Fermentation Myths (More Reasons You Should Ferment!)
I was in the grocery store the other day with one of my friends. She's a person who loves eating raw, fermented foods, and as she reached for the packaged sauerkraut in the refrigerator section, I just thought I'd ask, "Hey, why don't you just make your own? It's even better for you than that kind, even though it's raw. Plus, it's way cheaper, and it's easy to do!"
Her response was, "Maybe someday. But I'm afraid of doing it wrong and getting myself sick." Hmmm...... Although I was a little taken aback by this, I thought about her answer, and decided that she did have some legitimate concerns. By this, I mean, most people are afraid of taking potential risks with their health. Not that eating your own fermented foods is dangerous--it's absolutely not.
This conversation underscored my belief that people in general (even healthy-minded people like my friend) harbor misconceptions that keep them from being TRULY healthy. From trying out some new ways---actually traditional ways----of preparing and eating foods. From just taking a few extra minutes to make it/prepare it themselves for improved health.
Are any of these thoughts stopping you?
Fermentation isn't safe. Fermentation is hard! I might get sick by eating fermented foods. Fermentation is too complicated. My house needs to be the perfect temperature to ferment foods.
All are myths!
Here are some common myths about fermentation that just might be holding you back from giving this amazing, thousands of years old food preservation method a try!
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Common Myths About Fermenting Foods
Behind anything remotely mysterious is fear. And fermentation is no different. The funny thing is, fermentation has been around for literally thousands of years! Cultures the world over have experimented and created delicious foods through fermentation! In many cultures, fermented foods are mainstays and are eaten at every meal!
It's only been since processed foods became a "thing" back in the 1950's forward that fermented foods have been pushed aside, then became viewed with suspicion. My mom tells me about how she enjoyed going in to my great-grandpa's basement when she was a little girl because he always had huge crocks of sauerkraut down there that everyone would just help themselves to throughout the months.
This was obviously long before the processed foods industry "re-educated" the populace to believe that only processed foods are good for you. Modern day thinking around food is so messed up these days.
So, here are some common misconceptions about fermentation and the real truths. If any of these reasons are holding you back from getting started on this incredibly healthy food health journey, then hold back no longer!
Myth #1: Fermentation is Dangerous
Fermentation is definitely NOT dangerous. It's true that fermentation occurs by actions of bacteria and yeast on the food matter, but you have to remember that our culture has developed this unnatural and unhealthy fear of bacteria.
Bacteria are actually GOOD for you! Even bad bacteria is good, to an extent. You can read more about your micro biome and fermentation in this article, but for now, we'll just discuss the active bacteria that work to break down plant and animal matter.
Fermentation is actually the first step in the decomposition process. As plant matter decays out in the wild, that is a form of decomposition which often entails spoilage and stink. But that is very different from what happens when you ferment your own foods.
The thing about controlled fermentation that makes it different from something decomposing in the wild is that you create an environment of healthy yeasts and bacteria that are actually GOOD for living creatures to eat! The bad bacteria are banned from this process!
When I am fermenting a batch of zucchini on the counter, for example, the environment inside the jar is controlled with salt and lack of oxygen, creating a place where those bad bacteria can't take hold! Molds, other fungus, bad bacteria just can't reproduce when fermentation is done correctly. And guess what? If fermentation by some chance, is done incorrectly, and mold does form, or the matter goes bad....you will definitely know it!
Your nose can tell if it smells "off." Your eyes can see mold on the surface of the ferment. And if those two senses fail, your tongue and taste buds will give you a final answer.
Really, in my opinion, it's just plain easier to get sick from eating processed foods that slowly kill your body over time with poisons than it is from eating healthy, nutritious, raw fermented foods that you make yourself.
Myth #2: You Need to Ferment Your Food in the Perfect Temperature
Many people believe that you need a nice, cozy warm environment to ferment your foods. Well that's a complete myth! It's true that there is an optimal temperature for fermentation to take place (around 55-85 degrees), but fermentation can take place even in colder temperatures. Even inside your refrigerator, fermentation occurs---slowly, yes, but it's still happening.
So fear not! Whether your home is cold or hot---doesn't matter. Your food will ferment. Your food will ferment more quickly in a warm environment and more slowly in a cold environment, but ferment it will. You just have to keep an eye on it, don't be afraid to test it for readiness, and enjoy it when it's ready to go!
It's also a fact that lower temperature ferments actually create a more pleasant, well-rounded taste to the food! So, don't worry about temperature. It's very likely your home is perfect.
Myth #3: You Need a Starter Culture
For lacto-fermentation, you do not need a starter culture. I am just now beginning to learn about making cheese, so I can't really speak to that, but I can tell you about lacto-fermentation and making kombucha, vinegars, and home brews as well.
There are many different wild bacteria and yeasts floating around in every environment, and these will cause fermentation to happen. As mentioned earlier, you just have to create the right environment! If your food is below the surface of the brine, and oxygen is kept out of the container, then your food will ferment, even without a starter culture. Fermentation may take longer, but it will happen.
Using enough salt is one way to prevent the bad bacteria from taking hold in your fermented foods. If you are worried about spoilage from bad bacteria, using the correct amount of salt for what you are fermenting will take care of that problem.
I prefer to use whey or a bit of brine from a previously fermented batch of veggies, but there have been plenty of times I have not had any on hand, and I've had to just rely on salt. The fermentation process takes a bit more time, but it still happens; and it happens very well.
Myth #4: Fermented Foods Need to Be Canned
I had another friend tell me this. I had to laugh. When I showed her my jars of fermented tomatoes that had been preserved for literally months in our store room without being canned and sealed, and she saw how delicious they were....well, myth debunked.
