When I was testing tools for The Complete Guide to Pickling, I had the most fun with tools for fermentation. Until I started writing the book, I had mostly fermented using tools and equipment already in my kitchen, relying on zip-close bags, small glass jars, and airlocks cobbled together with old canning lids. But when I realized I would be including more than 30 fermented recipes in the book, it was time to research and test some fermenting tools.
The surge of interested in fermented foods has opened opportunities for companies and entrepreneurs to present tools designed to make fermentation easy, manageable, and trouble free. Some of those companies were willing to send me their products to test as I created the recipes in the book.
My main takeaway was this: If you catch the fermentation bug, it’s worth investing in some tools. To create a healthy fermentation, you must keep the food submerged in the brine. You’ll get the best results if you can also limit airflow. Here are some of my favorite tools to help with both.
You have plenty of options for a fermentation vessel. You can still find the traditional giant, open crock to fill to the brim with sauerkraut or pickles, but modern manufacturers offer numerous options for small families and busy individuals.
I often ferment pickles in glass jars. Jars are affordable, the sizes can hold everything from a small test batch to a bumper crop, and you can see the process from top to bottom. As more people ferment food in jars, more companies have been creating weights and airlocks that fit standard Mason jars.
Glass jars have some downsides. You should keep out light by wrapping them in a towel or sticking them in a dark place. They can be prone to bubbling over, so you’ll want a tray or plate underneath. And they can be sensitive to temperature fluctuations, especially if you live in a hot or cold climate.
The vessel that resolves many of these issues is a modern fermentation crock. Today’s stoneware crocks mostly range in size from 2 to 10 liters. I recommend looking for one with custom-fitted glass weights and a water-sealed rim: The weights will slide easily into the crock, and the lid will fit into a water-filled “moat” that lets carbon dioxide escape while keeping oxygen out. The biggest downside of a crock is its price tag. But when comparing it with a glass jar, keep in mind that you’re buying the entire fermentation kit: vessel, weight, and airlock.
These are some sources for vessels:
- Mason jars. The Ball and Kerr quart jars that you use for canning can also be used for fermenting small batches. You can reuse other glass jars, but you may not find an airlock lid that fits.
- Large jars. I often ferment in larger half-gallon or gallon jars. Ball’s 64-ounce jars have the same opening as their smaller wide-mouth jars, but other large jars may have an even wider opening that’s too large for most weights and airlock lids.
- Crocks. I’ve had great success with a 2.5-liter crock from Stone Creek Trading. Its water-lock lid is easy to maintain, and the glass weights are effective and a snap to clean.
Once you fill your fermentation vessel, you need to ensure the produce stays below the brine as it sits for days or weeks. Pickling hacks make it easy to weigh down food in jars, but bags can leak or flop over, brine-filled jars are bulky, and none of the hacks keep air out of the jar or unsightly yeast from growing.
Custom-made fermentation weights fix many of these problems. Their slim profile means they sit high in the fermentation jar. Many of today’s weights are glass and easy to clean. And since they don’t stick out of the top of the fermentation jar, you can pair them with an airlock. These are some of the brands I use:
- Mason Jar Lifestyle. These round-edged weights fit in wide-mouth Mason jars. They’re easy to stack if you need to bear down on a kraut or pepper mash.
- Eden Farmhouse Essentials. These weights have a handle on top. They take up headspace, but when you have room, they’re worth it because they’re so easy to insert into and remove from wide-mouth Mason jars.
- Fermentology. Called Sauer Stones, these weights come in two sizes, wide mouth and narrow (regular) mouth, so you can use them with all of your Mason jars. Although wide-mouth jars are generally easiest to pack with ferments, I put the Salt-Brined Peppers in The Complete Guide to Pickling in narrow-mouth jars so that I can tuck them below the jar’s shoulders.
- Stone Creek Trading. If you have a crock without weights or with porous ceramic weights, consider upgrading to Luna Glass. They come in several diameters and are split in two pieces, so they’re easy to tuck below a crock rim.
