How To Ferment Foods: A Beginner’s Guide

Fermenting is a simple, easy, and a tasty way to preserve food whilst boosting gut health.

Fermented foods are made by a process called lacto-fermentation, which is feeding starch and sugars to natural beneficial bacteria in the food, creating lactic acid. This process is used to create beneficial B vitamins, enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids and certain strains of probiotics (good bacteria).

The process of fermentation can elevate superfoods, herbs and nutrients to a whole new level, by creating new compounds that can have numerous benefits on the body. Fermentation is known to increase absorption and digestion.

Remember, you aren’t what you eat; but what you absorb.

This fermentation process to preserve food has been around since the beginning of time. As humans learned the importance of this natural process, it helped them to keep foods safe and preserved – well before the fridge was invented. All cultures around the world have their own fermented foods, such as cheeses, wines, yoghurt, kefir, sourdough bread, sauerkrauts, kimchi, fermented meats, and many others.

 

What’s the difference between ‘fermented’ and ‘cultured’ foods?

Fermented (also known as LACTO-Fermented foods) and cultured foods are the same thing. The “lacto” in “lacto-fermentation” comes from the bacteria “lactobacillus.” Many strains of lacto-bacteria and yeasts are involved in culturing or fermenting foods. These special microbes break down the foods into more digestible nutrients with increased vitamins and minerals while helping to eliminate harmful pesticides and chemicals. All of these are done in the wonderful process of lacto-fermentation.

 

Is fermenting at home safe?

The proposition does sound a little dubious: leave some vegetables in a jar on your bench. Just leave them there. For weeks. Then eat them. It’s perfectly safe, say the pickling enthusiasts. They’re great for you. You’ll love them! They say.

Not convinced? Science is here to explain why fermenting vegetables is not only perfectly safe but also surprisingly easy and rewarding. Spoiler: microbes do most of the work.

In our hyper-Pasteurian, expiration date-driven era, it might be difficult to relinquish control over our food to these mysterious forces.

Why does this method work so reliably? Salt kills harmful microbes and encourages beneficial ones, such as those that produce lactic acid, which are similar to many found in the gut microbiome. Similarly, submerging the produce in liquid (whether added or extracted from the food itself) protects it from the less-desirables.

And, the process offers further safety measures. As fermentation gets underway, the increasing bacteria begin to alter the overall environment. They consume some of the carbohydrates from the produce, creating carbon dioxide (which appears as bubbles) and, more important for our purposes, lactic acid (which lowers the pH).

Many go so far as saying, statistically, fermentation makes vegetables safer than they are raw!

 

The benefits of fermenting foods

Fermented foods are rich in probiotic bacteria so by consuming fermented foods you are adding beneficial bacteria and enzymes to your overall intestinal flora, increasing the health of your gut microbiome and digestive system and enhancing the immune system.

Research is still emerging on just how important these mighty microbes might be for our health, but the early results are promising. Take care of your gut, and in turn, it will take help take care of you.

Studies suggest fermented foods can help:

  • Improve digestion and cognitive function
  • Boosting immunity
  • Treat irritable bowel disease
  • Provide minerals that build bone density
  • Help fight allergies
  • Kill off harmful yeast and microbes

Consuming fermented (“or cultured”) foods is the most convenient way to obtain a daily dose of good bacteria (probiotics) that support gut health and more.

 

What you need to ferment

What’s great about fermenting is that it’s quick, simple, safe and totally inexpensive to begin. You don’t need any flashy equipment. Just some simple basics.

Aside from the usual knives, chopping board and bowls, here are the specific items you need to make your own fermented food:

1. Fermenting container or vessel

The best containers (vessels) to make fermented foods are made from glass, wood or ceramic jars of different shapes and sizes. You can buy crocks but these can be pricey. I find Mason Jars work just find as a fermenting vessel, and they work with modern-day airlock lids.

Just don’t use anything that is made out of plastic, metal (including stainless steel), or anything not food grade.

2. Fermentation weights

The sole purpose of a fermentation weight is to keep the fermenting food under the liquid brine. Always use something convenient and fits inside with your container/vessel (while keeping the food submerged).

Options include a cabbage leaf bunched up or any heavy parts of a vegetable tucked over your veggies, sterilised rocks, wood or enamel. These all work as long as they fit snuggly in your container.

You can also use a convenient and inexpensive glass fermentation weight. Just check sizes to suit your jars.

3. Fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs and/or spices

You can simply have one ingredient or combine a few flavours depending on the recipe. Ideally, go for organic produce and if you can’t wash and peel.

The options for fermented vegetables are endless, but some of the best vegetables to use are carrots, green beans, peppers, radishes, beets, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, and more.

Great herbs are dill, parsley, coriander/cilantro, basil, thyme, and lemon balm.

Fruit options are endless and can be used in a variety of fermented foods from yoghurts, ice blocks, and delicious drinks and jams.

4. Salt (optional)

When fermenting, some recipes just use salt and water, some don’t have any salt at all, and some combined. Salt can promote the fermenting process by inhibiting the growth of undesirable microorganisms, favouring the growth of desired Lactobacilli.

