This post is by contributing writer Lori Hernandez of Third Day Farms.
All it took was one bite.
I was hooked.
A friend had offered me a small jar of her homemade sauerkraut for me to try. I reluctantly agreed and placed it in my fridge until I could work up the courage to open the jar.
Up until this time, the only sauerkraut I had ever seen came from a metal can and the slimy sight and rank smell of it was enough to make me gag. I couldn’t believe anyone in their right mind would consume it.
After staring at the jar of fresh kraut in the fridge for about a week, I finally put my big girl panties on and decided to give it a shot. I tentatively took a tiny bite, standing next to my sink, fully expecting to spit it out… and instead, fell in love. It was salty, crunchy, slightly sour. Perfectly pleasing. It was as if my body was craving it.
I ate almost the entire jar standing in my kitchen. When it was gone, I looked at the jar in despair and I decided I needed to learn how to make my own fermented foods!
Delving into the “mysterious” world of DIY fermentation
Immediately, I went to my library and checked out a copy of Wild Fermentation and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, self-described as a “fermentation revivalist” and considered by many to be the King of Fermentation. I watched Katz’s instructional video on how to make sauerkraut. I talked to friends who had successfully make their own kraut.
I learned that on its basic level, fermentation (also called pickling) is carefully controlling the “rotting” process (all foods eventually rot…except maybe Twinkies! Ha!), which sounds gross, but actually fermented foods (like sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, kimchi, pickles etc.) are really, REALLY good for your health.
Some people even believe that using “modern” sterile food preservation techniques, such canning and freezing, as opposed to fermenting (which was the most common way to preserve food up until about 200 years ago) has brought us into an age of ultra-sterile food and ultra-sick humans.
Turns out fermented foods are chock full of the beneficial bacteria our bodies need to thrive. That was all the motivation I needed!
When I felt I had sufficient knowledge about the process of making sauerkraut, it was time to try it out. To be honest, it was very simple and straight forward.
I chopped cabbage (which took FOR-ever), salted it, massaged it (and strained muscles I didn’t even know I had!), placed it in a half gallon canning jar, weighed it down as best I could, covered the jar and waited for the magic to happen.
It wasn’t so magical.
I struggled to find a way to keep the kraut properly submerged and I ended up with a stinking, slimy mess. The smell in my kitchen was less than appetizing. Even a fermenting newbie like me could tell it was “off”.
Attempt #2 was a success, but I ended up with a half gallon of kraut, only to realize the rest of the family would not touch the stuff. That is a lot of kraut for one person to eat (it took me a few months, but I managed it!).
My third attempt was a repeat of my first attempt. Fermenting seemed so simple in theory. What was I doing wrong? Sandor made it look so easy!
After wasting so much time, effort and food, I was beginning to become discouraged and I gave home fermenting a rest for the remainder of the year.
Embracing Small Batch Fermenting
Then this spring, as grilling season approached and I was mourning the thought of a summer with no fresh kraut for my burgers and brats, I decided to give DIY fermenting another go. This time, however, I decided to scale back the whole operation, since the rest of my family is not so excited about my fermented kitchen experiments!
I called it “Small Batch Fermenting” or “Making Awesome Ferments for Just One Person Since the Rest of Your Family Thinks Fermented Foods Are Gross And You’re a Crazy Person”.
Small Batch Fermenting is really a beautiful concept. Instead of following recipes that called for several head of cabbage or pounds upon pounds of cucumbers, I realized I could make small amounts just for me.
Reading recipes for big batches of kraut and pickles had left me feeling nervous and overwhelmed. What if I messed it up and all that food went to waste? What about all the time and effort I invested? I’m generally not a pessimist, but my fermenting track record was less than stellar!
Making small batches was the perfect solution for me – it allowed me to try out recipes and learn the fermenting techniques with minimal time, effort and money. Losing one small mason jar of food is easier to swallow than having to throw out gallons of an experiment gone bad!
Fermenting Troubleshooting: Finding the right fermenting supplies
As I thought back on my fermenting failures of the past, it seemed to me that failing to find the perfect fermenting container and equipment was my real issue. I had been using a wide mouth half gallon Mason jar, since I didn’t want to invest the money in a “real” fermenting crock until I knew I was committed (and I was nervous about buying an old crock at an antique store because of lead glaze concerns).
