Fermented foods are a real culinary trend, with more and more people choosing to ferment food in their own kitchens. And why not? They deliver a delicious umami punch, they are full of probiotic goodness, and they’re straightforward to make. Fermentation does take time, though. How do you speed up the process? Are there any ways to ferment food faster?
These are the main ways to ferment food faster:
- Add less salt
- Ferment in a warmer environment
- Add Lactobacillus bacteria
- Use the most natural salt, water, and vegetables
- Peel and chop the vegetables finely
- Keep the food submerged
The easiest kind of fermented food to make at home is fermented vegetables. Producing your own kimchi or sauerkraut isn’t tricky. Fermentation is a biological process that relies on microscopic bacteria to transform the simple ingredients of vegetables, salt, and water into fabulously tasty fermented snacks.
Speeding up fermentation means working with the ingredients and the environment in which fermentation occurs, making sure they are optimal for the process to happen. If we understand fermentation, we can understand how to speed up the process.
In this article, I’ll share my top tips on getting a faster ferment without compromising on the quality and taste!
What Happens During Fermentation?
Fermentation is a natural process where you use micro bacteria to break down food, using its natural sugars and carbohydrates and producing acids, alcohol, or gas to transform the food completely: think of grapes becoming wine or milk becoming cheese.
Simple fermentation processes transform fresh vegetables, salt, and water into delicious, healthy, preserved food. This type of fermentation is called lacto-fermentation, not because it has anything to do with milk (lactose), but because the bacteria (lactobacillus) produce lactic acid, which works its magic on the vegetables.
During fermentation, the lactic acid preserves the food and changes its composition, making it more nutritious and also allowing the body to absorb the nutrients more readily. Lactic acid also repels other bacteria, which would rot the food, causing mold and mildew â€“ it is, therefore, a preservative.
Do not confuse fermenting with pickling though. While pickling is also another way to preserve food, it is not the same as fermenting. Here is an article I wrote on the difference between fermenting and pickling.
How to Ferment Vegetables?
The easiest and quickest fermented foods to make are vegetables. You can use almost any vegetable that can be eaten raw: popular ones are cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, beans, radishes, onions, and cucumbers.
Preparing the vegetables for fermentation is quick and straightforward. It requires only the most essential tools, no specialist equipment, mere minutes in the kitchen, and you sit back and let natural fermentation take its course. The basic process is as follows:
- Cut up your vegetables.
- Mix with salt or brine.
- Leave to ferment.
- Keep out oxygen.
- Wait a few days or a few months, and eat.
How Long Does Fermentation Take?
Fermentation can take anything from a few days to a few months. Scientists argue that lacto-fermentation takes around three weeks so that three sets of different bacteria can do their work:
- Stage 1, Days 1-5: The first group of bacteria, Leuconostoc mesenteroides, are tolerant of salt. As soon as you have mixed your vegetables into the salt, they begin transforming the environment into an anaerobic one for the primary bacteria to do their work â€“ they are responsible for many of the bubbles you see.
- Stage 2, Days 5-16: This is the primary fermentation period when most of the transformation happens through the bacteria that produce lactic acid: Lactobacillus plantarum.
- Stage 3, Days 17 onwards: During the secondary fermentation period, the first group of bacteria dies off, and the last group of bacteria remains, including Lactobacillus brevis. They reduce the acid taste and improve the flavor profile.
However, all of these bacteria produce probiotics and are healthy for you. The length of time you allow the vegetables to ferment will depend on your taste â€“ you should taste the ferment you’re creating to decide at what stage it has the right level of sourness, crunchiness, and tang for you. Generally, you can start tasting from day three when you see bubbles appearing â€“ these are a by-product of fermentation.
Once you decide the vegetables taste right, you put them in the fridge, stopping the fermentation process.
QUICK TIP: Trust your sense of smell to tell you if your fermentation process has gone bad. Fermented vegetables will smell sour, tangy, and acidic. But if they smell too funky or unappealing, instead discard them.
Generally, a longer, slower, cooler ferment is preferable, as it produces crisper, tangier vegetables, which are well preserved and have more probiotics in them. An exception to this, however, is when you’re making kombucha. Here’s an article I wrote on what happens when you ferment kombucha for too long.
