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How to Ferment Vegetables at Home, According to Noma’s Head of Fermentation David Zilber

Photo: Przemek Klos/Getty Images/EyeEm Premium

To make roasted chicken-wing garum, like they do in Noma’s fermentation lab, you need to make a fermentation chamber, cook for hours, and then let your mixture sit for four weeks. Their miso with Danish rye bread, also called “ryeso,” takes up to four months to develop the right flavors. But according to David Zilber, head of fermentation at Noma and co-author of The Noma Guide to Fermentation, there’s no reason that your own fermentation experiments have to be that intensive to be just as delicious. “It really is something you can very quickly understand,” he assures me on the phone, especially if you’re starting with some good, old-fashioned lacto-fermentation.

You’ve enjoyed this style of fermentation if you’ve eaten a dill pickle. All you have to do is take a piece of produce, add a lot of salt, and let it sit in an airtight container for a while. The basic technique lets you ferment a lot of things — and if you have a mostly stocked kitchen, there’s a good chance that you have pretty much everything you already need. To find which containers and alts are going to yield the most reliable results (without accidentally making you sick), Zilber walked us through all of the essentials to start lacto-fermenting vegetables and fruits, along with some gadgets that will make the process a little bit easier.

Your container can be as simple as a Mason jar. In fact, Zilber tells me that he recommends “a glass jar with a screw-top” for lacto-fermentation, especially for beginners. That way, you can clearly see the fermentation process unfold, while also guaranteeing that no air or moisture will leak in while your veggies or fruits are starting to transform. Just make sure that whatever jar you use has got a wide enough opening, so you can easily put in and take out your fermented foodstuffs.

“If you want to get really technical and do things really well, get a metal lid, punch a hole out, unscrew the metal lid, and stick an airlock in there so that gas can get out. It’s not crucial,” Zilber notes, “but it does help the fermentation work better.” That’s because the airlock lets out the gas that builds up in an airtight jar without letting new bacteria or microbes in.

For a slightly less surgically invasive way to install an airlock, you can also get screw-top lids with built-in airlocks, designed specifically for this purpose.

Grub Street staff writer Nikita Richardson, who’s been embarking on her own at-home fermentation projects (and who profiled Zilber), has been using these silicone fermentation lids for her own experiments.

If you’re looking for something that’s perhaps a bit more elegant on your kitchen counter than a Mason jar with a hole cut out of the lid for an airlock, “You don’t need to ferment in glass,” notes Zilber. “You could use a ceramic jar,” like one of these specialized fermentation crocks. Instead of a screw-top to keep out unwanted bacteria and pests, this container has a shallow moat around the opening, which you fill with water in order to create that all-important airtight seal. However, this is probably a better option for a more advanced home fermenter, since you can’t see the fermenting foods’ progress easily.

No matter what container you’re using, it’s good to have some fermentation weights on hand. “Their purpose is to keep all the food you’re trying to ferment beneath the water line,” Zilber says. “If they’re not packed down nicely in the jar, there’ll be lots of air,” and that oxygen will prevent the bacteria from doing their good fermenting work. So you keep your vegetables out of contact with air just by weighing them down. “A good weight that’s heavy enough and fits the jar nicely without getting stuck on the sides is very important,” and don’t be afraid to add more than one, says Zilber. “If it’s not heavy enough and there are still pockets of air, add another weight on top.”

Whether you’re lacto-fermenting something sweet like plums or making sauerkraut, you’ll want to use salt. It’s got just enough antimicrobial properties to help stave off some dangerous bacteria, like one that causes botulism, without stopping the process entirely. It also adds flavor to your fermented goods, shifting from sweet to sour. That’s why Zilber recommends using any “natural dried sea salt, because it contains a lot of other minerals besides just sodium chloride that can actually help add a richer flavor profile.” And though there are any number of high-end sea salts that you could use in your ferments, if you’re looking to maximize flavor and quality with availability and price, flaky Maldon — which has been harvested on the southeast coast of England for over a century — is a solid choice. No matter which brand of sea salt or kosher salt you choose to use, “I do stress that you should avoid iodized salt,” notes Zilber, “because iodine is slightly antimicrobial.” In other words, it’ll kill off the microbes you actually want to keep around for fermentation’s sake, not the bad ones.

A quick note about safety: You want to make sure that you’re fermenting your food, not just letting it rot, when it’s attacked by any and all microbes, safe or not. So to ferment properly means that you’re only letting in the good, safe microbes and keeping out the bad, disease-causing ones (like E. coli or C. botulinum, which causes botulism). That’s why it’s so important to make sure that your gear is sanitized before you use it. So once you get your gear ready, wash your fermentation vessels and lids with Star San or a solution of diluted, liquid bleach. If you have a dishwasher, Zilber notes, you can also run your equipment in a hot cycle before you use them.

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How to Ferment Vegetables at Home