Fermentation is in our everyday lives: think of products such as beer, soy sauce, kombucha, vinegar, hot sauce and sauerkraut. When creating these delicious foods, several different types of ferments are made with different kinds of beneficial bacteria. I’m going to be focusing on one specific bacteria today; Lactobacillus. There’s a wealth of information online that is even more in-depth, but for now, I’d like to give you an overview in order to get started in fermentation. When I first started fermenting, it was really hard to find everything in the same spot and what important things I needed to consider. I’d like to provide a one-stop for you to grasp the overall concept and decide how far down the rabbit hole you would like to go.
Lactobacillus (or lacto for short) is a specific type of anaerobic bacteria that converts sugars into lactic acid. For the lacto to work their magic, a low to zero oxygen environment is needed. Since lacto have a higher salt tolerance than most other bacteria (not all) I use salt to help create a beneficial environment for them to flourish. Fermentation is all about bacteria battling it out to see who can eat the most food. If we tilt the scale in lacto’s favor, we get a beautifully fermented and acidic product that is safe for us to eat.
The important things to keep in our minds when fermenting are sanitation, pH, headroom/airlock, salt content, time, and temperature.
SanitationBacteria is all around us. We want to make sure to kill as much of the bad bacteria as possible so the lacto can thrive. Make sure to wash (and sanitize if possible) all of your equipment and jars you intend to use. Wash/rinse your veggies and get all of the dirt and bad bacteria off the outside. The good bacteria we want is throughout the veggies you are fermenting so you won’t need to worry about washing them away.
pH BalanceIt is important for the ferment to drop in pH within a few days to ward off bad bacteria and even botulism. pH is the measure of acidic or basic substances. The pH scale goes from 0-14 with 7 being neutral (anything below 7 is an acid). Botulism cannot grow under 4.6pH and will inhibit any spores that may have formed, which is super important, as we do not want to poison ourselves.
Your goal is to have the ferment under 4.6 pH. I strongly suggest you test the pH, especially for newbie fermenters as an added safety measure. You can get electronic measuring sticks for under 15$ on Amazon, or paper test strips. Test strips are not as precise/accurate as the meter would be.
Headroom/AirlockOxygen is the enemy! To make fermenting easier for the lacto, use an airlock or
TimeThe most important aspect of fermenting is time. You need patience. I know, it’s hard waiting for those delicious veggies as you watch them sit there and make their magic, but it’s WORTH it. When it comes to fermentation time, generally, the longer the better. Typically, most ferments finish an “active” stage of fermenting around the 20-day mark. What I mean by this is that a significant amount of the food source has been converted and less CO2 is being produced. However, you will still have some activity from the lacto eating after the 20-day mark.
A great starting point for fermentation time is 10-14 days before you can dig into your scrumptious pickled veggies. Once the “active” stage is done, it enters more of an aging phase where the flavors develop. Some ferments can go a year plus! Once you have determined you want to stop the ferment based on the flavor you are tasting, put it into the fridge to slow the ferment massively. This leads us to our next point…
Fermentation is living organisms eating and living their daily lives. They, like us, need a nice temperate climate and environment to live in. Ideal temperatures for lacto-fermentation range from 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit. You can ferment at a warmer temperature, it will just speed it up significantly. Conversely, when fermenting in colder climates, it will significantly slow it down. Be sure to keep your ferment between 60-90 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything beyond those high and low points will severely harm your ferment. Too low a temperature and your ferment will be too slow to start, and your pH won’t drop in time. Too high, and you will kill off the lacto.
As I mentioned earlier, once you are satisfied with your ferment, place it in the fridge to slow your ferment down immensely. This will keep the flavor profile that you created, yet it may change slightly over time as it is still fermenting, just incredibly slowly.
If you want to continue your journey on fermenting and figure out new tips and tricks, I encourage more research and in-depth explanations, as this is just a starting point to get started in fermentation.