5 Classic Fermented Foods That Deserve a Place in Your Pantry

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Germany has sauerkraut, Thailand has naem (fermented pork sausage), Sweden has surströmming (fermented herring) — it seems every culture has its own traditional fermented food. And with good reason: Research suggests these foods are nutritional powerhouses, and fermentation has also been found to break down poison in foods, like cyanide in cassava.

Beyond their alleged health benefits, though, fermented foods are also delicious and useful in building tasty meals. We all know this — but have you committed yet? Here are five classic yet freshly popular fermented foods to add to your ingredient repertoire, if you haven’t already. They’re all mostly a little more accessible than, say, Iceland’s hákarl (rotten shark).

(Image credit: Emily Han)

1. Tempeh: Go Beyond Tofu

Traditional to Indonesia, tempeh is made from soybeans (typically whole or halved), which are heated and aged overnight, allowing a layer of mold to grow and bind everything together. The firm whitish block of finished tempeh is nutty and mushroomy in flavor and it packs a powerful mixture of calcium, iron, Vitamin B6, magnesium, protein, and potassium.

Like tofu, tempeh is a fabulous vegan base to a meal, and while you may have eaten it at a restaurant, have you ever tried cooking it at home? You can find it at most health-food stores or you can make it yourself with soybeans, vinegar, and a tempeh starter of Rhizopus mold spores.

Read More: How to Make Tempeh

(Image credit: Emily Han)

2. Kimchi: The Flavor Powerhouse

This pungent, spicy Korean side dish can be made from several ingredients, but most often comes in cabbage form (which is why it’s sometimes referred to as Korean sauerkraut). It’s becoming a freshly popular flavor in everything from sandwiches to egg scrambles — do you have a jar in your fridge for last-minute flavor punch-ups?

Specialty grocery stores sometimes carry kimchi, but the best part about making it yourself is that it’s fully customizable, so you can make it however you see fit. That might mean using a different vegetable to begin with, adding some sugar to amp up the sweetness, or toning down the heat. Note that this low-calorie, low-fat food is rich in Vitamins A and C, but high in sodium.

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

3. Miso: The Secret to Savory

You may think of miso as a soup — the steamy accompaniment to sushi, noodles, and rice dishes — but miso itself is actually the fermented paste used to make the soup. Like tempeh, it’s made from soybeans (or, more accurately, soybean miso is the most common; grains and barley can also be used), but this time the beans are mixed with salt and a naturally occurring mold culture to make the super-salty concoction.

Miso is considered one of the few plant-based complete proteins (others include quinoa and buckwheat), as it contains all the essential amino acids. And it is good for so much more than miso soup. Whisk a spoonful into salad dressings or other types of vegetarian soups for an instant boost of savory flavor.

(Image credit: Emily Han)

4. Kvass: For When You’re Tired of Kombucha

OK, this one’s not a food exactly — it’s a low-alcohol fermented beverage, native to Russia and typically made from rye bread. According to NPR, kvass is so loved in Russia that a big barrel of it was once wheeled around neighborhoods like an ice cream truck.

If you want to make your own, soak some rye bread in boiled-hot water overnight, add some yeast, and let it sit for a few days. You can add whatever you want for flavor too, like sugar, raisins, beets, or fruit—just strain it out so you get a pure liquid finished product.

For those of you who love kombucha and want to try the next hot fermented beverage, kvass is your girl.

(Image credit: Anjali Prasertong)

5. Natto: For Your Next Soybean Adventure

Fermented soybeans strike again in the form of natto, a traditional Japanese dish generally eaten for breakfast. It looks more or less like goopy, stringy beans, but don’t let the appearance put you off — it’s tasty (we promise). Try it with a bowl of steamed rice if you’re hesitant.

Each serving also delivers a huge helping of protein, fiber, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, and Vitamin C. The process to make it is a little particular, but Cultures for Health has a pretty detailed and easy-to-follow recipe for you home fermenters.

This is perhaps the most challenging of these five classic fermented foods to adopt at home, but once you’ve mastered the basics — sauerkraut, miso, and more — natto is the next frontier.

Tell us — what fermented foods are at home in your pantry? What do you turn to for help in everyday meals, for flavor or nutritional power?