Best Equipment for Fermenting Vegetables
Fermentation is an ancient practice of food storage and preservation. It fell out of use with the advent of chemical preservatives, and has now seen a found new popularity as recent research has shown that naturally fermented foods have some outstanding health benefits, which include lactic acids, vitamins, and most of all, a huge dose of powerful probiotics. In fact, loads of new research is showing just how beneficial probiotics can be to your overall health, such as improve digestion, improved ability to break down carbohydrates, stronger immune system, improved mental health, improved bowel movement regulation, and more. Fermented foods are more popular than ever, old that they may be.
But one thing which hasn’t changed is that, just like it was in old times, you do not need a whole lot of expensive equipment to do vegetable fermentation. While there are some new nifty kitchen and brewing items that one can use to make one’s life a little easier, none of these will break the bank, and most of them you will probably find in your cupboards already.
Essential Equipment for Culturing Veggies
While what you need is simple, there are some items which are essential for the fermentation process.
1. Fermentation Vessel
The very first thing that you need for your fermentation set up is a container in which the ferment can take place. While you can use a variety of containers for this, there are some requirements, as well as materials of containers which you should stay away from.
How the Choose the Best Fermentation Container for Your Vegetable Fermentation
The Best Size Container for Fermentation
The is no standard ideal size for fermentation containers, as this really depends on what quantity of vegetables you wish to ferment at one time.
A lot of people use pint or half pint jars to start out with, but you can use as big a jar as you need for your ferment. The bigger the jar, the more veggies you can ferment in one go. Because it can take a week (or far longer), you might want to do multiple fermentations at the same time in different containers. I personally find the half gallon jar is the best overall size. I usually do 2 or 3 different ferments in different jars, each with a different recipe. 1 Gallon jars are fine and ideal if you have a big household!
Tip: The important thing is to stay away from using oversized containers. Do not use a container if the ingredients which you will be packing it with will only partially fill it. You do not want to have more than a one inch space between the top of the ingredients which you are fermenting and the lid. This is because much more than this will allow for too much extra air to be present in proportion to vegetables. This in turn can be a cause of mold. There are two things which help to give the lactic acid bacteria the upper edge over other microbes, and they are salt and lack of oxygen.
The Best Material for Your Fermentation Vessel
What Not to Use: Two materials which are not suitable for fermentation containers are metal and plastic. As fermentation takes place, the lactic acid bacteria which are responsible for the process, produce lactic acid, which is what makes fermented vegetables taste tart. The presence of the lactic acid can eat at the plastic and metal on a microscopic level. This can result in your ferments being contaminated by metals, from metal containers (specifically, non stainless steel), or from petrochemicals contained within plastic, from plastic containers. Both of these substances can be harmful, so stay away!
What to Use: While plastic and metal are not an option, there are two materials which are 100% safe. These are glass and earthenware. The only caution is for the earthenware option, where you must make sure that if there is any glazing present, that it is food grade and does not contain lead. Earthenware containers can also be heavy and awkward to seal, unless you are using a specifically designed crock pot fermentation vessel. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of glass jars and the different kinds of earthenware containers.
What About Plastic or Stainless Steel?
Food Grade Plastic or Stainless Steel Containers can be used to ferment, but these materials may give off an unwanted extra taste. Because of this, we recommend you stick to glass or stoneware. If you intend to do very large ferments (gallons and gallons), you’ll probably need to use a large stainless steel container. But short of doing a commercial style fermentation setup, the average person won’t need something this big.
Also note that it’s possible to use wooden containers, but these may be expensive and hard to find.
The Best Material
We recommend food-grade stoneware vessels or plain glass containers as the best container for culturing veggies with. These are neutral materials that won’t be affected by the acidic fermentation. These materials also won’t imbue unwanted flavors into the ferment either, which using food grade plastic or stainless steel vessels might do.
Now that you know about the material and size, here’s our selection and specific product recommendations for each type.
1. Glass Jars
Glass jars can make for great fermentation containers. They are non reactive, you probably have a bunch of them in the cupboard already, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
Advantages of a using glass jars for fermentation –
Ordinary glass jars can be great to use for your vegetable fermentations for the following reasons:
- They are super easy to get hold of, if you do not have a bunch lying around already.
