Why Aren’t You Fermenting Yet?

Why you should and what you’re missing out on

Alex Heery
7 min readJun 9, 2021

A few months ago, I decided to ferment something that most people told me I was fucking crazy to try and ferment. It was pork, and that pork went into one of the best salads I’ve made in my life.

Salad of fermented pork and rice croquettes — in the style of Yam naem khao tod (ยำแหนมข้าวทอด)

The pork gave the salad a unique acidity and umami that I hadn’t ever tasted before. Kind of like salami, but at the same time, not at all, if that makes sense. My wife still dreams about that salad.

I probably don’t know you, but I know that if you’re into cooking and haven’t fermented anything yet, you’re missing out on a world of benefits. Unique flavors, improved gut health, savings, I could go on all day. You get it; there are a lot of benefits.

I had no idea when I started fermenting that I’d get so hooked and want to ferment anything and everything edible. Maybe it’s because fermentation takes us back to our roots; before sourdough was so prevalent and way before you had to listen to wanker hipsters recite their list of favorite IPAs. I used to work as a brewer, for the record, love IPAs, but pride myself on not being a knob.

But beyond life-changing salads and special can release IPAs, fermentation gave us chocolate, yogurt, coffee, bread, and the love of my life, fish sauce.

I can’t imagine a world without fish sauce; I wouldn’t want to live in a world without fish sauce.

Just like I relate to fish sauce, fermentation relates to culture in so many ways. We even call the starters we use to initiate ferments, cultures. In The Art of Fermentation, Sandor Katz says, “culture constitutes the totality of all that we aim to pass on from generation to generation.”

Language, music, art, literature, science, and ideologies are passed on and seemingly never die, but agriculture and culinary techniques haven’t seen the same treatment. We’re out of touch with our food more than ever, and while everybody seems interested in good food and new trends, very few give a shit about where their food comes from or why it’s the way it is. And why hasn’t fermentation become trendy?

Fermentation isn’t sexy, but it’s the backbone of the food we eat all the time.

Most ferments are ancient rituals. Our ancestors were fermenting for eons as a means to unlock new flavors and, more importantly, preserve food. There’s no shortage of ferments from ancient times, and many still exist today:

  • Chicha in the Americas
  • The first-ever recorded alcohol in China around 7000 B.C.
  • Sauerkraut
  • Cheese and yogurt
  • Miso, tempeh, and other soy products
  • Shrimp paste and fish sauce
  • Tao Nao

Unlike most people, I had an “unfair advantage” in that my first real introduction to fermentation was making beer, a far cry from bread in complexity. I was working as a brewer back in 2015 and got to learn a ton about bacteria, as well as how to be ridiculously fucking clean without driving myself crazy. There were so many new and intriguing aromas that I hadn’t smelled before, and watching alcohol be produced from seemingly nothing was fascinating. I still remember the smell of the fermented grain base we used to distill gin. I smelled exactly like my all-time favorite spread, vegemite — which is, funnily enough, made from used brewer’s yeast.

Beer naturally led me to try my hand at sourdough, and for the most part, I’ve enjoyed it despite the majority of my loaves coming out looking like giant turds. I have so much respect for bakers; making naturally-leavened bread is way more complicated than it seems. And the crazy thing is how much better-fermented grains are for your body. Next time you eat sourdough or a well-made pizza, take a note of how bloated you aren’t.

Fermented grains are rich in lactobacillus and are easier to digest.

After a while fermenting beer and sourdough, I thought I was pretty hot shit. I eventually got my hands on a couple of books that soon made me realize I didn’t know what the fuck I was talking about — The Noma Guide to Fermentation by Rene Redzepi and David Zilber (the fermentation heavyweights) and The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

If you’re even slightly interested in fermentation, you need to get your hands on these books.

Since the humbling realization that I knew next to nothing, I’ve played around with fermenting these:

  • fruits/vegetables
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Hot sauce
  • Soybeans for Tao Nao
  • Masa for tamales
  • Whey sodas
  • Kombucha
  • Pineapple vinegar
Perfect yogurt every time. Suck it Chobani.

Yogurt isn’t the most exciting, but it’s probably my favorite. Maybe it’s just the most practical. Decent Greek yogurt that is offensively expensive is hard to come by in Mexico, so I resort to making my own. And you know what, I prefer it that way. I can control everything from its thickness to how tangy it is. Perfect yogurt every time, and all it takes is a little know-how, a few hours, and some equipment you probably already have in your kitchen.

And then I risked it all and fermented meat.

My wife thought I was joking when I told her that I was going to ferment pork at room temperature for 3–5 days. “Why the fuck would you do that?” she asked; “Isn’t that like, guaranteed diarrhea?”. Her concern was definitely warranted. We’re taught to never fuck around with meat — it should always be refrigerated, and you should definitely not haphazardly leave it on the counter for a few days and look forward to eating it.

I call bullshit.

People in southeast Asia have been fermenting pork since the dawn of time. Ask the real fans of naem — soured pork sausage from Thailand — and they’ll tell you that the only way to enjoy it is raw.

I must confess that raw pork sounds pretty intense, and I’m yet to graduate to that level, but the cooked version still sang praises to the benefits of its ferment.

And you know what? No diarrhea. None. Not even a cramp. Just a delicious salad that I won’t shut up about.

I’ve since made fermented ribs a couple of times and grilled them over charcoal. The verdict’s in: they’re unreal. I thought for sure that the simple marinade of pounded garlic, salt, and rice wouldn’t be that exciting grilled, but it blew everyone’s minds — to the point where one friend took a bite and just said, “what the fuck?”.

Living dangerously with room-temp meat might be your thing too, but I wouldn’t suggest that anybody start their fermentation journey with meat. Come in easy and try fermenting some fruits or make a drink like tepache (pineapple.. beer?), kombucha, or whey soda. Your gut will thank you.

The best time to start fermenting was yesterday.

There’s a basic formula to ferment pretty much anything — 2% of the food’s weight in salt. In a nutshell, this allows good bacteria to thrive while inhibiting harmful bacteria, like pathogens. Fermentation is anaerobic, so oxygen is not good. If there are a lot of air gaps in the jar, I’ll cover the food with water and add salt to make a brine. I usually do this with fruit and chilies.

When I graduated to fermenting meat, I pretty much started eyeballing the salt ratio since meat can take a lot of salt. More or less a heaped tablespoon per kilo of meat. But as always, common sense prevails. If you eyeball the salt and your fermented meat smells like death, it’s over; toss it out and try again.

Be clean, be patient, and be willing to fuck up and learn from it.

If you had the preconception that fermentation is boring, or slow, or smelly or something, and I haven’t displaced that by now, perhaps I never will. But fermentation is none of those things. It’s easy, passive, rewarding, and makes delicious smells and flavors. If you don’t believe me, find some koji somewhere and take a whiff. You’d never think a fruity bouquet would come off mold.

Fermentation is rooted in thousands of years of complex culture and tradition, which are at risk of being forgotten if we don’t learn to reclaim our intimate connection with food and the communities it sustains.

Food is the global language, the glue that holds everything together. It’s the driving force behind our evolution, and without fermentation here and there, who knows if we’d even be here to experience this unsolicited rambling.

Why aren’t you fermenting yet?



Alex Heery

Cook and food writer based in Mexico City. Thoughts on food, LATAM, and feelings. | IG: https://instagram.com/_alexheery