Tips & Tricks to Successful Fermenting

Fermenting foods in your own home can be a bit intimidating. Our society is saturated with the bleach it, sanitize it, pasteurize it, bacteria-is-the-enemy mentality. Growing up in this world, we can be made to feel that if all the bacteria is not done away with, we will get sick. Surely, this is not the case. In fact, we are now finding that trying to get rid of all bacteria is actually making our immune systems weaker and the bad bacteria stronger. Our guts, too, are not a sterile environment and were never meant to be, but are filled with both beneficial and potentially harmful bacteria. It is important to maintain a proper balance of the bacteria in the gut.
Many environmental factors affect this intricate and delicate balance of gut flora. Things like chlorine, sugar, pesticides, and antibiotics can cause the harmful bacteria to proliferate. It is important to support our gut through diet, by consuming less processed sugar, avoiding chlorine and other chemicals, eliminating the need for antibiotics, and buying organic, if possible. One of the many ways we can support our gut is by consuming fermented food, a natural (and cheaper) probiotic.
Making fermented foods is easy. Anyone can do it, and it doesn't require specialized equipment. Due to our modern mentality, many of us may be concerned that fermenting at home could be dangerous, that something could go wrong, and that we would unknowingly consume moldy food. I'm here to allay those fears, and give you some tips and tricks to make fermenting a good and tasty experience.
What about Mold, Botulism, E. coli, and Salmonella?
It is VERY, VERY difficult to ferment anything that would make you sick - unless you don't follow the directions. I've only been fermenting for a year or so, but all the books I have read (and those people have fermented for several years) have never heard of anyone getting sick from lacto-fermented foods. Occasionally, you might find a cloudy layer, or even a little fuzz on the very top of a ferment. This is actually a fairly normal occurrence, yet the fermented food below this layer is perfectly fine. It is common practice to scrape off the top layer, and consume the fermented food. The top layer may be prone to this type of funkiness because it is the layer in contact with air. This is another reason to make sure the food is covered by a layer of liquid, as most recipes advise. This will avoid having a moldy top layer.
I have only once made a ferment in which this top fuzz occurred. Everything below was indeed tasty, delicious, and perfectly healthy. If you are ever wary about a ferment, and if it looks or smells disgusting, then feed it to the compost. If you are unsure, trust your nose. You can also taste a tiny bit of it, swishing it around in your mouth. Trust your taste buds. If they don't care for it, don't eat it.
Botulism is well known in our culture from canning, and is caused by the presence of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum. First, canning is diametrically opposite of fermenting. It means sterilizing foods, so that no microorganisms can grow. The bacteria that causes botulism has a very high tolerance to heat. So, during the heating stage it is possible to kill all the bacteria except the bacteria that causes botulism, leaving it in an anaerobic environment which is the perfect environment for it to grow and reproduce. Botulism has nothing to do with home fermentation, as we are not heating the food, and instead creating an inhospitable environment to those bad buggers. Fermenting food is rather working with a large, native population of bacteria which we are cultivating in order to encourage their growth and their acids. Acidifying bacteria are a brilliant strategy for food preservation and food safety because they create an environment that is inhospitable to Clostridium botulinum, but also other pathogenic bacteria as well.
Salmonella and E. coli cannot proliferate in harsh environments, like the one created under lactic-acid fermentation. The lactic-acid used in this process basically disables any Salmonella or E.coli, if present, from multiplying, and actually kills them, rendering them harmless. Far from being hazardous, fermenting actually improves safety. 
With that said, I can't emphasize enough how safe home fermenting can be. Follow these tips, and you shouldn't have a problem, except, perhaps a problem of finding a place to store all of your delicious ferments!
Tips and Tricks to Successful Fermenting
1. Use the best quality organic vegetables, fruit, and spices. In order to do their work, lactobacilli (the bacteria from the whey) need many nutrients. Oftentimes, non-organic foods are deficient in nutrients, or are sprayed with chemicals that will alter the fermentation process, creating an inferior or inedible product. Likewise, the salt and spices should be pure, or the quality of the final product will be jeopardized. It's also important to note that many organic foods available in large supermarkets have been found to be less nutritious than those bought from a local farmer. If possible, buy locally or grow your own veggies and fruits for the best fermentation results.
2. Use filtered water that is not heavily chlorinated. As mentioned above, chlorine kills microorganisms, which would ruin your ferments. If a lot of chlorine is present in your water, filter it first, or boil it to evaporate the chlorine.
3. During the 2-3 days in which you keep the ferments out of the fridge, make sure their environment stays between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. Seventy-two degrees is ideal. Maintaining these temperatures creates a stable environment for the microorganisms to multiply and produces a fine product. In higher temperatures, without adjusting the fermentation time, the ferment could be compromised.
4. Follow the recipe. The recipes you will be following (I highly recommend those found in Nourishing Traditions) have been tested for safety. You will avoid any fermentation failures if you follow them.
5. If you are still scared about what might happen, buy an air-lock fermenting lid. This will ensure that extra air does not get into the ferment as it sits for those few days on your shelf. I have heard that it is especially good for fermenting pickles. While I have not personally used one, I know that some people feel better going this route.
Happy fermenting!


  1. I'd like to pin this. Is there a pin it attachment?

    1. Lori, unfortunately, they don't make a "Pin it" button for Blogger that I can insert into each of my posts; however, you can download the Pin It button for your bookmark bar at this link:

      Once you download that button, you can pin this post to your pinterest account. Hope that helps!