Spoilage is a concern of many people, especially when they are just getting the hang of pickling and fermenting foods. It DOES occur. It is detectible when it happens (see our article on how to tell if food is spoiled). But what causes it?
Spoilage CAN occur from a range of sources. But the most common causes are actually NOT the things people think they would be.
Foods are most likely to spoil during two specific phases:
1. During the beginning phase, when the ferment is just getting started. This will be noticeable right away – the ferment never really develops the characteristic pickled or sour smell. Instead, it gets a funky smell (ok, so there just isn’t another word for it… if you smell it, you KNOW). It is NOTHING like the sharp smell of properly fermented foods. It is musty or odd, or something that just makes you wonder exactly what happened.
There are a number of potential causes for this, but only FOUR primary causes. (We used to have only two, but two new ones have cropped up.) Surprisingly, it is NOT because you forgot to wash your hands, or because you did not sterilize your containers, or even the strength of the salt in the brine. The first two have minimal affects – people used to brine foods under appallingly unsanitary conditions and it worked very well. The salt brine strength can help to compensate for questionable conditions to a certain extent, but not completely, and foods can be successfully fermented without adding salt (though we do not recommend it because the rate of failure is pretty high).
The primary causes for failure of the ferment to properly establish in the first place, include ONE that is a method issue, and three that are quality issues:
Failure to submerge the food. All of the food must be held under the brine. With kraut, a heavy weight must be placed on it to press the juice out of the cabbage and keep the cabbage pieces under the liquid. Failure to do this is the number one User Error issue.
So Rule #1 is: Keep the food under the brine!
Spoiled Food. If your food is starting to mold, do NOT use it for fermenting. You need good fresh food for fermenting. Even if you trim off the moldy parts, and wash it well, there is a very high chance that the foods you are handling have already been contaminated with a high degree of mold spores. It actually takes a lot to spoil a batch, and usually in combination with other factors. Sometimes a stronger salt brine CAN compensate for food that is on the edge, sometimes not, depending on the food, the water quality, the temperature, and the cussedness of the molds involved.
So Rule #2 is: Good fresh food that is not starting to spoil already.
Water. NOT well water – untreated water is NOT the cause of the majority of water caused spoilage. Chlorinated water is the culprit. Chlorine and other chemical contaminants in water are designed to KILL bacteria and fungus. That is why they are there. They aren’t picky about WHERE they kill those microbes (in the water, in your gut, in your foods, etc). In a ferment, that often means that they will kill the good bacteria, and let only the really resistant nasties thrive – and after so many years of government requirements for chlorine in municipal water, there are some really mean resistant beasties thriving in chlorinated water, and living in your kitchen. You get a yucky ferment instead of a good one if your water happens to be over-chemicalized, or inhabited with resistant microbes.
This is not a simple thing – some water has so little chlorine, and few enough resistant strains that the good beasties grow anyway and you get a good ferment in spite of it. Sometimes a stronger salt brine will help compensate, sometimes not. Sometimes a Brita or Pur type filter will be sufficient, sometimes not. On occasion, municipal water is so contaminated with chlorine and other chemicals that no amount of filtering (other than reverse osmosis) will clean it enough to get a good ferment. In general, winter ferments are more likely to succeed with municipal water than summer ferments – because pathogens are more rampant in warmer temperatures, water levels tend to drop in the summer, concentrating the contaminants, and some municipalities will compensate at times in the summer with extra chlorination.
Boiling the water only partially helps – chlorine tends to evaporate slowly out, but many places are adding chloramines, which do NOT evaporate.
So Rule #3 is to use clean water – good fresh well water, or cleanly filtered water.
Preservative contaminated food. That’s right, there are preservatives sprayed on your produce, and no labeling requirement to indicate that they are there! If you purchase non-organic pickling cukes with the spines removed, or cabbage from the grocery store, or other vegetables from the produce aisle in the grocery store, chances are, it has been treated with some kind of preservative. EVEN SOME ORGANICS ARE TREATED WITH CHLORINE, but organics still usually have a better chance of not spoiling in a ferment. Preservatives on your produce will cause foods to spoil, even when you do everything else right.
Detergents used to “clean” foods will also cause this problem. DO NOT USE VEGGIE WASH on your foods if you are fermenting! Plain clear UN-CHLORINATED water is the best choice, NO detergents.
So Rule #4 is to purchase FRESH food, LOCALLY if possible, ORGANIC if not possible.
2. At the end of the storage phase. A ferment will progress through many phases of bacterial and yeast life. As one form of food is consumed, the microbes that consume that food will multiply, thrive, and then die off. As they do, they are replaced by the next cycle that consumes either what the first batch did not consume, or the byproducts from the first batch. The food may progress through many phases of this kind. Eventually the food sources for healthy microbes wears out, and there is nothing left but fodder for the unhealthy ones, which will take over, resulting in a fairly marked and rapid spoilage of the food – mold, slime, squishy feeling, gray color, and unpleasant smells, all of which tell you this is no longer food.
All ferments eventually spoil!
The problem is when they spoil too soon. After only a few weeks, or a few months. Good ferments, properly stored, should last 4-6 months if stored in a root cellar, and FAR longer if stored in a fridge.
There are THREE main factors that affect this. Again, it has less to do with the finer points of handling, and more with the biggies.
Temperature: This is the most influential factor. Cool temperatures, down to about 40 degrees, keep ferments fresh longer, as a general rule. There are some that don’t thrive at low temperatures, but they usually STORE best at lower temps. Your typical kraut, pickle, or condiment ferment stores best between 40 and 50 degrees.
Freezing will kill some of the bacteria, and leave it ripe for infestation by nasties when it warms back up. Higher temperatures mean that the fermentation progression just happens faster – sometimes WAY faster.
Keeping the Food Under the Brine: Again, this is a prime factor. Keep the food dunked, and it will be preserved much better. Small bits usually are not the issue. Big bits are. If they stick out of the brine very much, they’ll mold before they cure, or degrade faster after they cure.
Brine Strength: More salt generally means it stores longer. Successful ferments can be achieved using a wide range of salt concentrations, but as a rule, the heavier salt concentrations lead to a longer storage life. Salt can also help to offset other factors that may be less easy to control, but usually only to a certain extent – it can’t compensate for everything, and it can’t do it indefinitely. Eventually even the saltiest of foods will be overtaken by opportunistic microbes that do not have your best interests at heart.
Fermenting is NOT as complicated as it may seem at first. There really are only a few things that you absolutely HAVE to get right. The rest is artistry – improving on a good thing, simplifying or increasing the predictability in your results. The factors listed above are the key elements in controlling spoilage. Everything else is just a nudge factor.
SPECIAL NOTE: Airlock lids and anaerobic environments are NOT discussed in this article, because they are NOT critical factors regarding spoilage. SOME individuals MAY be sensitive to specific bacteria or yeast types that proliferate less readily in an airlock environment, but as a rule, an airlock is NOT required to prevent spoilage.
From a CONVENIENCE standpoint, an airlock DOES make the process SIMPLER, because you do not have to vent the jar, and you MAY be able to be less picky about keeping things completely submerged (we are still testing this, and this statement is only based on preliminary observation, not side-by-side testing). Generally an airlock is not required to eliminate or SIGNIFICANTLY reduce spoilage in fermented foods.
Our customers who use airlock caps often ask us when to change the airlock cap for the storage cap, and when to remove the dunker (weight) from the jar. These are important questions, both because you want the fermentation process to be smooth, but also because you really want to get the airlock lid and the dunker back into use again as soon as possible!
Each Fermenta Lock cap is packaged with a storage cap – so the airlock cap can be switched for the storage cap when the ferment no longer requires venting. Each Fermenta Dunk weight comes with an extender – a plastic disk that is sized for the inside of the jar. Since the weight must be small enough to fit inside the jar opening, it is not large enough to reach the edges. The Extender goes all the way to the edges, and the weight is placed on top of it to hold the food down.
Lacto-fermented foods are LIVING FOODS. This means that the food continues to change and age until it finally spoils. Fermentation delays the point of spoilage by many months – anywhere between 6 and 20 months, depending on the food, the brine strength, the temperature, handling methods, etc. Living foods eventually spoil. This is part of the cycle of health and life. But it also means that during the time when it is healthy and good, it is in a state of constant change. This change is rapid at first, then slower, and finally very slow. The flavors and textures will gradually change over time – not in unpleasant ways, just more or less complex in most cases.
Fermented foods go through three basic stages that are observable. Each change can be responded to by a change in the fermenting process.
First: The initial startup phase. This is where the fermentation process begins. You prepare the food, pack it in salt, or salt brine, add an extender, and then a weight on top of that (several weights for kraut, which requires more weight than brined foods), and then you put the airlock cap on. You can follow this process by SMELL. As the foods inside begin to ferment and release gasses, they will start to vent through the airlock (the orange button on the Fermenta Lock Cap). When that happens, you’ll start to smell a nice pickly smell on the airlock. Once it smells like good pickles (after three to five days – usually three in the summer, five or so in the winter), the fermentation is well established, and you then move the jar to the fridge. If they are left out, especially in the heat, they are more prone to spoilage, though many people leave them out for longer periods before putting them in the fridge (foods were traditionally fermented in a root cellar, or basement, which was typically about 50 degrees, so the change was not required, but this is how we adapt to current conditions). The food can usually be consumed any time after this point, though some people are sensitive to foods that are less than a few weeks old.
Second: The active fermentation phase. After you move the jar to the fridge, the fermentation process continues, it just slows down. If you tip the jar, and bubbles still come up from between the food, it is still in the active phase. LEAVE THE AIRLOCK ON, and leave the dunker in, as long as the food is in the active phase. Once the food is no longer releasing bubbles when you tip the jar, it is entering the storage phase, and at this point, you can switch the airlock cap for a storage cap.
Third: In the storage phase (when it is no longer releasing bubbles), the food will continue to gradually change – fermentation has not stopped, it has just slowed down to an almost imperceptible sequence of changes. One of those changes is that little by little, the food stops floating quite as much. This varies between food types, some will always float some, others will sink more dramatically. Leave one or more weights (and an extender if using one) in the jar as long as the food bounces back up above the level of the brine. If you are using more than one weight, you can usually remove them one at at time over the storage time of the food. Eventually the food stays reasonably covered without the weights or extender. If a bit of the food is above the brine, it is not generally a problem. Foods can be stored for very long periods of time in this third phase, when handled correctly.
We do NOT recommend repacking foods into a smaller jar when amounts decrease!
When you repack, you introduce air through the entire ferment, potentially reducing the overall storage life. Leaving it in the original larger jar means there may be more air above the ferment, but the salt brine limits the movement of the air below the surface of the liquid. From a strictly scientific standpoint, repacking has more potential for harm than leaving it in the larger jar.
When using, remove what you need, using a clean utensil, and try not to stir up the entire jar of food. Wash the extender and dunker with clear water before replacing them if they are still needed.
We have eaten foods handled this way as long as 10 months after placing them in the fridge. Nothing has lasted longer than that – but not because of spoilage. Simply because they are always eaten sooner. The 10 month old food was crisp, tangy, and still had the squeaky feel of a reasonably fresh ferment. There were no signs of spoilage anywhere, even though the weights had long been removed, and the jar was less than half full for months before the last of it was consumed.
Many individuals want a set list of instructions, consisting of exact amounts, precise times, and specific parameters. Fermenting is as much an art as a science, and getting it right has more to do with paying attention to what the food is telling you than it does a list of instructions that have nothing to do with your specific food. There are rules. But the rules are flexible, because the process of pickling is flexible. Learn the rules, and the ferment will tell you what it needs, and when to change the conditions.
The color was pale gold, and translucent. The texture was still mostly crisp, slightly squeaky on the teeth. The flavor was boldly sour, not sulfurous at all, with mellow overtones. It was too salty. This batch was too salty right from the start. But then, the kraut I was sampling was easily 10 months old. Made nearly a year ago, shoved to the back of the fridge, and forgotten as other things circulated in and out of the fridge around it.
