Lately, I have started fermenting vegetables. The largest reason for this is that it is fun. It is like vegetable gardening, but what you are growing is microbes that preserve, flavor, and possibly nutritionally enhance your food. Rather than wait months for your garden to grow, your ferments will be ready in days or weeks. Rather than go outside and get dirty, you can do all of this inside whenever you feel like it. It doesn’t require watering or anything. It’s like magic.
Even better, fermenting is almost foolproof.
Fermenting is Safer than Canning
Unfortunately, most people, when they think of fermenting, equate it in some way to canning. Canning is not foolproof. Canning requires the rigor of a chemist. If you get canning just a little wrong, it can make you sick. This is why I don’t can. I’m not that precise, and I don’t like having to worry.
Fermenting, on the other hand, is just as safe as eating what’s on the counter.
Why is fermenting safer than canning? In canning, you attempt to kill everything. That is, you kill the good and bad bacteria indiscriminately. However, nothing is 100% perfect. Therefore, you have to make the conditions inside the can so that it is inhospitable to bad bacteria. If you get this wrong, the bad bacteria will multiply and spoil your food – and you might not even know it.
On the other hand, fermenting relies on the fact that food comes naturally with an overabundance of good bacteria. Therefore, you just need a few really simple steps to make sure that the good bacteria outcompete the rest. Then, nature does the job for you – the good bacteria actually provide everything needed to keep the bad bacteria away.
When you do canning, you need to get the recipe precisely right. When you do fermenting, the point of the recipe is just for taste. If you follow the rules (which I’ll give below), the rest doesn’t matter.
I’ve had several people, just in the last week, comment that they were worried I was going to make myself sick if I wasn’t careful with fermentation. Again, these people had confused canning (which does require precision) with fermentation (which does not).
How to Ferment
Fermenting is very simple to do. A very simple explanation is that you submerge vegetables (preferably cut in some way) under water (usually with a little salt) for at least three days (I usually do at least five). That’s really it. There are a few other things you can do to make it even better, but if you submerge the vegetables and leave it for a few days you have successfully fermented.
I usually put mine in mason jars, and I keep the vegetables underwater with a fermenting weight or just a large cabbage leaf.
Dealing with Mold
Now, if that’s all you do, you will also grow mold. That isn’t as much as a problem as you might think. As long as the mold just floats on the top (and it almost always does), you can safely scrape it off and eat what is under it. If, however, the mold is growing down into the ferment in significant amounts, you should discard your ferment. My guess is, you probably didn’t even need me to tell you that :)
It’s even okay if a little bit of mold goes into the ferment when you scrape it off. Modern people are scared of mold, but think about it – most bread already has a little mold growing in it long before you can see it. So you are already eating a little mold already.
However, if you don’t like the idea of mold growing, you can definitely prevent it, but it takes a little more work and equipment (but not much).
What allows mold to grow is oxygen. To prevent oxygen from getting into your ferments, you need to do two things: First, you need to put a lid on it to prevent outside oxygen from coming in. However, fermentation releases gases. If you just put a lid on it and left it, your jar might eventually break. You can use a lid, but you have to remember to periodically loosen the lid to let off pressure.
An easier method is to use an airlock system. These systems allow air to escape, but don’t let any back in. This is better and more reliable than manually depressurizing your containers. With airlocks, I almost never get mold. There are numerous airlock systems around, but I am currently using this one.
Many people (myself included) put salt in their water. This helps decrease the bad bacteria and mold even more. The amount of salt isn’t that important except for taste, but if you want a starting point, I usually use one teaspoon for every two cups of water.
Sometimes, during a ferment, the volume of water in the vessel changes, usually because the salt extracts it from food. In order to alleviate this, you should do two things: (1) leave at least an inch of headspace in your vessel when/if you cap it, and (2) put a bowl or plate under your vessel to catch any water that comes out.
Anyway, I might post a video on this soon, but I thought I’d let you all know about how easy fermenting is!