Why is my fermenting not working?


There are all sorts of reasons why a ferment (like sauerkraut, kimchi or fruit wine) may not ‘work.’

In my estimation, here’s the most common reasons why fermenting fails:

  1. Your room is too hot.  If the temperature is nearing 80 degrees of higher, fermenting can be a challenge.  Spaces like the top of your fridge or above your stove can be a few degrees higher than the rest of your kitchen; be aware of ‘micro climates’ that can be warmer (or cooler) than your average room temperature.
  2. Your room is too cold.  If it’s under the mid-60s fermenting can struggle.
  3. Your water isn’t pure.  Water with chlorine or chloramine will generally kill any good bacteria and prevent fermenting.  Chlorine can be boiled off or evaporated; chloramine can’t.
  4. Your jars aren’t cleaned/ rinsed properly.  If you left soap or disinfectant in the jar, it can prevent fermenting.
  5. Your starter or yeast (if using either) was dead before using.
  6. The liquid or jar was too hot when it mixed with starter or wild yeasts and killed the good bacteria and prevented fermenting.
  7. Your salt is iodized.  I’ve never had this problem but iodized salt can prevent fermenting.
  8. You’ve used too much salt (it can prevent a ferment).
  9. You haven’t waited long enough.  In this case it’s not really a ‘problem’ – but a few days of waiting can make a difference.
  10. You’re expecting a volcano but sometimes it’s more subtle.  Some of my ferments barely bubble or only bubble when stirred.

What would you add (or remove) from this list?

What Jar Should I use for Fermenting?

We get this question from time to time (or one like it:

What jar should I use for fermenting?

There are endless options: ceramic crocks, mason jars, bowls, plastic (not uncommon in brewing and winemaking) and many others.

My answer comes with 2 caveats:

  • The question is somewhat flawed; more information is needed.  Are you fermenting a gallon of cider, a 6.5 gallon carboy of wine, a few cups of carrots or something else?  The volume – and the ingredient – play key roles.
  • There is massive differences in personal opinion and many of them are cultural.  For example, mead (honey wine) is often fermented without oxygen using an airlock while T’ej (an Ethiopian Honey Wine) is often fermented in open air.  And, of course there are exceptions too.  This means, almost certainly, that any advice I share is bound to be met by a protest that my advice is wrong (which, to some, it will be).

My first thought is that, generally, there are few wrong choices.  Start with something clean, non-reactive and lead-free (some old ceramic crocs are not) and you’ll do just fine.

The problem with this advice is that it’s incomplete – ‘fine’ is a relative word.  You could technically ferment grapes on a non-reactive cookie sheet (i.e. a thin layer of juice spread over a wide area and lots of air) and it would ferment.  With the significant amount of oxygen involved, it’s likely that you would end up making vinegar which would be fine if that’s what you wanted – but it you were aiming for booze then you might want to choose something that will allow you to remove the oxygen (like a carboy, gallon jug or fermenting bucket).

And while there are exceptions, a general rule for making booze is using something with a thin neck (like a gallon jug or carboy) or a container that you can attach an airlock to (including fermenting buckets or mason jars with airlock attachments).

If you’re fermenting vegetables, I ask myself a few questions to help guide my decision of choosing the ‘right’ jar:

  1. How much am I fermenting?  Will it fit in the vessel I wish to use?
  2. Where am I storing this when done?  If it’s in the fridge, will this jar fit?
  3. Does the ferment need to be weighed down (common with things like cucumbers that you want to stop from floating above the surface of the water)?  If so I need to choose a container that will allow for something to hold the vegetables down (this includes using a 1/2 cup mason jar inside a wide-mouth mason jar or plates in a large ceramic croc).
  4. Do I want to keep the air out?  If so, this eliminates bowls and many wide-mouth jars and means I’ll use a mason jar with a regular opening (like this) or for larger batches I’d use a croc with a water channel that acts as an air lock (like this).
  5. What do I have on hand?  I’ve used cookie jars, mason jars, open bowls, crocs and more.  It rarely requires specialized equipment so I look around the house.

For those of you who are experienced fermenters, how would you answer this question?  We’d love to hear your take on this answer woo.. What Jar Should I use for Fermenting? Fermenting

How Much Salt for Pickling?

When I started fermenting I approached it very scientifically.  I measured everything, kept notes and wanted to make sure I was ‘doing it right.’