It had been fermented using an airlock, and a dunker extender with weight on top. After about five days on the counter in mid-summer heat, it was put in the fridge for about a month with those items still in place. Several servings had been removed, leaving a larger percentage of brine behind. After about a month in the fridge, the weight and extender had been removed, leaving the solids free-floating in the brine – for the most part, they stayed under by this time. The airlock was replaced by a standard canning jar lid. A few more servings were removed before it was forgotten – it had a lot of airspace in the jar. More airspace than food, in fact.
The fridge was the last thing we packed as we loaded the trailer to move. “Toss that.” I said to my husband, as he pulled the kraut out of the fridge to put in the cooler. “No! Wait!”, I had second thoughts… we were pretty low on veggies, maybe we’d need it, if it was still good. Worth a chance. “Keep it, please.” One of the after effects of having had Crohn’s Disease is that I need a lot of fresh veggies to supply certain nutrients. Without enough, I have headaches, muscle issues, blood clots, and heart palpitations (harmless, they say, but uncomfortable).
The new house did not have a refrigerator. Ours was packed away in a trailer that had to travel to our new destination later. We would be at least several days without a refrigerator – you can’t stock up on things with a short shelf life in 90 degree weather when you only have a large cooler for storage.
Sure enough, by the third day, I needed some more vegetables. Time to see if the kraut was still good.
First, the visual inspection. Even color. The color had dulled and deepened, but was not gray or nasty looking. It still had the faint appearance of having once been green. The top layer was the same color as the bottom layer (this is a major indicator of when things are going bad – the classic change is that the top layer will darken or turn gray).
Second, the nose test. Smelled like… kraut. Well, not like store-bought canned kraut, a little different than that. But edible smelling. Like food.
Third, the texture test. Still firm, slightly crispy. Pretty much, if you make it to this point, and the texture is not mushy and broken down, you can be fairly certain it is good to eat.
Last, the taste test. A tiny piece. The flavor was good. Krauty… deeply flavorful.
I served up a helping (which I rinsed with fresh water, first, to reduce the saltiness), and enjoyed a cold treat in the middle of a hot afternoon.
So how long do fermented foods keep? The answer is not simple, because it depends on many factors: The food in question, the way it was fermented, the storage methods and conditions, the saltiness of the brine, etc. When things are fermented properly, and stored in a dark, cool location, they can keep for anywhere between 4 and 18 months. There have been reports of some foods keeping longer, under ideal conditions, but we don’t usually have that.
Ferment your foods properly. Keep the solids under the brine, let the gas out.
Store them in a cool and dark location, with a lid that limits air transmission. It need not be airtight. It just needs to let air OUT more than it lets air IN during the first month, and after that, it just needs to limit it to the point that the amount becomes negligible – canning lids on mason jars are fine, as are plastic storage caps, with or without a gasket. They all work just fine for this, because what ACTUALLY keeps the food fresh, is the brine.
Use a reasonable amount of salt in the brine. Honestly, salt is NOT bad for you! Your body requires it – too little and you die! If you are not eating much in the way of processed foods, salted brined foods provide a necessary source of essential salt. Recommended amounts vary widely, so look up many recipes, and experiment with many amounts to see what works best for you and what you like best. Go with your tastebuds – they KNOW whether you need salt or not.
Then, watch your food. If it is more than a few months old, just run the tests: Appearance, Smell, Texture, and Taste. In that order. The first three will always tell you if the last is worth the risk.
Living foods die. It is the nature of life. There will never be a way to assure that they will never spoil, if they are still living. The great benefit of fermented foods is that they are still living foods (the ingredients are dead, but the fermentation process creates new microbial life in it). As such, they can die, and when they do, they become unhealthy for YOU to eat – then it is time to give them back to Mother Nature, and let her compost them down for plant food. Keep things in their proper order!
We have forgotten how to use and judge living foods. But you CAN do so. It really isn’t hard. You may read this, and it may feel unfamiliar. You may not quite know what I mean. But if you SEE it, or SMELL it, you WILL KNOW! The first time, you will instantly recognize and know, “Ah! THAT is what she meant!”.
Leftovers from almost a year ago, proved a great benefit in a time of need, because I learned how to check to make sure it was still good.
Fermenting and pickling recipes typically call for a pretty good amount of salt. Between 2 tsp and 2 TBSP per quart of liquid.
The salt provides an essential benefit – it deters the growth of harmful microbes until thriving populations of good bacteria acidify the liquid enough to continue to deter the nasties.
While you CAN ferment without salt, there is a higher failure rate, and it is more sensitive to temperature, contamination, and even the quality of water you are using. This is why most fermenting systems do not recommend fermenting without salt.
So, do you have to worry about the amount of salt in the fermented foods?
In general, no. But it does depend on the OTHER foods you are eating.
If you are eating a diet of refined foods, there is salt in EVERYTHING, even foods that do not need it! Not only that, there are other forms of sodium that are even more harmful in excess than simple sodium chloride. Generally, those forms are the ones that cause the majority of health issues.
Salt is ESSENTIAL for good health. You need more of it when exercising, or in warm weather when you sweat more.
If you are cooking your foods from scratch, using ingredients that do not already have salt added, then you will have to ADD salt to your diet. If you do not, you will become deficient, and that can cause a medical emergency.
How do you know how much? Once you get used to NOT eating refined foods, just salt to taste. One of the reason men have a reputation for reaching for the salt shaker is because they do, in fact, require more salt than women, due to the larger body size. Active men, especially.
If you are not heavily salting everything, then salty fermented foods just end up being a good and healthy source of salt. You eat what tastes right – if the fermented food tastes good, then you need it.
You’ll need to find a balance with your brine – and you can judge that by taste as well. If it tastes good to you, then you probably got it right. If it tastes too salty, then you need to reduce the amount of salt in the next ferment. You’ll get it right in a few tries.
A refined food diet gets your taste buds all out of balance, and you get to where you can’t really trust it to tell you what you need. But after you’ve been on a more natural food diet for a time, your taste buds balance back out again. You start to crave whole grains and fresh fruits and veggies, and clean meats and dairy. And sometimes you crave salt.
When you do, reach for a pickle.
There is no need for guilt when you are eating well.
Salt is used in fermented foods to inhibit the growth of unwanted dangerous microbes. Salt is a natural anti-biotic, and it also makes the water density higher, which inhibits air movement through the water.
Salt brine pickles, and sauer kraut are the two most common items, and the easiest to illustrate common salting techniques.
Pickles are typically salted with a brine solution. This really just means salt stirred into water. Salt to water amounts vary widely depending upon the source. I’ve seen them astronomically high, and I’ve seen them very low. In general, somewhere between 1 and 4 TBSP of salt per quart of water is appropriate, depending on whether you prefer more or less salt. I’ve used as low as 2 tsp per quart, and I’d not go lower than that.
Sauer Kraut uses about half that amount – because you are adding the salt directly to the vegetables, and not as a brine. Between 1/2 Tablespoon and 2 Tablespoons per quart of packed vegetables. If you need to add any salt brine, it should be the same ratio as for pickles.
Vegetables MAY be pickled without salt, but it is not generally recommended. There are a few places which recommend this as the preferred way, because they say that more beneficial microbes can grow without salt. There is no reliable scientific evidence to support that claim. There are, however, many reliable scientific sources on the increased risks of fermenting without salt. There is a higher likelihood of proliferation of harmful bacteria, including anaerobic bacterias such as botulism. Not a risk I am willing to flirt with. Go low salt if you must, but eliminating it is not wise.
The quality of the food suffers from eliminating the salt also. The storage life is dramatically shorter, the food decays much more quickly, and the texture will be mushier.
So what if you are on a salt restricted diet? If you are eating naturally, and not consuming processed foods, or restaurant foods, the salt in your fermented foods honestly should not be an issue! We have found that when we STOP using processed foods (which have hidden salt), and if we do not eat out, we have to consciously ADD salt to our diet, especially during the summer.
Salt is an essential mineral in the human diet. Lack of salt can kill you. Too much is also deadly, but contrary to current medical dogma, which tells everybody to use less salt (irrespective of how much or little they are already using!), a low salt diet is NOT necessarily healthier. A high salt diet IS harmful – but it is difficult to specify whether it is the SALT to blame, or whether it is the OTHER stuff that always goes along for the ride in processed foods. And low salt processed foods are even MORE deadly than high salt processed foods, because of the unnatural items they add to replace the salt.
When you eat healthy all around, the salt in pickled foods is not a concern. You are not using pickled foods as a main course. They are used as a condiment, or a side dish, or a component of a mixed dish. The ITEM may be a little high in salt, but the entire DISH, or the entire MEAL, is not high in salt, if you are combining it with fresh and whole foods that you have cooked yourself.
The bottom line? Pickling is an ancient method for preserving foods. There is a REASON why it developed as it did. It is sort of silly to assume that people would not work out the best way to do it over thousands of years of doing it! If there were a superior way, SOMEBODY would have noticed! But the practice of salt brines, and salt packed foods was developed and refined fairly early on, and many variations used within the cultures of the world. Science now backs up these practices as indeed being the safest and most predictable way to produce good pickled foods.
Salt is not evil. Indeed, the Bible refers to good people as being the “salt of the earth”. If it were evil, the body would not require it (low sodium is a potentially deadly condition). Like many things, we are intended to use it wisely. Salting pickled foods falls within that definition!
Work out your own measurements according to flavor. Your taste buds are more reliable than you realize. If you like it on the salty side, make them that way. If you like them less salty, use the lower end of the recommended measurements. Either way, don’t let ignorant people persuade you that because the food uses salt in the preparation that it is evil or unhealthy. Give a pass on the microwave pizza and fast food, and it will be a great addition to your diet!
Fermented Salsa is more rightly referred to as Pickled Salsa. It not only more accurately describes what it is, it causes fewer raised eyebrows among the tea-totaling element, which is important in my family!
Pickled Salsa it is! It ends up like Salsa Fresca, or Pico de Gallo, with a quirky difference – the result of the pickled tomatoes.
You can make it using pretty much any salsa recipe. The key is to get about 1 tsp of salt per quart of finished salsa stirred into it. As with all pickled items, salt, and dunking the food, is the magic that gets the job done right.
So… the basic recipe includes:
- Chopped tomatoes – they can be skinned and seeded, or not. Your choice.
- Chopped onions
- Chopped bell pepper – green, red, yellow, purple, whatever you can get.
- Chopped jalapeno, anaheim, habanero, or other types of hot peppers
- Cilantro – fresh, or dried, chopped
You can balance the proportions however you like. The one thing that makes it great pickled salsa is to make sure that tomatoes make up no more than 1/3 of the bulk of the salsa.
On the batch pictured I used 4 tomatoes, 2 onions, 3 large bell peppers, 2 large jalapenos, a couple tablespoons of dried cilantro (really you put it in until it looks right to you), and of course, the salt. It really would have been better with only three tomatoes instead of four, and some red bell pepper – but you work with what you have.
I capped and cored the jalapenos, and tossed them in the blender with 1 whole cored tomato, and ran that until it was completely liquid – I really didn’t want chunks of jalapeno, because I am recovering from intestinal disease, and need to be careful about pieces of hot pepper. This also had the happy consequence of saving me from having to touch the jalapenos with my hands while chopping them.
The rest of the veggies were chopped and mixed together with the liquid and the salt. At this point I had a really nice fresh salsa.
The salsa goes into the jar. I use a half gallon Ball mason jar, with a Fermenta Dunk Extender, and Dunker (I use more than one dunker) and I put on a Wide Mouth Fermenta Lock Cap.
