Common Vegetable Fermentation Mistakes
Wondering what is going on with your culturing veggies? Check through these common vegetable fermentation errors to pinpoint what the cause is.
Fermenting vegetables is actually really easy. This is the reason why it is one of my favorite ferments! As long as you have salt you can pickle and ferment any vegetable you want.
There are however a few variables which can make all the difference when it comes to your finished product. Sometimes what can happen with vegetable ferments is that while they do ferment, and they are not off or spoiled, they take on odd smells, which are un-appetizing. Especially to anyone in your friends or family circle who you might be trying to convince of the amazing power of fermentation. Won’t happen so easily if you are offering them a piece of yeasty onion!
The other thing which one wants to avoid is below average probiotic levels. Many of you are perhaps making fermented vegetables to heal your gut, or maintain its health and wellbeing, so I am sure that you want as probiotic a ferment as possible. When it comes to fermentation, a low powered culturing is not desirable. You want to be fermenting with the full microbial power at your back. The stronger the fermentation, the higher the levels of beneficial bacteria will be, and the more potent probiotic value you ferment will have.
So let’s get right into it and have a look at what not to do, in order to achieve delicious, crispy tasting and smelling ferments, which are packed with probiotic muscle.
Mistake #1 Not Sealing Your Ferments
There are some reputable fermentors out there that recommend open fermenting with only a cloth covering. While you can experience success with these methods, too much oxygen is a common cause of mold and other fermentation mishaps.
These are some of the things which can be caused from too much exposure to oxygen:
Mold is probably the top problem which can be encountered due to leaving one’s ferment open to the entrance of new oxygen. While there are schools of thought which say that one can merely scrape off the mold as best as one can, and still safely consume the ferment, generally this is not considered safe.
Vegetables which are below the brine are not in danger of having mold develop on them, as mold needs air, and being submerged they are in an anaerobic environment. However as mold grows roots into what it is growing on, even if you scrape the majority of it off, much could still remain within the vegetable piece on which it developed.
Sometimes, while no mold will take hold, vegetable ferments which have been exposed to too much air can develop odd smells which are not appetizing. These odors might be yeasty, sweet or off-ish. Usually this will not mean that your ferment is off, merely that something opportunistic has developed on the surface.
Some of these opportunists can be yeasts, and a common one is kahm yeast. Kahm yeast takes the form of a white film white covers the surface of the ferment. At first one can mistake it for mold, however at closer examination you will see that it is quite distinctive, and does not have the furry appearance particular to mold. Kahm yeast is not harmful or poisonous. Of course you will want to spoon it off if you can, but do not be alarmed if you cannot get every bit out.
Although it is not harmful, it is definitely not desirable, being unattractive and usually giving off an unpleasant smell.
Vegetable ferments which are exposed to too much fresh oxygen are also apt to get what we so scientifically term ‘mushy bits’. Mushy bits tend to happen if there are any pieces of vegetables which are sticking out of the brine. Although one should always try and submerge all the vegetables, this can be easier said than done, and sometimes the tops will start to protrude out of the water. If there is excess oxygen present then these tend to go soft and mushy, and can also sometimes give off a funny smell.
Mistake #2 Not Submerging Your Vegetables
As we are on the topic of submerging your vegetables, let’s have a look at why this is important. While it is often difficult to keep all of the vegetable pieces down, it can be important to at least try. If you are using an airlock, you might find that it is not so crucial to ensure that no vegetable tops poke up above the brine.
Why submerging the vegetables is important:
The key component to giving the lactic acid an ideal environment in which to thrive is the salt in the brine. Lactic acid bacteria can do just fine in salt, whereas other bacteria which are agents of decay cannot. This is why salt has been used throughout human history to preserve food stuffs. Vegetables which are underneath the surface of the brine are safe from unwanted bacteria, while anything which sticks out can be colonized by unwanted varieties, particularly if there is a supply of oxygen.
What can happen if the vegetable are not completely submerged:
Vegetables which stick out above the surface of the brine can develop mold, yeasts, or get the ‘mushy bits’ syndrome and smell unappetizing.
Mistake #3 Using Chlorinated Water
A common mistake to make is to use chlorinated water for making the brine for your vegetable ferments. Running water is treated with chlorine and other chemicals to inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and microbes. Unfortunately these substances are not species specific, and while doing a good job of keeping water free of pathogens, they can also kill and inhibit the beneficial bacteria which you want to have develop in your ferments.