Although I still measure things, (and I will share a common measurement for salt below), I’ve learned why so many people advise just eyeballing and tasting your ferments (they should taste over-salted but no inedible) as you go.  A recent conversation on another post about the ratio of salt to use in sauerkraut highlighted that I haven’t explained why I rely less on measurements and, when I do measure, how to do so.  I love comments like these because they really do help me see opportunities to try and improve things here.

Ferments often start tasting too salty and, as the ferment progresses, they will level out.  Sandor Katz is largely recognized as one of the leading experts when it comes to fermenting; here is his instructions for salting sauerkraut (you can find his recipe here):

[Read more...]

Re-use Brine to Ferment?

We received a great question from Rodney today:

Do you ever use some of the brine from one fermented batch of peppers to start a new batch instead of yogurt whey?

His question was attached to an article we wrote on fermenting dried peppers with whey.  I started to write an answer when I realized I was typing an entire post and that others may want to know the same thing so I thought I’d answer it here.

The short answer is, “yes.”  But there is some fine print: [Read more...]

Fermenting 101: Add the Water.. Tomorrow

Lactofermenting vegetables is easy:

  • Cut (and generally peel vegetables)
  • Crush them with your hands a bit (to break down the cell structure; there are exceptions like whole pickles
  • Add salt (3%-5% or about 2-3 tablespoons of coarse salt per quart of veggies)
  • Top with unchlorinated water
  • Submerge (often with a weight) and leave in a warmish place in your house.
  • Check daily and remove mould or froth.
  • Taste often.  They’re generally ready in 5-30 days though some recipes or ingredients vary.

Simple, right?  In a word – yes.

But a lot of recipes seem to call for adding water the moment you add the salt.  And, while this technique will work, I generally prefer leaving the salt on the vegetables for a few hours (and even over night) instead.  This leaves the vegetables in a high percentage of salt to start the process which draws our water from the vegetables in a hurry.  I believe this leads to crisper pickled vegetables and I prefer the taste.

If course the world of fermentation allows for great experimentation so you may prefer the water right away – buy you’ll never know unless you try both!

Which way do you ferment (or do you do it differently each time)?

8 Ways to Ferment Food Faster

I will admit that I’m a bit of a speed freak.  I tend to move fast and Dana will gladly tell you that I generally have two speeds – FAST and SLEEP.

I’m also conscious that it’s important to slow down and enjoy life.  This is especially true of preserving; it’s not a race and a measured pace can lead to a lot of enjoyment.  And, in the case of fermenting, it’s arguable that a longer approach can yield better tasting (and perhaps even more nutritious results).  I’m a fan of slowing down but sometimes you need results fast.

Note: slow ferments are often crunchier, richer in flavor, will last longer and some argue that they produce more probiotics.  There is a trade-off for speed but it’s good to have options!

Lactofermentation vegetables (like sauerkraut or pickles) is easy but can take weeks.  There are ways to speed up the process; you can use these tips to slow down a ferment by doing the opposite (i.e. using more salt instead of less in tip 1).

How to Ferment Food Faster

  1. Use less salt.  Salt will slow fermentation; less salt will speed it up.
  2. Add other bacteria (such as brine from another active ferment or whey).
  3. Keep the ferment in a warm spot (be careful not to be too warm; temperatures in the high 70s can slow and eventually prevent fermentation).
  4. Peel hard vegetables (like carrots or pickles).  This allows water to be pulled from the vegetables faster.
  5. Crunch the vegetables thoroughly (like cabbage).  As you crunch them it helps break down their structure and helps water escape faster.
  6. Cut the vegetables as thin as possible (increasing the exposed surface area and allowing water to escape faster).
  7. Cut the vegetables the same width (using a grater or a mandoline).  Inconsistent width will lead to inconsistent fermenting times.
  8. Allow the vegetables to sit in salt for 8-10 hours before covering with water.  I can’t prove that this speeds up the process but I am confident it speeds the fermenting process as the salt isn’t diluted at the start and the increased percentage of salt will draw liquid rapidly from the vegetables (often eliminating the need to add much water at all the next day).

The first 3 tips can be done to any ferment while the last 5 will only work if you use them when you’re making your ferment!

How do you speed/ slow your fermentation?

When is the Best Time to Make Sauerkraut?

Right now.

I’m not really being tongue-in-cheek.  If you’ve never fermented before, you really should give it a try.  I’m writing this article at 9:10PM.  I left the house at 6:50AM and got home from work 10 minutes ago.  Dinner is warming in the oven (leftover lasagna) and I’m going to make a batch of sauerkraut before relaxing the the rest of the night.