The second day, the salsa begins to smell a little alcoholic (sampled during this phase, it will be zingy, with alcoholic bubbles). The Fermenta Lock lets the gasses out, and as it does, the valve becomes lightly scented with the smell of the salsa. But you can open it and smell it if you want also – Salsa is not so fussy that it can’t stand being opened to check the progress with your nose. I would not recommend digging around in it until after the third day though!
About the fourth day, the alcoholic smell subsides, and it smells like… Salsa! The tomatoes have a distinctive pickled aroma, which is either acceptable and interesting, or completely vomitous to some people. This is one reason why you need to be sure to not use too many tomatoes in the salsa. Interestingly, it is only at this point that you really start to see fermentation bubbles to any great extent. Salsa does not bubble as much early on as some foods, in part because it starts out higher in acid.
It is usable at this point, but is so much better if it pickles somewhat longer. This particular combination made a medium heat salsa. A single jalapeno would make mild salsa, and no jalapenos would make a no-heat salsa.
After about a week, the salsa goes in the fridge, where it continues to mature.
The onions and peppers in this stay crisp and crunchy. It works well both as a condiment straight from the bottle and onto foods, and as a seasoning in cooked foods, added while the food is cooking.
If the pickled tomato smell makes you gasp or gag, and want to run for the bathroom, try making salsa using red peppers instead of the tomatoes. Salsa is wonderfully flexible stuff, you can juggle the ingredients around all you like, make it with what you just happen to have, or leave out what you can’t stand. It isn’t like running a company where it has to be the same all the time. Give yourself permission to just go with what you’ve got.
If you ferment kefir, you can make kefir cheese. The easiest cheese in the world to make!
We make two basic types – a simple drained cheese, and a simple cooked cheese. Both are good, and work for a wide variety of uses.
For both of them, you need cheesecloth. NOT the kind they sell at the hardware store or grocery store. Something with a tighter weave.
A piece of cheesecloth about 18″ square, and a colander or strainer set over a bowl will get the job done, as long as you have the right kind of cloth, which isn’t all that hard. There are a lot of things you can use.
- Old sheets – these are very tightly woven, so you have to loosen the cheese from the edges periodically or the middle and top of the kefir won’t drain. May take more than a day to drain.
- Muslin – this is a traditional option, though it is only slightly looser weave than sheeting material. Will still need to be loosened periodically. Should drain mostly within a day.
- Dish towels (NOT terrycloth) – flour bag dish towels, linen weave dish towels, waffle weave dish towels (leaves a nice print on your finished cheese), or other towels that will release the curd. All of these are loose enough that you will still have to loosen the curd, but only once or twice, and the cheese will drain mostly within 12 hours, completely within 24.
- Birdseye cotton – Ok, people, this means diaper cotton – NEW diaper cotton. Yes, it makes great cheesecloth! It is designed to let moisture through rapidly, and as such, makes a perfect fabric to drain kefir or cheese curd. You’ll want to pink or serge the edges though, it does unravel.
- Looser weave cottons – anything between a 90 and 150 weave cotton will likely do the job well. The looser the weave, the more reason to pink or serge the edges.
- T-shirt fabric – this drains cheese wonderfully! Pretty much any weight knit will do just great.
You really want cotton. Nylon sheds moisture more than it absorbs it, and that tends to make the whey puddle in the cheese instead of draining through. Cotton is generally considered safer for food use also.
White fabrics are actually NOT the best, natural undyed ones are preferrable. White is second best.
Ok, now that you have located something to use, you’ll need to care for it.
Wash it before use. We usually do this by hand, using dishwashing detergent, not laundry detergent. Since the cheesecloth is coming in direct contact with the food, you want it to be clean, and free of chemicals that should not be ingested. Rinse it really well, so it does not smell like dishwashing detergent when you are done. Hang it to dry where it is not going to get dusty.
During use, always let your kefir or cheese drain for a few hours before you loosen the curd from the edges. This allows it to dry out sufficiently to peel right off the cloth, instead of smearing into it. You can then use a spoon to peel it away and into the middle, thus getting the wetter stuff from the middle back out near the edges. Wider weaves only need you to do this once or twice. Tighter weaves may require additional times, or longer wait periods before it is dry enough to loosen.
When you are done making the cheese, you can usually round it into a ball right in the cheesecloth, and then tip that ball into a container. You may also wish to put it in a fresh piece of cheesecloth, and wrap it to press it, if you are making a pressed cheese.
You’ll then need to wash the cheesecloth. Again, we wash it by hand, using dish soap, which also acts as a disinfectant.
Fill a bowl or sink with warm or hot water. Drop the cloth in, and agitate it in the water, to loosen any remaining curds. When the cloth looks free of curds, dump the water, and refill, this time adding dish detergent.
Scrub the fabric with your hands, rubbing it against itself, and working it against the bottom of the bowl, working water through the fabric. It just takes a few minutes. Drain the soapy water.
Refill the bowl or sink, and rinse. Again, work the fabric against the bottom, working water through it. The water will still turn cloudy this time. Work for a few minutes. Drain the water, and repeat the rinse process one more time.
Pre-rinse to get the curds out. Wash with dish detergent. Rinse twice.
Fold the cheesecloth up into a square, about 4 or 6 inches square (size is not critical). Roll that up, and twist it to wring it out. This is the most efficient way to wring it, and it keeps from distorting the cloth.
Unfold it, and lay it or hang it to dry. I often dry it overnight in the dish rack, and it is often on top of dishes that are air drying there.
This process can allow you to reuse cheesecloth over and over.
So what if you can’t wash it as soon as the cheese is done? Sometimes these things happen! Just put it in a bowl filled with hot water and dishsoap, and get to it as quickly as you can.
If your cheesecloth gets stained, or has an odor you cannot remove from washing, simply fill a bowl with water, add a splash of bleach, and toss in the cloth. Let it sit for about an hour.
Smell will tell you whether the cloth is clean. Ideally, it should not smell like anything at all – not detergent, not sour milk, not anything.
It is a bit easier to wash cheesecloth if you have a small washboard, but you don’t actually need it.
Sourdough starter is like having a pet (only not cuddly). You feed it and take care of it, and it gives you something back. You never have to buy yeast again, and you get awesome slow bread.
I’ve run into a number of different methods for starting sourdough starter. Some of them make it sound terribly confusing. It isn’t really, you only need two things:
- Flour. Whole wheat works best. The fresher the better. Wheat germ in the wheat helps. Rye, barley, oat, or rice flour may also be used, but some kinds may require more than just two ingredients.
- Water. Clean as you can get. Non-chlorinated is best, but low chlorine amounts won’t hurt.
Start small – half a cup flour, a little less than half a cup of water. Should be stirable, but stiff. Put it in at least a quart jar. Cover it with a cloth, or something else that lets air circulate (Fermenta Caps work great. Fermenta Lock is not for starting sourdough).
Watch it. When it gets bubbles (12-24 hours, usually), give it another half cup flour, and a little less than half a cup of water. Stir it again. Don’t worry if there are lumps, they’ll work themselves out as it fizzes.
Now, every 12 hours you need to feed it. Before you think this is going to be too much work, relax. You don’t have to do this forever, just until it is established. And it doesn’t have to be every 12 hours on the dot, just twice a day – morning and night. You can do that!
To feed it, remove half, replace with half a cup of flour and a little less than half a cup of water. Yes, it will get the jar messy. Put it in a clean jar every other day or so. That will help it not look so nasty, and keep mold from getting hold on the sides.
Keep watching it.
First it bubbles (that was your cue to start feeding it), and next it starts to grow – that is, it will expand, and then deflate as the bubbles rise and then burst and slow down again. It does this on a cycle. Once it starts to deflate, that means it no longer has enough food to keep growing. It may “peak” and reach the high point when you are not there, but you’ll see streaks on the side of the jar, and a “high water mark” where it came up to. You don’t have to feed it as soon as it starts to deflate, it will just slow down. Let it go too long though, and you’ll starve it, mold will take over, and poof, you’ve just killed it! This is why you feed it twice a day – to keep it from starving.
Second, you watch how MUCH it bubbles. It will rise more and more each day if it is happy. When it gets to the point where it is doubling each day, you can use it for bread or whatever else you want to bake.
Now, the other factor you can pay attention to is the SMELL. Sourdough starter can smell really funky at the beginning. Nasty stale stuff that does not AT ALL smell like what you are aiming for. Bear with it. It gets better, though not necessarly how you expect!
After about three days, or maybe four, it will no longer smell so funky, and will smell alcoholic instead. Bread does form alcohol when yeasts digest the flour – not a problem, because it all cooks out when you bake it. But if you’ve done baking, you’ll recognize the sharp alcohol smell of rising bread. It may take a little longer to smell yeasty – that other more comforting smell associated with yeast dough. Let it go through the phases.
Once you have it well established (give it two weeks or more), you can put it in the refrigerator for a week or two at a time. Don’t go longer than that without taking it out, feeding it, and letting it sit on the counter overnight before you put it back into cold storage.
Any time you want to use it, you need to feed it, leave it at room temp 12 hours or so, then remove what you need to use. If you need to feed it but do not want to cook, remove half, then feed it (so you have to feed it less – you should be feeding it about as much as is already in there).
Ok, so once you have that down, there are some variations which are easy to experiment with. You see, there are different ways to make sourdough, and all of them produce a slightly different end product! What you put IN it has more to do with what it IS than the air around it.
A well established sourdough is hard to budge through the influence of airborne yeasts – there is simply too much already established in it. But young ones can be easily influenced in one direction or another.
Many recipes call for adding commercial yeast. Honestly there is no reason to do that. It just isn’t needed, and it will harm more than it helps. When I start a sourdough, I want to do it without 20th century influences if I can. I mean, why should I use 20th century shortcuts when I am trying to recreate something that is meant to produce breads in the manner in which they were baked BEFORE those shortcuts were available? I can be a bit obstinate about authenticity, but I also don’t like paying for things that should not be necessary if the truly traditional method is used, and I know that often when we take a shortcut, there is a trade-off that we didn’t really want – and this is true of using commercial yeast as well.
Baker’s Fast Rise (Active Dry Yeast) is not the same as the yeasts that grow in your sourdough. It is not symbiotic with the bacteria in quite the same way. It will tend to dominate and take over your starter, and you will never have starter that develops quite the same character as you will without it. Overblown commercial yeast tends to go dramatically sour, and tends to not taste flavorful like true sourdough. Give me the good stuff… give me the ability to control it naturally.
There are other things that are also recommended to get a faster start, and which will affect the long term sourdough that is produced, because they influence the kind of yeasts and bacteria that establish in the starter. Some of them are natural – again, they won’t give you the same kind of sourdough you’d get from just flour and water, but sometimes that may be a good thing. Other additives can affect the outcome and flavor as well.
So what are some of the variables? What can you have some fun with?
- Milk Kefir – adding this can change the yeast balance, and affect the resulting sourdough starter. It can also help when you have stubborn flour.
- Wheat berries – if you are using commercial flour, it can be stubborn to start. A tablespoonful of wheat berries can put some nice natural yeasts into the starter, allowing it to start without adding other things, producing a pure historic sourdough. By the time you get to the point of using it, you will have thrown most of the berries out, and the ones that are left will soften when cooked, so they won’t hurt your teeth or anything.
- Water Kefir – if you let water kefir ferment past the alcoholic stage, you get a very bready smelling liquid. If you use that instead of water on the first mixture, it can jumpstart your sourdough starter. It will also affect the long term outcome. It can help to broaden the spectrum of available yeasts in the sourdough, and may be especially useful for low gluten grains.
- Wheat Germ – traditional sourdough used milled flour with the germ. The components in the germ will encourage a broader complement of microbes in the starter, and make it more like “caveman bread”. If you are not able to use fresh milled wheat, a tablespoonful of Wheat Germ every other day or so can help to get a more complex flavor and more vigor in your sourdough.
