Why, oh why is my sauerkraut not fermenting already? What on earth is the holdup? I gazed in frustration at my beautiful purple sauerkraut sitting on my counter, barely bubbling after a whole week! But wait! It’s Fall here, and it’s a bit chilly in my house. Could the cooler temperatures be at the root of my slow fermentation problem?
I happen to live in a cold place. In fact, not only do I live in a cold place, but I live off the grid. This means that our heating is not on consistently during the cold winter months, which can get down into the single digits. We also have some pretty wild temperature swings in our home because of how our fireplace is off and on.
So, is it a real problem to try to ferment foods in the cooler temperatures of winter?
Can You Ferment Food in Cold Weather?
The answer is: Yes, and No. The key is in understanding the science in how temperature can affect your fermentation process.
Fermentation occurs best at temperatures ranging from 55 degrees to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The thing is, not all of us can always keep our homes/kitchens within this optimal range. It’s a good thing to be aware of temperatures when fermenting because you can then make adjustments as needed.
If you are trying to ferment your foods in a very cold home (like mine is right now), and you are expecting perhaps a seven-day ferment, you might need to plan on your ferment taking up to 10 days, two weeks, or even more!
And guess what? This is actually a good thing! Because the fermentation process is much slower in cold temperatures, your vegetables and spices have plenty of time to fully develop a delicious taste. Longer ferments are known for their wonderful, well-rounded and developed flavors. Your ferment will definitely be tastefully more complex and possibly more enjoyable than a ferment taking place in an environment that is too warm.
But the taste is not the only difference in foods fermented in cooler temperatures. The texture of the fermented foods is affected too. Fermenting in warmer temperatures often means mushier textured ferments if they are left too long. Fermenting in cooler temperatures often means a crispier-textured ferment, depending on how long you let it go.
A shorter ferment typically means a crisper batch of sauerkraut or whatever vegetable you’re working with. A longer ferment means a slightly (potentially) softer ferment. The thing is, you can ferment for a longer period of time in cooler temperatures and not end up with mush.
Therefore, think about the vegetables you are using! If you are fermenting softer vegetables like tomatoes, you could end up with a too-soft product if left to ferment for a long time, sometimes even in a colder temperature. If you are fermenting more crisp vegetables, such as carrots, then your ferment will likely turn out even better if done in a cooler room for a longer period of time.
My Personal Experience
Last fall, I fermented some tomatoes using a traditional Russian recipe. It’s cool here in the fall—-my kitchen tends to stay around 60° to 65° unless we have the fireplace going full-blast. I let these tomatoes ferment on my counter for about a month, then I moved them to a cold storage room (basically, the coldest room in my house, downstairs, which we don’t heat). The temperature in this room tends to stay between 40 and 55 degrees all Fall and Winter, sometimes even lower. Well, those tomatoes were wonderful, even when I opened the last jar this past Spring, after a total of seven months fermenting!
Remember, fermentation doesn’t just stop completely when you move a jar to cold storage. It continues, even in very low temperatures, as in my storage room. It’s just very, very slow. This leads to a wonderful, well-developed and delicious ferment! Those tomatoes, after fermenting on the counter for a whole month and after sitting in a cold room that is not quite as cold as a refrigerator for about six more months, were absolutely wonderful. They lasted exactly two days after opening the half-gallon jar!
The bottom Line
You can really let your vegetables ferment as long as you want. There is no need to get all perfectionistic about the time your ferments sit out. The best thing to do is give them a taste!
Yes, it’s o.k., and even a good thing to taste your ferments during the fermentation process. This is how you will get a feel for how long ferments in your particular environment take during each season. You’ll get to know your fermentation process intimately, in this case, and will always be able to make great decisions about when to eat them and when to move them to cold storage.
Fermentation is so flexible and variable. The more you ferment foods and experiment with the process and the outcomes, the more quickly you will develop a “feel” for when a particular ferment is ready to eat and enjoy!
So, go out and experiment! Ferment all year! Just expect your Winter ferments to possibly take a little longer. Have fun with the process! And if you’d like to find out more about traditional living skills, please visit Healing Harvest Homestead!
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Heidi Villegas is a writer at Healing Harvest Homestead and loves sharing her experiments with the world. She passionately studies herbalism and traditional skills, using her pioneer ancestry as a foundation. Heidi loves her animals, gardens, and making things herself. She became interested in fermentation after experimenting with making her own fermented foods and realizing the health power they have! Heidi lives off-grid with her husband, horses, goats, chickens, turkeys, ducks, cats, and dogs on a small homestead in the Mojave Desert.