Sometimes people regard lacto-fermentation as a very scientifically precise process. Beginners often get stuck on certain details and become frustrated when their batch doesn’t work out just like the steps and pictures. People frequently will ask, “How long will this batch of sauerkraut take to culture at x temperature?” assuming we have a secret mathematical formula. Though there is science involved, the process is not quite so black and white. Hopefully some of these points will help demystify some of the alchemy some people perceive when making cultured vegetables. Culturing vegetables will require maintenance and care, just like preparing any other food. When cooking, it’s often considered common practice to move the food around as needed, release excess pressure on the pot by opening the lid, add or remove liquid, skim excess fat from the surface of the dish, and smell and taste the batch for “doneness”. The same rules apply to making cultured vegetables. When using a solid lid, it’s best to open and close the lid regularly as pressure starts to build so as to ensure that the vessel’s contents do not overflow. If specific elements such as heat, airtight lids, and active ingredients all come together, a jar may explode when too much pressure builds. As long as you keep the vegetables well submerged, this should not be a problem. Mold and yeast may still form if using an airlock. Personally I’ve never used an airlock and still get great results. An airlock can also be used to ferment vegetables. These act to release the buildup of carbon dioxide without the need to open the lid. This, therefore, is supposed to aid in creating an environment free from outside or unwanted bacteria or mold. The lid can be opened to taste or smell a batch for completion, but it is not necessary. While the lid is open on a cultured vegetable, this is a perfect time to remove any layer that forms.Mold and yeast are common when fermenting vegetables. As long as there is brine covering the vegetables, it’s fine to just scoop off any formations on top of the liquid. If the vegetables have absorbed all of the brine or it has evaporated, just make a fresh batch of brine, allow it to fully cool, and then top off the batch as needed. We recommend 1-3 TBSP of salt per quart of water. Should you have too much brine, dip some out of your container or remove excess veggies as needed. I have found that it’s very helpful to place a plate beneath the vessel to catch any overflow. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stained my counter tops!
It is normal for vegetables to float during the process, but it’s very important to re-submerge the veggies often. Remove any floating veggies that develop mold or yeast. Using a weight is extremely helpful. If your batch is finely chopped or shredded, you may find it necessary to use a cabbage leaf or something similar beneath the weights to help keep the small bits submerged. I really love our Ceramic Fermentation Weights. Some people are quite perplexed by these weights. When you receive them, they will feel extremely light in your hand, however, they will still be able to keep vegetables below the brine. My weights are from the first batch of weights we received and are quite thin, but they still work great and have even kept down some of the most stubborn, woody parsnips I’ve ever seen. The weights have since been made thicker, but I still love my set. These weights have been used so many times!
Many people try to place the two pieces together like a puzzle, however, they will not fit through the wide mouth jar opening in this manner. The weights should be inserted one at a time, skinny end first. Once the pieces are inserted, spread them out in the container rather than leaving them in a whole circle. The Small Ceramic Fermentation Weights were specifically designed to fit in standard wide mouth mason jars and the Large Ceramic Fermentation Weights were created for our Fermented Vegetable Masters.
Once you’ve prepared your batch and lovingly doted over it, how do you know it’s ready? It’s quite simple! You should smell and taste the batch, just like when cooking a meal. If you like the smell and taste, then it’s fine to consume your product or place it in cold storage. The batch may appear slightly different than it did before and the veggies may soften a bit. It is possible that there may not be any visible bubbles; as long as you like the aroma and flavor, it’s fine to consume. If a batch cultured quickly at warmer temperatures, you may prefer to eat your batch after it has aged for a month in cold storage. As a general rule, hot and fast ferments don’t taste very good. Just like when cooking many items, low and slow is a good rule of thumb.
“But how do I know if it’s safe?!” many cry. When I had a bad batch of cultured vegetables (I’ll admit that my produce was FAR too old), the house was instantly permeated by the stench, to the point where my unknowing sister in the next room shrieked “What was that?!” Bad bacteria will produce bad smells and your body is capable of sensing this odor. Discard any batches with slimy vegetables, bugs, or unnaturally colorful brine or veggies. (Note: When using garlic or beets, it’s common for the batch to change colors.) The salty, acidic environment and microbes help keep away pathogens, so it is best to avoid canning your cultured vegetables. Canning will kill off the beneficial microbes and create a sealed environment, possibly leading to things like botulism. Lacto-fermentation is a fabulous, simple, and safe method of preserving food, so I hope these tips will help make the process less overwhelming.