- Different types of flour – Rye flour, barley flour, spelt, durum wheat, hard red or hard white wheat, rice flour, oat flour, etc. Addition of other flour types to a starter can change the long term flavor. Alternately you can make the starter from other types and then maintain it on them also. If the sourdough starter is bubbling up nicely in the jar, then it will raise that kind of flour – which is a nice way to tell if your starter is going to raise what you want to bake. This can also help in trying to recreate a regional flavor – consider what grains they used historically in that region. Many areas used very coarse red wheat, some used barley and wheat blends, many used rye. Some used different flours during different times of the year, or according to availability and price. Many areas used blends of flours. This is a major influence on the flavor and qualities of a starter – various grains encourage the growth of different strains of yeast and bacteria, so it can affect both flavor and performance. In general, whole grains produce more sour than refined grains.
If you have a starter that is established that just isn’t quite what you want it to be, you can also separate off half, and test it with different things, and see if you can come up with something closer to what you were hoping for. Starters can be very sour, very mild, fast rising, slow rising, they can raise whole wheat or rye or white bread better than anything else, they can be gluten free or organic. They are all similar and recognizable as sourdough, but also distinctly different. Immitate one you like, or branch out with something completely new!
Have some fun with it, and feel free to experiment. That is one of the beauties of starting sourdough starter yourself – you can play with it until you get it just right.
Once you have it going, it is fairly low maintenance, as long as you are baking once a week anyway.
You, like the Yukon Sourdoughs, may find that you’d rather give up anything rather than give up your sourdough pot! But you don’t have to sleep with it to keep it warm…
As the debate rages over whether fermenting should be done with an airlock, or without one, we keep hearing many myths repeated over and over concerning anaerobic bacteria and aerobic bacteria. There are many – repeated by people who have not followed the science through to its logical conclusion, or who have simply read something on a website produced by someone selling an airlock system, and have believed it, without realizing that only half of the story is being told.
Ok… so lets see if we can address some of the issues.
Myth: Pickles require an anaerobic environment, so they need an airlock. This is false.
Fact: Pickles merely require that the food be kept below the brine in order to ferment properly. It is the BRINE that does the fermenting, not the presence or lack of air on the surface.
Myth: Kefir must be fermented in an airtight environment. Completely false.
Fact: Kefir ferments wonderfully in any kind of container, lidded or not. It was traditionally fermented in skin bags, which were not airtight – if they had been, they would have exploded, because kefir releases a LOT of gas as it ferments.
Myth: Air moves through water, so the brine is not anaerobic. This is completely irrelevant.
Fact: It has nothing to do with good pickling. The salt in the food inhibits the growth of microbes other than the desired ones, or cultures put into the food grow faster than opportunistic cultures (yogurt and kefir) and create an acid environment before the harmful microbes can get a foothold. Acid then prevents the harmful microbes from multiplying in sufficient numbers to cause harm. This is true in open fermented and in airlock fermented foods. The presence of air is only relevant on the surface, not under the brine, due to the acid, and the high salt. Salt further inhibits air movement through the water.
Myth: Alcoholic Beverages are fermented using airlocks so it must be better. This is also false.
Fact: First, alcoholic beverages were traditionally fermented in either open vats, or in barrels with a hole at the top to let gasses and scum out (and many are still fermented this way). They were done this way for more than 6500 years. Airlocks have only been used in very recent history, and are still not used in all brewing, and are typically only used after the initial ferment is established. Besides that, the goals of brewing and the goals of pickling are very different. One aims to concentrate alcohol, the other aims to preserve by the development of an acid environment. One is a high carbohydrate environment which seeks to use yeasts to turn sugars to alcohol. The other is a high salt environment which seeks to pickle and preserve the food by encouraging bacteria to create an acid environment. Indeed many alcohol ferments do NOT store well like pickled items do.
Myth: The best cultures are anaerobic. Far from true.
Fact: Actually, some of the most dangerous microbes in the world are anaerobic. In fact, the most deadly of all, botulism, is an anaerobic germ. It is happily inhibited by acid, so it is not a risk in most fermenting situations (it may be where oil is used on top of a ferment). It is the salt and acid environment, NOT the presence or absence of oxygen on the surface which keeps deadly germs from growing – both aerobic and anaerobic pathogens. There are plenty of good aerobic microbes, which don’t proliferate well in most fermented foods (but they are responsible for the creation of apple cider vinegar and several other types of fermented foods – good aerobic bacteria!).
Here’s a few of our unwelcome friends who are all familiar anaerobic bacteria:
- Strep throat, Scarlet fever, necrotizing faciitis, rheumatic fever, urinary tract infections, pneumonia, dental caries, the plague & meningitis are all caused by facultative anaerobic Strepptococcus species.
- Clostridium spp. that cause intestinal gas, gangrene, botulism food poisoning, & tetanus.
- Bacteroides spp causes abdominal & liver infections.
- Fusobacterium spp that cause abcessing wounds, pulmonary or intercranial infections.
Just because they are anaerobic does not mean they’ll grow in your ferment, UNLESS you fail to follow good fermentation rules (salt brine on veggies, and keeping the food under the brine). The point here is that claims that anaerobic bacteria are good, and aerobic bacteria are bad, is completely false.
Myth: Water lock systems are “airtight”. This is false.
Fact: Waterlock systems allow the passage of air BOTH WAYS. They simply provide a slight pressure barrier which does not allow the FREE CIRCULATION of air. As long as the air pressure inside is greater than the air pressure outside, the system releases air only in one direction (which it will do when a proper ferment is established – it will release carbon dioxide which will increase the pressure in the jar). Brewer instructions on the use of waterlock systems recommend that the water lock be filled with something other than water, in case it is “accidentally” drawn in, instead of out. It does happen, even under circumstances in which it theoretically should not (usually because of failure to produce a proper ferment). Further, air moves through water – slowly – and the water lock is filled with water. It is not much, and it is slow, but it does move into the container this way. Some air will always be introduced through the waterlock, simply because it IS a waterlock. This information does not apply to a one-way valve, it does not allow air back in unless outside air pressure is MUCH greater than inside air pressure, because a one-way valve is designed to tighten the seal when outside pressure increases.
Myth: Airlock systems have to be airtight. This is false.
Fact: It is not necessary that they be airtight, only that they allow air release in a way that does not allow air circulation in both directions. This means that the jar lid does not need to seal tight – it only needs to provide sufficient seal to not allow free air circulation in an equal pressure environment. And that doesn’t take much! A canning lid will do that just fine (in general, even a plastic one). The difference between holding air under pressure, and holding air with no pressure, is dramatic. It does not take much of a seal to hold under zero pressure difference. Some people fear that if the edge of the lid is not airtight, that air will circulate there while pressure is released from the airlock. Again, irrelevant. Air pressure is equally high THROUGHOUT the entire container. This means that even along the edges, if air pressure is greater INSIDE than OUTSIDE, air will move only one way – out. An airlock always requires a minimum degree of pressure from inside prior to releasing gas – so under proper fermentation conditions, the pressure inside should always be greater, meaning air will only move one way through other small gaps as well. You have to have a fairly large gap (one large enough to release gasses without the airlock ever being used) for air to actually circulate, such as a large chip in the jar rim, or a piece of food caught on the rim. This is true of waterlock and one-way valve systems.
Myth: Vinegar is fermented with the cap off, therefore it is an “aerobic” ferment. This is also false.
Fact: Vinegar is initially an aerobic ferment, which creates an alcoholic beverage, after which it moves through the alcoholic phase into a vinegarization phase. The second phase REQUIRES aerobic processes, to develop acetic acid, but only the surface of the vinegar is exposed to the air. Now… if air only moves through the top few inches of liquid (and that is on a curve – less and less with greater depth), then only the top portion is in any way aerobic, and that very little because oxygen simply cannot move well through water. This is science folks – the same science that the water lock people are saying prevents it from being “anaerobic”. Of course, their “science” does not include variances for things like density and salt in the water, which both dramatically reduce air movement through liquid (and even cider is more dense than water). That said… ONLY the top few inches are in any way “aerobic”, and not enough so to allow the proliferation in any great amount of microbes that will significantly alter the lactic acid production in the container. Apple cider vinegar in fact has lactic acid formed by lactobacillus, it just has more acetic acid by the time it is finished. So what is responsible for the distinct vinegariness? Merely the transformation of sugars and alcohol to acid (partially the same things responsible for the vinegary flavor of pickles, though the processes involve more than one kind of acid). Alcohol rises in a liquid. It rises to the top, where aerobic bacteria from the air can work on it near the surface. They facilitate the process, and are in no way harmful. The transformation of hard cider to vinegar takes longer than the original fermentation period – because the aerobic microbes do not survive and proliferate as well, and they can only work at the top of the jar.
Myth: Foods fermented in an airlock system are anaerobic. Not true.
Fact: Small amounts of oxygen are always present – why do you think manufacturers of airlock systems still insist that you keep the food under the brine? (Because they know that this is what REALLY ensures success.) As soon as you open that lid, your culture has become “contaminated” with opportunistic microbes, and flooded with air. If you stir it, air is incorporated and often trapped in the food. Indeed, WATER ITSELF is not anerobic, and is constantly releasing oxygen molecules as they separate from hydrogen molecules. This has always been true, and is typically NOT a problem, if you don’t mess with it during the first few days when the ferment is establishing itself. Salt and acid have more to do with inhibiting the growth of unfriendly microbes than any type of lid. Keep it under the brine, and keep the salt balance right on pickled foods, and it really doesn’t matter!
Myth: An anaerobic environment will prevent the growth of mold. This is also false.
Fact: Recent research has shown some strains of mold that will grow in an anaerobic environment (in fermented foods, specifically – verify this by Googling “anaerobic mold”), and which require only the presence of carbon dioxide (plentiful in fermentations). Further, since no ferment EVER stays completely anaerobic, molds will eventually grow if mishandled or if opened repeatedly and exposed to molds (which are in the air). Additionally, the ferment, as a living food, eventually passes through the phases of good microbial growth, and into one of decay at the end of the life of the ferment (in the fridge, it may take 6-24 months to reach that point), and at this stage, MOLD WILL GROW, no matter what kind of container it is in. The goal of “zero mold” is no more practical than for you to try to clean the mold out of the air. It simply cannot and will not ever happen, and does not NEED to, because the majority of mold is not harmful, and will not proliferate to any great extent in your fermentations anyway, if you treat them right.
The greatest affect on fermented foods has NEVER been the kind of lid you put on it. It has ALWAYS been the method you use aside from the lid!
It does not even have to do with sanitation – ferments done under VERY unsanitary conditions have been shown to not have proliferations of harmful microbes – because the salt inhibits their growth, or the cultures that are being grown simply grow too fast and overpower the opportunistic bad guys (kefir and yogurt are examples).
A maker of sourdough says that if you keep the environment in the jar right – properly fed and cared for (food it likes, temperature it likes) – the sourdough stays happy and grows the right things. If you neglect it or toss in stuff that it does not like, it quickly gets “sick” – because the wrong things are encouraged to grow. This is true (based on scientific principals which I do not have time to break down here), and it is true regardless of the kind of lid – traditionally sourdough was kept in a lidded pot, wrapped in oilcloth, or kept in a jar with a cloth over the top. It was open to airborne microbes all the time, but the care of it is what kept it healthy.
This is true of all fermenting – how diligent you are about feeding your kefir, how diligent you are about NOT messing around with your pickles during the first few days, and how well you attend to the rule of sufficient salt, and keeping foods UNDER the brine, have FAR more effect on fermentation than the kind of lid you are using.
When the conditions in the food itself are correct, the bacteria and yeasts that you want proliferate faster than the unwanted microorganisms, and they then create an environment in which the harmful microbes cannot thrive. Some WILL survive – just as you are breathing good and bad microbes every day, there will always be good and bad ones in your food. Bad ones only cause harm when they completely take over. Even with properly fermented foods, that WILL eventually happen, unless you sterilize the food (killing the good stuff).
