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Expanding Your Knowledge of Home Fermentation

It is the first of September, and Willy Street Co-op’s first ever Eat Local Challenge is well underway. Some of you have dived in and made the commitment, while others of you, clad in your swimsuits, are standing at the shore, dipping one toe in the waters of converting to a more local diet. But regardless of your level of involvement, the fact remains that you are an Owner of Willy Street Co-op, and you’ve made your voices heard through your purchases, your comments, and your participation in our DIY classes: you want to support local farmers and producers! You’ve been educated about the benefits of a local diet, you know to scan our aisles for purple tags, and you are willing to give it a try. How did we get so lucky to have people like you as our Owners?

In a previous article (, I exposed you to an introduction to home fermentation with instructions on how to make homemade sauerkraut. Here we will expand on that concept by experimenting with fermenting other vegetables (kimchi) and tea (kombucha.)

Fermented foods boast a long list of health benefits, including increasing the quantity and strength of beneficial bacteria in the GI tract, which helps to aid digestion by increasing the body’s ability to absorb vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from food, as well as assisting the immune system in fending off viruses and other bacteria that causes infection. In addition, the fermentation process actually increases the amount of vitamins in your food while containing few calories and no fat, maximizing the nutritional value for your food dollars. Kimchi and kombucha are also touted as cleansing to the body, which is necessary for the removal of toxins and waste. With all of these benefits, aren’t you curious? Try them! They are easy DIY projects, and you can make it a social activity by getting together with friends or can include the kids. My experience with children has taught me that they will be far more likely to try an unfamiliar food if they were involved in the process of making it.

Kimchi, a traditional Korean side dish served with almost every meal, consists of a mix of fermented vegetable such as napa cabbage, radish, cucumber, or green onion, spiced with various items according to region and season. The most common of these spices, however, are ginger, garlic, scallions, and hot peppers.

Though I have quite a bit of experience fermenting cabbage in the form of sauerkraut, prior to writing this I had yet to delve into the exciting world of kimchi. When given my topics for this month’s article, I knew exactly what I needed to do: consult my friend Sarah Elliott, an ace (and often my advisor) in the realm of domesticity. She and her roommate, Danielle Wood, ferment copious amounts of kimchi at their house, and are very well known among our circle of friends for it being especially delicious. Their recipe is loosely based on the one by Sandor Katz, writer of the invaluable book Wild Fermentation. The recipe varies from batch to batch because they never measure anything and because their choice of vegetables and spices varies according to what is in season. That flexibility is the beauty of home fermentation. Graciously they’ve allowed me to share their method with you here.

Perhaps the most difficult portion of the process is selecting your combination of vegetables. Napa cabbage, bok choy, Daikon or red radishes, carrots, cucumbers, scallions, kohlrabi, and broccoli; the options and potential combinations are virtually endless. I know some people who even add fruit to their kimchi, such as pears. When I decided to make my introductory batch of kimchi in the name of research, I found the options dizzying. Eventually I simplified this process by first choosing my main vegetable, such as bok choy, and then deciding which supplemental veggies I wanted to use as a complement. My first batch of kimchi after Sarah trained me was comprised of bok choy, green kale, and carrots. To season it, I used ginger, garlic, scallions, and an unidentified variety of hot pepper given to me by a friend from her garden. It turned out well, though for my next batch I think I prefer to use napa cabbage rather than bok choy, or maybe I would just chop the bok choy into smaller pieces. I would add more carrots, because they added a sweetness that provided a nice balance with the heat from the hot peppers. But overall I would consider my first attempt a success.

Mix a brine of approximately 4 cups of water (be sure to use good, filtered water) and 4 tablespoons of sea salt or canning salt. Mix well until salt dissolves.

Coarsely chop cabbage, slice radishes and carrots, and let the veggies soak in the brine overnight. You want to keep the veggies submerged, so put a plastic bag filled with water on top. It helps weigh everything down so they stay below the surface of the brine.
The next day add any other veggies—snow peas, seaweeds, etc. Also, add your yummy spice mixture. Combine grated ginger, chopped garlic and onion, and any chopped chiles or spicy peppers you want to include. Kimchi can absorb a lot of flavor, so Sarah and Danielle are quite liberal with their use of ginger, garlic, hot peppers, etc. For one pound of cabbage, Sandor Katz recommends 1-2 onions, 3-4 cloves garlic, 3-4 hot red chiles, and 3 Tbs. of grated ginger. Sarah was sure to mention that they use quite a bit more, but the quantity is inexact since they never measure. I suggest, at least while you are new at this process, that you jot down which ingredients you use, as well as a rough estimation of the quantities and varieties of spices. That way, if you love the way your first batch of kimchi turns out you will be able to replicate it in the future. Conversely, if you are really dissatisfied for some reason, you can tinker around with the recipe and add or subtract ingredients until you get the kimchi that’s perfect for your palate.

To best mix the cabbage mixture (that has been soaking in the brine) with your spices, drain the brine and reserve it for later use. Taste your cabbage—it should be salty; if it is shockingly salty, rinse it off. If you can’t taste salt (which has never happened to the girls), add a bit more. Mix your cabbage with the ginger-garlic-peppers-onions and pack it tightly into a jar, leaving a good 1-2” of headspace. Press the mixture down until the brine rises above it; you may need to add some brine that you saved from the previous step. Once again, weigh your veggies down with a plastic bag filled with water.

Ferment in a warm-ish spot. In other words, leave it sitting on the counter. Taste it everyday. You’ll be able to tell when it’s ready because it will begin to tingle your tongue and taste like kimchi. Theirs usually takes 4-5 days in the summer, but between 7-9 days in the winter since their house gets really cold. During this time, it will definitely bubble—that’s a good sign. When they declare it done, they pack it into jars and keep it in the fridge.