- Glass jars are cheap.
- They come in a wide range of sizes, so you can be selective and ferment exactly the right quantity of each vegetable at a time.
- They are see-through, so you can keep tabs on your ferment simply by looking inside of the jar through the side.
- Their shape makes them easy to clean.
Disadvantages of using glass jars for fermentation –
Glass jars also have the following disadvantages:
- If there is the event that a glass jar explodes from inadequate pressure release, the glass shards can be very dangerous.
- Glass jars which are not bail wire Fido style jars will need to have an airlock.
- Glass jars need to be burped if an airlock is not fitted, or a good quality bail wire jar is not used.
Our Glass Jar Recommendations
2. Crock Pots
Crock pots are a popular fermentation container. There are open topped ones which are for general use, and then there are ones which are specifically designed for anaerobic fermentation. Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of these two types of vessels.
Open top crock pot
Open top crock pots are widely available in store and online. They are what usually comes to mind at the word ‘crock’.
Advantages of an open top crock pot –
Open top crock pots can be easy to use for the following reasons:
- Open top and straight sides make for easy cleaning.
- Large mouth makes it easy to pickle whole vegetables.
- Less expensive than a water sealed fermentation specific crock.
- Readily available.
Disadvantages of an open top crock pot –
Open top crock pots can be difficult to use for vegetable fermentation for the following reasons:
- Open top crock pots can be very difficult to seal properly.
- It is not easy to fit an airlock onto an open top crock pot, even if you can set up a way for it to seal.
- For the above two reasons ferments done in open top crock pots are at risk from mold contamination and spoilage.
- Inadequate sealing can also lay your ferment open to fruit flies and other insects getting in and laying eggs.
- Weights to hold down the vegetables and lids usually need to be purchased separately which can drastically raise the cost of using an otherwise cheap open top crock pot.
- Older crock pots may contain lead in their glazing.
Our Crock Pot Recommendations
3. Fermentation Crock Pots
In addition to the open topped ordinary crock pots there are also crock pots which are specifically designed for doing anaerobic fermentation in. These are usually made from stoneware or ceramic, and designed specifically for vegetable fermentation.
They have a water seal which keeps air and insects from getting into your ferment, and are usually termed water sealed crock pots. Pressure from carbon dioxide building up during fermentation is easily released, eradicating any potential explosion threats. In addition, water sealed crock pots which are made for fermentation also come with fitted weights for keeping vegetables submerged. They too though have their downsides. Let’s take at look at the water sealed crock pot’s advantages and disadvantages quickly.
These are a bit more expensive than your regular crock pot, but the extra money is worth the convenience.
Advantages of a water sealed crock pot –
Water sealed crock pots are ideal for the following reasons:
- Easy release of carbon dioxide, reducing explosion risks, and making for a fairly maintenance free ferment which does not need to be burped.
- Reduced chance of mold due to lack of excess oxygen and weights for keeping vegetables submerged in brine.
- Fruit flies and other insects cannot get into the ferment and lay eggs.
- Better probiotic quality of ferment due to the lack of oxygen, and the ideal environment provided for the LAB bacteria to proliferate.
- Convenient for doing large batches of fermented vegetables.
Disadvantages of a water sealed crock pot –
Water sealed crock pots have the following disadvantages:
- Water sealed crock pots are more expensive than open mouthed crock pots or other fermentation containers.
- Narrower opening that an open crock pot can make it difficult to pack in vegetables.
- Shape can make for difficult cleaning.
- Water in the seal/moat must be filled up to maintain seal.
- Sealed environment and solid sides makes it difficult to monitor the ferment.
- Usually very large – which is not great if you are interested in doing smaller batches of veggies at a time.
- Vegetables have to be transferred out into jars if you want to start fermenting something else, or want to stop the ferment and refrigerate. This exposes them to unnecessary amounts of oxygen which can introduce and encourage pathogenic bacteria.
Open top crock pots can be difficult to use for fermentation as you will have to find the right lid which will seal the top. Water sealed crock pots can make for nifty fermentation vessels, but can also be inconvenient because of their size, and the fact that you still have to bottle up your ferment at some point.