Fermented foods are Living Foods. As such, they need to be fed to keep living. You don’t feed pickles, so eventually the good microbes run out of food, and die off. Nasty beasties gradually move in after that – they eat the leftovers. If this did not happen, your food would be dead food, not living food. Keeping a lid on the jar, and keeping it under the brine will help to slow down the deterioration processes, but it will not stop it. Eventually the good guys will run out of food and die, and once that happens, the food will degrade.
If anyone tells you that you have to have a certain piece of contemporary equipment to ferment foods successfully, then they either have something to gain, or they don’t understand the science as well as they think they do. It isn’t as simple as declaring that you need this kind of environment and this little gadget can guarantee it. They are focusing on minutia, and ignoring the more critical elements, which are the things that have allowed fermenting to become a tradition through thousands of years, BEFORE they had that nifty new (and expensive) gadget.
Can an airlock help you ferment more successfully? Maybe – in certain circumstances, for certain climates, and certain personalities.
Is it necessary? No.
What it is, is CONVENIENT. It keeps you from having to vent the containers or risk a messy encounter with built-up gas. It is EASY. Because you don’t have to worry about a potential explosion, or the cat trampling on it, or fruit flies getting into it. So let’s be honest about what we are selling! We aren’t selling “science”, we are selling CONVENIENCE.
You be the one to choose. If an airlock system helps you ferment foods more predictably, great. But if you are trying to get started and need to make do, go right ahead, and know that you aren’t doing it “second best” and you aren’t taking risky shortcuts. You are just using sound scientific principles to preserve food, just as your ancestors did.
The term “fermented foods” applies to many different kinds of foods, which can be loosely classed in several different categories.
This can help you know which type of fermentation process works best, and what kind of environment is appropriate for the food you want to ferment.
Fermentation does two things: It encourages the growth of certain microbes – bacteria or yeasts (that means FUNGUS, or even MOLD – not all mold is harmful). Those microbes then CHANGE the food – imparting a different flavor, incorporating air bubbles, adding alcohol, extending shelf life, or other changes that people want to impart to their food.
So, we have foods that do really well in an open container, some that do well in open or closed container (they aren’t picky as long as conditions inside the ferment are right), and some that are easier to ferment in an airlock system (because they do best in a closed container, but they release a lot of gas, and an airlock system vents more easily). NONE of them require an airtight environment.
Some of the basic classes of fermented foods include:
- Brine pickled foods – this includes pickled vegetables of all kinds, pickled salsa, and sauer kraut. These foods either use a salt and water brine to submerge the food, or by adding salt to the food, they create their own salt brine to cover the food. These are some of the easiest foods to ferment. They work well in either type of fermenting system as long as you keep the food under the brine.
- More solid salted fermented foods – bean paste, hummus, mustard, ketchup, mayo, and other foods which are fermented but do not have a brine on them. These do best in an enclosed system, though you need to leave plenty of headspace, they can expand quite a bit! Many people do these successfully in a mason jar, by venting the lid periodically to keep gasses from building up.
- Cultured Fermented Dairy – Kefir and yogurt, sour cream, and other milk cultures which are cultured using a specific bacteria or bacteria and yeast starter, and which are grown to encourage the growth of those specific microbes in the milk. These can work well in either type of system, though a closed (but not airtight) system is traditional. Kefir will gas quite a bit.
- Sourdough – Either wild or cultured sourdough starter. This can go either way also, and partly depends upon the stage the starter is in. To begin with, some starters work best in an open fermenting environment. If reviving a dried starter given to you by someone else though, you may wish to do it in a closed airlock environment, to discourage outside contamination (this is actually NOT a huge issue from the air unless you live in a very moldy environment, most outside contamination comes from ingredients, or improperly cleaned dishes, not from the air).
- Alcoholic Beverages – Modern brewing is done with an airlock – Traditionally done in open vats, or in a cask with a hole at the top which let out the gasses and much of the foam as the brew expanded. After the initial fermentation, it is sealed up in containers for long term aging, or in the case of ale, used right away. The goal here is to concentrate the alcohol and keep out airborne microbes that would cause it to turn to vinegar. Alcohol is usually cultured with specific microbial cultures to produce a more predictable flavor, but was traditionally done without that. There is NO direct comparison in needs between alcoholic beverages and pickled vegetables, because one has a high amount of natural sugars, and the other is fermented in a salt brine. Those two internal environments are completely different. We do not provide information on creating alcoholic beverages nor do we encourage their manufacture.
- Water Kefir – This stuff will brew open or closed. If you want a low alcohol concentration, drain off the grains, and re-ferment the water for several days, in an open or loosely lidded container. This diminishes the alcohol content and gives it a vinegary flavor and smell. If you keep it in a closed container, it WILL become alcoholic. “Tests” which purport to show otherwise were improperly conducted, invalidating the results. It becomes most alcoholic when combined with fruit juice (you just made wine, folks!).
- Kombucha, and Vinegar – both of these ferment best in an open fermenting container, until established. Vinegar, once it is finished fermenting, is stored in an airtight container. Kombucha is fermented in an open container until the Scoby is established, after which it can be fermented in an airlock. Kombucha is another thing which we do not ferment ourselves, nor do we provide further information on doing so (it is mentioned here because of the number of requests we get regarding which type of cap to use).
The type of environment a fermented food requires depends upon the needs of the food during fermentation, and upon the end goal.
Once you can do one food from a fermenting group, you can easily do another from the same group. Even between all of the groups, a similar set of skills and conditions are required for the majority of the tasks involved, so it is not difficult to learn to make pickles if you have made kefir, etc.
The whole argument over whether you have to have an airlock system to properly ferment foods or not is pretty silly really. Some things REQUIRE open air, some do better in a closed system, but none of them require an airlock. It is just a matter of convenience for those things which do better in a closed system but which gas a lot during the fermentation process. It helps to not have to keep venting the jar.
Frankly folks, we’d love to sell you our airlock cap. But we’d much rather give you the facts and retain our integrity than to leave out half of the truth in an attempt to persuade you to buy our product. If you want convenience, good tools can help make the process easier and a bit more predictable. But if you just need to get good food onto your table, just DO it, and don’t feel guilty because someone is trying to persuade you that you have to spend a boodle to do it right! You don’t. Just follow the longstanding rules that humanity has practiced for thousands of years, and you’ll be able to turn out healthy and invigorating foods that you and your family can enjoy for months.
These truly are the world’s best dill pickles! Made from all natural ingredients, NO VINEGAR! Just zesty, crispy pickles, with a fresh flavor you can’t get from a jar at the store!
This is an old fashioned recipe. That means there are no absolutes. You can use it with whatever you have on hand. Sure, if you have a balance of ingredients, you’ll probably like it better one way than another. But don’t feel intimidated. There’s nothing scary about this! Feel free to experiment.
Old Fashioned Brined Dill Pickles
- Cucumbers – any amount will do (ok, so you are going to want at least 10 or so…)
- Garlic – about 1 clove for every 10 baby cukes
- Fresh Dill – about 1 sprig for every 10 baby cukes
- Grape leaves – enough to put a layer, 2-3 leavers thick, across the bottom of your container. You can use wild grape leaves, they work great! If you don’t have grape leaves, raspberry leaves, or horseradish leaves are supposed to work also, but horseradish will probably impart a spicy flavor.
- Salt – about 3 TBSP for every quart of brine (or about 2 tsp per cup of brine) (table salt will work – iodized salt will cloud the water, but still work. Non-iodized salt is best, some people insist pickling salt is even better)
Ok… you’ll need a fermenting container large enough to hold the pickles, with plenty of headroom (you can fill the container about 3/4 full of pickles).
Scrub the pickles to get the spines off, and the mud, and anything else unpleasant that might be lurking there. You don’t need to sterilize them! Don’t put chemicals or veggie wash on them. Just use plain water and wash them well.
Wash the grape leaves and shake the water off them.
Split the garlic cloves into quarters.
You can leave the dill sprigs whole, or break them up some, however you like them.
Mix up a quart of brine to start (more if you know you’ll need it). Just stir the salt into water until it is fully dissolved. IMPORTANT – use water without chlorine! Yes, this is important, chlorine kills microbes, and you NEED microbes to make your pickles.
Ok… Put the leaves in the bottom of the container. The leaves are there to help the pickles stay crisp. Commercial pickles use concentrated chemicals for this, but grape leaves are the natural alternative.
Start putting in the cukes, and distribute the garlic and dill among the cukes as you fill the container.
Once the veggies are in, pour in enough brine to cover the pickles by an inch or so if it is a large container, half an inch or more if it is a small one. Your cukes WILL float! So you’ll need something to hold them down. A dunker, or a double ziploc baggie filled with water (or filled with brine). Just make sure whatever you use can keep all the cukes under the brine, with nothing sticking up.
Cover the top of the container – you can use a plate, a cloth cover, or a fermenting cap. These pickles are the easiest kind of thing to ferment, and most of the time they aren’t terribly picky.
Let them sit for 2-3 days. Don’t mess with them. They’ll get foam on the top. That is ok. If it is summer, you’ll want to skim off the foam and put them in the fridge after three to four days, and let them continue to ferment there. In the fall, or in a root cellar, you can leave them a lot longer.
You can start sampling after about two or three days. The first batch is always the hardest one to wait on! But go ahead and sample. Just make sure you use a clean fork to spear one out, and make sure all of the cukes get back under the brine when you close up.
It is always a miracle to me that I can leave cucumbers out for two days, and come back and suddenly I have these awesome pickles – lightly brined at two days, but definitely dill pickles! The flavor gets stronger each day.
Ok… so here is the experimentation part:
- You can use this same basic formula for pretty much ANYTHING.
- If you want it crispy, use grape leaves, no matter what you are pickling. If you are pickling beets or carrots or something else that you don’t want really hard, leave them out.
- If you want garlicky flavor, put the garlic in.
- If you want it spicy, put in horseradish leaves or hot peppers, or whatever else you like for zing.
- If you like pickled onions, throw those in – baby onions, onion rings, shallots, whatever.
- You can make dilly green beans or carrots, or pickle broccoli and cauliflower, asparagus, just anything!
- You can leave out the dill, and put in other herbs, or no herbs at all.
If you can make dill pickles, you can make virtually any pickled food.
Note about vinegar… “But I LIKE the vinegar taste”, said my son, when he asked me how to make pickled jalapenos. I told him how to make them using an old fashioned brine. “Where’s the vinegar?” he first asked. I explained that it did not need it, that this was the traditional way of making pickles. He protested that he liked the flavor of the vinegar – he was sure I had not understood what it was he really wanted to make. I then explained that it DOES taste like vinegar – that the fermentation process creates the vinegar flavor. He was very hard to persuade.
Many people are, because they are not unfamiliar with the process of natural pickling. Putting vinegar in is not traditional. Pickles were made for millennia before vinegar was added to make the process of canning pickles faster, and to eliminate the tedium of brining.
You get a BETTER pickle this way. The flavor is brighter, fresher, and more complex. It does not taste like cucumbers and dill soaked in vinegar. It is absolutely recognizable as the pickles you love, but more so.
THIS is how pickles are supposed to taste!
Many people worry when fermenting and pickling foods at home, regarding spoilage of food – what if, they wonder, the food spoils, and I don’t notice, and I eat something harmful?
One of the reasons that fermenting has survived as a preservation method for thousands of years, is that it is pretty easy to tell when something is good, and when it is not.
Trust your senses:
If it LOOKS strange – odd color, moldy, or otherwise disgusting. It should look like FOOD.
If it SMELLS strange – odd smell, or bad smell is a tip-off that something is not right. It should smell like FOOD.
If it FEELS unusual – squishy, slimy, or way too soft. Some foods do get softer over time even when still healthy, but mushy is not good. It should FEEL like the food that it is supposed to be.
