If you are new to fermenting your own foods at home, you may be wondering where to get started. What utensils and gadgets will you need in your kitchen, and which are just fun extras but not totally necessary? Really, it isn't that scary of a list. With a few basic items on hand, you can really ferment almost anything, and with little cost comparing to buying pre-made ferments at the store.
I have been fermenting my own foods at home for about ten years, starting with home brew kombucha in my college apartment. Now, I am constantly experimenting with different vegetables, flavors and cultures to expand my repertoire, all using my essential kitchen tools to be able to learn and play with my food.
Kitchen Essentials for Fermentation
These are the tools I could not have lived (well, at least fermented) without over the past several years. If you are looking to make fermented vegetables like sauerkraut or pickles, or fermented beverages like kombucha or kefir, then having these on hand will make your ferments more successful and your life easier. Just with kitchen tools...who knew! Some of these can easily be found at second hand stores or even garage sales. I do try to get high quality products when possible, so if you are on a tight budget, then thrifting will be your best friend here.
1. Big Cutting Board
For everyday use, I love a nice wooden cutting board. They can be made into beautiful designs with really lovely wood. But, for my vegetable fermentation projects like making kim chi, I opt for a big plastic cutting board that is sturdy and durable. These are easier to clean than wooden boards, keeping the right bacteria in your ferments. They also don't stain as easily when you are chopping turmeric or beets, or hold odors like onions. I like a big cutting board for these jobs, so I can spread out and make a big mess that stays (mostly) on the board.
2. Chef's Knife (and something to keep it sharp)
I like to chop my veggies old-school and do it by hand rather than a food processor. I like interacting with the produce, and get some movement in, instead of having a machine do it for me. So, a sharp chef's knife that feels good in your hand is really important.
If you are making mega batches of kraut, I totally get not doing it by hand, but for smaller projects, a good chef's knife is a must. Keep it sharp both for ease of cutting and for safety, and store it in a block or on a magnetic strip--never in the drawer!--to keep it sharp even longer.
3. Glass Jars and Plastic Lids
The vast majority of my ferments are made in glass mason jars. If I am looking to make a really big batch of something I will go for my gallon-sized crock, but even then I will often use two half gallon jars instead. For making kombucha or jun, I use a gallon-sized glass jar that works really well, and no lid is needed, as it is covered with a cotton tea towel instead.
I love that I can see in the jar to watch how my ferments change over time, and also to easily check for scum, mold and yeast on the surface. The pint and quart jars are nice for making small batches when you are experimenting with flavors of kefir or have a smaller amount of produce to use up in your kraut.
I use the BPA-free plastic lids when I ferment in jars because they don't rust or corrode like the metal ones do, and they are one piece so they are pretty easy to clean.
4. Box Grater and Microplane
Like I said with the chef's knife, I like to do things by hand. This carries over to the box grater as well. Instead of using a food processor, I go for the four-sided box grater for shredding vegetables to go into my ferments. One of the sides on mine is a microplane ( a fine zester for citrus and such), but if yours doesn't they are really wonderful to have for zesting, like when you want to put lemon zest or ginger in your kombucha. Also, these require no electricity, just muscles!
5. Wooden Spoon
Whether it is mixing vegetables with salt or pressing kraut into a jar, a sturdy wooden spoon is a must for fermenting. It is non-reactive, so you can mix more acidic foods with it, and it will probably make its way into most of your kitchen projects anyway, so it is essential to have around. You could even carve your own if you were so inclined!
6. Funnels of Varying Sizes
To prevent making (more of) a mess when I am transferring my kraut into jars, I like to use a wide mouth canning funnel. I tend to use stainless steel, but if you have a plastic one that will do. I also like to have a smaller, more narrow-mouthed funnel for bottling kombucha, kefir or ginger ale for their second ferments. Using funnels not only keeps your kitchen tidier, but I find that I lose less to spillage, saving money and food, which I love.
7. Swing-Top Amber Bottles
If you are going to be making fermented beverages, and you want to safely carbonate them, then I really urge you to get a set of these bottles, sometimes called "Grolsch" bottles. The seal that the swing-top provides lends itself to well-carbonated, bubbly beverages like kombucha and ginger ale, as opposed to reusing other jars that don't have as tight of a seal. I use amber bottles that are round in shape because the amber glass prevents damage from light, and the round shape of the bottles helps to prevent explosions when your ferments begin to bubble, making them safer to use. I was lucky enough to score a dozen of these at a thrift store, which pretty much made my year.
8. Fine Mesh Strainer
These are great for straining out tea leaves when brewing kombucha or removing kefir grains. I like to have a larger and a smaller size so I can tailor it to whatever project I am working on, but I find I use my small one a lot more when I am making fermented beverages. Side note: they work great for straining bacon grease, too!
