How to Start Making Your Favorite Fermented Foods

Grab some Mason jars and leftover scraps to transform your food.

Kombucha in the making | Photo courtesy of Zane Kareem Adams
Kombucha in the making | Photo courtesy of Zane Kareem Adams

You may have a friend who treats their sourdough starter as if it’s their child, feeding and burping it religiously. Or maybe you’ve perused your local grocery store and found aisles dedicated to kombucha in a variety of flavors. Or, at the very least, you have taken a look inside your fridge to find foods like pickles, beer, and cheese. The wondrous process behind all these pantry staples is, indeed, fermentation.

In fact, fermented foods have played a role in our lives longer than most of us are even aware. In her book Our Fermented Lives, food historian and fermentation specialist Dr. Julia Skinner explores the history of the concept, starting with the contentious debate over whether humans fermented bread or beer first, all the way to our relationship with the metabolic process now.

We reached out to Skinner and fellow fermentation expert Zane Kareem Adams, who runs the kombucha brewery Buchi, to help us lay out a beginner’s guide to fermentation.

What is fermentation?

Fermentation is the process in which microorganisms like yeast or bacteria break down carbohydrates into alcohol or acid. Along with the fact that fermented foods taste amazing and are beneficial to our gut health, they also serve a purpose when it comes to important topics like climate change and food waste. As we become more mindful of these issues, fermentation plays an important role in, as Skinner puts it, “stretching our foods,” whether that means creatively utilizing food scraps or fermenting half-rotten produce.

“I really appreciate being able to take on this perspective of that wording of stretching things, of thinking about these resources as not being infinite, and how might I maximize them, and what are creative ways I can repurpose them,” Skinner says. “Doing that not only helps us be better stewards of the planet, but it also asks us to be creative in a way that I think we often don’t allow ourselves to be.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Julia Skinner

Gather the proper tools

You most likely already have most of the tools you need to start fermenting. Both Skinner and Adams are avid fans of Mason jars. “Always use glass when working with beverages,” Adams says. “And do a deep clean in and on the surfaces and the containers that will host the fermentation process. Keep your sourdough ferments separate from your kombucha or vinegar or wine or meads.” He also likes to use plastic five-gallon buckets when fermenting large batches of sauerkraut, which he later packs into canning jars.

While fermentation equipment like airlocks and incubation chambers are helpful, Skinner keeps it simple, in order to “engage mindfully with our food.” Her most beloved tool is a fermentation crock, a vessel made specifically for fermentation. Crocks aid in keeping your ferments sealed, and they come with weights, which help hold down whatever you are fermenting (your substrate) in its brine and prevent mold.

However, if you’re not looking to invest in a crock just yet, a standard jar is fine. Just make sure you have your own weights. You can purchase ceramic or glass weights, or you can gather some large stones and use those as your weights, which is one of Skinner’s favorite tactics. Just make sure to boil your stones for at least 30 minutes so they are properly sterilized. Lastly, make sure to label your ferments with the date you started them so you can accurately keep track of their growth.

Keep an eye on your ferments

Your ferments are constantly evolving, which is precisely why you must monitor them. Skinner makes it a habit to check her ferments while she makes her morning cup of coffee.

Sometimes your substrate will pop up out of its brine, other times it simply needs to be burped (which should be done once a day). It is important to interact with your ferments so you have a better understanding of when it is ready to eat.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Julia Skinner

Don’t be afraid to experiment

Both Skinner and Adams agree that sauerkraut is an easy and affordable way to introduce yourself to the world of fermentation. If fermented cabbage isn’t your thing, Adams recommends trying out sourdough or kombucha (keep in mind these require starters, which you can create yourself).

“When we make our own ferments, we can experiment with different ingredients and flavor profiles and end up with a result that is superior to what we could buy in the store,” Skinner says.

Right now, Skinner is working on miso paste, mead, and pine needle vinegar. Her kitchen is overflowing with jars upon jars of various ferments. Adams’ company, Buchi, sells kombucha infused with innovative flavors like cinnamon vanilla clove and coconut blueberry elderberry, and he is looking forward to making his own mead this year with foraged wine berries from his property.

Follow the mantra the more, the merrier

Fermentation doesn’t have to be a solo activity. In fact, in Korean culture, communities gather and spend a day preparing kimchi so they can stock up in the winter—a traditional process called gimjang. Most fermentation enthusiasts are eager to share tips, tricks, and even a sourdough starter or kombucha SCOBY with you.

The internet is home to welcoming fermentation groups like Wild Fermentation on Facebook, the #kojibuildscommunity on Instagram, the r/fermentation page on Reddit, and gatherings like CiderCon and more on The Fermentation Association’s website. There are also most likely fermentation classes in your area like the ones Skinner teaches.

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Kelsey Allen is an editorial assistant at Thrillist.