Ferments kept at a low temperature can last for months, even years.Â However, sometimes time is of the essence, and you want to ferment food at a quicker pace.
If you want to keep your fermented food for a long time â€“ fermentation is a preservation method â€“ you will need to store it somewhere very cool to avoid spoiling, for example, in the cellar, a cool basement, or a wine cooler.
Because fermentation is a biological process, it is influenced by the food and environment involved so that you can speed up fermentation and slow down the process to a certain extent.
10 Ways to Ferment Food Faster
Speeding up the fermentation process is a matter of manipulating the different elements of fermentation: the ingredients (salt, water, vegetables), the bacteria, and the environment. In some cases, the fermentation process can actively be sped up. In others, it is a matter of creating the ideal environment for fermentation to take place to optimize the process.
1. Use The Correct Salt
Salt is an essential element when doing home ferments, either in the form of brine or dry salt if you’re doing a dry ferment (like sauerkraut, where the natural water in the vegetables is all you use). The role of salt is to kill off harmful bacteria, allowing the lactobacilli an environment to thrive. It also draws water and nutrients from the vegetables for the bacteria to feed on. Salt also hardens the pectin in vegetables, leaving them crunchier.
While the kind of salt you use won’t speed up the fermentation process, using the correct kind of salt will optimize the fermentation environment for the most efficient ferment.
- Avoid purchasing salt that is highly processed via intense heat â€“ this alters the chemical composition and kills off the minerals that make salt useful.
- It would help if you also use salt that does not have any additives, such as anticaking agents, which will change the taste of the product, or iodine, which will hinder fermentation.
- Avoid low-sodium salt
- Try to use mineral-rich salts, such as Kosher salt, Himalayan salt, Celtic sea salt, or pure sea salt that is protected from pollution and impurities. These minerals will serve as nutrition for the bacteria responsible for fermentation and improve the final product’s flavor, making it tangy rather than salty.
- Pickling or canning salt is ideal
- The grind of the salt is also relevant here. Coarser salt, like the coarse grain for salt grinders, will slow down the fermentation process as it takes a long time to dissolve. Fine-grained salt or ultra-fine salt will work more quickly.
2. Use Less Salt
Salt slows fermentation down, as it will affect even lactobacilli if used in large quantities. Therefore, using less salt will speed up fermentation. It allows for more fermenting organisms, producing a more biodiverse ferment and a quicker production of lactic acid.
Some argue for a salt-free ferment, replacing it with other mineral-rich substitutes, such as celery juice or seaweed. These function in the same way as brine â€“ the vegetables must be submerged in the liquid.
However, using less (or no) salt will mean the veggies’ cellular walls will break down during the fermentation process, leaving you with softer, even mushy vegetables. Too little salt will not kill off harmful bacteria, so you run the risk of your ferment growing mold or even going off.
How Much Salt to Use for Fermentation
These are general guidelines, which you can then adjust, depending on the speed at which you want your food to ferment and how salty you like your fermented food.
- As a general rule, use half an ounce of salt per quart of water when making brine.
- With dry brining (such as for sauerkraut or kimchi), use an amount of salt equal to about five percent of the weight of your vegetables. For example, if you have five pounds of vegetables, use four ounces of salt.
- Always weigh your vegetables and salt to control the fermentation speed more accurately and replicate your fermentation results. A multi-function kitchen scale that’s durable and easy to store like this one on Amazon would be very useful for your fermenting needs. It’s super quick and precise, and is also very affordable.
3. Use the Correct Water
If you are doing a brine ferment, water is a crucial element of the fermentation process. While the water you use won’t speed up the fermentation process, using the best quality water you can afford will optimize the ferment.
- The ideal water is fresh spring, well, or mineral water, which is rich in the minerals the bacteria need.
- Do not use filtered water, as the filtration process often removes the necessary minerals for fermentation. Instead, use a water purification system that remineralizes the water or a reverse osmosis system.
- If your water lacks minerals, add minerals in the form of mineral drops.
