How to Use an Airlock for Mold-Free Vegetable Ferments
If you are new to the concept of using airlocks – then you might be thinking that it sounds a bit too complicated for basic vegetable fermentation. Airlocks however are not complex things, they are easy to get hold of, and easy to use.
Many people use airlocks to release pressure from their ferments so as to minimize risks of containers exploding as the carbon dioxide produced from lactic acid ferments builds up. This is a great benefit of airlocks, as exploding fermentation vessels can be very dangerous, but there is another major plus to using airlocks when it comes to vegetable fermentation: the prevention of mold developing in your ferments.
An airlock is one of the best pieces of equipment to own when culturing vegetables. It’s an optional piece of equipment, but once you start culturing veggies in an airlock, you’ll never go back to the non-airlock method.
Note that it is possible to use a traditional fermentation crock with a stone weight to keep your fermenting vegetables submerged under the salt brine; this too will prevent mold from growing and is an alternative to using an airlock. Either method is effective at preventing mold from forming on the top of your fermenting vegetables.
Why One Must Avoid Mold
Mold is something that no home ferment maker wants to see. While some people are brave enough to merely scrape off the top layer where mold is visible and then consume the batch, we would not advise this. If you encounter mold, the best thing is to just chuck the batch.
This is because mold is an organism which grows roots into what it is developing on. The roots are invisible to the naked eye, so you have no idea if what you are scraping off of your ferment contains the sum total of the mold which has developed. If the mold has permeated deeply, then you will still consume it along with the ferment, even if no mold is visible.
Why an Airlock Can Help To Prevent Mold
Before we get into how to make use of airlocks to keep your ferments mold free, let’s have a look at how an airlock works, what can cause the development of mold, and why successful fermenting can keep out mold.
How Airlocks Work
All airlocks are designed on the basic principle of letting pressure escape, while at the same time not allowing any air through their openings, back into the vessel to which they are attached. The function is similar to a valve. There are various different designs of airlocks – you can check them out in this post Best Equipment For Making Fermented Vegetables – but whichever one you choose to use will be carrying out this role of allowing excess carbon dioxide to release, but still keeping new air from reaching the surface of your fermenting vegetables.
Let’s see how this can help with keeping your fermenting vegetables safe from mold.
How Mold Works
Unlike the lactic acid bacteria which are the worker bees of your ferment – and action the process of fermentation – mold needs air for it to grow and thrive. Lactic acid bacteria do not need oxygen to survive, in fact they do very well without it. This is why keeping fresh oxygen out of your containers can go a long way to minimizing any chances of mold and result in successful ferments, and therefore why airlocks work so well for ensuring that your vegetable ferments never contract mold.
How Fermentation Keeps Out Mold
The actual process of fermentation is facilitating to the prevention of mold and other decay occurring. That is why fermentation is used as a preserving process.
The Basis of Fermentation: Help the Lactic Acid Bacteria & Hinder the Mold
When fermenting vegetables, what you are essentially doing is providing the right conditions for the lactic acid bacteria to proliferate and do their job, while minimizing conditions which are favorable for pathogenic bacteria and mold. This results in successful fermentation and preservation of what you are fermenting, without the process of decay being started by mold and the other microbes that break things down which are not growing any more.
Two Things Which Hinder the Mold: Lack of Oxygen and the Presence of Salt
Mold and most other pathogenic bacteria need oxygen to survive, and they also do not like salt, one of the reasons why salt has been used as a preservative for millennia, and why most lactic acid vegetable ferments call for salt.
Why Burping is Bad
Salt will go a long way to keeping mold out of your ferments, but if you are introducing fresh oxygen every time you manually release pressure from the ferment containers when you burp them – mold will still be able to jump in and contaminate your batch because the environment is shifting towards one which can support mold and foreign bacteria. You can also always try to keep away the mold by upping the salt levels. This however can be unpleasant taste-wise and make for an unpalatable ferment.
So as you can see, not only do airlocks keep out mold, but they also help to create the perfect fermentation environment, which supports just the lactic acid bacteria, and is not conducive to the survival of any outsiders.
How to Use and Airlock to Keep Out Mold
So! This brings us to how to use airlocks for the making of healthy and mold-free ferments. Now that you know the role of oxygen in the development of mold, if you are doing vegetable fermentation regularly, we definitely recommend that you try out using an airlock.
Types of Airlocks
If you have decided to try out using an airlock for your ferments, then the first thing your will have to do if you are not in the possession of one already –is decide which type of airlock you want. Here is a quick breakdown of the different types available:
These are the conventional designs of airlocks which are associated with home brewing and beer making. They are cheap, readily available and can be fitted to any size lid. The downside of these types of airlocks is that you will have to do a bit of DIY to get them mounted onto the lid of your brewing container.
Pickle Pipe (made of silicone)
Pickle pipes are a modern, super simplistic, design of airlock, brought about especially for vegetable fermentation in jars. Most of them are designed to insert into mason jar tops, making for an incredibly convenient airlock option, particularly if you are already using mason jars for fermenting containers.
Plastic screw-on airlock top
There are also some places which sell ready to go airlock fitted containers. Some of these are unsuitable due to being made out of plastic, but if you can find one with a glass body and a screw on plastic lid, they can make for convenient fermentation vessels with ready fitted with airlocks.
Maintaining Your Airlock
Once you have gotten your hands on an airlock, depending on what type it is, there might be some things to keep an eye on while fermentation is taking place. For most designs of airlocks, except for pickle pipes, you will need to keep them topped up with water. It is the water which acts as the ‘valve’ releasing the carbon dioxide while keeping out air flow. If the water evaporates, the airlock will cease to function and air will get into your ferment. The other thing to check with all airlocks is that they are not blocked.
Cleaning Your Airlock
To make good and sure that blockages do not happen, and for hygienic purposes, airlocks need to be cleaned. Pickle pipes are the easiest to clean thanks to their simple design. You can merely wash them in the sink with a scrubber. Conventional brewing airlocks can be a little trickier to clean out, due to the curves of their tubing. Some people use their garden hose to pressure wash the inside, and others soak their airlocks in solutions of hot soapy water. If you are not managing to get an airlock clean with ordinary soap, you can also buy brewer’s soap for this purpose, such as Oxiclean or PBW. Soaking your airlock overnight in a solution of brewer’s soap and hot water should dislodge any residue you wish to get rid of.
When starting out and doing your first batches of fermented veggies, it might not be necessary to invest in any specialized equipment. If however you see yourself doing regular vegetable ferments, then getting hold of an airlock is definitely a good idea, especially if you have encountered mold already.
Moldy ferments are frustrating and de-motivating, and can really put one off fermenting all together. Rather than waste ingredients and time only to have to ditch the lot periodically, pick yourself up an airlock of some sort and try it out.
Airlocks eradicate any danger of explosions occurring due to pressure build up, and they help to create the perfect environment for our lactic acid bacteria friends to rein supreme and oust out any competitors.