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UPDATE 12/10/13: This post was written in May of 2012. I have since learned a lot about fermenting and the role it plays in my own personal health journey. I’m no longer overwhelmed about this and I am not experiencing any angst. This post was not written to make people more confused and ultimately leave some pretty hateful and nasty comments on this blog, but it was written as an honest reflection of a time in my life where I was being confronted with new information and didn’t know where I stood on that new info. This happens to all of us from time to time, and I wanted to share that experience with my readers.

After experimenting with various fermenting methods, I found that the quality, taste, and texture of those in the anaerobic vessels far exceeded anything I ever made in Mason jars. For this reason, I am now exclusively fermenting in anaerobic vessels. This is what I believe is best for my own health needs, but I do encourage everyone to do their own research, take time to experiment, and most of all, have fun. Fermenting is fun stuff!

For a big list of ferment recipe ideas and to read more of my adventures, click this link.

For even more ferment recipes, please check out three of my favorite sites:

Divine Health From the Inside Out

Pickle Me Too

Lisa’s Counter Culture

Original post | May 7, 2012

This week’s post has been causing me a lot of stress and it’s time to share my thoughts on the matter.

Please note my disclaimer: I am not a scientist, nor do I really have any science background, other than the things I learned in grade school (which honestly, I probably retained about zilch). Please evaluate all of the information and make the best decision you can for yourself and your family.

We’ve Had it All Wrong!?

So, why on earth has the subject of fermenting been causing me so much stress, you ask? Well, because it turns out that we’ve had it all wrong. Everything we have been taught (at least the vast majority of us) up until this point has been not 100% accurate, and we could potentially be doing more harm than good to our bodies. Most of us probably first got introduced to fermenting by Sally Fallon in Nourishing Traditions. I know that’s where I got my start. Eventually, I moved on to Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation. Neither one of them discuss this issue in their books. Why they don’t discuss it, I don’t know. I am wondering if they will be exploring this issue in future editions of their books? That is purely speculation on my part, but it would be great to see what their thoughts are.

I’m sure some of you have seen my friend KerryAnn’s recent series on fermented foods. KerryAnn is the publisher of the Cooking Traditional Foods website, which is one of the leading resources for traditional food recipes and information on the Web. Her articles have been circulating the Web and Facebook and causing quite a buzz! I know a lot of people, including myself, are confused and frustrated by some of the info she shares. That is no fault of KerryAnn’s — I’m not saying that. She is simply sharing the information that she has discovered and that she believes will help those who are fermenting the “old way”.

So, KerryAn is putting the information out there.

Now, it’s up to us to make our own decisions.

But, please note that the last thing that I want to do is to discourage people who want to ferment and are just starting out. This post is in no way intended to do that. I’ll explain more towards the end of this post.

The Science of Lactic Acid Bacteria and Why Airtight is so Important

Now, since I have stated that I am not a scientist, I am going to do my very best to paraphrase some of the key elements of her posts. I encourage each and every one of you to read all of her posts on this topic and come to your own decision. This information is especially critical for those who have gut issues that they are trying to heal.

This information is not completely new to me. I was first introduced to the thought that our fermentation techniques might be causing more harm than good a few months back when I spoke to the creator of the Pickl-it jars. The info she shared was way over my head, so, I didn’t do anything with it at that time. The gist of all of this comes down to one key point:

If your fermentation vessel is not 100% airtight, then you could potentially be doing more harm than good.

What! Why?

KerryAnn tells us in her post “Controversy: Pickl-It vs Mason Jars“:

Research shows that LAB (Lactic Acid Bacteria) thrives best in an anaerobic environment. Anaerobic means that oxygen is not present; aerobic means that oxygen is present. In order to get LABs to proliferate, you must have an anaerobic environment to encourage their growth while discouraging the growth of all non-beneficial species, especially the aerobic ones.

In order to get an anaerobic environment for home fermentation you need two things- a seal that prevents oxygen from entering and an airlock that allows carbon dioxide to escape. Without an anaerobic environment, the LABs will not flourish. Open air fermentation will not produce large concentrations of LABs. As the bacteria produce carbon dioxide and use up the oxygen, it reduces the population of undesirable, aerobic bacteria and allows the LAB to flourish in the oxygenless environment. The Pickl-It provides this type of environment, as it as an airtight seal and an airlock for the growing carbon dioxide to escape.

An open bowl provides a continuous supply of oxygen, never increasing the amount of LAB present and giving an environment that is ideal for the undesirable, aerobic bacteria to flourish and out-compete (read: kill) the LABs. A mason jar would not, either, as it has to be burped regularly to allow the building carbon dioxide to escape. When you use a mason jar alone, you MUST burp it to release the pressure so the jar doesn’t explode. Every time you burp it, you don’t create a vacuum. And you can’t re-tighten it fast enough to avoid the re-introduction of oxygen. That allows oxygen to rush into the vessel, starting the process all over again. Not burping the jar would cause explosions, as I have had happen in the past. An air-tight vessel with an air lock is the only way to see the LABs flourish.