- Always use non-chlorinated water. If you only have access to chlorinated water, first boil it to allow the chlorine to evaporate and allow the water to cool to room temperature. Another option is to blenderize the water â€“ the aeration process will also cause the chlorine to evaporate.
- Avoid water containing fluoride.
4. Use the Best Vegetables You Can Afford
Using the best vegetables you can afford will speed up the fermentation process because the levels of fermentation that occur in fresh, organic, or homegrown produce outstrip the levels in supermarket produce.
TIP: The more nutritious the vegetable is, the more nutrients there are for the bacteria to feed on, and the better and quicker your ferment. Also, pesticides and chemical agents can kill the bacteria necessary for fermentation.
Also, avoid using old, damaged, bruised, or moldy vegetables as these parts of the vegetable are breeding grounds for mold and other contamination.
Before using them for fermentation, gently wash the vegetables under cool, running unchlorinated water to remove loose dirt. Do not wash them with an antibacterial wash, as this will reduce the number of good bacteria you need for fermentation.
5. Peel Hard Vegetables
For fermentation to occur, the water must be drawn out of the vegetables so that the brine can penetrate and flavor develop. This process is quick in soft vegetables, but for hard vegetables, like carrots, peeling allows this to happen more quickly.
6. Cut Vegetables as Thinly as Possible
Again, cutting the vegetables thinly increases the exposed surface area and allows more water to escape, speeding up fermentation. If you are using cabbage, use a grater or mandolin to cut the vegetables very finely.
You can ferment vegetables whole â€“ pickles are a typical example. However, the larger the piece of vegetable, the longer it will take to ferment. Pickled cucumbers will take months before they are ready to eat.
7. Cut Consistent Sizes
Fermentation will happen more quickly if all the vegetable pieces are the same size â€“ this means a more consistent ferment.
8. Keep Vegetables Submerged
Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process, meaning that the bacteria do not require oxygen to do their work. In fact, an oxygen-free environment is best if you want to avoid mold and other contaminants, as these will thrive if your vegetables are exposed to air.
However, the bacteria release carbon dioxide, so you need to have a mechanism to release this by-product (such as a lid with a gasket) or have to “burp” your ferments by opening the lid a little bit each day to release the gas.
Maintaining an oxygen-free environment means you should submerge your vegetables in brine, making sure the liquid is a couple of inches above the vegetables. This submersion creates an ideal environment for the growth of the fermenting organisms and thus a faster ferment.
What’s the Most Suitable Container to Keep Vegetables Submerged?
Allowing the vegetables to be wholly submerged also means choosing a suitable container for fermentation. There are several kinds of containers available:
- Ceramic crock jars: These are the traditional containers for fermentation, as they are heavy and wide enough to pack down the vegetables quickly. They are designed to come with a half-donut-shaped set of weights and a water gutter with a lid to create an airlock that still allows carbon dioxide to escape.
However, old-fashioned ceramic crock pots are relatively expensive and are not always easy to find. This 1/2 Gallon Ceramic Fermenter from Amazon is a good choice as it already comes with weights, lid, and pounder. And it costs way less than old-fashioned ceramic crock pots.
- Mason jars: These are the most popular, accessible, and affordable containers to use, especially those with wide mouths. Fermentation accessories have also been designed to be used with these jars. It is best to use these accessories as the tight seal of a mason jar does not allow for the release of carbon dioxide, which can lead to the jar exploding.
These mason jars from Amazon are also perfect even for those who are just starting out with fermenting food. It’s a 12-pack mason jar set so you can make a dozen of your favorite fermented foods in just one go!
- Le Parfait glass jars: These jars are ideal as they have a wire hinged-lid and rubber gasket to allow the carbon dioxide to escape quickly.
This Le Parfait jar from Amazon is a great investment for the avid fermented food fan as it already comes with an airtight rubber seal made from latex-free rubber that can easily be replaced when it wears out.
Use Weights to Keep Vegetables Submerged
- Ideally, pack the vegetables in, pressing them down and crunching them to break down the cell walls and release juices. You can use a blunt wooden tamping tool for this.
