Illustration by Hawnuh Lee.
The first summer I had a CSA, I split it with my roommate. We both have insatiable appetites so we figured a family-sized share (I think it was intended for a family of five) would be best for the two of us. As you probably already assumed, it was way too many veggies. My roommate also tapped out a few weeks in and completely gave up on cooking, so I felt responsible for using up all the vegetables and feeding the both of us. The amount of pickles I made that year, y’all, was wild. It’s honestly remarkable that the two of us still love pickles.
Unsurprisingly, lacto-fermentation is my favorite way to use up produce that I’m struggling to finish. It’s fun to do and I always feel like the pinnacle of health whenever I eat fermented foods. So, if you, too, are looking for ways to reduce waste, feel like a bad bitch in the kitchen and be a *Health Thempress*, please read on.
Before we get started, I quickly want to review the difference between pickling and fermenting. Pickled foods are soaked in acid, which makes them sour. Pickling is a great way to preserve food and can be pretty quick and easy. Fermented foods do not have added acid. When a food is fermenting, there is a reaction that occurs between the sugar in the food and the bacteria in the food. This chemical reaction typically takes longer than pickling and makes fermented food taste sour. Lacto-fermentation is brought on by the bacteria, lactobacillus, which creates probiotics and gives the fermented product that classic tangy taste.
Tools of the trade, baby
You can get really fancy with your tools, but you don’t need to. You probably already have everything you need to get started at home. I don’t recommend investing in tools until you know you’re committed to being fermentation royalty but do whatever feels best for you.
A clean jar
And by clean, I mean perfectly *spotless* and sterilized. After I wash my jars with soap, I also sanitize them and all of my tools in boiling water. I love glass jars because I always have a ton around (I know Facebook is incredibly problematic, but I do love my Buy Nothing Facebook group who has given me so many jars) and they can tolerate high heat. There are special fermentation crocks and they are so cute, but they aren’t necessary.
You can absolutely fashion your own or you can buy them. When making kraut, I reserve one of the outer leaves of the cabbage (before I go to town shredding the rest of the caggage) to protect the kraut from oxidation and weigh it down with a clean jelly jar. You can also use any other clean, food-safe item to weigh down the veggies and keep them in the brine. This is important because any pieces that float to the surface of the brine can start to grow mold. Sometimes you can throw out the moldy pieces and save the rest of the jar but there’s no guarantee you’ve removed all of the mold and I’m not supposed to advocate for that because apparently eating mold is bad for you.
Fermentation lid or an airlock
(If you don’t want to burp your baby). If you’re using a jar, you can use whatever lid came with the jar. Plastic is better than metal because in my experience metal lids can get rusty. If you have an airlock, this process is very low maintenance. But if you don’t, you’ll need to release the build-up of gas (a byproduct of the bacteria munching on the sugars in the veggies) about once a day (depending on what is fermenting, the ambient temperature, and how far along in the fermentation process you are) to ensure the pressure in the jars don’t cause them to burst. I don’t want to scare you with the whole “jar bursting” thing because if you’re using a mason jar or other thick glass jar, they probably won’t burst. I do set everything on a plate just in case of spills or accidents, but I’ve definitely forgotten to burp jars during summer in Portland where we get to 100+ degrees (Fahrenheit, I’m American) and I have never had an explosion.
Confession, I never wear gloves because I’m an absolute savage in the kitchen. I’m including gloves (even though it seems hypocritical coming from me) because you’re supposed to be pretty careful about cross-contamination and gloves really help with that. They also help prevent your hands from being yellow for multiple days because you made turmeric kraut. So, consider them, if you like.
A spirit of adventure
(I’m sorry for including this one, I was trying to be cute.) Fermenting your own food is a fun way to preserve produce, make your gut happy and to share in a really old tradition. This process also doesn’t have to be hard. You can start off by dipping your toe in lacto-fermenting carrots or a beginner friendly sauerkraut and slowly make your way to fermenting your own miso. When you’re making fermented foods, you can be really playful and experiment. Maybe you lacto-ferment stone fruits, zucchini or salsa. We’d love to see what you’re working on in the kitchen, tag us on IG @closedloopcooking.
In short, you don’t need special tools to connect with this time-honored art of kitchen witchery. All you need is produce, some jars and a lil’ creativity. Let us know if you want some ideas or direction on lacto-fermentation or if there are other fermentation methods, you’d like to know more about (my favorite thing to ferment is natto; it’s the stinkiest lil’ thing made from soybeans.)