I’ll start by shredding cabbage and carrots.  I’ll use far more cabbage but I won’t measure the ratio.  I’ll stop shreddiing when I have two quarts of shredded vegetables.

I’ll add some garlic and 4 tablespoons of salt.  I’ll crush the mixture in my hands for a few minutes and leave it in a jar, covered overnight.  If I use a food processor it should take 10 minutes.  If I chop by hand, 15.

Tomorrow I’ll cover the vegetables with unchlorinated water and place a smaller jar on top of the cabbage to force it under the water.  I’ll leave it covered in a warm spot in my kitchen and begin tasting after day 2.  It will take 1-4weeks depending on the warmth of my kitchen.

Fermenting really is that easy.  And it’s incredibly gratifying.  So, won’t you come along and join in?

Lime Pickle Recipe

Pickles made from limes?  Why, yes!

They are sour, spicy and savory all at once.  Bite-sized pieces of lime (skin and all) are fermented and aged for several weeks or months (these aged for almost two months over the winter).  They’re easy to make and versatile to cook with; you can eat them on their own or use them as a condiment.  I’ve loved them added to soup or mixed with yogurt to cut their intensity.

I’ve adapted this recipe from my friend, Tigress.  She no longer updates her wonderful blog but continues to inspire me through her previous posts; I adore her site and miss her updates.  Tigress has spent a lot of time in India and is one of my go-to resources for Indian-inspired recipes.

Lime Pickle Recipe limes Lime Fermenting citrus [Read more...]

Troubleshooting Homemade Yogurt

This week we’ll share a series of articles inspired by our Fermentation 2.0 Workshop at the Cookbook Store last week.  We started the evening by promising that we’d answer all the questions that we could but that we were likely to get stumped by some of the questions and would answer them on the blog in the coming days.

We had a few hardcore yogurt-lovers attend our fermenting workshop.  We promised to send a link to our yogurt recipe but I got the sense that wasn’t going to be enough for them!  They had already been making yogurt and had inconsistent results.  Rather than just sending the old link, I thought some more work was required to help people troubleshoot homemade yogurt.

The most common frustration with homemade yogurt is consistency (it’s too runny).  One of the great tricks to making great homemade yogurt is to have a bit of great homemade yogurt to start with – but that’s not handy if you haven’t had success yet!  Here’s a few common problems:

  1. If you’re using yogurt as a starter, does it have live culture?  Many brands of yogurt no longer contain live/ active culture.  If you’re using a mainstream brand, check it’s label or consult with a trade organization such as the National Yogurt Association.  I’d reccomend skipping the ‘big’ brands alltogether and going to a farmers market shich sells yogurt (in Ontario, most of the yogurt is limited to goats milk yogurt) and chatting to the producer about using their yogurt as a starter to make your own.  This is the #1 tip because you’re likley to get the best source of starter (and insight) from it!
  2. If you’re buying yogurt starter (it’s typically sold in powder form from health food stores), know that it’s a living product.  It’s particularilly sensitive to heat and shipping, storage and handling conditions before you got it can kill it.  There’s no way to tell it’s dead other than a lack of success when using it so if it fails, don’t be afraid to try again with a different package.
  3. Use a thermometer.  I’ve head of people trying to make yogurt without one and this level of guessing just makes the process far more difficult than it needs to be!
  4. Consider straining it.  This is a last-resort as it will dramatically decrease your yield (although there are great uses for the whey if you do) but sometimes it’s the only saving grace.

Those are the quick wins/ easy solutions for thicker yogurt.  Now let’s get more technical!

