You can spend lots of money on tools and gadgets designed specifically for making fermented foods—airlocks to let gas escape from jars, lids with small “windows” you open in order to release gas, glorified glass jars rebranded as “small fermentation crocks,” expensive weights, mandolines to cut vegetables quickly and uniformly…
These tools all sound nice to have, but you don’t need them to make delicious fermented foods. One of the many things I love about fermentation is it’s simplicity. If I want to make sauerkraut, I need a knife, a bowl and a jar. I don’t need electricity and I have even made kraut in a park. Except for sourdough bread, to make the fermented foods I post here on my blog, you need only basic kitchen equipment, which you most likely already own.
Tools and Equipment
You need only one good knife to chop vegetables but you can also use a vegetable grater to shred vegetables or, if you have one, a food processor to speed things up. Just avoid putting onions in a food processor as the blades render them extremely bitter.
Personally, I find chopping on a small cutting board frustrating. A good size cutting board gives you room to work. But if you have only a small cutting board, that will certainly do.
Metal will react with the acid that fermentations produce. However, when you simply prepare a ferment such as vegetables, the fermentation has not yet begun. So, although I would recommend you pack your fermented food in glass or ceramic vessels, metal is perfectly fine for preparing and mixing your fermented foods.
Jars and crocks
For fermenting vegetables, I use glass jars with screw-top lids, or bale-top jars with rubber gaskets. I like this bale-lid style because the gasket enables built-up carbon dioxide—which can lead to exploding jars—to escape while keeping air out. Don’t worry if you don’t have jars like these! You can avoid explosions by burping—in other words opening—your jars daily. (By the way, I have never had a jar of fermented food explode.)
To ferment tomatoes, I use the ceramic crock of my slow cooker (removed from the base—you don’t want to heat those tomatoes up!) and secure a breathable cloth over the top to keep out bugs and dirt. You can also ferment sauerkraut, dill pickles and other vegetables this way, however I find weighing down everything easier in a closed jar.
You can drink kombucha after it has fermented or you can bottle it. I almost always bottle and flavor mine. I also always bottle my ginger beer and natural sodas. I find flip-top bottles result in the most carbonation. You can sometimes find these at yard sales and thrift shops. Or you can find flip-top bottles at beer and wine brewing shops. Friends of mine give me empty flip-top ginger beer bottles.
You can also reuse old screw-top kombucha bottles you may still have back from the days when you shelled out $4 a bottle for this stuff. When I brew larger amounts of kombucha in the summer, I will sometimes bottle it in a half-gallon carboy (fancy lingo for “jug”). If you flavor your kombucha with fresh strawberry, which tends to fizz more than anything, even a non-flip-top bottle should render respectable carbonation.
In order for vegetables and fruit to ferment properly, you must submerge them in liquid. This cuts off oxygen from the anaerobic lactic-acid bacteria that ferment your food. If you don’t submerge your food, it will turn mushy or worse. Weighing everything down is really the only trick to fermenting food. So I understand why people splurge on stoneware weights.
I use the jar-within-a-jar method. For sauerkraut, when I pack my jar, I leave a few inches of space at the top. I place a cabbage leaf over that and then place a small glass yogurt jar—without a lid—a bit bigger than a shot glass on top of the cabbage leaf. When I close the jar, the lid shoves down both the little jar and the food and the liquid rises up to cover the food.
Books. If you want to treat yourself, I highly recommend buying a copy of Katz’ indispensable and beautiful book, The Art of Fermentation. It’s like my bible.
Stainless-steel funnel. You shouldn’t brew or bottle acidic kombucha in metal vessels, which can cause an undesirable reaction. But the few seconds the kombucha comes into contact with a metal funnel doesn’t harm mine. I would prefer my kombucha come into contact with metal rather than with plastic.
Traditional sauerkraut crocks. You can splurge on a beautiful stoneware pickling crock and weights but you can easily produce delicious sauerkraut without these. Given their large size, crocks enable you to ferment VERY large batches of food.
Wooden pounder. To make sauerkraut, you need to first bruise your vegetables before either packing them into jars or placing them in an open crock to ferment. I simply squeeze the chopped cabbage and whatnot with my hands. Do not do this for hot peppers! If you have a pestle, use that for hot peppers. Or spring for a wooden pounder.
Fruit and vegetables
I do buy organic ingredients but fermentation will work with non-organic ingredients with the exception of ginger-based recipes. Non-organic ginger may be irradiated, which kills the naturally occurring microbes necessary for the fermentation. Devoid of bacteria and yeast, dead ginger will not pull a Lazarus and bubble up.
For pickled ginger or ginger beer, choose organic ginger. The small amount of ginger in a recipe such as kimchi may be organic or non-organic. It won’t affect the fermentation (but I still prefer organic…).
Non-iodized sea salt contains many beneficial nutrients so I use that. Any salt with do though. I live near San Francisco and can buy salt from the San Francisco Bay locally. I like it a lot.
For ferments like kombucha, ginger beer and natural sodas, you’ll need sugar. I have used organic cane sugar, rapadura, coconut sugar and sucanat. Jaggery works also. Do not use stevia. You need real sugar. If you want to experiment with things like honey or maple syrup, do that with a spare kombucha SCOBY, not the only one you have. It might die.
The amount of sugar you add to kombucha and ginger beer may horrify you. I know sugar is terrible. I have read Dr. Robert Lustig’s book Fat Chance and have watched the documentary Fed Up, both of which outline the horrors of overconsumption of sugar. But the bacteria and yeasts in your drink consume most of the sugar—not you—and emit carbon dioxide as a result, which adds that sought-after fizz. Once your drinks have fermented, they will contain much less sugar.
Sometimes I brew kombucha—fermented tea—with oolong tea, sometimes with green tea. I adore pu-erh. You must use tea from the camellia sinensis plant for your initial brew: black, white, green, oolong or pu-erh. All of the flavors I have made taste good with the tea varieties I have tried. Don’t use anything scented with oils, like Earl Grey or tea flavored with vanilla. The oils may cause your kombucha mother to shrivel and die.
I haven’t had trouble with chlorinated water, but highly chlorinated water can kill the microbes that would otherwise ferment your food. To prevent this, for water you may need, fill a vessel with it the day before you prep your ferment and leave the vessel open to the air. The chlorine will dissipate.
Where to start
You can find many recipes for fermented foods in my recipe index. I would suggest starting with “Vegetables, fermented,” followed by “Fruit, fermented” and “Bread and sourdough.” Your gut (and tastebuds) will love you!