9. Stainless Steel Mixing Bowls
These are great for filling with cabbage and salt, then massaging the heck out of it. I tend to mix all my veggies in a big stainless bowl for massaging before I pack it into jars for fermenting, so having a set of these is a must for making kraut and such. Less breakable than glass bowls and just overall better than plastic, stainless steel bowls are sturdy, easy to clean, and stack easily for storage if you get them in multiple sizes.
10. Kitchen Scale
I measure almost everything in my kitchen by weight. Maybe I am just being a food snob (likely.) but I find better results with weight than volume. For making sauerkraut, I base how much salt to use on how many pounds of cabbage and other veggies I have, so using a scale is really important for me. Don't worry, you will find a million ways to use this, like making good coffee or bread, so it won't just lie in wait in the cabinet until you are ready to ferment. I like to use digital for precision and variation in units of measure, but if you find a lovely vintage scale, go nuts!
11. Mixing cups and spoons
For measuring sugar into kombucha or water kefir, or salt into pickled veggies, I do tend to measure by volume, even if it is in ratio to something measured by weight. You will need to have a set of mixing cups and spoons for most of your fermentation projects, and probably a million other things you make in your kitchen.
12. Food-Grade Gloves
I put these on the essential list because I very frequently find myself wearing gloves when making my ferments. Usually it is because I am chopping and then packing spicy peppers or hand-staining turmeric. Also, if you have a cut with a bandage on it, gloving up is usually a good idea. If you only ever make sauerkraut with cabbage and salt and no other ferments, perhaps you won't ever use these, but I hope you get wild and need gloves sometime.
There you have it! The twelve items I use very regularly (and would probably have to borrow from elsewhere if I didn't own them) for fermenting vegetables and beverages. These are all low tech, no fossil fuels needed items, so homesteaders off the grid and apartment dwellers in the city alike can use them with ease.
Now, things that are nice, but aren't necessarily crucial:
There a few more items that many people use when making fermented foods at home, but may not be considered essential, or don't get used as often. I put these in this category if they are used for a single purpose, use electricity, or can be substituted with something else you may already have. But, I could be wrong and you find these things essential. Then you can move them to the list above!
1. Food Processor
Many (most??) people bust out the food processor when prepping a large amount of veggies. As I said with the knife and box grater, a mega large batch of kraut would probably be smart to use a food processor for, but otherwise I skip it. The movement is good for you! But, you live your life how you want, and if you want to use a machine to chop, then more power to you! Get it...power....ok.
Of course, if you have arthritis or another level of ability that makes chopping difficult, please tell me to shut up and you use that food processor as much as you want. Technology can be good for something!
2. A Kraut Pounder (aka a "pickle packer")
This antique item has come back into popularity over the past few years as making sauerkraut has become ubiquitous. It is really nice for packing kraut or kim chi into a big crock, but since I tend to use glass jars for my ferments, it doesn't really fit and I use a wooden spoon for packing. I do have one around for when I need or want to use it, but you can get along fine without it. It does look really cool, though!
Airlocks, which allow CO2 to escape your jars but no air to come in, can make fermenting much easier and fool-proof. If you are new to making ferments, it may be helpful to use one of these on your jar to help prevent mold or yeast from forming. I have used them before with success, but I don't usually use them. Honestly, I was using one until a dog chewed mine up, and I don't use one anymore, and my ferments come out totally fine. Thanks, dog! These are not totally necessary, but can be nice and make life easier, so it is really up to you. People fermented veggies almost forever without using them, but they can be a useful tool.
4. Ceramic Crock
Crocks are a very traditional way of making sauerkraut, because obviously glass is pretty new compared to pottery and ceramics. They come in larger sizes, from one gallon to huge crocks over ten or twenty five gallons, so you can make a big batch of pickles and store them in your root cellar for the whole year. Many even come with a ceramic weight to fit inside. Just be sure your crock is lead-free, especially if it is a vintage crock.
I started out making sauerkraut in a gallon crock and have since moved to the glass jars, but that is purely preference. Even when making ferments in a crock, I transfer them to a glass jar for storage in the fridge, which is why the jars made the essential list and the crock didn't. They both are awesome to have around! Plus, having a big crock on your counter will give you major homesteader/hipster points.
5. Glass Weights
To keep your veggies submerged in brine and prevent molding, a weight can prove very useful. There are several companies now, such as Pickle Pebbles, making glass weights that fit into wide and narrow mouth glass jars, to ensure everything stays under the brine. I often use mine if small pieces of kraut keep floating to the top of the jar, or with pickled veggies that are larger and like to float. You can use a smaller jar fit into a larger jar if you don't have weights, or just pack the jar full and use the butt of the cabbage as a carrier to prevent floating pieces, but the weights are really great to use, especially if you are new to fermenting.
Now that you have stocked your kitchen, you are ready to ferment almost anything!
Be prepared to heal your gut, nourish your family and impress your friends!
Brine & Broth
I am a nutritionist in Southwest Wisconsin, focused on traditional, nutrient-dense foods. My goal is to provide you with simple and delicious recipes that fit into real life, and information for choosing healthful real foods. Enjoy!