It’s alive!

Turn your kitchen into a food lab with at-home fermentation

Living on the shelf: (from left) kimchi, purslane pickles and kvass (a Russian fermented beverage.

Living on the shelf: (from left) kimchi, purslane pickles and kvass (a Russian fermented beverage.


If you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that fermented foods have been staging a small but serious coup on the American kitchen. Seemingly every food blogger on the interwebs has weighed in on the subject, and a sudden proliferation of fermenting books, tools and products has made a noticeable splash in the market. Even Walmart has taken notice, with ad copy exhorting its customers to “Kick the soda habit with kombucha!” And while fermenting has all the makings of the next DIY flavor-of-the-month, it deserves a more serious look.

Since our first taste of honey mead in the dim whatevers of prehistory, humans have been fascinated by fermentation. Every culture has its own unique, often ancient, approach to fermentation, from the rotten fish paste of both the Inuits and the ancient Romans, to dark Chinese “century eggs,” to the sauerkraut on your lunchtime Reuben. Before the advent of refrigeration, fermentation was a critical means of preserving foods through the lean winter months. This preservative action is the work of a type of bacteria called lactobacilli, which consume plant and dairy sugars while exuding lactic acid. Once a young ferment reaches a certain pH level, this acid inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi, preventing spoilage and allowing the lactobacilli to do their work.

And what strange and exceptional work. A mature ferment is much more than the sum of its ingredients, becoming a living stew of nutrients and beneficial microbes. Once consumed, many of these microbes take up permanent residence in the digestive tract. And according to recent medical research, a diverse population of friendly intestinal bacteria can be critical to overall health.

I had wanted to explore home fermenting for years, but like so many, I had been subconsciously tuned in to a cultural narrative penned by Lysol. In this narrative, bacteria are portrayed as tiny green boogiemen intent on causing mayhem, plague and death. I bought and inhaled kimchi (a spicy Korean ferment related to sauerkraut) by the jar, but assumed experimenting in my own kitchen was inviting disaster. At best I thought it involved costly and extravagant equipment, difficult recipes and a regime of absolute sterility.

I could not have been more wrong. After reading the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz, the unofficial godfather of the modern fermenting movement, my wife and I went straight to the kitchen, dusted off a few Mason jars and got to work. That was months ago, and since then we’ve turned our kitchen into a sort of alchemist’s workshop, with various crocks and jars happily bubbling away on the countertops and in the fridge, their vivid colors and baffling smells the subject of constant inquiry from visitors.

If you’re looking for a quick and dirty introduction to the art of home fermentation, kimchi is a good place to start. Bright, crunchy, tangy, with as much or as little spice as you desire, it is my go-to ferment, pairing equally well with a bowl of jasmine rice or a grilled steak. I typically enjoy it straight from the jar, standing in front of the fridge in my underwear.

The basic recipe is about as straightforward as it gets: enough chopped cabbage to fill a wide-mouth 1-quart jar, and an equal amount of whatever else you want. Grated carrot and daikon radish go in there. Add an onion, a lot or a little garlic, a lot or a little grated ginger, or green beans, or hot peppers, or kale, or turnips, or whatever’s coming up in your garden, or whatever you bring home from the farmers’ market. Wild edibles such as purslane, comfrey and field mustard make a strong showing in all of my kimchis.

Mix the ingredients together in a large mixing bowl, and cover with a solution of filtered water and sea salt (1 tablespoon of salt per cup of water), cover with a dinner plate and leave overnight. Thus softened, it should all pack into one jar the following day. Fill to the top with the saved salt brine and insert a drinking glass or other weight on top, the idea being to keep all the ingredients submerged—lactobacilli are anaerobic, and exposure to oxygen invites mold. It’s a good idea to check it every day, scooping out and discarding anything moldy or suspicious, and tracking subtle shifts in flavor. In a week, your kimchi’s true flavors have fully emerged, and it’s ready for the refrigerator, where it will last for months.

Play. Experiment. Fail. Learn. Be delighted. The whole of human history is at your back.