it sit at room temperature until the cabbage has fermented, 5-6 days. When ready, cover with a lid and keep refrigerated.
Tip: In order to prevent bacteria from growing, place a weight on top of your jar. This will ensure that whatever is in your jar is kept below the surface of the liquid. If you notice a cloudy residue on forming in your jar, it’s important to keep an eye out. It’s normal for a white cloudy substance called Kahn Yeast to form, which is edible. However, if you start to see any mold or smell something unpleasant it might be worth starting over.
FERMENTED RED CABBAGE WITH APPLE:
I realized after making the sauerkraut that fermenting is not as complicated as it may seem. It's really simple and quick and gratifying to make sauerkraut at home. I was led to try fermented red cabbage because of its health benefits over white cabbage. While both white and red cabbage are excellent antioxidants, red cabbage contains about 30% more.
Here are some great tips I learned for fermenting red cabbage that can be your guide to fermentation success!
1. A general rule of thumb is to keep your recipe ratio at 75% cabbage, and 25% other vegetables, like onions, radishes, cucumbers, carrots, or anything else. In the red cabbage recipe I use grated apple, which adds a beautiful sweet and tart flavor.
2. Salt plays a big role in the fermenting process, so you want to make sure to get the right salt for the job. Salt pulls water out of the cabbage to create an environment where the good bacteria can grow and proliferate and the bad bacteria can die off. It's okay to keep things simple and use the salt you have in your home even though it may be a refined salt, as long as it just says “salt” or “sodium chloride” on the label and doesn’t contain additives. I discovered that Himalayan pink salt is one of the best salts to ferment with. Its purity and high mineral profile ensure a healthy fermentation environment.
3. Salt is used to create the brine in which the cabbage mixture ferments. First massage your cabbage with the salt, let it sit for approximately half an hour in a bowl, and it begins to sweat and creates your brine for you! What you are looking for is for all the water to be drawn out of the cabbage by the salt and to start seeing a salt-water brine starting to form at the bottom of the bowl. You will need enough brine to cover your sauerkraut in the jar you will be using to ferment it. For 3 pounds of cabbage you will need 1 tablespoon of salt.
4. Ideal fermentation temperature is 64 –67 degrees Fahrenheit. What’s really most important, though, is that you put the jar somewhere where the temperature is not wildly inconsistent.
5.The longer you ferment, the more sour and strong the flavor. Anywhere from three to five days is good. When your sauerkraut reaches the desired flavor, screw on a lid and refrigerate. Eat within one month.
- One 3-lb. head of red cabbage
- 1 apple of your choice grated.
- 1 tablespoon pickling spice
After your cabbage is massaged with salt and you have the salty liquid, gently mix in your grated apple until it is combined evenly. Now it's ready to go into your mason jar.
Make sure your fermentation vessel can breathe but can be sealed enough to keep out any unwanted bacteria and yeasts. I used a paper bag and tied it with a string. You will also need to make sure your container is deep enough that your sauerkraut can be pushed below the brine level for fermentation. Put your jar directly over the bowl, and begin packing your kraut into the jar. Don't forget to pack all that nice brine at the bottom of the bowl.
Now you’re ready to let your kraut ferment using all the tips above.
If desired, you can add maple syrup or honey for a little added sweetness after the cabbage is fermented.
I thought this would be the hardest of all fermentation processes but turns out it's the easiest! I got great tips from Mendy Margolin, “The Pickling Rabbi,” who travels around the world demonstrating traditional kosher delicacies.
1. Kirby cucumbers work best to make sour pickles.
2. Smash the garlic to give your pickles the most flavor.
3. Half sour pickles will be ready to enjoy after five to seven days of fermentation and full sour pickles can take up to a month.
4. No sugar or vinegar needed; all the natural sweet and sour flavors will come through the fermenting process with garlic and salt.
5. You can fully cover the pickles and they can ferment in the fridge.
6. Only use the dill for half sour pickles, since it won’t last well for more than five days in the jar.
- 7-8 kirby cucumbers
- 1 and 1/2 Tbsp salt
- 1 and 1/2 Tbsp pickling spice
- 7 cloves garlic, crushed
- 2 sprigs fresh dill (optional)
Fill a 6-cup mason jar halfway with water. Place the cucumbers in the jar. Smash the garlic cloves and add them to the jar. Add salt and pickling spice. Cover and leave in the fridge to ferment till they become sour pickles!
In order to make real change in living a healthy lifestyle, food journaling is a part of my program. It helps my clients be accountable to themselves and to me, creating a more conscious approach to healthy living. I had a client who often wrote in her journal- “overnight oats made with kefir” for breakfast. Kefir is a fermented milk drink, cultured from kefir grains. It is a rich source of calcium, protein, and B vitamins. It intrigued me due to its health benefits, being high in nutrients and probiotics and very beneficial for digestion and gut health. It is considered to be an even more powerful probiotic than yogurt.
After experimenting with the cabbage I was now ready to take on Kefir!
Homemade milk kefir is made from kefir grains. They aren't always easy to find. I got lucky and my client gave me some grains, which was so sweet of her. They are a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. Kefir is great to add to smoothies, overnight oats, or chia pudding, or drink it as is with a little honey if desired.
Here’s how to make your own probiotic and delicious kefir.
- 2 tbsp of kefir grains
- 2 cups milk (full fat is best)
Place the milk and kefir grains into a glass mason jar.
Cover with paper and tie with a string. Leave it at room temperature for a minimum of 8 hours and up to 48 hours, depending on how strong you want the kefir to be. The longer you leave it the more sparkling and sour it will become.
Strain the kefir milk with a plastic strainer and plastic spoon till all the milk is strained into another glass jar and you're left with the grains.
Place the grains in a new glass jar and start the process over again!
A takeaway to keep in mind: Fermented foods are not a cure-all, but making them a part of an overall healthy dietary pattern, even a small amount once a day with your meal, can help prevent disease. Every action counts.
These recipes and discoveries in fermentation started on a little pretty island and are now being shared with each one of you! All of our experiences, big and small, have the potential to lead us toward new findings and revelations. Next up: Fermenting berries and experimenting with sourdough is going to be my new step for a new horizon.
Photography by Mushka Krinsky, @Mush_mkp