I remember the first time I made sauerkraut. No one told me the importance of keeping the cabbage under the level of the brine. Nor did they share the importance of ambient temperature. Consequently, I ended up with a mess. In fact, I ended up with a mess after several attempts. Then, after discovering Fermentools, I learned the proper way to make sauerkraut. But the fears caused by my prior failed attempts were real. “Is lacto-fermentation safe?” I wondered. In this post, Michelle discusses those fears and helps you to see why they are unfounded.
The first time my husband and I made lacto-fermented sauerkraut, I have to admit I felt a little afraid of it. I’d never fermented before, and this strange, new process of leaving food out in room temperature to bubble for days on end felt incredibly transgressive. As we removed the weights from our fermenting vessel and put that first plateful onto the counter, I eyed it dubiously. It didn’t seem rotten, but where was my best-by date? How did I know I wasn’t going to make myself sick?
How could I be sure that fermenting actually worked? I wanted to know, is lacto-fermentation safe?
I realize that might sound rather pathetic, but I think that underlying fear is something important to note, particularly for the new fermenter. In modern western society, if something is lined up on a grocery store shelf and is within the magic date printed on its label, we seem to intrinsically trust it. It is sanitized, safe, and if something is off, we can always call a number and get it replaced. I know I, like many others, grew up programmed to trust those plastic wrappers, snazzy labels, and quality assurances. But with it, however, I sense an unspoken undertone that seems to convey that food-making is a process far outside the reach of a normal human. Normal people don’t have time to make this. Normal people don’t have the ability to keep this safe. Normal people can’t be trusted with these mysterious processes. You will mess it up and make yourself and your family sick.
Which, honestly, isn’t logical. I’ve gotten sick several times from store-bought and restaurant food. (I’m looking at you, corn chowder. NEVER AGAIN.) Especially now that I have eyes to see, I understand that all the “safe” processes featured in so much packaged food are actually stripping the goodness right out of it. That loaf of bread isn’t molding after two weeks, so we think its still “good,” even if the ingredients are entirely unpronounceable. This jam will last indefinitely, probably, because it is so packed with bleached, refined sugar. That store-bought jar of sauerkraut has been pasteurized, and my gut has nothing to gain from it, now. Why are there preservatives in these pickles if pickling is a preservation process? The more labels I read, the more I realize that the quality assurance of so many products comes at the cost of nutrition and wholesomeness.
Is Lacto-Fermentation Safe?
However, after avidly fermenting, canning and cooking for several years, I can truthfully say we have never gotten sick from our own food. We have loved eating living, nutrient-rich foods that are so much more delicious than any we’ve ever bought. And a side-effect of making so much of our own food is that I can feel our senses becoming aware and sensitive to the process of fermentation. When you understand how to keep oxygen out of your fermenting vessels by using weights, or how to watch for bad mold, or how to maintain the little bubbly lives you’ve harnessed, you start to understand how to keep your food both safe and delicious.
Now, making sourdough starter makes sense because I can see that the yeasts in a healthy starter completely inhibit mold and other unwanted growths. I can trust the process, and learn from it. Lacto-fermenting sauerkraut makes sense now because, again, we can see that if things are fermenting right, that anaerobic environment will keep dangerous spoilage completely at bay And our Kombucha SCOBY teaches us every day that bacteria can be good, (no matter what hand sanitizer companies say in their commercials.)
We ate a full plate of that fresh sauerkraut with caraway seeds and fresh-cracked pepper and realized that we were enjoying something that we couldn’t buy anywhere. We feel unafraid, emboldened, and full of wonder as we rediscover this formerly forgotten food. Not only that, we feel more healthy, whole, and capable. And my initial fear is fast-fading because unlike us, it has nothing to feed on anymore.
Beginning fermenters find sauerkraut the easiest food to start with. We have several recipes for sauerkraut on the Fermentools Blog:
Andrew and Michelle are the new owners of a 12-acre homestead in rural America. They are just embarking on this journey that is far removed from their city-life upbringing, so they realize that they have a lot to learn in order to succeed in this new place. Come along with them and read more about what they learn as they make this transition at their blog Simple Life Homestead.