Yes, I sometimes make things harder than they need to be. I over-think, over-research, over-analyze, and over-stress over what should be … well, simple. I did that with dehydration, canning, and gardening and now I have done it with fermentation. Why? Perhaps, because I am paranoid … afraid I will make someone sick. And from what I have read, a lot of folks share my concern. However, if you follow the basics, you should not run into any trouble. In this post, I will include links to the very best information on the topic that I could find anywhere.
— This post contains affiliate links. See this page for our full disclosure. —
That said, let me make it perfectly clear that this is my very first experience with fermentation — well, not my first experience, just my first successful one (which is exciting)! Matt at Fermentools approached me and asked if I was interested in fermenting and trying out his line of products, and of course, I said, “YES!” So he sent me this package (not counting the mason jars & rings) and I began this journey into fermenting. You can WIN a starter hit by entering here through 12/14/14!
Sure, there are plenty of things that I don’t know yet about fermenting veggies, but I am excited to learn. If you have never done it before either, then we are indeed learning together. When you finish reading this post, you will know what I know. So let’s take a look at veggie fermenting simplified. I will summarize for you what I have learned so far and, hopefully, save you some leg work and worry as you take your first steps into fermentation, too.
Veggie Fermenting Simplified: Key Points
- Fermenting has been around as means of food preservation since humans stopped being hunters & gatherers and started cultivating crops. It was around at the beginning of human civilization so it is nothing new. This is not to say there are no safety concerns, but with an understanding of the basics, you can safely start with a simple recipe and work your way up to more sophisticated recipes as you learn. Don’t let a lack of confidence intimidate you into not moving forward with your first recipe.
- Fermenting is not pickling, although these terms are often mistakenly interchanged. In fermenting, salt is the primary preservation agent, and in pickling, vinegar is the primary preservation agent. The preservation agent is the catalyst that starts the chemical reaction that preserves the food. However, pickle recipes often call for at least some salt while fermenting recipes do NOT call for vinegar. In fact, if a fermented veggie has a vinegary smell or taste, then something went wrong. It is supposed be tart, but not vinegary. If you would like to read up on the science behind fermentation (which is a good idea), this article explains it pretty well using sauerkraut as an example (but the principles hold true for all veggie fermentation): The Science Behind Sauerkraut Fermentation. The author also includes some historical background, the signs that something is wrong, and the various fermenting vessels and how they have evolved into the more modern methods such as the one I used with my own wide mouth mason jars and this awesome kit I got from fermentools.com.
- You will have to create an anaerobic (oxygen-free), acidic environment. (This is easier than it sounds!) Understand that there are good bacteria (lactic-acid producing bacteria or LABs) and bad bacteria and the good ones kill off the bad ones in the right environment. What is that environment? High acid and low or no oxygen. Only in such an environment can the good bacteria (LABs) prevail. The salt allows the LABs to thrive and create the lactic acid which in turn, seeks and destroys the bad bacteria. And this is why I can so clearly recommend the system I got from Fermentools. It locks out all the oxygen, and hence, allows the LABs to thrive. It is the modern day, more assured & reliable technology for creating an anaerobic and acidic environment. And this is why it works!
- Odds are that the worst thing that could happen is that you might lose a batch or two of something, but you should be familiar with what to look for when you observe the contents of your jar at any particular stage in the fermenting process. For more in depth information on what can go wrong and how to know if what you are seeing is good or bad, go to The Science Behind Sauerkraut Fermentation and scroll down to the section called: Signs You’re Doing It Right — Or Wrong.
- Minimize or eliminate possible contaminants by using good food handling practices. Wash hands, surfaces, utensils, jars etc. in hot soap & water before use. (Use common sense and keep clean things clean!)
- Use fresh ingredients that have been thoroughly washed. Cut away outer leaves, bad spots, and inspect carefully for any visible foreign objects (bugs, rocks, sand, dirt, etc.) Do not use produce that shows ANY sign of decay (it is too late now, scientifically, to get the right bacteria on board) or that has had contact with manure or under processed compost.
- Use tested recipes. A good place to look is your local extension office or the USDA.
- Fermentation occurs best at room temperature. The cooler the room, the longer it takes. Taste every week or so and wait until the flavor and consistency are what you like them to be, then transfer to cold storage. If you get too hasty, it may not be tasty! You can find details on this at The 3 Biggest Fermenting Mistakes You’re Already Making.
The best resources I found to put it all in perspective for me were from the following articles and if you are not already hip to food safety as it relates to veggie fermenting, I recommend this reading list:
- Food Safety News – Fermenting Veggies at Home: Follow Food Safety ABCs
- 9 Tips For Avoiding Botulism When Making Fermented Foods At Home
- Cultures for Health – A Basic Formula For Fermenting Any Vegetable
- The 3 Biggest Fermenting Mistakes You’re Already Making (to avoid them in the first place!)
Okay, so I have given you a good start on your research, now let’s get started fermenting. When I received my kit from Fermentools, I was admittedly intimidated and nervous about the whole thing. I had been talking about it on our facebook page, done a little (not a lot) of research and had no clue where to begin. But don’t do what I did and over-think, over-research, over-analyze, and over-stress on this – don’t make it harder than it is. Just get started with the right tools, a simple recipe, and think of it as an experiment. After a couple phone conversations and some good guidance from my friend, Matt at Fermentools, I followed his advice and did the following:
- Start with something really simple, like sauerkraut, brussel spouts, or garlic.
- Use a quality, powdered salt that contains no added iodine and dissolves well in water. I used Matt’s salt, which indeed dissolves well, but you can use any salt that meets that criteria. Just don’t use regular table salt. You can even use your own course grained sea salt but you might want to grind it first into a finer powder so it dissolves completely.
- Non-chlorinated water is supposedly best, although there are those who say tap water is fine especially if boiled and set to cool first. I chose to use bottled spring water.
- Pick up at least a starter kit which includes the salt, a stainless steel lid, gasket, stoppers, a glass weight, and an airlock or WIN a starter hit by entering here through 12/14/14! (Put these with your own mason jar & ring and get started. The glass weight is to ensure the food stays under the brine (salt water).
- Generally speaking, most recipes call for 2-3 tablespoons of salt for every five pounds of vegetable matter.
- Some vegetables (such as cabbage for sauerkraut) create their own brine if massaged by hand with salt or pounded with a kraut pounder (I have one and it so much easier to draw out the juices with it than it is do it by hand).
- Some vegetables do not create their own brine and you will need to make it yourself using water & salt and then pour that over the veggies leaving plenty of head space.
- Once you have packed your jar and added any additional brine that you need, then place a weight on the veggies to ensure they stay under the brine.
- Put your gasket, lid, and ring in place, then insert the stopper in the hole in the lid, fill the airlock half full with water, put the lid on it and stick it in the stopper. Then set it on the counter to ferment according to the recipe.
THAT is all there is to it.
I started with sauerkraut, then brussel sprouts, and then garlic — which are ready NOW and just delish! I will give you those recipes in upcoming posts! So hang tight! More to come on Jo’s fermenting adventure! While you are waiting … go get yourself some lids, weights, and airlocks (or WIN a starter hit by entering here through 12/14/14!) and tell Matt I sent ya!
Have you done any fermenting? What is your favorite recipe?