Our Fermentation Crock Recommendations
What’s the Best Fermentation Container?
The fermentation containers which end up being the most convenient for you will be based on your individual needs. You might find that a water sealed crock pot is perfect for your style of fermenting, or you might prefer to build up a selection of varying sized jars with different types of seals.
Our advice to you in the beginning is do not worry about buying expensive things before you know what you want. Start off with a jar or two and preferably kit them out with a nice seal. Do a few ferments, and if at a later stage you feel like looking for a water sealed crock pot or some other ready-made fermentation container – go for it. You’ll save time with the convenience factor.
But if you do not have one of these, you are just starting out, and someone is trying to convince you to buy one, do not be intimidated. Anyone can do vegetable fermentation, with basic items like glass jars and if you like, some cheap airlocks. You do not need to buy a special fermentation device!
Some people prefer the airlocks, which are frankly the easiest method and the most space efficient. I personally find I love the feel, the look, and the taste of the quality German-made fermentation crocks, especially for those long 6 week ferments. I find the make the best tasting sauerkraut and kimchi. But you can certainly do just fine with the cheaper, lighter, and more convenient airlock. Bother the crock and the airlock containers are superior to using just a regular jar with a lid.
Now, let’s get on to the next most important bit – the seal (lid).
2. The Fermentation Seal
(to seal your fermentation container and prevent oxygen from entering)
Sealing is an important portion of your fermentation equipment, and one area where you might want to invest in exactly what you want.
There are a variety of alternatives which you can choose from for sealing up your ferment.
While you can go ahead and do a fermentation in an ordinary jar with a lid that seals well…for ongoing fermenting of vegetables we advise that you at the very least use a Fido style bail wire jar. These lids clamp down firmly and include a rubber seal to keep oxygen out.
To properly do an anaerobic fermentation, you need something that seals out the oxygen. Jars that don’t clamp down tightly may leak in oxygen and ruin the ferment.
Airlock Hack: If you do not even have a bail wire jar, but are really excited to get going with your first batch of fermented vegetables and want a quick solution to the problem of letting pressure escape but not allowing oxygen in – try this.
- Rootle around your house for an unused balloon. With ferments like pineapple and ginger beer, balloons will fit easily over the top of any regular bottle. With vegetable fermenting however, the balloon will not fit over a the jar’s mouth, so you can do the following.
- Cut the balloon in half and take the top half (the one that does not have the opening) and place this over the top of your jar.
- Now take a piece of string, and wrap it tightly around the mouth, to hold the balloon in place. You can wrap it a few times to get a good hold.
- If the piece of balloon is secured well then it should stay in place during the ferment process. The top will rise with the carbon dioxide which is produced. When you are ready to refrigerate your ferment, simply remove contraption and screw on the lid.
Normal Screw-On Lid
If you have nothing else, you can use an ordinary screw on lid for your fermentation, as long as it seals well. If you use a normal lid, you will have to burp your ferment daily. This is because as fermentation takes place, carbon dioxide is produced and this will build up pressure inside the fermentation container. The pressure can get so high that there have been instances where containers have exploded! This is very dangerous if anyone is around, and also makes a huge mess. Not good!
Clamp Down Lid
If you have some clamp down bail wire jars like Fido jars, these can be great for fermenting your vegetables in. There is still a slight chance of explosions, as they are not specifically designed for fermentation. There is however a nice test which you can do to check the one you want to use for it’s ability to release pressure.
How to test a bail wire jar to see if it will release pressure:
- Fill a bucket or large pot with water.
- Take your jar and put a little baking soda, and some water and vinegar into it. It will start to fizz like crazy.
- Now seal up and quickly place in the water. If the jar is releasing pressure, you will see the bubbles streaming out.
Recommended Clamp Down Lid & Jar
Airlocks are the absolute best when it comes to fermenting vegetables and minimizing all dangers of potential explosions. These are plastic cylinders with an inside chamber that allows the CO2 cases to escape but prevents Oxygen from penetrating; because air is prevented from entering, mold can’t get inside.