To get things going more quickly for the culturing process, you can add bacteria through starter cultures such as brine (simply the juice) from a previous ferment or using freeze-dried starter cultures (see below). The combination used is a personal choice.

An ideal salt for fermenting is whole, unrefined, and full of natural vitamins and minerals. Choose the best ingredients and your ferments will be healthy and delicious! Sea salt (unrefined), Himalayan salt, and Celtic salts are best. Avoid Table salt and iodized salt and any ingredients such as anti-caking agents.

5. Filtered water (optional)

If your recipe has water in the ingredients such as fermented drinks like kombucha and some sauerkrauts, make sure to use clean, filtered water or mineral water from glass bottles. Tap water containing fluoride and chlorine will affect the fermentation process as these chemicals kill off bacteria.

6. Starter cultures

You do not need a culture starter to make fermented foods as salt and water on its own can ferment foods which is how fermented food was traditionally made before culture starters were made by companies.

A starter culture is simply a dehydrated set of microorganisms. Since it is in a dehydrated state, it can be kept for quite a long time and used as needed. The benefit to this is that it is convenient and requires no maintenance. The culture starter may come dried or delivered with the first batch already made like kefir or yoghurt (in its cultured state).

Often, culture starters will be created for a specific use such as a vegetable starter, a kefir starter, a kombucha starter, a yoghurt starter, a sourdough starter for bread.

So, if you have a kombucha starter, you probably use that primarily for kombucha-making. If you have a sourdough starter, then you probably use that for making bread and baked goods. This makes perfect sense since these cultures are kept and created specifically for that job.

 

Recommended Culture Starters

Kultured Wellness

Kultured Wellness is an Australian based company founded by passionate mum and gut health expert Kirsty Wirth. Kirsty and her team have created a diverse range of culture starters that are super easy to use. All their starters have an extremely high potency CFU count, suitable for those on GAP’s, Body Ecology, and Low FODMAP’s.

These cultures typically contain higher numbers of Bifidobacterium, which is important for leaky gut and immune regulation making it great for those with allergies, eczema, and psoriasis. All starters are 100% natural, gluten and dairy free, vegan friendly with zero additives and fillers.

Body Ecology

Body Ecology is one of the original providers of culture starters and probiotic-rich foods. Thanks to them and the founder Donna Gates, fermented foods made a big comeback. Body Ecology provides both a Vegetable Culture Starter and a Kefir Culture Starter. Both can be used for fermented vegetables and yoghurts, while the kefirs starter can also make fermented drinks.

Each pack contains 6 sachets that can be stored in the freezer until use, with each sachet making over 5 litres. So great value for money. Body Ecology starters are non-GMO, soy-free, gluten-free, and vegetarian. They may contain dairy.

Body Ecology Starters are available in:

Australia & NZ
UK
Canada & the US

Cardwell’s Start Culture

Cardwell’s Starter Culture For Fresh Vegetables available for delivery in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore >>

Health Kultcha Sourdough Culture Starter

Health Kultcha is a sourdough culture starter available for delivery in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore >>

 

Whether to use culture starters or salt?

There are a few different ways to prepare brine for fermenting vegetables. Choose the process that works best for you from the following choices:

Salt-only fermentation

Historically, salt was used to preserve foods before refrigeration and has great benefits:

  • Salt pulls out the moisture in food, denying bacteria the aqueous solution they need to live and grow.
  • Salt allows the natural bacteria that exist on the vegetables to do the fermenting. Only the desired salt-tolerant Lactobacilli strains will live and propagate.
  • By suppressing the growth of other bacteria and mould, salt provides a slower fermentation process that is perfect for cultured vegetables that are to be stored for longer periods of time.
  • Salt hardens the pectins in the vegetables, leaving them crunchy and enhancing the flavour.
  • Use 1-3 tablespoons of our authentic, finely-ground salt per quart (litre) of filtered water to prepare brine for fermenting vegetables.

Salt-free fermentation

  • Salt-free ferments are often more bio-diverse containing multiple strains of probiotics for diversity. Always check on the packet what strains are used. Some are designed specifically for leaky gut, IBS, and allergies.
  • Starter cultures can be very easy to prepare by simply combining two ingredients (e.g. coconut cream and culture starter).
  • Always follow the packet instructions for best instructions. Some freeze-dried starter cultures may be used on their own, without salt, sometimes you’ll need to add it.
  • Sometimes the fermented veggies can be less crunchy (more mushy) than the salt-only ferments.
  • Culture starters are also a great option to use with fruit ferments over salt.
  • Usually quicker time to ferment than salty-only fermentations.

Salt plus starter cultures fermentation

By combining both salt and a culture starter, you can enjoy the benefits of both methods. More varied probiotic strains and a quicker ferment while also ensuring the salt kills of unwanted microbes more effectively and also retaining more crunch. Salt ferments work best only for vegetable fermented foods.

For best results, always follow the culture starter instructions if using. I tend to use either a culture starter or salt and unless a recipe is specific, I wouldn’t combine the two. And remember making your own fermented food is actually very easy and it’s extremely hard to go wrong.

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