If it TASTES bad, or if the taste makes you queasy – generally one of the other senses will tip you off, but if you put something in your mouth that isn’t right, just spit out out and rinse your mouth with water. Honestly, people pretty much never get to that point unless they just aren’t paying attention to their other senses – because bad food always has some other tip-off that it isn’t right! It should TASTE like food.
In the majority of food poisoning cases, there was something not right about the food, which the consumer ignored while eating it. The flavor was off, or the color was not right, or something which caused them to think something was wrong, but which they ignored.
Trust your senses. You’ll notice a common theme there – Food looks, smells, tastes, and feels like FOOD. If it doesn’t, then don’t eat it!
With fermented foods, it is usually pretty easy to tell when it is not good. Most spoilage happens at one of two times:
- During the initial ferment. Something is wrong right from the start. This means that it goes bad usually before you’ve even had a chance to sample it. The kind of spoilage that happens here is very visible – typically involving mold, a layer of nasty stuff on top of the ferment, or other very visual indicators that something hasn’t worked correctly. Often it is due to contaminated food, hot temperatures, insufficient salt or brine coverage, or something else simple, so it is not only easy to detect, it is easy to correct.
- During storage – usually after prolonged storage. In this instance, you made so much that you aren’t using it regularly. It has been shoved to the back of the fridge, probably in a half-filled container, or it has been left on a shelf in the basement or root cellar and not looked at or used in a few months. Usually, it just got stored a little too long, or at too high temperatures, or in a container with too much airspace for too long a time period. Spoilage of this kind is also generally easy to detect – and will more often involve slimy, mushy, bad smelling gook, and may arrive one day in your kitchen, in the hands of a child, who is asking, “Mom? Is this supposed to look like this?”. This type of spoilage is also easy to avoid, and one of the easiest ways to correct it is by making small batches of things you don’t use frequently, so they get used in a timely manner. Proper storage – little airspace in the jar, cool temperatures, and checking them once a month – also helps to eliminate spoilage during storage.
With fermented foods, there is pretty much never an instance of spoilage serious enough to actually make you sick that is not detectible by more than one means. So if your nose doesn’t work as well as your neighbor’s, do not fear. Your eyes and hands will tip you off instead.
This applies to traditional salt and acid fermentations, and to milk or fruit based fermentations. We do not recommend fermenting vegetables without salt.
Trust your senses! Pickle with confidence.
So what about the plastic in the Fermenta Lock cap? Is that a problem?
Plastics have got a lot of bad press lately about potentials to leach chemicals into foods. Some plastics do this worse than other plastics, but with all of them, the rate at which chemicals leach, is very low to begin with. They typically only have significant issues with leaching under two circumstances (and even then, it is still a very small amount):
First, when the food is in prolonged contact with the plastic (hence, the concerns over plastic storage containers).
Second, when food is heated in plastic containers, the leach rate increases many times.
Fermenta Lock lids don’t typically come in contact with the food, and when it does, the contact is brief, and limited to small amounts of food.
Heating is not part of the fermenting process either, so you won’t have issues with increased leaching potentials due to heat.
Fermenta Lock is a lid, which is manufactured for food use. Plastic lids just aren’t an area of significant safety concern.
Rubber products actually leach more into foods than plastic, yet most fermenting systems use some kind of rubber. It is not a concern either, simply because the rubber does not come in contact with the food in typical usage. When it does accidentally, the contact is brief, and not in circumstances that would leach any molecules in sufficient number to be a problem, unless you are hypersensitive to latex, in which case, you are going to have problems with any product which uses rubber at all.
In general, we avoid the use of plastic in our kitchen, where practical, but we use these lids simply because they are safer and more stable for fermenting than metal lids could be.
A jar does NOT need to be airtight to create an anerobic environment!
Proper fermenting requires that only one criteria be met:
Brined foods need to stay under the brine.
More solid foods need to stay in an environment where gasses get out faster than they get in.
In fact, proper fermenting necessarily PROHIBITS an airtight environment. If it were airtight, gasses could not escape.
Air can get IN, just as easily as it can get OUT of a water-lock airlock system.
It DOESN’T do so very much, because of AIR PRESSURE.
As long as the air pressure INSIDE the jar is greater than the pressure OUTSIDE the jar, gasses will move one way.
Air is not like a mischievious child. It does not try to sneak in anywhere there is an opening. It is well-behaved. It follows rules.
If air pressure is equal, it will slowly drift back and forth in a lackadaisical exchange, IF there is an opening large enough to allow it.
If air pressure is greater on one side than the other, air is PUSHED, from the HIGH pressure area, to the LOW pressure area. Bigger gaps allow this to happen at a faster rate – if there is even a plastic to glass, metal to glass, rubber to glass, or even glass to glass (where the fit is smooth) contact, air will not move without a difference of pressure. The tighter the fit, the greater the pressure required.
An airlock works by putting a minimal barrier in the way, so the pressure has to be greater before large amounts of gas move. When pressure reaches a certain level, air can be forced through. In general, with fermenting, OUTSIDE air pressure will never be greater than INSIDE air pressure, so when gaps exist, gasses will move ONLY in a single direction… except for the transfer of some air through the water, which is a second issue.
This means that in most instances, a jar with a loosely capped lid will work just as well as an airlock in keeping gasses from building up inside, while keeping outside air out, if you can get it at just the right tension.
Open Fermenting, when done correctly, also works just as well as closed fermenting, because the food stays under the brine, where insufficient air is able to circulate to promote the growth of bad microbes. Oxygen has more difficulty moving through salt water than it does thorugh fresh water, so the salt brine on the foods helps stop the air from getting to the foods in the brine, which is one of the reasons that the growth of unhealthy microbes is inhibited. Yes, a slightly DIFFERENT complement of microbes will grow in an open ferment. But they are not unhealthy. Salt brines also limit the growth of unhealthy microbes in other ways – many bad microbes simply cannot live in a saline environment.
Even closed fermenting REQUIRES that the foods stay under the brine in order for them to properly ferment. If various manufacturer claims about fermenting requiring an airtight environment were true, then it would not matter whether the food was under the brine or not – the microbes could not survive either IN OR OUT of the brine, so there would be no need to sell such things as Dunkers and to give elaborate instructions on keeping food under the brine, nor to insist repeatedly that it do so. The system, being a system, simply provides people with a step by step which they feel obligated to adhere to.
Fermented foods will store better in a tightly capped jar – after the need for gas release is past, a tightly capped jar in the fridge will store them perfectly well. Again, it is not necessary that the lid be “airtight”, for the same reasons it is not necessary to have an airtight lid during fermentation, even if you want “anaerobic conditions”.
Remember, air moves according to PRESSURE. As long as the seal is sufficiently tight to prevent air movement under EQUAL internal and external pressures, you’re good. Canning lids, by their nature, tighten into a seal when external pressure is higher than internal pressure. So outside air won’t really get in.
If inside pressure is greater, the gas build-up will just slowly vent. No problem, because then the inside of the jar is filled with gas, not air, and that is what you want anyway. Fermented foods that have not been killed by canning will continue to slowly ferment and release minor amounts of gas, even in the fridge. That is ok, and a good and healthy thing.
Airlocks are a rather new invention in the history of fermentation – only used within the last few hundred years, primarily for brewing, and even then, not exclusively. Most alcohol was open vat fermented, or fermented in casks with an open hole to let out gas and scum buildup. People have been fermenting foods for many thousands of years, and only using airlocks for at most, a few hundred. So just what is the traditional method here? Whose tradition, and how far back?
So why do canned foods spoil if they fail to seal? There can be several reasons, most not applicable to brined and fermented foods.
- The temperature may have been insufficient to kill harmful microbes in the jar, so they continue to grow.
- All of the air may not be released from the jar during the process.
- A piece of food, or a crack in the rim, may allow larger amounts of airflow that are not hindered by the rubber seal. Air may be sucked in, especially during the cooling down period, when air pressure inside the jar is rapidly declining (this is what usually pulls the lid down to seal it – but if there is a gap around the edge, air will be sucked in instead).
- They are typically NOT salt brined. Salt inhibits the growth of many types of harmful microbes.
- They have not gone through an alcohol phase – alcohol also inhibits the growth of many harmful microbes. Fermenting of many foods produces alcohol which in turn helps to preserve the food. If allowed additional air circulation at key points, it will typically move through the alcohol phase and into a vinegar or acid phase. This is particularly true of sugary foods. More sugar produces more alcohol. Both alcohol and acid help to reduce the growth of harmful microbes.
- Since those foods haven’t been properly fermented, they are left defenseless against opportunistic invasion by harmful microbes, which quickly overwhelm the food.
To maintain an airlock environment while fermenting (which may make it easier to get a good ferment in some environments), the environment does NOT need to be airtight. It merely needs to allow air OUT, but to discourage it from coming IN. The fermentation process itself will create the proper environment inside the jar if you provide a means for gas to escape that does not allow large amounts of air back in. Air pressure will keep the gasses moving in one direction only.
Remember, water locks are NOT airtight either. Air CAN move through the water – and it will do so regardless of whether you see bubbles or not, because it will move through the water anyway, at a molecular level. A certain amount will circulate back into the jar, independent of air pressure, because air DOES move through water independent of pressure – it is more dependent upon temperature differences. This means a water lock CANNOT produce an airtight environment, and provides additional proof that an airtight environment is in fact not necessary to any kind of fermentation, except high alcohol content beverages. (The website of a major airlock pickling system states only that the airlock “reduces” oxygen, not that it eliminates it, and makes NO claim that their airlock is airtight, only that their seals are airtight – which sort of defeats the whole “airtight” concept anyway.)
A one way valve which allows air out, but which closes tighter with increased outside air pressure does not let air circulate through any medium (this is what we created for Fermenta Lock). It simply lets the gas out, and inhibits entry of air from the outside unless outside air pressure is VERY great. It does not need to be airtight, because it is designed to move air only in one direction, unlike a water lock which lets air move either direction through the water (again, it is relying on air pressure INSIDE being greater than OUTSIDE to prevent large amounts of air movement, but due to using water, does not prevent air from entering the jar and cannot in any way be classed as “airtight”).
It is also important to point out that some types of foods MUST have broader air circulation than a lidded jar will provide. They need a cloth or something else that allows two-way air circulation, in order to ferment properly. Vinegar is one such item, wild yeast is another (when making sourdough starter without using anything but airborne and naturally occuring yeasts present in the flour to begin with). Air circulation is important for these items. This is why a cloth over the top is the traditional way of doing these fermentations. Airlock systems are inappropriate for these items.
If you choose to use an airlock system, it helps to understand the principles under which it operates, so you know when to use it, and when a regular lid will be sufficient, and when a cloth or cotton cap over the top is a better option. And please don’t feel superior because you are using an “airtight” system, because you aren’t.
If you choose to open ferment brined foods, it is also important to understand the basics of good fermentation – keep the food under the brine, observe it from the OUTSIDE as much as possible, and keep out of it unless you are using it – don’t fuss with it during the initial fermentation period when you are not actually using it. When fermentation is completed to your satisfaction, pack it into clean jars (or leave it in the fermenting container), with brine to cover, put on a tight lid, and pop it into a cool location for storage.
There is NO “One Right Way” to ferment foods. Many ways work, and they can be affected by location, individual circumstances, available food supplies, and other factors. There are MANY right ways to do it. Pick the one that works for you.
Good fermenting tools can help you to ferment foods more easily and to streamline a predictable routine more quickly, but if you are having to make-do with something less perfect than you wanted to be using, take heart! Our ancestors had to do the same thing, and they did so successfully for millennia. Get what you can, piece by piece, and simplify one task at a time if you need to.
Get Fermenta Dunk, and Dunk Extender first (easy to do, since the Dunkers come with a free Extender). Because keeping the food under the brine is most important.
After that, get what you feel will help you most for the things you ferment – Fermenta Crock, Fermenta Cap, or Fermenta Lock. The choices are yours for how YOU ferment foods.
