Answering to Your Fermentation Questions
Ever since I started fermenting food soon after moving to China over two years ago I’ve been inundated in questions from curious friends.
I’d only just begun my own fermentation journey when I started getting asked the first of many questions, I had really yet to learn the answers myself.
However through trial and plenty of error, I eventually worked out what I was doing and was able to help others. Often in ways such as this -
“Hey Jordan, I haven’t fed my ginger bug in 9 weeks and now it’s covered in blue mold. How much sugar should I add before I can drink it?”
“… Get that damn thing into the trash Margory
Last night I held a fermentation party with some of my friends. I laid out everything I’d fermented that was ready to eat or drink, and explained the process behind how it was all made.
It really surprised me how interested they all were, even those who’d never cooked in any capacity. They were somehow enthralled by the information.
I speculate that there’s just something inherently fascinating about fermentation.
Maybe it’s something to do with the witchy appeal of brewing a bubbling tonic for a person riddled with flu symptoms. It does feel nice to be needed.
With that said, let’s answer some questions..
Disclaimer: These are my answers based on my own fermentation experience. My opinions may and absolutely do differ from others online. Because of this, the only real way to know for sure is to try for yourself :)
Do ferments ruin each other if stored near each other?
There’s a lot of information bouncing around online about bacteria passing from one ferment to another and ruining the process.
I haven’t personally found that to ever happen, and I store all my ferments right next to each other.
It’s possible that bacteria is travelling into the air above a ferment, then floating down and landing inside another one. But that bacteria would be terribly outnumbered once it arrived in the second ferment and I imagine it would be quickly destroyed.
I’ve infected one ferment with another one intentionally before, and the results were bad. I added fermented garlic honey to my ginger bug to try and culture it faster. It resulted in a bug that smelt so bad that anytime I lifted the lid the entire house smelt like a dead body.
So to answer this question I’d say, I think it’s super unlikely that storing ferments close together will risk one infecting another. But I’d also say that if that ever happened, you’d absolutely know about it. Bacteria is rarely doing the wrong thing without putting on a dramatic show to let you know.
How do I know if my ferment is still alive?
People get really worried when they deviate from the rules. Perhaps they go too long without feeding a bug, or maybe they notice their sauerkraut has gone dry.
As strict as instructions for ferments often are, the truth is that no rule beats good old common sense.
If you have a ferment that requires constant feeding, you’ll notice if it’s really dead. When you open it you won’t hear carbon dioxide escaping, if you shake it you won’t notice bubbles rushing to the top. If it’s really dead it looks dead.
Often a sauerkraut will bubble over if it’s especially active, this may mean that later it’s dry on top. Simply dissolve some salt in water and pour it in to top it up. These ferments are more resilient than you’d think.
What’s wrong with tap water? Isn’t it all the same in the end?
We often hear that we shouldn’t be using tap water in our ferments, and I’d love to disagree.. but I can’t.
Most cities are chlorinating their water, and this chemical exists to kill bacteria. It will fight your ferment (which is its job) and that’s a bad thing. So if your water is chlorinated, nothing will happen.
Luckily, there is a solution to chlorine.
People that want to use water like this should simply boil it and leave it to sit overnight. The chlorine will evaporate out of the water, so it should be fine by morning.
Be careful that you know that your city water contains chlorine rather than chloramine however. Chloramine can’t be extracted except through a chemical process, so boiling won’t work.
If you’re like me and don’t want to mess around with city water, buy the bottled stuff. It’s more expensive, but saves you money when you’re not having to throw out your ferments.
How much time needs to pass before I throw out my ginger bug?
So you’re starting to reach lands unknown and you’re not sure what’s next? Well done you.
There are lots of answers out there regarding what to do with your months old ginger bug. You could -
- Change out the ginger every so often to prevent it going bad and ruining the bug. Simply strain the liquid, throw out the old ginger, then place the liquid back in the same jar with an equivalent amount of fresh ginger and the process should continue as normal.
- Divide the liquid into several new jars with fresh ginger and they should spawn several new bugs. Just a cupful of the stuff becomes more and more powerful over time as it populates itself with more and more beneficial bacteria.
Remember that as you venture into new territory, things will start to go wild. It’s likely that your bug will get more and more alcoholic, depending on how often and how much you’re feeding it. If it’s getting too alcoholic and you want to pull it back, use a couple cupfuls to start a new bug and throw the rest out.
It’ll also become quite carbonated, so you might want to drink it straight. Fare warning, if you’re not use to consuming so much bacteria at once, it may give you the runs.
Keep a close eye and a nose on it. If it grows mold or starts to smell foul, it’s time for its journey to end.
Just like with people, the older it gets, the more you have to take care of it to prevent it from dying.
Keep it from getting oxygenated and watch how it reacts to being fed. If you’re dedicated, you may end up with a veteran bug that makes a quality of ginger beer others could only ever dream of.
Just don’t drive after drinking a lot of old (and what will be quite alcoholic) ginger bug.
If it’s not organic will it fail?
A friend of mine tried to start making ginger honey after I made mine, but he was bitterly disappointed at the result.
It separated and became a stinky syrupy mess. He didn’t do anything differently to me, so what went wrong?
When I saw the honey he was using I was shocked. It was actually high fructose corn syrup, a few other things, and only a dash of honey for flavour.
You’ve got to know what you’re using!
A lot of people say that you’ve got to use organic, but growers can slap an organic sticker on anything while only meeting the minimum requirements.
So while I can’t say that you must use organic, you’ve at least got to know that what you’re using is real, and that it didn’t die in the process of being made.
A lot of vegetables are sprayed with chemicals while being grown, these chemicals fight the bacteria in the ferment and ruin it. I’ve actually had this happen to me lots of times. Often the solution is to shop at a farmers market wherever possible.
Milk that’s extra fermented isn’t going to make cheese, and lettuce isn’t going to make sauerkraut.
Organic can be the answer, but organic or not, you’ve got to know what you’re using and know the process behind what went into making it.
Using store bought kombucha to inoculate your homemade version? Make sure it’s not soda with a kombucha flavour.
Using Apple cider vinegar for weight loss? Make sure it’s not pasteurised and contains the mother, otherwise you’re swallowing vinegar that’s literally doing nothing.
The best way to know is to try! Don’t be scared, just start with something easy (such as sauerkraut) and jump in feet first. And if I’ve not answered your questions here, leave me a comment and I’d be more than happy to answer :)