I’m a firm believer in fermentation—proper and appropriate fermentation, that is.
When made right, raw, unpasteurized ferments can restore balance in your gut, right belly issues, give your immune system a fighting chance, bring you to your ideal weight, and more.
Plus, these live foods beat probiotic supplements hands down for their probiotic numbers.
While purchasing quality ferments in the store is convenient, making ferments at home is much less expensive, plus you can control the flavors and ingredients (many store-bought ferments have sugar), and it’s a fantastic way to put you in control of your health.
The main concern when making fermented foods is the rare, but possible, threat of contamination with botulism-causing bacteria. Further risks include the development of mold and other unwanted bacteria.
Although the benefits of fermented foods far outweigh the risks, it is still necessary to be educated on what can happen if precaution is not taken. If done incorrectly, fermenting can lead to serious health problems. And let’s be honest, if you think you’re giving your mama a nutritionally packed, healthy jar of sauerkraut that is actually poisoned, you’ve got yourself a living nightmare.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR FERMENTS SAFE
First and foremost, sanitation and cleanliness are vital in preparing fermented foods, to ensure food safety and quality. Like with any food preparation, washing your hands, rinsing the produce, and cleaning your utensils is important prior to working with foods.
Additionally, to reduce the threat of contamination, you should routinely disinfect equipment and prevent crowding or overstocking your fermented products. Setting up a clean and efficient workspace lessens the possibility of contamination and toxicity. This means hot soapy water.
Don’t worry about over-sanitation in this circumstance. This is one instance where you do want to keep things as sterile as possible.
Sidenote: There are different precautions for each type of ferment, so make sure you learn about what the specific ferment you’re making needs. In this article we are discussing vegetable and lacto-fermentation, but we cover every types of ferment in the FermentationistTM Certification Program.
OXYGEN IS THE ENEMY
It’s important to weigh down your products under the brine to keep the bacteria in an anaerobic environment. Keeping your vegetables submerged decreases the possibility of air getting in and altering your ferment. As you may already know, oxygen is the enemy when it comes to lacto-fermenting foods. Therefore, one of the most important steps in fermenting is to ensure an oxygen-free environment in the crock. Jars with airlocks are recommended to keep mold out and keep the smell down.
Similarly, if you have too low of a water or brine level, the veggies on top will oxidize and bacteria can accumulate beneath the surface. This also stimulates mold growth.
On the other hand, by packing your jar too full, there’s not enough space for the fermentation process to occur without causing overflow. A rule of thumb is to pack your jars 3/4 full, so that your foods have enough room to expand and develop. Less than 75 percent can let in too much oxygen, but much more than 75 percent will prohibit proper fermentation. Too full can also fill the airlock with brine.
Picture by Karen Doshay, FermentationistTM in Training
CREATE AN OPTIMUM ENVIRONMENT FOR FERMENTS
Salt it! Keeping salt in your ferments deters bugs. The salt ratio should be three tablespoons to each quart of water. (Don’t use iodized salts though, as they can impede fermentation.)
Temperature is another critical factor. The good bacteria that provide health benefits and protect your gut will die if your ferment gets too hot, and fermentation cannot occur in a setting too cold. Controlling temperatures helps get your body those advantageous bacteria your body craves, allowing an appropriately timed and natural process. Keep your ferments away from UV rays, as well as from spaces where temperature fluctuation is likely to occur. Leuconostoc mesenteroides bacteria do best in temperatures of 65 to 72 degrees during the first stage of fermentation, so keeping the temperature set in that range is ideal for appropriate results within three to four weeks.
By keeping your foods high in acidic levels, your ferments are less likely to spoil. Low acid levels are more welcoming to foreign bacteria that cause decay. Use pH strips to test the acid levels and make sure you’re on the right track! For example, sauerkraut should have a pH of 4.6 or lower.
UM, SHOULD THAT MOLD BE THERE?
If you see mold, it’s probably best to throw it out and start again. This may seem wasteful, but mold is a sign that you’ve done something incorrectly the first time, and it’s no secret that there are severe risks in consuming molds. Some think that you can simply scrape the mold away, but unfortunately, the spores remain. You see, mold has roots, deeper than the obvious stuff you scrape away or cut off. Long before mold visually appears, spoilage has already begun. If cabbage turns pink, you probably have a yeast or mold issue that is caused from oxygenation. It could also mean you did not distribute the accurate amount of salt. If a creamy, smelly layer shows up on the top of your ferments, throw them out.
I don’t say any of this to scare you away from fermenting foods on your own, because homemade ferments have more probiotic power than anything you can buy in the store. (Plus it’s fun!) Just make sure you do research and give the right amount of care and caution to your fermented goods.
Taking the steps listed in this article will help you form nutritionally-dense, healthy foods that will please, not poison!