Fermented foods are living foods. They are full of healthy bacteria and yeasts, which help the body function properly. They help regulate and balance the immune system, and they help break down foods into absorbable elements, and they help the body to be able to absorb the nutrients that are available. This affects every system in the body, and contributes to good health in ways we do not realize until we start to feel better.
The commercial food industry has robbed fermented foods of the living elements. With only a few exceptions, foods sold in the stores are dead, embalmed, and contain only a mere shadow of the nutrition of freshly prepared foods.
Commercially prepared fermented foods are generally prepared in three ways:
1. Live fermented non-dairy. Very few foods are prepared this way, and those that are are then heat-preserved, thereby destroying the probiotic benefits.
2. Vinegar pickled. Instead of using traditional fermentation processes, many foods are quick-pickled using vinegar. Vinegar is a fermented food as well, so it would be a good choice if live culture vinegar were used, but it is not. Pasteurized (dead) vinegar is used instead. These foods do not contain probiotics, because they are heat processed with vinegar, or short term brined, and they are always heat processed to seal them.
3. Live fermented dairy products. Most of these are packaged and sold as live-culture foods. Some are pasteurized prior to packaging and resale. Even the live ones lack the benefits of naturally fermented foods, for two reasons. First, the cultures are carefully controlled – they have specific bacteria added to pasteurized milk and cultured. They lack the full complement of healthy bacteria and yeast found in naturally fermented foods. Second, they are mass processed in industrial facilities, using dairy products which have been mass produced from industrial ag dairies, and then handled in another industrial facility prior to reaching the final destination. This increases the potential for dangerous contamination exponentially, at a number of points in the process, and pasteurization does not compensate for this potential. This means that these products are more likely to be exposed to superbug contamination after culturing with the probiotic cultures. And when that happens, the end user gets seriously ill – because natural fermentation provides some defenses against superbugs. Controlled culture fermentation does not provide the same protections, because some of the naturally occurring healthy bacteria and yeast which limits the growth of superbugs is not present during fermentation. Yeast, in particular, aids in limiting the growth of superbugs, and yeast is pretty much never added to dairy cultures deliberately.
So the foods you buy, even in the BEST situation where you are able to obtain live culture foods, still lack the full benefit of naturally fermented, living foods.
Fermentation is a process, not an event. It is not something that you set up, and it happens one day, and then stops. It is an evolution, a gradual state of change, from fresh, to lightly fermented, to heavily fermented, to aged and past the optimum flavor and benefit.
The flavor and bacterial and fungal (yeast are fungus) content changes throughout the entire process. It is not the same any two days. Truly living food will be slightly different every time you eat it, just as a tomato ripens, and is a different experience one day than it will be the next. And just like a ripe tomato, a fermented food has many phases during which it is good.
The manner in which it is fermented will affect, to a certain extent, the variety of microbes that affect the food. Improperly fermented foods WILL culture unwanted microbes which can be harmful – but they typically display evidence of their presence which will alert you (appearance, smell, etc). Because of the wider variety of healthy microbes, naturally fermented foods withstand contamination better than foods that are cultured with a carefully selected group of cultures – this is why kefir ferments nicely at room temperature, but yogurt has to be heat fermented under controlled circumstances. Kefir is easier to manage, and requires far less care, and continues to propagate indefinitely, because of the wide variety of healthy microbes that simply overpower and grow faster than the unhealthy ones.
So what if some unhealthy ones DO get in there? This typically isn’t even a problem. They DO get in! And some even grow and multiply! They just do not do so at a fast enough rate to make you sick (we aren’t talking about stuff you can smell or mold you can see – items that smell off or have visible mold should be discarded, we are just talking about small amounts that you cannot see). They do establish JUST ENOUGH of a presence though, to expose your body to them, so that your immune system is strengthened, and you build up a resistance to them. Their presence is a benefit, not a threat, but the presence of some unhealthy bacteria may be the reason why fermented foods cause loose stools or mild upset stomachs the first few times they are eaten (this is common with kefir) – it takes a couple of exposures for your body to adapt, but when it does, the benefit is more than worth it, because this exposure helps make the body more resistant to superbugs! For more information on good and bad microbes, read this article: Good Germs, Bad Germs
Most people who ferment their own foods state taste and texture as a compelling benefit to fermenting vegetables themselves. And I gotta say, homemade pickles are crisp and have a snappy flavor that you just can’t get from a grocery store jar of pickles. Homemade kraut is crunchy and lively, and not that limp single flavor stuff you get in a can.
Yes, you can buy crisp pickles. But they are made using chemicals to keep the crunch through the canning process. You can get the same results at home using grape, raspberry, or horseradish leaves in the bottom of the fermenting container.
Home fermented foods DO taste different. Some people do not welcome the change. But the cool thing is, you have some control over it at home! If you don’t like the results, then change it! Change the ingredients, monitor the flavor through the fermentation process so you know where you like it best, or ferment it in a cooler location to develop the flavors more slowly (some people say this makes the flavors more complex). If you don’t like the product at the store, it is always going to be the same way. If you don’t like something you made, then you can do something about it!
Many people credit home fermenting with improvements in their health. We’re talking the big stuff – healing from bowel disease, heart and circulatory problems, asthma, diabetes, arthritis, auto-immune disease, food sensitivities, persistent obesity, and more. I don’t feel it is all that – but I do think it is just another piece in the process of eating healthy. I feel that when combined with removal of chemicals from the diet, and eating whole and fresh foods instead of refined foods, fermented foods are part of achieving and maintaining good health. I also feel that by themselves, they won’t make much of a difference – you really have to remove the causes of the problems (chemicals and refined foods), and replace them with a variety of truly healthy foods.
If you aren’t sure, go give it a try.
Warning! This topic is NOT complicated, but it does have different parts, because some types of foods are fermented in one way, some in another way, and a few can be done in more than one way. So we’ll try to cover the basics in as simple a manner as possible.
Fermenting foods introduces healthy microbes into the food, which sometimes preserves the food for an extended period, but sometimes is done for reasons other than preservation. The microbes consist of an assortment of bacteria and yeasts. When it is done properly, the healthy ones grow faster than unhealthy ones and keep the unhealthy ones from populating significantly. For more on good and bad microbes, read this article: Good Germs, Bad Germs
Other terms commonly used for fermented foods include:
We do NOT advocate or provide information on making alcoholic drinks – we do provide information on not ACCIDENTALLY making such foods!
Commonly fermented foods include:
- Sauer Kraut
- Pickles (old fashioned brined pickles do not use vinegar)
- Milk cultures such as kefir, buttermilk, and yogurt
- Many types of condiments
- Bread yeasts (including wild yeast made without store bought yeast)
- Hummus and other bean ferments
Many of these are traditionally fermented foods. Most fermented foods end up with a pickled flavor, and may taste like they contain vinegar even when they do not.
Most fermented foods follow a basic set of processes and rules:
1. Use clean containers and utensils, and clean your produce with water (vegetable detergents are not helpful).
2. Prepare the food – peel, chop, crush, mix items together, etc. WARNING: If the food has spoiled bits on it, soft spots, or other signs of decay, do not use it. You need fresh food with no signs of mold or rotting, or you’ll spoil your ferment before it even gets started.
3. Either pack it into the jar so there are no air bubbles, or submerge the food in salt brine. Exception: wild sourdough yeast is simply mixed in a jar.
4. Solid foods that do not have liquid above the surface should be close fermented with a lid on the jar. Brined foods may be open or close fermented (closed fermenting may take a little more attention if you don’t use an airlock system). Vinegar and wild yeast requires open fermenting.
5. Leave plenty of headroom in the jar, so the food has room to expand. Foods will typically increase by 25-30%, but some increase as much as 50% in the fermentation process.
6. During the initial fermentation period, make sure the food stays under the surface of the liquid if it is a brined food (use something to hold it under the brine if needed – a zip bag filled with water works if you don’t have anything else the right size, though we recommend using a double layer of zip bags with a bag full of water sealed inside a second bag just in case it pops open).
7. DON’T MESS WITH IT! Leave it alone and don’t stir it, don’t open the cap, don’t repack it, just leave it alone for at least 3-5 days (or however long the recipe calls for).
Exception #1: Non-airlock close fermented containers should be vented as needed. This does NOT mean opening the top! It means loosening the lid until you hear it hiss, and tightening it back a little when it stops hissing. The top of a canning jar lid won’t pop down when pushed if it needs vented.
Exception #2: If you are making sourdough starter or Amish Cinnamon Bread starter, then you need tend to it as directed in your instructions. If you are making wild yeast, it is important to open it and stir it daily during the initial fermentation period to help with the propagation of wild yeast in the starter. That is not important once it gets going.
NOTE: During the beginning of the process, the ferment won’t have much odor, but by the second or third day, you should start to smell a vinegary, pickley smell. If it lacks that smell, after four or five days, and especially if the water has gone unevenly cloudy (iodized salt may cause a little bit of even opacity to the water, this is more clumpy looking), or if the vegetables have started to feel slimy, throw it out. This isn’t likely to happen if you follow the directions, but the best of us push the limits sometimes and find out the hard way just where they are!
8. When the food has reached the desired degree of fermentation, it may be repacked into a clean storage container with a tight lid. Make sure that you still follow the rules of working out air bubbles, and submerging brined foods in brine. The jar should be fairly full. Store the container in a cool, dark place – a refrigerator is good, or a cool root cellar.
9. During storage, DON’T FUSS WITH IT! If you need to remove some to use it, do so, but don’t mess with it a lot, and submerge the foods again, and reapply the lid, tightly.
10. Make sure you clean your hands before getting foods out, and use clean utensils. It can be really difficult to keep the kids from getting into the pickle jar with their fingers, but it helps the food last longer!
11. Use your eyes, and your nose. If something does not look or smell like food, don’t eat it. Throw it away instead. Don’t try to salvage it. Your compost will appreciate it, but your stomach probably won’t.
Some foods do require specific temperatures to incubate cultures, but most pickled foods do not. Some won’t do well in summer heat – in fact most don’t, though you can culture yogurt in the summer without an external heat source if you live in a warm climate. Most pickled items were fermented in a root cellar in previous centuries, where the temperatures were fairly cool, allowing for a long slow ferment. A root cellar is typically warmer than a fridge, but cooler than room temp, and many ferments thrive in that range. The top of the fridge provides a warmer place to culture foods that like a little extra warmth in the winter time. Pay attention to the way your recipe says to do it, and find a spot that meets the general requirements.
Fermenting foods can be a lot of fun. There’s a real thrill in biting into a pickle that started out with a few simple ingredients, and turned into something that does not taste like any of the ingredients you put in, but which is simply delicious. Fresh cultured foods are not like the embalmed grocery store versions, they are crisp and lively in flavor and texture.
So follow the rules to enjoy healthy fermented foods. And have some fun with it!
A debate rages in some circles regarding open and closed fermenting. For some individuals, an open ferment does not work well for certain items, but it is preferable for a few items in all situations.
An open ferment is one where the surface of the fermenting liquid is exposed to the air – the term is also sometimes used to degenerate fermenting done in anything less than an airlock environment, but that is not correct – closed ferments may be done using standard canning lids (the amount of air that can circulate is negligible – and not significantly more than circulates through an airlock, and both allow gasses to escape if the canning lid is just barely tightened). Open fermenting is the traditional means of fermenting kraut, pickles, wild yeast, and many other pickled or cured items.
A few items, such as milk kefir, or yogurt, generally prefer a closed ferment. This also limits outside contamination with wild yeast or bacteria. Usually that isn’t an issue, and rarely causes a problem in ordinary fermenting situations, even with items that prefer a closed ferment.