Fermentation locks are one-way valves: As Lactobacillus bacteria go to work, they release carbon dioxide that can build up pressure in the jar—potentially causing it to explode. An airlock lets the CO2 out. But it also prevents oxygen from slipping in, which in turn reduces the formation of Kahm yeast, a harmless filmy layer that can nevertheless lead to off-flavors and softness. So the more CO2 you let out and the less oxygen you let in, the healthier and tastier your fermented pickles will be.
The two main types of fermentation locks are water locks, which I described earlier with crocks, and airlocks, which come in several styles:
- Silicone top. Sometimes called “pickle pipes,” this silicone lid has a little bubble valve that automatically pipes out CO2 as pressure builds. It’s one of the most affordable and lowest-profile airlock options. I like the version from Mason Jar Lifestyle, particularly because it screws onto a wide-mouth Mason jar with a nonreactive stainless-steel ring.
- Bubble locks. When I first started cobbling together my own airlocks, I attached a cheap twin-bubble airlock to a carboy bung, like those used by some homebrewers. Fermentation companies have taken the idea and slicked it up with a BPA-free lid and silicone seal to fit wide-mouth Mason jars. The four-pack Sauer System from Fermentology even includes a silicone stopper so that you can use the lid when storing your finished ferment.
- Lock and pump. The latest trend in airlock lids doesn’t just keep oxygen out: it pumps oxygen out. You screw on the lid, attach the pump to the lid, and suck out oxygen. The theory is that this gives the good bacteria a head start. I have yet to see a difference in the final product from the pump system versus other airlocks, but the lid has a sturdy, low profile and is easy to clean. Eden Farmhouse’s MasonLock version comes with opaque lids and extra seals. The Simply Sauer setup from Fermentology includes a quartet of transparent lids.
- Water-lock systems. Although water-lock lids are mostly found on modern crocks, the French glass-making company Le Parfait has just released a new design for jars. The company teamed up with Karen Diggs of Kraut Source to release ChouAmi, The Little Fermenter. Its bullet-top design acts as both lock and weight: its press and spring keep the food submerged, and its water-filled moat and cap lock out air. The entire unit is stainless steel, a boon for people seeking a plastic-free option. Its metric sizing means it won’t fit Mason jars, but you have the option to purchase a Le Parfait jar with the system.
The Bonus Tools
Using the tools I’ve listed here or even the fermentation hacks I shared earlier this month, you’re all set to try any of the fermented recipes in The Complete Guide to Pickling and here on the blog. But some of the nice-to-have tools I suggested for canning and ones designed for fermentation are handy when fermenting pickles:
- Kitchen scale. Ferments often start with several pounds of produce, making a kitchen scale helpful.
- Mandoline. A mandoline quickly lets you thinly slice or julienne radishes for kimchi.
- Cheesecloth and butter muslin. If small pieces of sauerkraut or chili mash insist on floating to the surface, a layer of butter muslin can keep them below the brine.
- Fine-mesh colander. I use fine-mesh strainers for everything from rinsing bean sprouts before brining to separating chili mash after finishing Scratch-Made Sriracha.
- Funnel. I like this RSVP stainless-steel funnel for filling bottles with fermented hot sauces. I put in its straining filter when I’m decanting Tepache.
- Kraut pounder. I include several variations on sauerkraut, kimchi, and curtido in The Complete Guide to Pickling. A kraut pounder tamps them down effectively; it’s also useful for crushing whole spices and packing chili mash into jars without irritating your skin.
- Jar insulator. If you find glass jars wrapped in towels unsightly or are struggling to keep your ferments at an ideal temperature, Yemoos Nourishing Cultures makes cozy wool insulators. Alternatively, their adhesive thermometer lets you closely track temperature swings.
- pH meter. When is a pickle done fermenting? To take away the guesswork of relying on taste and smell, you can check their pH with a meter. I use this one from ThermoWorks.
Twice as Tasty
Once you get hooked on fermenting, you may want to branch out to dairy and bread. I have dozens of fermenting recipes on the blog, and I’ll be sharing new recipes and giving away sourdough starter again in January. Follow the blog to be sure you don’t miss a post—it’s free!
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The recommendations here are for the tools I use; they are not intended to be an exhaustive review of all available products. Some of the tools I use were kindly provided by their manufacturer. As an affiliate with certain manufacturers, I may earn from qualifying purchases at no additional cost to you.