The centuries-old tradition of fermenting foods is suddenly super-trendy—and for good reason: fermented foods are full of beneficial bacteria that have been shown to improve digestion, enhance immunity and benefit mood, weight loss and heart health. Homemade fermented foods are cheaper, cleaner and more potent than store-bought versions. And it’s not as scary as it sounds: with a few simple rules, you can easily whip up your own yogurt, kimchi and other probiotic-rich eats.
First, the basics: yogurt and other fermented foods are generally created through lacto-fermentation: “lacto” refers to Lactobacillus, beneficial bacteria that convert sugars into lactic acid, a natural preservative that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. Those Lactobacillus are responsible for many of the health benefits we associate with fermented foods. And the process of fermentation improves digestibility and nutrient availability of foods; for example, turning cabbage into kimchi increases its cancer-fighting glucosinolate compounds believed to fight cancer.
For any kind of fermentation, there are some simple, but important, rules:
• Start with a squeaky-clean environment. Run your supplies through the dishwasher, or wash them well by hand with hot, soapy water.
• Use fresh, organic ingredients and filtered, not tap, water; chlorine can interfere with the fermentation process.
• Temperature is critical; in general, room temperature—around 65 to 72 degrees—is about right for most kinds of fermentation. If your house is cooler, park your fermenting foods on top of the refrigerator; it’s generally warm, and keeps them out of the way.
• Check your foods at least once a day for shorter ferments or every day or two for longer-duration ferments. Be sure fruits or vegetables are completely submerged in brine to keep air out of the mixture and prevent mold growth.
• Keep an eye out for signs of oxygen exposure. These include brown spots or other discolorations, mold or slime on the surface of the mixture, or an offensive, putrid odor. If you’re concerned your mixture has gone south, don’t be afraid to pitch it and start over.
Ready to try DIY fermentation? Here, six simple recipes to get you started.
Easy, Creamy Yogurt
Makes about 1 quart
This simple, full-fat yogurt uses a few tablespoons of plain yogurt as a starter culture; you can substitute low-fat milk, but the results will be less thick and creamy. After the yogurt has finished fermenting, add fruit, flavorings or sweetener if you’d like, or use as a nutritious substitute for sour cream.
1 quart whole milk
3 tablespoons plain whole milk yogurt
- In a heavy pot, heat milk to a bare simmer, just until bubbles start to form at the edges (180 to 200 degrees). Stir to prevent a skin from forming on the milk and be careful not to scorch. Remove from heat and let cool until just warm (about 110 degrees).
- Transfer 1/2 cup of the warm milk to a small bowl and stir in yogurt. Gently stir yogurt and milk mixture back into the pot. Cover pot with a lid, wrap in a towel and let stand in a warm location for 6 to 12 hours, until thick.
- Transfer to a clean glass jar with a lid and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours until cold; yogurt will thicken as it cools.
Dairy-free Raspberry-Vanilla Yogurt
Makes about 1 quart
Store-bought vegan yogurts are usually not fermented, and often include additives and lots of sugar. This simple recipe uses full-fat coconut milk with probiotic as a starter. Be sure to use a high-quality probiotic with no added prebiotics or FOS. We used raspberries and vanilla, but you can vary the fruits and flavorings as you’d like.
2 14-ounce cans full-fat coconut milk
4 capsules vegan probiotics
1/2 cup fresh or thawed frozen raspberries, lightly mashed
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Agave, organic cane sugar, stevia or other sweetener to taste
- Vigorously shake coconut milk cans before opening; open and transfer to a clean glass bowl. Empty contents of probiotic capsules into coconut milk and mix well.
- Cover bowl with a cheesecloth or a thin, lint-free dish towel and let stand in a warm location for 1 to 2 days, until thickened.
- Remove towel and stir in raspberries, vanilla and sweetener to taste. Transfer to a glass jar with a lid and refrigerate for 3 to 4 hours before serving.
Makes about 2 pints
Cumin, coriander and other middle-Eastern spices make fermented carrots super-intriguing. You can swap most any root vegetable—turnips, radishes, winter squash, kohlrabi or any combination. Beets will bleed color into the other vegetables; if you don’t want the whole mixture to be pink, use golden beets. Add sliced jalapeno peppers, onions, ginger or any other spices for variety.
6 to 8 large carrots
3 whole cardamom pods, slightly cracked
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
Zest from one large lemon
1 quart filtered or spring water
4 tablespoons sea salt
- Peel carrots and cut into sticks about 4 inches long. Divide cardamom, coriander, cumin and lemon zest between jars. Pack carrot sticks lengthwise into each jar.
