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. At Cooking God’s Way we wanted to share the top questions from our local and online classes on lacto-fermentation.
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. It 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 Many foods that you have eaten or have heard of were originally made using lacto-fermentation, ie.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 foods are not only “preserved” but are nutrient-dense, enzyme rich and made alive with probiotics.
*Update: Without getting too deep into the science let me quote from our book, Lacto-fermenting: The Easy & Healthy Way, “Lacto-fermentation happens when natural starches and sugars found within vegetables and fruits are converted to lactic acid by the friendly bacteria lactobacilli. The term “lacto” in lacto-fermentation, refers to the production of lactic acid. This acid is a natural preservative, inhibiting the growth of putrefying bacteria. Of all the acids common to food preservation, lactic acid is the one most easily used by the body and does not cause over-acidifying effects.” An anaerobic environment (without air), enhances the production of lactic acid and this is why fermenting kits were developed.
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 many in 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.
*Update: Fermented foods, which are enzyme rich, help to digest enzyme deficient foods, i.e. cooked foods. The Germans who are famous for their sausages have combined sauerkraut with meat for centuries. Eating fermented foods with meats greatly aids in their digestion, while helping to ring out all the nutrients available.
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.
*Update: A study showed that the basic compounds of many common insecticides, herbicides are broken down becoming harmless during the fermenting process. This is exciting to know since we are living in a increasingly polluted world.
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.
*Update: I have learned of a company Farmhouse Culture, that has developed packaging which allows them to sell facto-fermented sauerkraut in retail supermarkets. The packaging allows the gasses to escape while retaining the liquid, thus no mess. I called them and they do produce their sauerkraut with out heat the correct way. Look for their product in the refrigerated section. While this item may not be cheap it gives you a great way to experience real fermented foods.
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.
*Update: We have just released The Original Veggie Fermenter (starter kit), everything you need to get started fermenting , just add the food and a jar.
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.
*Update: Beware there are different websites now claiming that you have to use a culture when fermenting raw vegetables or you will not produce healthful levels of probiotics. Fermented vegetables have been produced for centuries without expensive cultures and lab tested to confirm. It is called lacto-fermenting because lactobacilli present (probiotics) on the raw vegetables create lactic acid and multiply during the fermenting process, all with out the aid of a culture. It is interesting that the websites that claim you have to use a culture just so happen to sell that culture, very interesting. If you do want to use a culture with raw vegetables it will not hurt anything but your bank balance. Keep in mind that cooked vegetables will need a culture since all the good bacteria were killed in the cooking process.
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-brine” 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 that are available to use inplace of “whey” if dairy is an issue).
*Update: Whey made correctly at home has the milk solids removed. It has been shown that this type of whey maybe less of an issue with people that are lactose intolerant. It would be prudent to experiment with caution if you are depending on how lactose intolerant you are. It could open a new great food to you.
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.
*Update: Keep in mind these are naturally preserved foods made without heat so you will never get the years of storage that canned or heat-processed foods will, but this is a great trade off consiering you will get all the live probiotics, enzymes and vitamins that are destroyed in heat and canning.
9. Why do my fermented foods sometimes taste 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.
*Update: When we speak of different taste, this will be subtle difference. No worries, carrots will not taste like beets!
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 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.
*Update: Just to be clear, the yeast referred to above is not harmful. Fermented foods have been shown in studies to help fight yeast overgrowths in the body, such as candida.
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!