Busting Lacto-Fermentation Myths
There are some common misconceptions about lacto-fermented vegetables. First of all, it is new territory for a lot of people, so it just sounds foreign to begin with.
But once you are brave enough to prepare your first jar of sauerkraut or crock of kimchi, you are over the biggest hurdle. After that, you might struggle with some of the common misconceptions about lacto-fermented vegetables that may have been pushing you away from the practice.
Here are some facts to bust some of those myths so that you can get in the kitchen and create these ferments without fear.
Myth #1: Fermented vegetables must be canned to be safe. This myth is perpetuated by cookbooks and preserving books that call for the jars of ferments you have cultured to be water- or pressure-canned for “safety.”
The truth is, fermented vegetables contain a natural preservative called lactic acid. This acidity, much like the vinegar in canned pickles, preserves the vegetables. In a very acidic environment, such as is present in fermented vegetables, harmful bacteria cannot exist. So, fermented vegetables preserve themselves.
And, if you’re ever wondering whether a particular batch has gone bad, your nose will let you know.
Myth #2: You must store fermented vegetables in the refrigerator. This myth is made possible by a lack of understanding of history. Fermented vegetables were actually born as a method of food preservation in the absence of refrigeration.
You only need a cool place when a recipe refers to moving your ferments to cold storage. This could be a basement, a root cellar, or anything you can keep relatively cool. Fermentation continues even under refrigeration, so the cooler you can keep it the better.
Myth #3: You must use whey or a starter culture. Many who are dairy-intolerant or do not wish to purchase starter cultures are turned off by recipes that call for these ingredients. However, the recipes that call for either of these often say that they are optional, which they are, and entirely unnecessary.
A whey or starter culture addition is simply there to give the "good" bacteria a head start, and ensure that they proliferate over the bad. So, while those boosts are good for beginners who wish to be more comfortable with the process, they are not necessary. Fresh vegetables should have friendly bacteria all over them from the soil. The fermentation process will multiply these and inoculate your ferment with friendly bacteria.
Myth #4. You should culture at a warm room temperature for a few days. Many, many recipes tell you to “let it ferment for three days and then transfer to cold storage.” This will allow the vegetables to culture and then halt the culturing process, but it doesn’t paint a full picture.
Most traditionally made sauerkraut and other ferments were cultured at cool temperatures in a cellar or buried vessel. So from day one they would be below 70°F. This allows for a slower fermentation process which can also help develop flavors, retain crunch, and perhaps even change the friendly bacterial count of your cultured vegetables.
So if these myths have been holding you back, don’t worry, they’re now busted!