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My philosophy about blogging and running this site comes down to two things. First, I won’t promote a product or method unless I personally have used it and love it. Second, I’m up-front and honest about what I find, what I think, what the evidence says and if I make a mistake or better information comes along, I’ll tell you. If you ask a question and I don’t know the answer, I won’t bluff it. I’ll tell you I don’t know and I’ll find the answer.
At one time, I fermented in mason jars and I supported it. However, having bad and inconsistent batches made me do some research. I looked into the history, science and the art of fermentation and my mind changed. I’m telling you about that now. Why? Because when you know better, you do better.
Recently I’ve seen criticisms about my lacto-fermentation series and some of them have contained logical fallacies and factual errors. The bottom line is that we all know in Traditional Foods that what you eat affects your health. It is a fallacy to believe that anything you do with a vegetable and a salt brine can’t have a negative effect on your health. Let’s look at some of those errors.
First up, let me state the obvious that many people don’t want to admit with mold and ferments. Mold REQUIRES oxygen to develop. If you have mold, you have air-flow which means you’re not producing a true lacto-ferment, you’re producing a salt-cured aerobic veggie ferment that, while it will have lactic acid bacteria in it, it isn’t going to be dominated by lactic acid bacteria (LAB). Oxygen is the enemy of LABs and it kills them off via competition from oxygen-loving bacteria.
Mold is NOT benign unless we’re taking about particular cheeses. I love a good Bleu, but that’s not what we’re discussing here. Mold puts tendrils all through your veggies before the fuzzy nasties show up on top. So even if you scrape off the mold on the top, it still leaves tendrils behind. Once the development begins, you can only kill mold by using heat.
How about we quote some common sense and very basic science from the USDA?
Molds have branches and roots that are like very thin threads. The roots may be difficult to see when the mold is growing on food and may be very deep in the food. Foods that are moldy may also have invisible bacteria growing along with the mold. Source
Yup, that’s right. Oxygen loving bacteria. Not anything that’s going to be beneficial to your gut or help your health. In fact, quite the opposite because they’re competing with the LABs you want and need and when oxygen is continually present, they’re out-competing the LABs.
When a food shows heavy mold growth, “root” threads have invaded it deeply. Source
Most people I know wouldn’t eat moldy meat, bread or veggies. Let’s be honest and admit that there’s nothing magical about a moldy, aerobic salt-cured veggie that makes it ok to consume parts of that mold. You’re trying to improve or maintain your gut health. Do you REALLY think that’s happening when you’re eating mold tendrils after scraping the fuzzies off the top?
I realize as traditional foodists, most of us have gone our own way, away from the processed world of manufactured food safety. However, let’s not be afraid to use common sense in the traditional foods world. Mold is NOT a good sign unless you’re talking cheese.
So let’s quit scooping mold off of those mason jar ferments and looking the other way. It isn’t beneficial to anyone’s health, especially not if you are trying to heal, have health problems or a possible chemical or biological sensitivity to mold. Mold is a sign of a ferment that’s getting oxygen and has an environment that will allow the oxygen-loving bacteria to survive. If you have a ferment that develops mold, my suggestion is to throw it out instead of scooping off the part of the mold that you can see and eating it.
NOTE: You aren’t likely to develop mold on kefirs or veggie ferments where you have to create a brine, such as garlic or carrots. The issue with mold is mostly with self-brining ferments such as sauerkraut and kimchi.
Vacuum Sealed Jars
Just because you can vacuum seal a jar doesn’t mean it’s airtight. A vacuum is a consistent inward pressure. CO2 production is a building, outward pressure that eventually ends. Yes, consistent inward pressure is going to hold the seal down, it’s basic science. But that has no bearing on how a seal is going to act in the time period between when you start a ferment when there’s no pressure and when the pressure begins, or what happens after the CO2 production phase is over and there’s no longer outward pressure on the lid. You’re comparing apples and oranges. Even though both scenarios involve pressure, jars and lids, they aren’t swappable.
Once again, we see that the Pickl-It and the Harsch crock are not competitors with the mason jar. The Pickl-It is on par with the Harsch crock. Other vessels that are not air-tight compete with each other but not with the airtight options.
Here’s another moment of honesty. If you do a ferment under anaerobic conditions, the results last a long, LONG time. If you don’t eat it all first, you can keep many veggies for years if you leave them in an air-tight (hermetic) container so the LABs stay alive.
When you use your mason jar, the contents can eventually go slimy, nasty, gray, moldy, stinky disgusting after a period of time, especially if you live in certain climates. In order for that slimy, nasty, gray, moldy, stinky, disgusting to happen, oxygen-loving bacteria had to be in your ferment and they had to be able to out-compete the LABs in order to have that effect. A ferment that is dominated by LABs doesn’t get a case of the nasties.
It shows that the ferment wasn’t anaerobic to begin with, that bad bacteria were able to live through the salt-curing process and then thrive OR you introduced bad bacteria after fermentation (fingers, dirty spoon) AND the container you stored the food in wasn’t airtight, so the nasties had the right environment to grow, killing off the LABs in the process. You see, there’s only so much space and resources to go around, and bacteria compete with each other for the food and space. When you ferment and store anaerobically, the LABs kill off all of the oxygen-loving bacteria and keep your veggies stable, crisp and with a consistent color with no slimy nasties anywhere to be found.
The bottom line is that if your ferment goes off, it wasn’t LAB dominated on the long downslide while you were still eating it. Yuck.
What is the solution? Ferment in a truly anaerobic environment such as a Harsch crock or a Pickl-It. I own and use both. And check out the Related Posts below that give more information on what makes a ferment truly anaerobic.
Want to read more about fermentation, including articles with references and more information on vessel types? See our Related Posts for all of the articles in this series.