As a matter of fact, canning fermented foods kills all the healthy probiotics it contains! Now why would you want to go and do that? Any time you heat food past a certain point, bacteria and yeasts are killed--both good and bad. With fermentation, though, you create the atmosphere in the jar so only the good bacteria survive and thrive!
So, no. Canning is actually not the greatest thing to do to your foods, in my opinion. I know sometimes it's a great preservation option and the food will keep much longer, but really, you are left with a food that has far less nutrition and health benefits that fermented foods have.
Myth #5: You Need Special Equipment
Nope. All you need is a glass jar and a lid. I'm serious! As long as your vegetables are kept beneath the surface of the brine and the lid is kept on, thereby keeping out excess oxygen, you can ferment your foods.
Now, I'll be honest here. It is easier to be sure to get a good ferment when you have certain things: weights, airlocks, etc. But I have successfully fermented foods without these. If I don't have a weight, for example, I'll use a boiled rock to hold my foods beneath the brine. I have operated without an airlock for years! I just make sure to "burp" my jars daily so the gases don't build up to much.
And how about salt? Yes, there are fancy salts out there on the market. But as long as you are not using overly processed salt with iodine (the cheap table salt that is so bad for us), and instead use mineral rich sea salt, you're good to go!
Myth #6: Fermentation is Difficult
You know what? At first, any time you learn something new, there is a learning curve. And that makes it SEEM difficult. I was a teacher to elementary and middle school students for decades. And one of the things I always reminded them about when we were starting a difficult topic is that even if it seems hard at first, it will become easy soon. It's all about practice, just doing it, and not quitting.
Fermentation is no different. The first time you ferment something, like that batch of sauerkraut you've been thinking about trying, it's a little nerve-wracking. Are you adding enough salt? Should you use whey? Is the lid on tight enough?
Then, after you've made a few batches, you realize how ridiculously forgiving fermentation actually is! And if you make a mistake, you'll know it! And you probably won't make it again.
A couple years ago, I just figured that I could leave that little bubble of tomato sitting above the brine, because, after all---the lid was on, right? And everything else was covered up! Well, about seven days later, I opened it getting ready to have a delicious fermented tomato and guess what greeted me?
A huge bed of black mold! UGH! Did I quit? Nope. From that point on, I simply made sure that my foods were completely submerged. Problem solved. Lesson learned.
By the way, some people say it's ok to just scrape off the mold if you happen to get some in your ferments. I am NOT one of these people. I believe mold can be dangerous, and it's not something to mess with. Go compost that batch and save yourself and your family potential problems.
Myth #7: Salt is Bad for You, So Fermented Foods are Unhealthy
Being a person with high blood pressure I control naturally, this thought did cross my mind before I started my fermentation journey. Salt is generally not a great thing to eat too much of, right?
But wait: That really applies to all the extra mystery chemical salt many people who eat a lot of processed junky foods unknowingly eat daily. I cook with very little salt, and my sensitivity to salt has increased dramatically.
In fact, I cannot eat commercially made salsa, Chinese food in restaurants, or any other super salty foods any more. But---when it comes to fermented foods, even though there is salt in the ferment, it's not overwhelming. It's also not hidden.
So many processed foods contain chemicals that are really hidden salts. When you ferment your own foods and cook healthy fresh foods from scratch, you know exactly how much actual salt you are consuming.
Salt is necessary to create the optimal environment in the ferment so that bad bacteria can't thrive causing a spoiled ferment. But the thing is, with fermentation you are using REAL salt! You are using salt from the earth or the sea! You are NOT using salt that is iodized and that our bodies react to badly. Should you be careful how much salt you eat? Of course. But the amount of good, real, mineral rich salt you are eating with raw fermented foods is not a problem for most people.
Myth #8: You Need to Store Your Ferments in the 'Fridge
This myth is debatable, I'll just say. A refrigerator provides a controlled temperature around 40 degrees, and the fermentation process slows dramatically at this temperature. However, if you have a really cold room, you can safely store your fermented foods there.
For example, we have a walk out basement, and one of our rooms down stairs is mostly underground with a foundation and walls of cinderblock under the drywall. This room stays cold all year round! I do store my ferments in that room, even into the hot early summer months. I check on them periodically, and have never had a problem with one going bad.
The thing is, fermented foods are delicious, and they probably won't stick around that long!
Final Thoughts on Fermentation Myths
Back to my friend. I hope she reads this, and I hope she will reconsider her stance on making her own fermented vegetables. I'll keep at her until she gives it a try! I know she'll become addicted to eating her own fermented foods like I have. I hope this article has allayed any fears about fermenting you may have had too!
Fermentation is one of the most healthy and positive things I've learned to do in my quest to 1) become healthier; and 2) to live more traditionally, eschewing modern processed foods; and 3) to cook and create from scratch. If you haven't given fermentation a try, I sure hope you will!
Here are some articles that might help you get going in your fermentation journey: Why You Should Be Eating Fermented Foods Every Single Day; What is Living in My SCOBY? Find Out About the Secret Lives Living in Your Kombucha; What You NEVER Want to See in Your Ferment!; and lots lots more on the blog!
Also, my friend, Wardeh Harmon over at Traditional Cooking School, is an absolute master at the art of fermentation. She grew up in a culture where fermented foods were the family's mainstays, and she learned how to ferment just about anything you can think of! If you want to learn more about fermentation, she offers lots of free information. Here are some links for free downloads you might consider: Lacto-Fermentation: Fermentation Formulas Cheat Sheet; How to Start a Sour Dough Starter; and lots more over there.
What do you think of fermenting foods? Is it something you've shied away from due to beliefs you have that it might be dangerous, like my friend? Or have you given it a shot? I'd love to hear about your experiences! Leave comments!
Hugs & Self-Reliance,
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