Kombucha is a sparkling beverage made by fermenting tea with sugar and a culture of bacteria. This culture is referred to as a SCOBY, which is simply an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacterial Yeast. A SCOBY looks like a smooth, rubbery, white pancake of sorts. Like other bacteria used in fermentation processes, the SCOBY consumes the sugar added to the tea and ferments it in the process.

Kombucha has a slightly vinegary taste, and some individuals opt to flavor it with different juices. When I first began drinking kombucha, I preferred the varieties that were more strongly flavored with juices like raspberry or concord grape, which I think disguised the unfamiliar flavor. As I’ve acquired a taste for kombucha, however, I find that I crave more subtle flavors like lemon balm or rhubarb, which enhance the flavor rather than mask it.

In order to begin, you must first acquire a SCOBY. Vanessa Tortolano and Alla Shapiro, founders of the local kombucha company Nessalla, often sell SCOBYs at the East Side Farmer’s Market on Tuesdays from 4:00–7:00pm in the Wilmar Center parking lot on Jenifer St. Or you can ask around; many Madisonians are willing to share since SCOBYs are relatively resilient and can survive if cut into pieces. Be sure to use clean scissors, however, and once you’ve acquired your SCOBY you must immediately submerge it in kombucha or it will dry out and die. I store mine in a mason jar in the fridge. Also, I only store my SCOBY in plain, or unflavored, kombucha. SCOBYs can absorb flavors, which can give your future batches a residual and potentially unwanted flavor.

Other than the SCOBY, the ingredients in kombucha are few and easily attainable—just tea and a cup of sugar. You must decide on a variety of tea, and I strongly recommend Rishi brand. It is organic and fairly traded, and the company is local—they’re based out of Milwaukee. In my opinion, their quality standards are unparalleled. Vanessa and Alla, who teach a DIY kombucha class from time to time in the Co-op’s Community Room, say that they prefer to use a black tea. I always use jasmine green, and mine turns out great. You can use black, green, red or white tea. It’s all personal preference. I would avoid using fruit flavored teas, however, since I think that kombucha ferments and tastes better if it’s flavored after it is fermented.

Boil a gallon of purified water on the stove. I always use the Co-op’s reverse osmosis water. Once the water just barely reachs a boil, turn off the heat and add tea. I use loose tea and make a makeshift teabag out of a muslin produce bag that we sell in Housewares. Though I never measure, I would say I use something in the area of a quarter to a third of a cup of tea. Add one cup of sugar to the liquid, and swirl until sugar dissolves. Allow the tea to steep and cool overnight. This step is imperative: if the tea is not adequately cooled, you will kill your SCOBY.

The next morning, remove your teabag, squeezing it to release any remaining liquid into the pot, and pour your sweetened tea into a clean glass container. If you do not have a glass container large enough, Vanessa and Alla sell glass jars for kombucha fermentation. Otherwise, you can repurpose an old pickle or olive jar if it is large enough. With cleanhands, gently slip your SCOBY into the tea. It may float on the surface, or it may partially sink. This is normal. Cover the fermentation jar with a piece of cloth (I use another muslin produce bag) and secure it tightly with a rubber band. Ferment, undisturbed, on a countertop in a warm area of the kitchen, though not in direct sunlight.

Check the kombucha daily—you will notice some changes. First, the kombucha will bubble, which is a good sign. Also, you will notice that your SCOBY will grow into the exact size and shape of your jar. This is also normal. Eventually you will begin to notice a slight vinegary smell when standing near your jar. This is a sign that the kombucha is almost ready for the next step. How many days this process will take, however, varies wildly according to season and how warm you keep your house throughout the course of the year. My rough estimate is about a week. It could take longer in the winter or a little less time in the summer. You’ll begin to get a sense of this once you’ve made several batches.

If you think your kombucha might be done fermenting, taste it. Don’t contaminate the batch by drinking out of it, but pour a small amount into a glass. If the kombucha tastes sweet, it hasn’t yet finished fermenting the sugar. If it tastes slightly vinegary, you are ready to bottle it.

With clean hands, gently remove the SCOBY and store it, submerged in kombucha, in a mason jar in the fridge. Pour the kombucha into jars using a glass or plastic funnel. The best jars to use are glass with a narrow mouth, and preferably a screw top lid or plug. I sometimes use narrow mouth mason jars when I need to, which is slightly less conducive to maintaining effervescence, but they work in a pinch. Once you’ve poured all of the kombucha into the jars, you can screw the lids closed, or add a small amount of sugar into each jar, which will add more sparkle to the kombucha. Regardless of whether you want a more or less carbonated drink, please be careful during this process. The contents of each jar are under pressure, and if you screw the lids too tightly, you can have quite a messy explosion when you open a jar. The key is to screw the jar tightly enough that it allows carbonation to take place, but not so tightly that it will explode. Do not fear—it is easier than it sounds.

Now, leave the capped jars of kombucha at room temperature for another two to five days. This is referred to as the second ferment. Then transfer the kombucha into the refrigerator and serve cold. If you’d like to flavor your kombucha, add your juice in between the first and second ferment. It doesn’t take much juice to flavor kombucha, so go sparingly at first until you determine what you like.

Like I said, be courageous and unafraid to experiment. In each of these projects there is a lot of room for variation. Everyone’s palates differ, so what I love might not be your favorite, but you can hone this skill while creating quick convenience foods for yourself for future use! And, unlike canning, there is no part of this process that will heat up your kitchen too badly, other than perhaps boiling your initial gallon of water. Best of luck to you, and cheers to your health!

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