It can be a scary thought when you first consider fermenting meat, and granted, it can be a daunting thing to undertake. But it isn’t impossible, nor is it something that cannot be done in the average kitchen. While fermenting meat requires a little more attention and know-how than vegetable or fruit fermentation, it can still be well worth your time and effort.

Fermenting meat, like all other forms of fermentation, is an ancient practice. People did not always know that what they were doing to preserve the excess meat from large animal killings was fermentation; they only knew that it worked and it was delicious. For years and years, people had salted their meat to preserve it by removing moisture and making the meat uninhabitable for bad bacteria. But people began to discover that salt dug from some places contained nitrates, which they found not only would turn the meat a pleasant pink color, but would also impart an interesting new flavor that became very popular. This was the result of fermentation that had taken place in the meat, encouraged by the nitrates in the salt used in the preserving processes.

Only more recently have we had the scientific know-how to find out what is really happening when we ferment meat, and it has also made us more aware of what is safe to eat and what is not, and how to go about it to ensure the safest, tastiest fermented meat possible.

We now know that lactobacilli consume sugars and create lactic acid, making the fermentation magic that we have come to love in vegetable, fruit, grain, and dairy ferments. All these foods contain complex sugars for the bacteria to feed upon. But meat contains no sugar. So how does this work? The lactobacilli do have to be fed in meat fermentation, so most recipes will call for some form of sugar in brines or rubs, and not just for flavor: it is also to keep the lactobacilli alive and kicking throughout the fermenting process.

Safety When Fermenting Meat

To ensure a safe ferment in a piece of meat or fish, you will have to stop or restrict the growth of bad bacteria and pathogens. This is largely a temperature issue. Pathogens have not yet developed in a fresh, cold slab of meat or fish, so you already have the upper hand. Keep it that way. Once the bad bacteria have a foothold, it is hard to keep the meat from going bad. So the first order of business is to start with very fresh, cold meat and don’t wait around or put off getting the ferment started, because the bad guys are already at the door, so to speak.

The only time you should allow a piece of meat to get warm is when you have already started your own fermenting method with it. Most recipes will call for a small period of warming up to get the good bacteria going and established. After this short time at higher temperatures, you will usually get the meat to a colder place for a longer, slower fermentation time.

Acidity of the Fermenting Meat

The next step is to increase the acidity. You will begin to lower the pH to about 5.0 to 4.6. This level of acidity is extremely inhospitable to spoilage, bad bacteria, and pathogenic organisms. You can do this by adding an acid to a brine or fermenting mixture, or just relying upon the acids produced by the working lactobacilli. Relying upon the already-produced acids will result in a more pleasant, fermented taste, but will be a bit more risky when it comes to keeping your meat safe from bad bacteria. This is a decision you make based on what your ferment looks and smells like at this point.

The next part of this series, Lacto-fermenting Meat and Fish: Part Two, addresses the specific ingredients that are common in most recipes you will see. Knowing the things you will be adding to your fermenting meat or fish will help you to understand the process and fix any issues that may arise.