Lacto-fermentation: Ten Biggest Questions Answered

Lacto-fermentation is growing in popularity as more and more people discover the health benefits of this ancient food preservation method. But I have to tell ya, the taste of these foods are a benefit as well. We at Cooking God’s Way teach local classes on lacto-fermentation monthly and get asked a lot of questions.

Here are the top 10 lacto-fermenting questions we get asked most often:

Top 10 Most Asked Lacto-fermenting Questions

1. What is lacto-fermentation?

Lacto-fermentation is an ancient method of food preservation that has been around for thousands of years, that can be preformed on raw and cooked vegetables. Many different cultures around the world used this technique in some manner. Many foods that you have eaten or have heard of were originally made using lacto-fermentation, ie. sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi (a spicy sauerkraut eaten to this day with every meal in Korea) etc. Lacto-fermented are not only “preserved” but are nutrient-dense, enzyme rich and made alive with probiotics.

2. Why should one eat lacto-fermented foods, what are the benefits?

Most cultures around the world have some sort of fermented food that is a staple in their diet. We should be following in their footsteps, as there is a reason their health is more stable than that of the U.S. It is becoming widely known that 80% of our immune system is in our gut. The immune system deals with aging, infection, disease, and general health. Consuming these probiotic and enzyme rich foods help build the immune system and aide digestion, taking a load off our system.

Lacto-fermenting eCourse

3. Can I get food poisoning from eating fermented foods?

Fermented foods which are properly made are considered very safe to eat.

According to Fred Breidt a microbiologist with the USDA – “properly fermented vegetables are actually safer than raw vegetables, which might have been exposed to pathogens like E. coli on the farm… With fermented products there is no safety concern. I can flat-out say that. The reason is the lactic acid bacteria that carry out the fermentation are the world’s best killer of other bacteria,”- San Francisco Gate, June 2009.

It does not happen very often, but if an occasional batch goes bad, you will know it. In all the years of fermenting foods I have only had 2 batches go bad. One got mold on it after being the fridge for some time and one smelled so horrible after the fermentation process that you couldn’t even get your nose near it. Both were tossed in the garbage immediately. So you can see, if it does happen, the signs will be there and it would not be easy in the least to consume a contaminated batch.

4. Are lacto-fermented foods available for purchase in the store?

Fermented foods are usually not available for purchase in the store, well at least not at the level of fermentation that is performed at home. The simple reason is that fermented foods are living and continue to ferment, producing gases, which in turn creates pressures that product packaging could not contain. Can we say leaky cracked, exploding jars and burst bags?! No worries though, lacto-fermented foods are easy (and safe) to make at home.

5. Is specialty, expensive, equipment needed to make lacto-fermented foods?

The process of lacto-fermentation takes place in an anaerobic environment, meaning without oxygen. If oxygen is present the wrong organisms can flourish instead of the beneficial ones we desire. During the process of fermentation gases are produced which can cause cracked or even worse, exploding jars… yikes! The good news… there is equipment available that makes lacto-fermentation safe and easy. These specialty fermentation tools keep air our of your ferment while at the same time allowing gases to escape, so you can get less issues with mold or ferments going bad, and avoid the scare or worries of exploding jars. If you look around the internet you will find many different types of vessels or equipment for fermenting, they can range in price from very affordable and economical to quite costly. We at Cooking God’s Way have designed a system for lacto-fermentation that is very affordable, economical, and easy to use – see our Lacto-fermentation Air-lock System.

6. What is the process or methods used to make lacto-fermented foods?

During lacto-fermentation we are basically growing/culturing a probiotic food. So we can either allow the lactobacilli already present on the vegetables to proliferate or we can add a special culture to get it started. I like to keep it simplest whenever possible.

When fermenting raw vegetables just using some sea salt and/or a salt brine will keep putrefying bacteria at bay until the natural lactobacilli on the veggies can take over. When wanting to ferment a food that is not raw, but cooked or roasted, then it is important to use some sort of culture that contains live lactobacilli since some of the enzymes have been destroyed. The culture can be a commercial culture, usually a powder, available online, or the easier way is to use “whey”. Fresh liquid whey can be easily obtained from plain yogurt with live active cultures or kefir, making it an economical choice over specialty vegetable culture powders.