  1. Use higher-fat milk.  The higher the fat content, the thicker the resuts.
  2. Use non-pasteurized milk.  Since this is impossible in Ontario (and Canada), avoid milk that has been marked UHT (which stands for “Ultra High-Temperature Pasteurized).  This is a point of contention according to some who claim that they’ve had great success with milk that has been pastuerized like this but it can’t hurt to try.
  3. Although I’ve never done it, it can be worth experimenting with different brands of milk for two reasons:
    1. You’ll see which one produces results if you like.
    2. Your results should be more repeatable.
  4. Many recipes (including ours) recomend bringing the heat to 200 degrees.  Instead of cooling it immediately, keep the milk at this temperature for 20-30 minutes.  While this is increased work (that can be a pain if you’re using the variable temperature of a stove), it helps concentrate milk solids and will produce thicker yogurt.
  5. Add Non-Fat dry milk powder.  I read about this on The Kitchn (which shares some of these tips and a few others).  I’m sure it would work (they reccomend a 1/2 cup per uart of milk) as it would drastically increase the amount of protein in the milk (which is a key to making yogurt).  Check out the link to The Kitchn for more ideas – they also reccomend adding gelatin which would certainly work.
  6. Make sure the milk cools before adding the starter yogurt (most starters will specify a temperature and most recipes using yogurt as a starter seem to add it below 45 degrees celcius).  If you add the starter/yogurt too soon you will certainly kill it (if it’s too cold, it won’t incubate as well as it could).
  7. Frequency of batches.  If you’re using yogurt as a starter, this is key.  There will be less active bacteria a week after your yogurt has sat in the fridge (even though it may be thicker).  A ‘fresh’ yogurt is more likely to produce a thick yogurt for you compared to an older one.
  8. A touch of sugar can help feed the ferment.  1-2 teaspoons added at the same time you add your starter should help produce a thicker yogurt.
  9. Use other thickeners.  The idea for this stemed from The Kitchn’s idea to use gelatin; I researched the idea of using agar agar to thicken yogurt.  I found an entire host of ideas for thickening yogurt on this article (including using agar agar) but I think that may take away from the ‘spirit’ that many of us are trying to acheive by fermenting it ourselves.

What are your ‘secrets’ to making thick yogurt?

What is Koji (and how to make it)? Fermenting 101

This week we’ll share a series of articles inspired by our Fermentation 2.0 Workshop at the Cookbook Store last week.  We started the evening by promising that we’d answer all the questions that we could but that we were likely to get stumped by some of the questions and would answer them on the blog in the coming days.

Similar to our article on Natto, this article will be a high-level overview of Koji (which is steamed rice/ barley that is injected with mold spores and fermented).  Much like Natto, we didn’t know of it and promised to find out more!

What is Koji?

In short, we’re talking about mold.  A sweet fragrant mold that’s often used to make pickles, beverages or other ferments.  The scientific name for the mold is Aspergillus Oryzae (I have no idea how to pronounce it so don’t feel bad if you don’t either!)

Koji is often associated with the production of Sake (a common type of rice wine) but is also introduced to other ferments including miso, soy sauce, rice vinegar, mirin, amazake, and pickles.  Unlike Koji it’s fragrance is often celebrated – it is pleasant and sweet.  You can make it, buy dried or whole versions.  It can be expensive; 10 grams (0.02 pounds) of koji kin (to make sake) sells for $13!  A little goes a long way – those 10 grams are enough to make 22 liters (about the same number of quarts) of sake.

Buying Koji

I’ve never noticed it for sale at Farmers Markets but you can buy Koji (and starter to make your own) online.  I also haven’t seen it for sale in stores and can only suggest asking Ontario Sake if they would sell any (they are a Sake maker located in the Distillery district; they don’t mention selling it on their website but may be worth a call).

Sandor Katz (also known as ‘Sandorkraut’ though I like to think of him as ‘The Krautfather’) recommends GEM Cultures for buying Koji starter online.  They will ship Internationally and their prices seem to be very fair.

Key Steps of Making Koji

  • Starter.  Although it’s possible to create your own Koji starter (Sandor Katz explains that he’s made it from corn husks) though you’re best to leave this until you’ve gained experience in making Koji and recognizing its unique smell.
  • Inoculate.  Stirring in the starter.  You want to make sure that the rice or barley has cooled before doing so (or you could kill the mold that you’re trying to create).
  • Incubate.  Incubation has two phases; the first is keeping it warm enough to incubate but, as the mold develops, it will generate its own heat and the challenge becomes preventing overheating.

How to make Koji

Here’s a 10,000 foot overview of how to make Koji:

  1. Soak rice/barley
  2. Steam
  3. Cool
  4. Inoculate
  5. Incubate (for 36 to 48 hours). 80 to 95 degrees.  Higher temperatures convert starch to sugars (Koji made at these temperatures tend to be sweeter and used in beverages) while lower temperatures which digest proteins (often used for miso).

There is no better primer for making Koji than The Art of Fermentaion; much of Sandor’s detailed walkthrough of making Koji can be previewed online (for free) here.

Have we missed anything you were hoping for in this primer?  I’d love to know…