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Six Golden Rules of Safe Fermentation

Top three questions in the mind of a newbie are:

  1. How do I get my feet wet without breaking the bank?
  2. Will it create any foul smells?
  3. How do I know if it is safe and edible?

According to recorded history, humankind has been fermenting for thousands of years before the formation of first lab testing, certification or even sterile rooms. Today’s kitchen is equipped with far better tools and resources than the most advanced laboratories of the 18th Century. Having access to state of the art equipment helps but it is possible to make a safe and tasty ferment on a shoestring budget with jugaad technique too. Do not hesitate to give wings to your creativity!

Fundamentally, the first apprehension that comes into a newbie’s mind is desi daru (moonshine) and associated methanol poisoning. Well, we get methanol- a.k.a. wood alcohol primarily from fermenting cellulose and not sugars. Unless we distill alcohol, we will be safe from the ill effects of methanol. Pickle, milk curd & idli batter (paste) are probably the most common food preservation techniques. They can teach us a lot about safe fermentation. Trust your senses, and you will be fine.

The smells from the sugar factories & distilleries are not because of ethanol production but because of the molasses processing and the primitive septic tanks they use for effluent treatment. People throughout ages have fermented in basements & caves with limited ventilation and yet have never reported foul smells. One might get CO2 (which is odorless), and a few fruity aromas from fermentation. I keep my fermenter in my kitchen, on top of the refrigerator, and yet none of my guests or family members have ever complained about the same. Keeping it in the middle of the living space allows for timely intervention, monitoring of the progress, enables shifting it inside the refrigerator before traveling, and most importantly remembering to taste them when ready. Fermentation is a slow process and one tends to get busy with their lives and forget.

Six golden rules of safe fermentation:

  1. Understanding the difference between hygiene and sterilization: If we don’t boil the milk or don’t clean the containers properly, then the curd will spoil. At the same time, one does not need to get into a sterilization frenzy to achieve the results by creating an aseptic room & containers with 99.99% effectiveness. We can achieve homebrewing in a simple hygienic environment too. Simply by creating a hygienic environment, that allows the desirable micro-organisms to dominate, we can get the work done 90% of the time.
  2. Trust your senses (smell, taste, eyes, and instincts): If something does not feel right, it most probably is not. Our senses and taste buds evolved primarily to keep us safe in the wild for over tens of thousands of years. Their gratification was key to nudge our ancestors towards new experiences/ adventures/ varieties, which led to a balanced diverse diet. Relying on our evolutionary wisdom can help us keep safe.
  3. Beware of white, green, or black fungal growth. Wines & probiotics, like homemade pickles, are prone to mold infestation. Spotting them early and separating them out might help us save our batch. The easiest way to do that is to not have floating solids on top of the fermenter which are exposed to air. Our grandma’s pickle-making tips are applicable for alcoholic ferments as well.
  4. Understanding the role of salt or acidity in food preservation: Lucky for us, most of the benign, useful microbes thrive in slightly acidic medium. That is the reason why pickles, curds are sour and last longer than fresh vegetables or milk. By controlling these parameters, one can control which kind of microbes should flourish in our ferments.
  5. Conditions for infection: Understand the common sources of infection and the conditions under which they thrive. Regulating the hygiene, oxygen, temperature, and acidity levels usually does the trick.
  6. Maintain a logbook: Fermentation is a very slow process that can take weeks, months, or even years to prepare a batch. The human mind today is over-stimulated and we sometimes tend to forget what we did in the morning. So please do yourself a favor, free your mind by writing everything down in your logbook. These notes will also help replicate your next harvest.

Thanks to labels on packaged food & modern refrigerator, the idea of storing food for weeks at room temperature sends shivers through most spines. Well! The Canning industry was first developed in the 19th century and affordable refrigerator in the 20th century. Men have had been domesticating and colonizing microbes for centuries to preserve food. Man survived and flourished before the technology could catch on. Sometimes relying on our age-old wisdom helps.

Here are some sanitation lessons that I learned the hard way:

  1. Clean all equipment before and after every use. This will strip the equipment of any food residue and to prevent any fungus to grow and establish itself on.
  2. Understand the surface finish of the equipment. Glass and Stainless steel have been the materials of choice for fermentation because of their hard surface, which cannot be scratched easily. Food grade plastics are good only if new and unscratched. So spare the scrubber when using soft containers.
  3. Clean those nasty corners. As much as it is practical, try to dismantle the setup while cleaning. This makes it easier to make those hard to reach spots sparkling clean. One of the primary reasons why some people do not like spigots and thermometer probes in their fermenters is because they forgot to clean them properly and it ruined their batch.
  4. Understand your sanitizer/ disinfectant. Use something that is food grade, medical grade, or dairy grade. One not only needs to understand its active reagent but also its residual reagent. Rinsing the disinfectant is often not practical and can introduce contamination from the rinse water itself. Hence, we should prefer to rinse free agents whose residual chemicals are benign.

I grew up when bleach and lye (sodium hydroxide) were the only two affordable agents available. They are messy, pungent, and requires a cumbersome neutralization after use. Fortunately, today, a brewer has many choices. The local chemist would be stocking iodine, sodium perchlorate, hydrogen peroxide, etc. Pick anyone that is affordable and locally available. However, do remember to measure the potency of the reagent. Using too little or too many chemicals is not advisable. Titration method (high school chemistry) or color of iodine solutions are the guides that I use to measure the potency.

Some Sanitation tips

  1. Rolling up your sleeves and washing all the way to elbows like a surgeon might not be an overkill. Remember to sanitize the hydrometer, airlock, or that wrapper in your chest pocket (which might carelessly fly into your batch!)
  2. If you ever needed an autoclave to create aseptic vials to culture microbes; borrow your pressure cooker. Everyday objects can be very useful in making most of the state of the art equipment. I meet survivalists and DIY hobbyists just to learn the tricks of this trade.
  3. Most wild yeast and packaged dry yeast have microbial cultures that are isolated from nature. They have survived generations of natural selection and hence, are resilient to infection. However, liquid yeast and newer bio-engineered strains are synthesized in labs and have never witnessed the invasion of other microbes. Hence, they are very delicate and get contaminated easily.

To summarize- maintain cleanliness, be mindful of the temperature, pH, and oxygen levels. Understanding the difference in the conditions for your desired yeast/ bacterial strains to thrive as compared to common contaminants/ invasions is all that is needed. Please remember to label your batches. It could be something as simple as “date/ style” or something more exhaustive as a patient card of hospitals that has the entire history (recipe, observation, notes on the batch, etc.). Most traditionalists have grown by attaching these cards to the fermenters using a string/ twine but I prefer to use simple adhesive stickers.

I would like to repeat that most countries, including India, have laws criminalizing home-distilled liquor. These laws are, not only because of tax reasons but also because a distillation process produces an explosive vapor (alcohol fumes). A makeshift distillation column (moonshine still) can explode, taking the kitchen roof away along with it. In addition, the first few drops will have methanol & toxic substances. Amateurs could harm themselves, their neighbors, and their patrons. This book is not a guidebook to break laws but to make you aware and abide by them. At the same time, promoting fermented food-craft as a medium to express one’s individuality in a safe and scientific manner. Hence, distillation and moonshine liquors are not covered.

We are covering several different fermentation styles to get us started. Bread & cheese-making are out of the scope of this book. We are also not covering the fermentation of meat or using herbal medicines for curing ailments. These advanced topics are better suited for trained practitioners with some prior experience in basic ferments.

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