You know what I hate? When someone ferments wrong. Just kidding! What I actually hate is when someone decides that they way they ferment is the only right way to do it, and then invalidates the way other people have successfully done it for years or months (or even once). I’m not saying anything goes, there are principles that apply, and there are techniques and tweaks that can make the difference between something decent and something delightful. To assume one path to success, though, is to disregard thousands of years of history, in-home evolution and personal taste.
These naysayers generally get pretty mad if a fellow fermenter says they had success in a “unapproved” way. I have, unfortunately, had encounters with some of these fun* folks on a few occasions (never here though, thank you, lovely readers). So I’m here to tell you that they’re wrong (heehee). You can be empowered, make your ferments the way you’ve been making them, experiment with different techniques you’ve heard about, try different salt levels and different containers and different ingredients. So cast off the shackles of the Negative Nellies out there and enjoy the process. Empower yourself to use your brains and the senses with which you’ve been endowed. That is a luxury that fermentation allows us all.
Here are a few things that I have heard and read recently that make me completely nuts:
1. Your sauerkraut must be in a perfectly anaerobic (airless) environment or horrible, terrible things will happen to you – Nope! Sandor does open crock fermentation, and guess what? My grandma wasn’t using specially-made, $95 jars with airlocks to make hers either. Yet my mother and her sisters somehow managed to live to reproductive age! A miracle? No, as Mr. Katz points out in this wonderful response to fearmongers and naysayers, our lactic acid bacterial friends are anaerobic yes, but they are facultative, which means that the presence of oxygen doesn’t keep them from doing their thing.
2. You must have a vinegar mother or that thing you made that tastes exactly like vinegar is actually some other substance. And it will kill you. – Too many sighs to count. Various eye rolls. Numerous shrugs. Lemme tell you: I’ve made a lot of vinegars over the years and the good ones beat almost anything store bought (except the really, really pricey stuff, like true balsamic) with a heavy stick. Using living vinegar to start is completely sufficient. And any home winemaker knows that you can probably can skip that ingredient too, since accidental vinegar is often the (fantastic) consolation prize when winemaking goes wrong.
3. If there is a speck of mold on your veggies you will die bad. – Anyone who has ever take a class with me has heard me say three things about vegetable mold:
- Avoid it (aka submerge well and it is extremely unlikely to be an issue).
- If you get mold, skim it off. What’s underneath is fine.
- I know it’s fine because for you, dear reader (or class-taker), I’ve intentionally eaten some moldy, fermented vegetables. I don’t recommend actually eating the mold, but I do recommend skimming and eating what lies beneath. (Do avoid molds on grains, meat, or dairy unless it’s intentional mold that you’ve added and you know what you’re doing. I know very little about those types of molds).
Never eat a ferment that smells bad to you or looks off. This is truly the time to employ your senses. In my self-experiements, I’ve never had so much as mild stomach discomfort. Yes, I know this anecdotal experience isn’t scientific evidence, and I didn’t say it tasted good. But skimming mold has long been a part of vegetable fermentation (like almost certainly thousands of years long) and the human race has somehow persisted. As always, I would encourage you to TRUST YOURSELF. If you don’t like how it looks, smells or tastes, ditch it. The beauty of fermentation is being empowered to trust your senses; so do that, whether it means skimming mold or composting your pickles.
To pull a quote directly from The Art of Fermentation:
“As far as I know, there has never been a documented case of food-borne illness from fermented vegetables,” states Fred Breidt, a microbiologist for the US Department of Agriculture who specializes in vegetable fermentation. “Risky is not a word I would use to describe vegetable fermentation. It is one of the oldest and safest technologies we have.”
4. Only certain vegetables can be fermented. Others won’t get acidic enough. In other words, cabbage is fine, but never ferment a turnip! Or you will die. – I read a whole article from a famous chef explaining why you needed to use vinegar to pickle most vegetables, but that cabbage will get acidic enough on its own. Huh? The natural pH of the unfermented vegetable has nothing to do with its fermentation. When given the right conditions (submerged, some salt, room temp) any vegetable will ferment, due to the lactic acid bacteria that are present on everything that grows in the earth. Obviously, some vegetables don’t ferment as easily or perfectly as others, but that has to do with water content, cell walls and stuff, not with their acidity.
5. Kimchi must be buried in the ground in your backyard or else how dare you say you’ve made kimchi? – Question I get all the time: “Oh, so you make kimchi? You’ve got the big thing buried in a hole in your backyard, then?” Wink wink. Nudge nudge. First, I live in Philly. I don’t have a yard, I have an “area” behind my house. Second, there are lots of kimchis and many of them were never buried. Yes, kimchi onggi (crocks) were/are traditionally buried for some kinds of kimchi-making. Some people still do it this way in Korea. Others, use kimchi refrigerators, crocks, jars, plastic bins, you name it. Since fermented food traditions are very old, I always think it’s safe to assume that people have been making them by making do for a long time. And making do, in my book, means clever use of whatever resources one has on hand.
6. This is what worked for me, therefore this is the right way. You will die if you do it another way. – I’m not saying it’s always easy to accept, but just because your way works for you, it doesn’t mean it will work best for everyone, or more importantly, that there aren’t other ways that work just as well. I once had someone tell me that because I was brining some pickles and not making them in a pickl-it, I was going to get sick. This was about three years in to a fermenting habit that usually had me brining and never had me using a pickl-it almost every day (nothing against pickl-its, I just don’t have one). I’ve had people tell me that Continuous brew kombucha is way “harder” than single batch. For me it was and continues to be exactly the opposite. Yes, yes, I may be a hypocrite. I’m always telling you about the way that I ferment. Honestly, though, I’m telling you how I do it because that’s how I do it. If you have a way that you prefer or that works better for you, more power to you, my friend. More power.
7. Whey or some other probiotic starter is necessary to ferment vegetables. I think this is a particularly common though not particularly pernicious fermentation rumor. As I cover (I think) ad nauseum on this blog, the vegetable fermentation process happens not as a result of anything you add, but as a result of the bacteria that are naturally present on it when it grows in the earth. One thing that I absolutely adore about fermentation is that it makes me into a shepherd. I’m not actually doing a whole lot. I’m keeping watch and letting the little creatures do what nature intended for them. It’s a pretty neat thing. Whey can help some ferments along, as I’m sure is true for other starters, but for vegetable fermentation, it is unnecessary, and can sometimes leave you with slimy or unappealing veggies. Furthermore, the bacterial strains dominant in whey aren’t the same as those dominant on veggies, so you’re getting a whole different microbial experience than you may have planned for.
I’m not saying there are no rules to fermentation. You do want to let veggies ferment long enough to reach an acidity that prevents c. botulinum from living, for example. You do want to add salt to your vegetable ferments and sugar to your yeast ferments (although both are actually optional in some cases). You do want to provide your ferments with an appropriate temperature for their processes. Otherwise, the rules differ by ferment, and by preference. I’m not saying to go all cowboy, but experimentation is a good thing! Also, one virtue of our era is that books and solid information resources are widely available for reference if your experiments fail and you want to know why. I find that Sandor Katz’ books are the most reliable sources of fermentation information, but thoughtful googling can get you some solid answers as well. The most important thing you can do is just start fermenting, and leave your fear (and any fear-mongers you may know) behind.