What can happen when using chlorinated water:
The use of chlorinated water can result in substandard ferments which are lacking in strong bacterial and fermentation activity. Chlorinated water can result in one standing a chance of getting a ferment which never really gets off of the ground and can spoil if left too long. Even if fermentation does take place reasonably successfully, you will probably have fewer beneficial bacteria in your ferment, and the probiotic levels will be lowered.
What to do:
To avoid having chlorine messing with your cultured vegetables, you can buy filtered water, or filter your own. Investing in a household filter is a good idea if you are consuming the water yourself as well. Chlorinated water is one of the major causes – along with antibiotics and stress – of low levels of beneficial bacteria in the GI tract. So if you are making fermented foods in order to colonize your gut with good bacteria, then you might as well invest in a filter for you and your ferments.
If you have not gotten around to getting a filter and don’t’ want to buy bottles of filtered water, but need to get those fermented veggies on the go, there is a quick fix for chlorinated water. Simply boil the water that you will be using, on high, for 5 – 8 minutes. Let the water cool completely before using it. This will cause a lot of the chlorine to evaporate out. Leaving the water to cool and stand uncovered overnight can allow additional chlorinate to evaporate off.
Mistake #4 Not Fermenting for the Right Amount of Time
There are many different guidelines on how long to leave a vegetable ferment. If you have a specific level of fermentation which you find best suited to your taste buds (short ferments = crunchier less sour vegetables, long ferments = softer more tart vegetables), then that is great. The better your ferments taste to you, the more you will eat of them, which in the long run means more probiotics!
However, if you do not have an ideal level of ferment which you prefer, you might want to play around with what length of time seems to develop the most microbes.
Determining how time affects probiotic levels:
When trying to find out how time affects probiotic levels in vegetable ferments, there does not seem to be an easy answer. There are conflicting accounts of fermentors who sent their fermented veg off to the lab. Some sets of results seems to indicate that the longer one leaves the stuff the better, and others indicate that the bacteria are most active after roughly the first week or fermentation, as there is still ample food for them.
So, seeing as not all of us are as professional about our ferments to send them off to get analyzed, here is a simple tummy test which you can do to ascertain roughly how active your cultures are. It goes like this:
Try a piece from one of your ferments which you have stopped at the normal time. Does it make your tummy feel all scrambly? If so, then this is good. It means that there are good levels of active bacteria. If not, play with your ferment times to see if you are overdoing it, or if you could even leave them for shorter time periods.
How temperature affects fermentation time:
Remember, temperature plays a role in how quickly your ferment will culture, so if you are living in a super warm climate, you might find that you need to stall your ferments on the early side. On the other end of the spectrum, if it is pretty cold where you are, your ferments might need some additional time to get to full probiotic power.
Mistake #5 Making Mushy Vegetable Ferments
This is not really a mistake, so much as something which one usually wants to avoid. While mushy vegetable ferments are not a flop, and can easily be disguised in dishes and still used up – there is something so delicious about a fully fermented piece of vegetable which is tart but still retains some of its crunch and texture. So, I thought I would include in this list a handy trick which you might not know, for helping your vegetables to keep their crunch!
Tannin for Crunch
Guess what – tannin helps to keep fermenting vegetables crunchy. You can inject a bit of tannin into your ferments by adding a tea bag (it must be black tea), a grape leaf or barley grains. Thyme also contains good levels of tannin, so adding in a sprig can increase flavor and keep the vegetables pieces from becoming overly soft.
If you are not too worried about salt levels, you can also add in a little extra salt to preserve crunch. But do not go overboard if you are doing a vegetable ferment which is finely cut, as the salt can be overpowering when you eat it. Rinsing fermented vegetables to get excess salt off is not ideal as this means that you will be washing off some of the beneficial microbes as well.
And there you have it – five tips to get you fermenting like a pro. Even though vegetable ferments are pretty simple to set up, it is good to know what to avoid in order to get the best tasting fermentation results.
The word ‘fermented’ does not always have the most positive connotation unfortunately, so if you are showing off your fermented products to someone, you do not want to have to scoop them out a piece out from under a layer of kahm yeast, or say ‘sorry about the smell, but it tastes great, honestly.’
Personally, even though I know there is not really much wrong with a ferment that smells yeasty or sweet – I’d much prefer to consume something that tastes and smells pristine, with the highest probiotic levels possible! : )