7. Can I eat lacto-fermented foods even though I’m lactose or dairy intolerant?

The process of lacto-fermentation happens when the starches and sugars within the vegetables are converted to lactic acid by the friendly bacteria lactobacilli. So the term “lacto” in lacto-fermentation actually refers to this production of lactic acid, not lacto as in the lactose in milk. So, the answer to this question is Yes and Maybe No.

YES – If the fermented food was made with the traditional “salt” method.
MAYBE or NO – If the fermented food was made with the addition of “whey”, usually from yogurt or another milk product, those with dairy intolerance’s may not be able to enjoy those types of ferments. In this instance one would have to proceed with trying at their own discretion and risk (non-dairy vegetable culture powders are available to use inplace of “whey” if dairy is an issue).

8. How long do fermented foods last?

Lacto-fermented foods differ from commercially processed foods in how they go “bad”. Commercially processed foods become tainted with bad bacteria or mold, becoming unsafe to eat. While lacto-fermented foods do on very rare occasion get mold or go “bad”, this is generally not the case (see question 3). The lacto-fermented foods are alive and continue to “ferment” even in cold storage, just at a slower rate. In our experience, the harder the cell wall of the vegetable the longer they will last after fermentation and stored in the refrigerator. An example would be that cabbage that has a very tough cell wall will last over 6 months in cold storage vs. a pickle (cucumber) that has a soft cell wall will only last maybe 2 or 3 months in cold storage before it becomes too mushy and unpalatable.

9. Why do my fermented foods sometimes taste a little different from batch to batch?

Vegetables can taste different from season to season and farm to farm. The soil conditions, weather, etc come into play – this is the very same reason that fermented foods will taste different at different times of the year. You are making a natural product so tastes can vary slightly, that is normal.

10. My brine has turned from clear to cloudy and/or there is white sediment on the bottom of my jar. Is this normal?

It is normal to have your brine turn cloudy during the fermentation, this is all part of the process. White sediment on the bottom of the jar is just yeast that forms during the fermentation process and is not harmful.

Consuming laco-fermented foods can be a great benefit to your health and well being. If you’re looking for a place to start there are many lacto-fermentation articles and recipes available to you. Our book ‘Lacto-fermenting: The Easy & Healthy Way‘ includes chapters on history, safety, tools, methods, how to get kids to enjoy fermented foods, and over 40+ tried and tested recipes to get you going in lacto-fermentation. Step forward with confidence, lacto-fermentation is easy!

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Disclaimer: The information in this post is meant for educational purposes only. It is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. None of the opinions are meant to diagnose or treat any disease or illness. You should always consult your healthcare provider.

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  1. You are right that if a ferment goes bad, you’ll know. Even if you’ve never fermented anything, and never smelled a bad one before, your body and mind know it is not a good thing to eat!

    I’ve had one go bad due to veggies that were not fresh enough, and one go bad due to water that was contaminated (we did not know until we saw what it did to the ferment). The only word I have for the smell of them is “funky”. Good fermented vegetables smell pickly – that nice sharp vinegar type smell that tells you something wonderful is inside. Bad ones have a smell that cannot be described – they may smell faintly pickly but not enough to be able to tell that it is a defined pickle smell, and this other odd smell that dominates. When I get one that does not smell like pickles by three to five days of age, I’ll let it sit for another three to seven days, and by then I always know – because it always goes one way or the other fairly quickly, and the spoiled ones are unmistakable! If it does not smell like pickled food, I don’t eat it!

  2. I just began my adventure in making ferments. I have noticed a moldy taste to some of mine and wonder if that’s normal or if something is off balance. I do all my ferments in fido jars with a boiled rock over. I have never had visual mold, but the taste is there. Any thoughts? Thanks !

  3. Eve biscardi says:

    Can u warm up fermented veggies.

    • Eve, Sure you can warm up fermented veggies. Keep in mind if you heat them beyond warm there will be some die off in the probiotics contained in the food. That is not an issue as the food still will be better for you than un-fermented foods. I had a friend tell me they wanted to make seven layer bean dip with their lacto-fermented black bean paste. When they found out cooking it in the oven would kill some of the probiotics, they did not want to use their lacto-fermented beans for the dip. I asked them, what are you going to do instead go buy a can of commercial refried beans instead, that are poor quality? I suggested they use the lacto-fermented beans, yes it would loose some of the quality they had made, but it still would be much better than store bought canned beans.

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