9 Fermentation Tips for Beginners, According to Chefs
Although fermentation is a historic (and safe) practice, it can still be an intimidating technique to try at home. David Zilber, the head of Noma’s fermentation lab, previously told Food & Wine that many people aren’t familiar with the true meaning of the word, and don’t know the difference between “rot, or decomposition, and the fermentation of food.” I’ve never given it a shot myself; I’m worried I’ll mess up the chemical process somehow, like a science experiment gone wrong. Compounded with the fact that you can find decent sauerkraut and kimchi at the supermarket, it can seem easier just to buy fermented foods.
So, I decided to do some demystifying. I spoke with three chefs who are fermentation pros—Danny Lee of Chiko, Anju, and Mandu; Misti Norris, the 2019 Food & Wine Best New Chef behind Petra and the Beast; and Emma Bengtsson from Aquavit—and got their tips for getting started. They shared everything from best practices (seriously, wear gloves) to some of their favorite recipes. You might not be a pro by the time you finish this article, but at least you'll know where to start.
Grab these tools …
The general consensus? If you have a clean vessel, you’re off to a great start.
Lee: “For the home cook, mason jars work great and are available everywhere. For kimchi, Korean markets such as H Mart sell tubs specifically made for fermenting and storing kimchi, where it has an inner press that helps seal the cabbage while it's fermenting.”
Bengtsson: “There are tons of different tools and gadgets that you can get very easily nowadays on Amazon, but I would wait on investing tons of money until you know it is something you feel passionately about. To start, all you really need is a clean vessel. When we started fermenting at Aquavit, we started with just a couple of white buckets and over the years it has grown to so much more.”
… and these ingredients
Some of the ingredients, of course, depend on the recipe you’re making, but it’s always key to make sure that they’re fresh.
Lee: “For kimchi, a good starter kit would be: napa cabbage, Korean white radish, coarse gochugaru (Korean red pepper flakes), Korean sea salt, garlic, ginger, scallions, and the main ingredient—saeujeot, salted shrimp that is the main fermenting agent for kimchi.”
Bengtsson: “Fresh high-quality products and non-iodized salt.”
Norris: “Purified water, natural sea salt, responsibly-sourced produce. Commodity vegetables will not age as well as organically grown which has natural yeast that aids in the production of acidic acid.”
Start with these recipes
Vegetables are best for beginners.
Norris: “Sauerkraut and lacto-fermented carrots. These are two very common pickles made in all cultures. There is a ton of information in books and online for guidance. [They’re] simple, have few ingredients, and a quick turn around time.”
Lee: “I can mainly only speak about Korean ferments, so kkakdugi, or radish cube kimchi, is actually a very good introduction to fermentation. It's a bit more forgiving than a napa cabbage-based kimchi and with fewer steps. It also does not need to ferment for too long so you'll be able to see and taste the result in a couple of days.”
Lee: “When you decide on what ferment you want to do, make sure you have everything on hand, cleaned and ready to go, so that you do not have to stop in the middle of the preparation process."
Bengtsson: “When you ferment, you want the good bacteria to grow and not the bad. Often even if we wash our hands very carefully, we still carry around a lot of harmful bacteria on our hands. So better to be safe than sorry and just use gloves when touching the fermentation.”
Be mindful of cross-contamination
Bengtsson: “If you wash your vegetables, don’t place them on an unclean surface and then into your clean jar or bucket. When you ferment, you grow healthy and good bacteria but you don’t want any bad ones to grow. That will spoil the food and can make it very harmful to digest. You don’t have to go to the extreme, but running your container through the dishwasher and wearing gloves are always recommended.”
Check in on your fermenting item
Lee: “You need to check in on an almost daily basis to make sure the seals of the containers are still tight, that no foreign substances have made their way in, [and] that the temperature and humidity are constant."
Norris also cautions against letting your ingredients ferment too much.
Trust your gut
Bengtsson: “If something smells very off or tastes bad, [it] most likely [is]. It’s a relatively safe preserving method but things can still go wrong.”
Try these once you get comfortable
Lee: “I love fermenting bitter greens because it's very interesting to taste how the flavor profile and structure of the green changes through fermentation. For instance, at Anju, our Executive Chef Angel Barretto fermented collard greens in a kimchi paste for months, and the result was incredible. The integrity of the green actually held up more than we thought it would, but the resulting flavor was spicy, sweet, and tangy.”
Norris: “Half sour pickles are always a favorite. Akasu vinegars have great depth and flavor that can be added into dishes. Soured legumes are used as a base for some of our dishes.”