My friends used the Mason jar method and highly recommended it to me, but I had great difficultly figuring out an effective way to keep the food completely submerged. The “cabbage leaf weighed down with brine filled plastic bag” method was messy, stinky and less than ideal.
This past spring, The Pickle Pipe by Masontops kept popping up on my Facebook news feed, which promised to make fermenting foods virtually fool proof. I was intrigued and mentioned to Katie that I would love to try it out and see if it helped me overcome my fermenting issues. She also loaned me her Fermentation Creation set, so I could try a few different options. Both systems seemed promising and I could not wait to try them out!
When the Pickle Pipe set arrived, I’ll admit that I was totally smitten. As a former art student and teacher, I cling firmly to the concept that form and function must go together. I want things to be breathtakingly beautiful AND fully functional. It seems silly that a fermenting set could be both these things… but it’s true! The Pickle Pipe set is aesthetically pleasing in every way.
My favorite part of the Pickle Pipe set is the “Pickle Pebbles“, the thick glass weights that fully submerge the food underneath the brine, if you use a pint-and-a-half wide mouth canning jar. Problem solved!
The Fermentation Creation set certainly focuses more on function over form, but the “mad scientist” look of the airlock chamber did bring a smile to my face. My only complaint about the Fermentation Creation set is that it does not come with weights to submerge the food, so you are left to figure that out on your own. I ended up using one of the Pickle Pebbles from the Pickle Pipe set.
Fermented Vegetables for Beginners
I had all my equipment – now I just needed a recipe. In the past, when ever I have had questions about yogurt or milk kefir, I went over to the Cultures for Health website, which is full of great information, tutorials, recipes and just about everything related to cultured and fermented foods. They have never failed me in the past and didn’t fail me this time!
Cultures for Health offered some simple advice that I could use as a starting point. According to an article on their website, for basic fermented vegetables:
- Use 1-3 tablespoons of fine ground sea salt for each quart of brine (for pickling cucumbers, carrots, etc), OR
- Use 1-3 tablespoons of fine ground sea salt for each medium head of cabbage (or other shredded vegetable that will release enough liquid to create a brine)
I also learned a few other tips, such as:
- Keep all equipment (and hands!) clean while working to avoid introducing “bad” bacteria.
- When sampling ferments, always use a clean fork/spoon and don’t “double dip”.
- Use the freshest vegetables possible. Wash them before using. Be sure to cut off the blossom end of cucumbers.
- Use Real Salt or sea salt for best results (iodized salt or salt with any anti-caking agents are not recommended). Kosher salt and Pickling salt will work in a pinch.
- Vegetables that are left in larger pieces (chopped or whole) will typically take longer to ferment than vegetables that are sliced or grated.
Using these rough guidelines, I felt ready to start working on my own fermented kitchen creations. Sandor WAS right – fermenting IS easy…if you have the right equipment!
Come to think of it, Lori will probably be upset with me that I didn’t send this her way when she started this project…oops! Sorry, Lori! :/
How to Make Classic Sauerkraut in a Small Batch
Armed with my ingredients (a medium sized cabbage and some kosher salt), fermenting equipment (wide mouth canning jars, rings, wooden packing tool and fermenting tops) and a mandolin slicer, I rolled up my sleeves, took a deep breath and prepared myself for the hard work of making sauerkraut.
Imagine my surprise when I was finished in about 7 minutes! The mandolin slicer made shredding the cabbage a breeze.
After that I added about 2 tablespoons of salt to the shredded cabbage.
I massaged and kneaded the cabbage for about 2-3 minutes, until there was a good amount of brine in the bowl.
Then I packed it in a wide mouth “pint-and-a-half” jar with the Masontops “Pickle Packer” that came with my Pickle Pipe set.
After that, I set the Pickle Pebble on top of the cabbage (the Pickle Pebbles work perfectly in a wide mouth pint or pint-and-a half jar), put the Pickle Pipe on top with a canning ring and I was DONE!
