10 Tips for Troubleshooting the Fermented Food You Make

Fermenting foods is one of those endeavors that requires patience and sometimes a little trial and error. When things don't seem to be working as you expected, check out these tips about the fermentation process.

My fermented food is too salty. What do I do?

When you taste fermented food, if you find it extremely salty, try rinsing it in a little water before eating. Taste as you go to find the right salt level for you.

Next time you ferment, taste your way through the salting process to see what works for you. Salt is necessary for lacto-fermentation because it encourages an environment where the lactobacillus can thrive and the vegetables will ferment properly. But too much salt is undesirable.

A rough guideline is 3 tablespoons of salt to 5 pounds of shredded cabbage.

Why is the fermentation taking so long?

There's no set time of completion for any fermented creation. Temperature, humidity, ingredients, and your environment all affect the fermentation process.

Some fermented foods take a few days and others a few months to reach the right flavor, but remember that time is an essential ingredient in fermentation.

Taste your fermented creation along the way and experience its different stages of development. Also know that what is ready for some may not be ready or sour enough for you. By tasting it through the fermentation process, you get a better idea of how long different types of fermented foods take and what level of sour you enjoy.

Why are my fermented creations different throughout the year?

Warmer temperatures accelerate the fermentation process, and cooler temperatures slow it down. In the summer months, find a cooler place for your ferment vessel and, when it's finished fermenting, refrigerate it. Refrigeration helps slow down the fermentation process, stabilize the ferment, and hold the desired flavor.

In the winter months, fermentation slows down and things take longer to sour. Find a warmer place to keep your fermenting vessel. Aim for an environment that's approximately 65 degrees or higher all year round.

Why is my ferment too soft or mushy?

A few factors can contribute to your fermented food being too soft or mushy:

  • It fermented too fast because the temperature was too high.

  • You didn't add enough salt.

Soft or mushy fermented food isn't necessarily spoiled. Some people prefer a softer ferment, but if the texture puts you off, try cooking with it.

Why isn't my ferment working?

A few factors can derail your fermentation:

  • Did you give it enough time? Some fermented creations take weeks to months to taste just right.

  • Is it too cold in your fermentation location? Anything below 50 degrees will be very slow to get going.

  • Did you use iodized salt? Iodine has antibacterial properties and has been known to affect fermentation. Use a salt that's free of running agents and iodine for best results.

  • Is your tap water chlorinated? If you're making a ferment that involves a brine, use nonchlorinated water.

  • How did you sterilize your equipment? It's important to have clean fermentation vessels and equipment, but avoid using harsh or antibacterial sterilization solutions. Steam and boiling water do a fine job.

Why is my fermented creation too dry?

Often your fermented creation can start out very juicy and full of brine, only to mysteriously dry up a few days in. As the salt draws out the juice from the vegetables, the brine increases for the first three days of fermentation. This is usually followed by a recession of the brine.

This is where weighting your ferment comes in. Weights are very important; they help keep the brine up and the vegetables submerged beneath the brine, which is essential for proper fermentation. In smaller jars you can use a sealable plastic bag filled with water that sits on the top level of the fermenting food, acting as a weight. You can also use boiled rocks, exercise weights, or other jars to help keep the vegetables submerged.

What do I do about yeast or mold on the surface of the ferment?

If you see bacterial growth on the surface of your ferment, don't panic. This is a common thing. People often overreact to any presence of mold or yeast growth, but such growth doesn't necessarily mean your ferment is ruined.

If you see a white film, foam, or chunks of a mold bloom, get a spoon and scoop it out the best you can. If it comes back in a few days, repeat.

If the mold has occurred in a larger way and the ferment has dried out or looks discolored on the top, remove a few inches off the top layer and see whether lower layers look better. Most often, a few inches below the affected area you have a perfectly good and delicious fermented food!

Make sure you keep your ferment covered to prevent insects and other contaminants from getting into it. A piece of cloth does just fine.

What should I do about a ferment jar that's bulging?

If you're fermenting in a sealed vessel or jar, it's common for it to bulge or leak. This is caused by the buildup of carbon dioxide as the fermentation occurs. Too much pressure building up can be a dangerous thing if it causes the jar to swell and break. You don't have to use a sealed vessel for fermentation. A cloth-covered, weighted vessel works well.

If you notice your jar bulging, open it over the sink and release the pressure. It may bubble or leak. Take a fork and press the vegetables down under the brine again.

Why did the color change?

The appearance of your fermented creation at the beginning of its fermentation time as compared to the end result can often be completely different!

Pink or red vegetables will turn your ferment into a variety of shades of pink, red, and purple. Some green vegetables naturally brown a bit as they ferment. Colors can fade or intensify based on the ingredients you choose.

If your batch of ferment has all turned brown, smells off, or tastes bitter, this is a sign that it has spoiled, and it should be composted.

Why is my ferment leaking or overflowing?

As the salt draws the liquid out of the shredded vegetables, the ferment's moisture content increases, causing your brine to rise and spill over your vessel. Generally this peaks three days after you pack the ferment into your fermentation vessel. Other factors, such as closeness to the sea and a full moon, may affect moisture content. After the brine rises it often recedes, which can dry out your ferment. Use a fork to press the vegetables back under the brine for proper fermentation.

Always leave a few inches of space at the top for the expansion, and place a plate or bowl under your vessel to catch any leaks.

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