- Combine water and salt in a medium bowl; whisk until salt is dissolved. Pour brine over vegetables, being sure vegetables are completely covered; gently shake the jars a few times so brine percolates all the way down to the bottom.
- Place a weight (a small Ziploc bag filled with water works well) into each jar to keep vegetables submerged. Cover mouth of each jar with a coffee filter or small, thin dish towel secured with a rubber band. Let stand at room temperature away from direct sunlight for 5 to 10 days. Cover with a lid and store in the refrigerator for up to three months.
Garlicky Radish and Napa Kimchi
Makes 2 quarts
This garlicky, spicy kimchi adds daikon radish cubes for variety and uses miso instead of fish sauce to make it vegan. Gochugaru is the traditional spice used in kimchi; you’ll find it in any Asian market and most large grocery stores. Use it as a condiment, add as a topping on sandwiches or salads, stir into scrambled eggs, or add to stir-fry or fried rice.
1 head Napa cabbage, cored and cut into 2-inch chunks
1 small daikon radish, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
2 tablespoons sea salt
8 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 1-inch chunk ginger root
2 tablespoons white miso paste
2 tablespoons unsweetened apple juice or water
1/4 cup Korean chili powder (gochugaru)
2 tablespoons sugar
5 scallions, white and light green parts only, cut into 1-inch pieces
- Combine cabbage and radish in a large bowl; sprinkle with salt and toss to mix well. Let stand for 1 hour.
- Combine garlic, ginger, miso paste, apple juice or water, chili powder and sugar in a small food processor or blender, and process into a thick paste; add an additional tablespoon or two of apple juice or water if needed.
- Add chili paste mixture and scallions to cabbage and radishes. Using rubber gloves, toss mixture with your hands, working chili paste into vegetables. Transfer mixture to two wide-mouth glass quart jars, pressing vegetables firmly into jars to compress them tightly. Cover each jar with a two-piece lid. Don’t screw the lid on with the ring, just set the ring over the lid to hold it down.
- Place jars on a baking sheet to catch any liquid and let stand at room temperature for one to three days; insert a clean chopstick into mixture every day to release air bubbles, and top with additional sea salt and water brine if needed to keep vegetables submerged.
- To store, stir ingredients to combine, screw lids onto jars and refrigerate for 2 to 4 days. Store, refrigerated, for up to 6 months.
Makes one quart
A short fermentation gives this fragrant chutney a tangy bite. You can use nearly any combination of fruits; mango is traditional, or try apples, plums, peaches or pineapple. Vary the spices: skip the jalapeno, and add cardamom and cinnamon for a sweeter version.
4 pears, cored and chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 small red onion, chopped
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger root
1 large lemon, juiced
2 teaspoons sea salt
- In a medium bowl, combine pears, raisins, onion, jalapeno pepper, ginger, lemon and salt. Stir to mix well.
- Pack mixture tightly into a two wide-mouth glass pint jars, pressing down very firmly to compress. Add water to cover fruit mixture by about 1/2 inch.
- Cover mouth of each jar with a coffee filter or small, thin dish towel secured with a rubber band. Let stand at room temperature away from direct sunlight for 2 to 4 days. Cover mouths of jars with lids and refrigerate for up to 2 months.
Herbed Vegan Brie
Makes 2 cups
This easy dairy-free cheese uses raw cashew butter instead of soaking and draining cashews for faster prep. Be sure to use raw, not roasted, cashew butter, and experiment with different additions: try truffle oil, basil or dill, or skip the spices and line ramekins with finely ground walnuts, then serve with fig jam. Or add turmeric or annatto powder and turn it into a cheddar-like spread.
2 cups raw cashew butter
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 to 4 tablespoons warm water
4 capsules vegan probiotics
1/2 cup melted coconut oil
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh chives
- Combine cashew butter, lemon juice and 2 tablespoons water in a food processor; add additional water if needed. Empty probiotic capsules into mixture and puree until smooth and creamy.
- Transfer mixture to a glass bowl. Cover with cheesecloth or a thin, lint-free kitchen towel. Wrap bowl in a towel and let stand in a warm place (on top of the refrigerator is ideal) for 24 to 72 hours.
- Transfer cheese to a food processor and add melted coconut oil, nutritional yeast and salt. Puree until creamy. Line two small ramekins with plastic wrap and sprinkle pepper, rosemary and chives over surface of plastic. Pack cheese into ramekins and chill for 6 to 8 hours. Remove from refrigerator and carefully unmold, using overhang of plastic wrap to lift cheese from ramekin. Refrigerate for up to two weeks.