I had a little cabbage left over, so I filled a wide mouth pint jar with the remaining kraut, packed it down, set a Pickle Pebble on it, poured water in the airlock and screwed on the Fermentation Creation airlock top.
True confession – I was so giddy about how EASY it was to make the sauerkraut that I scoured my fridge and garden, looking for anything else I could ferment right then and there!
Small Batch Fermented Cucumbers, Carrots and More!
Using the basic guidelines from Culture for Health of 1-3 tablespoons of salt per quart of brine, I dived into the wonderful world of fermented vegetables. I loved how basic, flexible and forgiving the recipes on Cultures for Health were – the variations were endless!
After a quick trip out to my garden, I found cucumbers, carrots, radishes, garlic and dill to use in my ferments.
Prepping the vegetables took just minutes and mixing the brine was a snap. I simply cut enough vegetables to fit in the container and mixed up a batch of brine, stirring until the salt dissolved in the water (1-3 tbsp of salt for each quart of water).
The hardest part was waiting for the vegetables to ferment! In the meantime, I certainly loved the look of the colorful jars sitting my counters. I felt so “homespun” I could hardly stand it!
Every day, I checked my ferments for scum (which, to be honest, I never really saw) and to taste the vegetables. When they tasted “right” to me, I put them in the fridge, where the flavors would continue to develop, but the fermentation would slow down.
In the spirit of true disclosure, I did have one fermenting fail when I was trying my Small Batch Fermenting experiment. I had run out of Pickle Pipes and Pickle Pebbles by the time I got around to radishes (I started them a few days after the cabbage, cukes and carrots), so I used a coffee filter to cover the jar and a small mason jar filled with water to weigh down the vegetables. As careful as I was, inevitably a few radishes slices would bob up and slip between the two jars. Same old problem – how to keep everything submerged!
I’m not sure if that caused the failure or if it was the fact that I left it unattended for 2-3 days during a stretch of hot weather while we were on a short vacation, but by the time we got back, the radishes had been fermenting for 5 days and there was bright green mold floating in the brine. Perhaps I could have rescued the ferment, but there was a pretty ripe smell to it, so that batch was offered to the compost heap… and I didn’t feel bad because the radishes cost less than a dollar and I had spent a grand total of about 4 minutes on the ferment.
As for my other fermented vegetables, I found I liked the flavor and texture of the sauerkraut at about 12 days, and the carrots and cucumbers were perfect at 7 days. I’m guessing this time frame varies greatly depending on room temperature, freshness of the produce, and personal preference, so it really IS important to sample the ferments every day or so.
It seems like it would be wise to keep a little notebook or notecard to record fermenting experiments – how much salt was used in the brine, how many days it fermented, weather changes (hot or cold kitchen), what “extras” were added, etc.
A Delicious Experiment
I brought my fermented cucumbers and carrots on a family vacation last week. While most people looked scared to try them and politely declined, my adventurous nieces stepped forward. My 9 year old niece loved the carrots, and my 3 year old niece and I had to fight over the cucumbers! I’ll have to make a few batches just for her next time they are in town!
As my vegetable garden is coming into full bloom, I’m chomping at the bit to make more fermented veggies. Carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, chard… so many choices! So many opportunities!
Small Batch Fermenting with the proper equipment has filled me with so much confidence and enthusiasm. I had great results using both the Pickle Pipe set and the Fermentation Creation set. I would recommend either one of them, but will admit I have soft spot for the beauty and simplicity of the Pickle Pipe. The jars look so elegant sitting on the counter.
Have you been wanting to try fermenting? I encourage you to give it a shot! There is little to lose and much to gain – healthy probiotics, great flavors, high quality food that can’t be bought at any store, the satisfaction of “creating” and of course, the fun of experimenting!
Other Fermenting Resources:
- A “ferment something” challenge
- Homemade Traditionally Fermented Kimchi Recipe
- Fermented Apple Salsa
- Crunchy Lacto-Fermented Pickles
- Lots of ways to get your probiotics (beyond supplements)
- Probiotics at every meal challenge
- Fermented hot cayenne pepper sauce
- All fermentation posts here at KS