- It is also helpful to weigh the vegetables down to ensure an anaerobic environment and to keep the vegetables in the brine. There are various kinds of weights available, or you can create your own using a Ziploc bag filled with water or marbles, a small plate with a jug on top, etc.
- Fermentation lids and gates function as weights, keeping the vegetables submerged, keeping out oxygen, and allowing carbon dioxide to escape all at the same time.
9. Add Other Bacteria
The other essential element of the fermentation process is bacteria, which occur naturally in the environment. For vegetable fermentation, the bacteria produce lactic acid, so they are referred to as lactobacilli.
The micro bacteria in different fermenting foods are all slightly different, so if you add the bacteria from another ferment, it will speed up the work of the existing bacteria. There are a couple of ways to add bacteria:
- You could use some of the brine from a previous veggie ferment â€“ it will be full of bacteria. This process is called backslopping.
- Another option is a culture inoculation, usually used in industrial fermentation. You purchase lactic acid bacteria starters for vegetable fermentation and add these to your ferment â€“ these produce high levels of lactic acid and speed up fermentation.
- A further option is to use the liquid from a different kind of fermented food: for example, you could use whey, a by-product of fermenting kefir, cheese, or yogurt; kombucha; or hooch, a by-product from a sourdough starter. Use about a quarter cup of starter for a quart of ferment.
TIP: Although you may introduce other bacteria to speed up the process, you want to avoid introducing harmful bacteria. Avoid cross-contamination by using clean equipment, having clean hands, and not eating directly from the jar of fermented food.
10. Increase the Heat
Bacteria grow more quickly in a warm environment, so the warmer the environment, the quicker the fermentation. This is why fermentation is always quicker in the summer.
In the past, experts recommended a long, slow, cool ferment, keeping your food at around 50-60â°F (10-15â°C). This kind of fermentation takes around six months.
However, you can speed up the fermentation by keeping your fermentation container in a warm spot: ideally around 65 to 75â°F (up to 24â°C). This temperature will allow for optimal flavor and texture but give you results in anything from three days to six weeks â€“ depending on the vegetable. If your home is too cold, you can use a seedling warming or germination mat to warm your fermentation container.
Because of the speed at which bacteria grow when warm, you will have to be vigilant if doing a quick, warm ferment over a couple of days. The bacteria become very active, breaking down the vegetables and causing them to become soft. Water also evaporates more quickly, so you will have to keep an eye on your brine levels.
However, there is a greater danger of mold growth if your ferment is kept too warm. Watch out for mold growth on the surface. Generally, mold is not harmful and means that your ferment was exposed to the air. Gently scrape off the mold or yeast and discard. However, if the mold is brightly colored and smells funkier than a usual ferment, you will have to discard the whole batch as it is contaminated.
Don’t let the temperature get warmer than the high 70s (Fahrenheit), as too much heat will slow and even prevent fermentation as it will kill the Lactobacilli.
NOTE: To speed up the fermentation of kombucha (fermented tea), you can increase the environment’s temperature to 78 to 85â°F. This increase results in a more potent tasting brew. However, as with fermented vegetables, too high a temperature will kill the necessary bacteria.
One Final Trick for Creating Almost Instant Kimchi!
Use a whipping siphon. If you are desperate for your favorite ferment, kimchi, for instance, this method allows you to enjoy your treat within a couple of hours!
First, you brine your roughly chopped cabbage for about twenty minutes to draw the moisture out. Then you make your spicy garlic and chili paste and toss your cabbage in it to coat. Put this mixture into the whipping siphon, charge it twice with carbon dioxide, shake it, and put it in the fridge.
This pressurized environment makes the flavors develop really quickly. After a couple of hours, you degas the siphon and enjoy the kimchi.
This whipping siphon from Amazon is a perfect choice for your instant kimchi cravings. It’s made of high grade, sturdy aluminum, and has a multi-use dispenser so you can also make other desserts with it.
Ready to Start Fermenting?
Making your own fermented vegetables requires minimal effort but offers great rewards.
You can opt for a long, cool fermentation process or speed up the fermentation by manipulating the amount of salt, the heat of the ferment’s environment, and by using the best natural products you can.
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