It all started with booze. Picture the Neolithic hunter-gatherer coming home from a couple of weeks in the bush to find the honey he had collected before he left a simmering mess. Ravenous from his adventure, he would take a small taste, realize that this strange, not exactly rotten brew wasn't going to kill him — and the next thing you know the edges of his world have softened and after seeing God he carves mad poetic figures into the walls of his cave. Thus begins our love affair with fermentation.
The wonders of fermentation are mystical. It’s a complex chemical process that occurs, often of its own accord, with little display over a sometimes lengthy period of time. This can be intimidating for the person interested in fermenting at home but with no experience.
Is it working? What is that white stuff? If I eat this am I going to need a stomach pump?
Whether in a cave, tent, cabin, yurt or château in Southern France, humans have been fermenting at home for millennia. And they generally had a lot more to worry about than bad food. There are just a few things that you have to pay close attention to.
Cleanliness: Make sure your fermentation vessel and anything else that might touch your pre-fermented food is clean. It’s that simple. Bad bugs and mold can’t take hold if they’re not there.
Inhibit the growth of mold and undesirable bacteria with natural preservatives: This is mainly done by using salt or acid.
Vegetable ferments require a certain percentage of salt. I like around 5-6% brine (3/4 cup salt per gallon of water). This is easy when making pickles, but cabbage, or other vegetables that release a lot of water when salted, are a bit more difficult. I usually use a tablespoon of salt for about 3-4 cups of cabbage and then top with the measured brine.
Trust your taste: If it tastes or smells bad, don’t eat or drink it. Kombucha and lactic fermented vegetables may be an acquired taste but you should be able to tell right off whether your ferment is too funky to eat.
This is very basic information provided simply to help reduce any fears that you might have about home fermentation. Though they are all related, every type of food ferment has it own rules. The best thing to do is find a trusted source for recipes and more detailed information. If you’re nervous, start with something simple, like sourdough or kimchi.