For some individuals, open fermenting may result in unpredictable outcomes at times. This has to do with a number of factors, including the temperature, humidity, and with the types of molds and competing bacteria in a given environment (and the irresistible urge some people have to keep opening it). Some homes just have more unfriendly molds and bacterias than others (sometimes due to previous owners, outside influences, or other factors which are not always within the control of the home owner). In our experience, this is the exception, rather than the rule – ferments will work more often than not for most people. But it may be the rule for those individuals who have this particular set of problems – and it may be a serious problem for them.
This is why products such as the Pickle-It system were developed – this system provides a way to release the gasses produced by the fermentation process, but limits the amount of air that can circulate in (it does not prevent air contamination that comes along for the ride in the first place, or that occurs when the container is opened to check – it just limits it during the wait times). It does not create an anaerobic environment, in spite of claims that it does – it just limits the amount of outside contamination potential when the jar is not open. An airlock only prevents air movement when air pressures are equal. If air pressures inside are greater, gasses bubble through the airlock. If air pressures outside are greater, gasses will bubble in through the airlock the same way they bubble out. This is true of any lidded jar as well, and the difference in contamination potential between an airlock system, and a lidded jar that is not opened frequently, is very small. The biggest difference is gas release – an airlock prevents messy encounters with gas producing bacteria.
The success of airlock jar systems, as reported by users, is partly due to method, not exclusively the system. People admit to fermenting more with their new jars – this means they finally care enough to work out the bugs in their method (when you have an expensive system you feel obligated to use it also). The jars also encourage a person to NOT open and mess with it – which alone is a large enough factor to make a huge difference in success rates. I can discipline myself to leave the jar alone well enough to save the hundreds of dollars it would cost me to acquire enough airlock jars to replace my perfectly functional collection of buckets, jars, bottles, crocks, and zip bags.
Claims regarding healing rates involving foods fermented in airlock systems as opposed to using airlock systems also can be logically explained for the same reasons. Method affects outcome, regardless of the system, and if you ferment more, and use more fermented foods, you may overcome a problem you were not able to at other times. My own health gains are sufficient for my own satisfaction – I was gluten intolerant, lactose intolerant, pre-diabetic, had heart arythmias, had progressive painful arthritis, daily headaches, and auto-immune Crohn’s Disease, and had so many food intolerances that I could barely eat. I had so many sensitivities to chemicals that I could not use most shampoos, deodorants, laundry detergents, soaps, or other personal care items. Those things are gone. My blood sugar is balanced, I eat dairy, wheat, eggs, pork, tuna, and other foods that made me sick for years. I rarely have headaches, I barely have arthritis, the auto-immune disease is gone, and my bowel is mostly healed – I have a few sensitivities to chemicals remaining that give me problems now and again, which are lessening all the time. I did not just learn how to LIVE with a condition, I have REVERSED it. I honestly don’t think I can take credit for that – in the end, it was truly a miracle from God which enabled me to heal. But I know what worked for me to do my part, and I know what works now to KEEP the blessing.
For most situations, open ferments work perfectly well, and can result in a wider variety of healthy microbes. An open ferment is the only way to do some things (they can help with some wild yeast cultures). Open ferments are also preferable when fermenting non-alcoholic fruit based foods. An open ferment builds up alcohol to a higher initial concentration than a closed ferment, but it eliminates the alcohol better if the ferment is allowed to complete – leaving it open to the air encourages the microbes which create a vinegary result rather than an alcoholic result. That won’t happen in a closed ferment – it does build up a little less alcohol initially, but it retains the alcohol instead of converting it to acid (vinegar cannot be produced in a closed fermenting environment, you get hard cider instead), resulting in a far higher alcohol content in the finished ferment.
Contrary to popular myth, airlocks are NOT the “historical” way of fermenting ANYTHING, including alcoholic beverages. Mankind has been fermenting foods for more than 9000 years, according to archeological evidence, and water locks have only been used for a couple hundred of those years. They are a rather new invention on the scene. Indeed, some breweries still ferment beverages in open vats. After the initial fermentation period, they are closed up to retain the alcohol and allow long term aging (slower secondary fermentation which builds up less gas).
Some of the “evidence” regarding open versus closed ferments is misleading, biased, and based on deliberate omission of parts of the process. This is true of a lot of information regarding “testing” of fermented foods. It is often done in a home kitchen, without proper controls, and frequently without a full understanding of the principles involved. Results are often based on incomplete fermentation results (for example, comparing open and closed fermentation alcohol levels at 3 and 5 days, but not at 30 days when the process is fully completed for the open ferment). Results are also often given only for one side of the equation – for example, statements of mold spores found in kefir which was incubated in a mason jar, without corresponding mold spore results from kefir incubated in an airlock system.
Statistics are often quoted, pointing out a failing in one method, while leaving out that the same flaw applies to the other method (they just hope you won’t notice). They often focus on a minor factor, while ignoring the major factors that present larger problems (such as focusing on air circulation during storage time, rather than on disruption air exposures when containers are opened which are a larger problem). They also frequently fail to observe time tested patterns that have proven accurate for millenia (such as airlock fermentation for alcoholic beverages, and open fermentation for non-alcoholic pickled foods). Many focus entirely on lactic acid baccillus, while completely ignoring all other healthy bacteria and yeasts (and lactic acid baccillus is only part of the picture, not the whole thing). And one often referenced kitchen test for alcohol content in fermented soda involved heating the soda prior to testing the alcohol content, thereby completely invalidating the test results! (Alcohol evaporates quickly when heated, or even if stirred very much.)
The “science” is often twisted to suit the goal of the presenter. So be suspicious, apply common sense and logic, and if someone claims that their method is traditional or historic, ask them who, and when, and how. If they present “evidence” look at the entire picture, not just the little piece they want you to see. Always look to see if the “fault” they are pointing at in their competition is not present in them also (often it is, they just don’t mention it!).
This is NOT a debate here, merely an attempt to accurately outline the pros and cons of the different methods, so you can choose wisely for the kinds of things you wish to do. Open ferments are best for some things, closed ferments for others, and some people prefer an airlock for closed ferments. A wide range of ferments may be done either way.
Keeping food under the brine for brine pickling is far more important than the kind of container you ferment the pickles within. Sellers of water lock systems always tell you that you MUST keep the food under the brine – if their method were truly what they claim it to be, it would not matter. It is keeping the food under the brine, now, and historically, that properly pickles salt brined foods.
Success depends more on whether you follow proper fermenting procedures than it does on whether or not you use an airlock system. Disturb it as little as possible, make sure foods stay under the brine, remove scum on top of brines prior to removing any food, and make sure food is back under the brine after removing any portion. Ferments must be allowed to complete to the point where pickling has occurred, and then transferred to a lidded jar that is essentially airtight, and placed in the refrigerator.
(There is an entirely different argument about what is, and is not, airtight, but even an airlock or water lock system is not absolutely airtight, air still moves through the water at a slow rate – and it moves through fresh water faster than it does through salt water. A rubber plug replacing the airlock is not entirely airtight either. The goal is not absolute – it is to restrict to the point where the amount that circulates is insignificant, and any rubber gasket lid will accomplish that goal. Beer making requirements are irrelevant – beer builds up tremendous pressure in the bottle, making the requirements different than the requirements for storing pickled foods in the fridge. A rubber gasket seal is perfectly adequate, and won’t allow any degree of significant air transferrance. Kerr and Ball [now the same company] would not warrant their gaskets as airtight for legal reasons, but air WON’T move past a rubber seal of any thickness unless the glass is damaged, as in a chip out of the top edge of the jar, or if the outside and inside pressures are very unequal, in which case, a rubber stopper is just as likely to fail, possibly explosively.)
I have seen it recommended that fermented foods be transferred to a smaller container when a significant portion is used, but I think you’ll lose as much as you gain from that, especially if it is a short storage item, and not one you are using for a period of several months. The reason is that transferring it from one container to another means massive air exposure throughout the entire contents, while leaving it in the original jar means only the top surfaces are exposed very much. Remember, the majority of air exposure comes from handling, not from storage method.
Some sources claim that foods stored in an airlock system (they did not specify whether they replaced the airlock with a rubber stopper) will stay fresh longer in the fridge. This may be true, I honestly do not know. Nothing I make lasts long enough to develop a problem! I only ferment foods that we love to eat. No point in fermenting things that we want to store for years, drying is more stable and does not require fridge or root cellar space. And foods that are frequently opened and used from will perform equally well between a specialized system and a lidded canning jar, simply the only air exposure that matters is exposure caused by opening the jar when foods are being removed.
The things I have had that failed did so because I dropped the ball – most commonly, my wild yeast develops mold because I forget to feed it. This is true of most situations where fermenting fails – there is some little error in the method that is hindering success, such as excessive handling, fermenting it near something that interferes (like a bunch of ripening bananas), or getting confused about when it needs a lid and when it does not.
Fermented foods are “living foods”. They change through the course of storage. They HAVE to. If they do not, they are no longer living. They are dead and embalmed. So longer storage is not necessarily a plus – I can make any kind of fermented food store indefinitely by pasteurizing and sealing it. But doing so kills the living microbes that I want. Properly fermented foods store for an average of 4-12 months, depending upon how they are stored (heat is a major factor in storage life – warmth speeds up the life cycle and hastens the end of usefulness as food). Since I tend to ferment things in small batches, of at most, a few jars at a time, it is used up long before that time anyway! Even if I wanted something to last longer, I would not choose an airlock system as a means of storing it longer. At $25 apiece and more, they are simply not affordable as long term storage containers! A canning jar, packed close to the top, with sufficient moisture to keep the food pieces under liquid, with a lid screwed on snug, will yield good results if left alone in a cool and dark place.
A friend of mine uses the Pickle-It system and swears by it. She loves it and feels she cannot successfully ferment many types of foods in her particular situation without it. She ferments different types of foods than what we do, and does not do types that require an open ferment. Fermenta Lock accomplishes the same thing.
We use many open ferments, using Fermenta Caps, and some closed ferments using Fermenta Lock, and enjoy equivalent success. We had the same kind of success using regular canning lids (loosening the cap enough to hiss, tightening it back down when the hissing stops) to keep them from building up dangerous levels of pressure – it was just less convenient. Using canning lids which do not vent themselves requires more vigilance on our part to avoid messy encounters. Fermenta Lock is simpler because we put it on and walk away. I can, and have, done it all three ways, and still do, simply because not all closed ferments need an airlock cap.
However you choose to ferment your foods, we wish you success.
The ORIGINAL one-way valve fermenting airlock! Imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery, and we have noticed that our product has been copied by other sellers of fermenting products. Remember, if you see someone else selling a one-way valve airlock for fermenting, THEY copied US, not the other way around! Fermenta Lock is still the only original invention, handmade in the US. If it isn't orange, it isn't the original!
We invented Fermenta Lock, Fermenta Free, and the valve used for Fermenta Fido and other Fermenta Airlock products. We invented Fermenta Dunk Extender. Patents are prohibitively expensive, and designed by the government not to protect the rights of individuals, but to provide another source of revenue and control for the government and lawyers. We are good at what we do. We have endless ideas and endless creativity, and competition does not scare us. Impatient thieves do not scare us - they are too busy taking shortcuts to make a success of it anyway, and they won't want to take the effort to actually MAKE a product and fill orders.
So if you want to copy our idea, go right ahead. If you want to market and sell a competing product, you are welcome to do so, as long as you do not patent our idea - we had it first, and our posts on FaceBook announcing the invention and launch of it will prove that. This idea is officially in the public domain, placed there by us. We will NOT release supply sources, or part names unless you want to buy them - we'll be happy to sell you an instruction kit. If you buy our product, or look at the images and figure it out for yourself, good on you. Compete with us if you like, just don't screw us, and we'll get along just fine. Big companies who might want to screw us may have more money, and more lawyers than we do, but we have more to gain by suing the pants off a big company, and believe me, we will be well motivated to do so if anyone patents our idea and claims it as their own - this is a free idea. Everybody now owns it.
Published June 23, 2012
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