Find Your Fermentation System

From tried-and-true to modern and new, there’s a countertop fermentation setup for every style and budget.

Photo by Amy Grisak

When I stepped into the world of fermentation 20 years ago, I had no desire to slice up 50 heads of cabbage for a 20-gallon batch of sauerkraut. Although that’s how my great-grandmother made sauerkraut in her basement, I set out to find options for creating smaller amounts. Not only did the reasonably sized recipes I found allow me to experiment more, but when it was just me eating the resulting ferments, I wasn’t ‘krauted out.

The main goals in vegetable fermentation are to keep the food below the brine (minimizing oxygen contact), and to prevent insects from finding their way into the ferment. After trying many different airlocks and fermentation systems, I’ve discovered what works well for various foods and batch sizes. Here are the methods I’ve tried, and the pros and cons I’ve uncovered with each system.

Water-Seal Crocks  

My great-grandmother used a crock, making it my first choice during my early days of fermentation. Sticking with tradition seemed safer. My big purchase was a Harsch crock, a European-style crock with stone weights and a lip that forms a water airlock. While Harsch crocks aren’t made anymore, several similar designs are available from other manufacturers that function the same way.

Water-seal crock (pictured) and Kraut Source units both rely on water airlocks to work.
Photo by Amy Grisak

Pros. The beautiful ceramic crock is a nod to tradition. It feels good working with this natural material, and I like that no plastic touches my food. The stone weights work well to keep the vegetables submerged below the brine. This type of crock is ideal for a batch of New York-style whole pickles, and the water airlock is terrific, if you can resist checking the vegetables.

Cons. Crocks are heavy and can be difficult to store. Even though my crock is only 5 liters, it’s not easy to move, especially when filled. (I still have to ferment large batches to make dragging it out worthwhile.) If you want to open the lid and check on what’s fermenting, you’ll disrupt the airlock. Crocks are pricey; less expensive options do exist, but it’s common to pay more than $100.

Summary. These European-style crocks are an excellent option for those who wish to make large batches that don’t need to be checked during the fermentation process. If you wish to make larger batches and check them more regularly, it’s easy enough, and less expensive, to use a standard crock and place a plate and weight on top of the vegetables to submerge them. Be sure to drape a towel over the top to keep out insects.

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