You can purchase ones to mount on any kind of ordinary jar lid, which is great because it means that you can utilize all sorts of jars, providing that they have a lid which seals well. You will however have to drill a hole in each lid to be able to mount the airlock.
Recommended Mountable Airlock
Super convenient if you are going to be using a mason jar or jars, are the silicone airlock fittings which you can simply put on, without having to do any drilling or mounting. The advantage of these is that you can use them for any sized jar. This comes in handy if you have extra large jars (or a crock).
Recommended Pickle Pipes
Plastic screw-on airlock top
Another very convenient option which does not require any DIY, are the plastic screw-on lids available these days which have a detachable airlock, and an additional attachment which seals the place where the airlock detaches from. This allows one to take the airlock off when storing your ferments in the fridge, as airlocks can stand tall and take up lots of space in the refrigerator.
Recommended Screw-On Airlock Tops
The Best Seal/Lid Option
The best however is to get hold of an airlock. Whether you choose a conventional airlock setup, or a modern and simplistic pickle pipe, all explosion dangers will be negated, and you will be doing true anaerobic fermentation. This will keep out mold and other pathogenic bacteria and in turn support the LAB bacteria which are what makes fermented vegetables a natural probiotic.
The Cheapest Budget Solution: Airlock + Lid Set
The airlock, specifically the airlock lid designed for mason jars, is the best budget option by far and is the easiest way to get a consistent, mold-free ferment for beginners. We find the airlock gives a crispier, crunchier fermented veggies and it prevents mold from growing on the surface of the ferment, inside the jar. This is superior to just using a regular jar with a lid. Optional, but absolutely worth it.
The Premium, Streamlined Solution: Fermentation Crock + Stone Weights + Vegetable Pounder
Some systems, such as the fermentation crock, come with a lid, but include a stone weight to press the veggies under the salt brine. This also gives a great ferment and is the traditional way of doing it. In fact, for sauerkraut and kimchi, we find the German fermentation crocks give a fantastic yield and are better if you want to consistently make long ferments. They are also beautiful to look at and sit well in your kitchen.
Kitchen Utensils for Making Fermented Vegetables
Besides a suitable fermentation container and seal system of your choice, the only other items which you will really need are kitchen utensils for prepping vegetables, and most of these you will have in your kitchen already.
Here are some basic items that you already should have in your kitchen:
- A sharp kitchen knife
- A large chopping board
- 1 medium sized bowl
- 1 large sized bowl
- Garlic crusher
- Blender (for making smooth vegetable ferments such as fermented salsa or ketchup)
Optional Fermentation Equipment (Useful & Time-saving)
Besides selecting the right fermentation container and seal, and having the right kitchen utensils on hand, there are also a couple other items which can be convenient to have when doing vegetable fermentations.
Save Serious Time with a Cabbage Shredder
While not strictly necessary, a cabbage shredder makes chopping up your vegetables incredibly easy and fast. The most time consuming part of culturing veggies (beside the actual fermentation process) is dicing up the vegetables. This can take you at least 20 minutes or longer, depending how many veggies you need to cut up. It can take you over an hour to manually slice up veggies to pack into a a couple 1 gallon containers.
A cabbage shredder can do this in 2 to 3 minutes, saving you an incredible amount of time. I recommend you try cutting your cabbage (and other veggies) by hand the first couple times when first culturing veggies. But once you start making it a regular thing, the best thing you can do to save time (and your sanity) is to buy a cabbage shredder.
Trust me — you’ll thank me. It’s worth the 30 to 90 bucks you pay.
Recommended Cabbage Shredders
Weighted Object to Keep Veggies Submerged and Avoid Mold
When fermenting vegetables it is a good practice to make sure that the vegetables do not float on top of the brine, and are submerged at all times. You can push them down when bottling, but often they tend to rise up and become un-submerged once more. To ensure that they are submerged at all times, you can place an object on top of them which will be weighty enough to keep them under the surface of the brine.
Note, you won’t need this if you use an airlock or you buy a fermentation crock (comes with a weighed stone)
Here are some options:
1. Pickle pebbles
If you do not feel like searching for the right object to insert in your ferment to weigh the veggies down, you can also purchase a very convenient fermentation toy for that purpose. These are called pickle pebbles! You can pick them up on Amazon in a variety of sizes.
2. Fermentation Crock Stone
You can buy a stone weight specifically designed for anaerobic fermentation. These usually come as part of a fermentation crock set, but you can purchase the stone separately as well. Just keep in mind it needs to be sized right to fit your container. If you have a small mason jar, you might want to look at the Pickle Pebbles instead, which are smaller and designed specifically for pickle jars and mason jars.
3. Ziplock bag full of brine
While I generally don’t recommend using plastic, one trick is to use a ziplock bag filled with salt water. You can use this as a weight to keep the veggies submerged. If the bag somehow punctures, only salt water will leak into the veggies — this is brine and won’t affect the ferment at all.
4. Vegetable pieces
Another thing which you do on the fly to get your vegetable to sink is to cut ‘vegetable rafts’ to float on top and push the other veg down. This is not ideal, but is better than nothing.
5. Correctly sized object
Finally, if you can’t get your hands on any of the above, have a look in your kitchen and house and see if there is something which will fit convenient on top of the veggies and under the lid of the fermentation container. This might be a saucer, stone coaster, small shallow bowl, or even a plate if you are fermenting in a very large container. Do not use anything which is made out of non-food grade plastic or metal.
Having a thermometer stashed next to your fermenting jars of vegetables can be handy to determine how long to let your batches ferment at room temperature. If temperatures are warm, then you might find that you want to stop the fermentation process early to avoid it becoming overly sour. Or, if temperatures are low, then you can leave the ferment out for additional time to mature. 65-70o Fahrenheit (18-21o Celsius) is the normal range of temperatures for vegetable fermentation, but it is possible to ferment outside of this range.
Lacto acid vegetable ferments need filtered water –
When doing vegetable ferments, it is very important to use filtered water which does not contain chlorine or other antibacterial chemicals. The reason for this is because the lacto acid bacteria are naturally occurring on the surface of plants, leaves and vegetables and it is them that you are harnessing when doing a lactic acid bacteria fermentation.
When one sets up a fermentation all one is effectively doing is providing an ideal environment for these bacteria which are already present on the surface of the vegetables to colonize the ferment by outcompeting other bacteria, which would decompose the food, and in doing this preserve the vegetables in a lacto acid ferment.
Why you can’t use chlorinated water
Chlorinated water can have the effect of killing the lacto acid bacteria on the vegetables which you wish to ferment. This will compromise the chances of a successful fermentation taking place, as the levels of lactic acid bacteria might be too low for them to proliferate.
This means that using chlorinated water in your ferments can cause a lack of fermentation to take place, and/or for mold and pathogenic bacteria to take hold.
Why you should use a water filter
If you have purchased bottled filtered water in your house and your are using this for your ferments, then this is fine. If however you do not purchase bottled water, then it would be a good idea to get a cheap water filter. This will not only be of benefit to your ferments, but to you as well, as consuming chlorinated water is detrimental to one’s health.
- You can purchase a cheap jug filter which will remove a good portion of the chlorine from your tap water.
- You can also install a fitted filter onto your faucet. This is very convenient, but much more costly.
Quick Hacks – to reduce the chlorine in your tap water:
There are also two other quick ways you can reduce the amount of chlorine in your tap water. These are:
- Boil your water. Boiling will cause a lot of the chlorine present in tap water to evaporate.
- Let your water sit overnight. Letting your water sit uncovered overnight will further help to lower chlorine levels.
There are two important things to keep in mind when selecting items to make up your fermentation arsenal. These are:
- That the material of the fermentation container is non-reactive and will not leach.
- That the top can release pressure but also keep new oxygen from entering the ferment.
If you want to try your first ferment in an ordinary glass jar, by all means do so. But you will have to release the pressure buildup by burping. This increases the amount of oxygen getting to the ferment, which also ups the chance of mold and pathogenic bacteria getting in as well.
That is why for overall optimum fermentation results we recommend you use a suitable fermentation container in conjunction with an airlock or pickle pike.