So, for those of us who ferment in Mason jars or other similar methods, we are probably not getting the true benefit of the LABs and over long-term use, could be causing more problems than good. Mason jars are not airtight, nor can they ever be airtight. From everything I’ve read, it is impossible. Based on the information KerryAnn has shared, there are only a couple vessels on the market that give you a truly anaerobic ferment.

Why are LABs so important?

KerryAnn tells us that as well (read her full post here):

  • Improve lactose intolerance.
  • Many studies have shown that LABs prevent, controls or stops viral diarrhea.
  • Might possibly play a role in preventing and controlling bacterial diarrhea including form sources such as E. Coli.
  • Prevents or lessens diarrhea from antibiotics.
  • Stimulates the immune system to resist invasion via increasing phagocytosis.
  • Stabilizes and reverses intestinal permeability. This is why LABs are SO critical to those healing from leaky gut and food intolerances!
  • Improves immune response when orally exposed to an allergen.
  • Is thought to possibly play an anti-inflammatory role in the body.
  • Enhances immunity to a variety of illnesses. I have listed a few here but the Handbook of Fermented Functional Foods by Farnworth lists many, many more.
  • Is known to decrease constipation and improve gut motility.
  • May decrease the occurrence of kidney stones.
  • Breaks down carbohydrates for easier digestion.
  • Possibly increases the seretonin produced in the gut.

Based on the science that KerryAnn has researched (did you know that she is only one class away from a degree in degree in both biology and chemistry?), she feels that the reason we should switch to airtight fermenting vessels is simple.

There isn’t a ‘more’ or ‘less’ anaerobic environment. Either it’s anaerobic or it isn’t. Either it’s airtight or it isn’t. There isn’t any in-between. If air is being let in, even in small amounts or inconsistently, the oxygen-loving bacteria that can wreck a ferment will stay alive.

If it’s truly airtight, once the oxygen is used up, the LABS are able to out-compete and completely kill off the aerobic bacteria. Completely killed off, the LABs will preserve the food for years. If your ferments go slimy, moldy, gray, nasty, etc. after six months or a year, they weren’t airtight and the oxygen-loving bacteria were never completely killed off. The rottenness come only from aerobic bacteria and not from LABs.

There’s also lots of evidence that the yeasts which grow in ferments that are not 100% airtight encourage candida and other bad yeasts, which in turn can harm the body. KerryAnn will be presenting more information on this topic as well and I am looking forward to reading it.

But, They Didn’t Have Anaerobic Jars in Traditional Cultures

That was one of the first things I said when I started hearing about how we’ve been fermenting incorrectly all this time. They certainly didn’t have fancy jars in traditional times. So, then, how did they ferment their food?

Burying the ferments was common. Animal skins are actually airtight and allow for off-gassing. Another method is a sealed clay pot. It is also airtight but allows for off-gassing.

What Ferments Require an Airtight Vessel?

Everything except kombucha.

Yep.

You read that right.

Kombucha is the only ferment that needs exposure to the air. Everything else should be done in airtight vessels for optimum benefit. This includes your kefirs, dairy, veggies, fruits. etc.

Also, it’s important to understand that a Mason jar with a homemade airlock is not air tight, nor can it ever be. I have made several airlock jars with things from home brew stores, but those jars are not airtight.

What About Salt?

Salt is an important aspect of the fermentation process. According to KerryAnn, the “correct salt concentration will actually encourage LABs to grow, giving them a competitive edge. Too little salt gives the bad guys an edge, which can lead to spoilage, especially if your container isn’t airtight.

That said, “you can have ‘too much of a good thing.’  If you add too much salt, it will also cripple or kill off the lactic acid bacteria.  Plainly put, if you make it too salty, nothing will live, even the good guys.  If you don’t get it so salty that it kills all of the microbes off, certain yeasts can live, also leading to spoilage.

As you can see, it’s a delicate balancing act. I know I am guilty of both over-salting and under-salting my ferments.

Learn more about proper salting techniques in KerryAnn’s post, “Salt and Lacto-Fermentation“.

Where Do I Stand on This?

Well, thanks for asking. The simple answer is I don’t know. Here are my thoughts — in no particular order:

1. I can’t dispute the science behind the info KerryAnn has shared. I may not want to believe it, but I can’t dispute it, at least at this point in time.

2. I simply cannot afford to purchase fancy jars at this time.

3. If I can’t afford to do it correctly, is there even a point in doing it at all?

4. Since I do not have any gut issues that I am trying to heal, do I need to worry about it? I have since found out that I DO have leaky gut, which has lead to an autoimmune disease, so this is a VERY important thing for me to pay attention to.

5. Should I just give up all LAB ferments and stick with kombucha? Based on the research, two of my favorite LAB ferments, water kefir and milk kefir, should be done in an airtight environment. I love those two ferments and I can’t see myself giving them up, but am I doing more harm than good by continuing to utilize the “old way”?

6. Do I have to make a decision right now? No, I guess I don’t. I can save up and purchase the jars I need over time. Until then, I might reduce the amount of fermenting I do though, which in turn leads me to thought #7. But, if you know me at all, you know that I hate being in limbo.

7. I’m not quite sure yet where this leaves the rest of my 52 Weeks of Bad A** Bacteria series.

8. I’m still confused, frustrated, conflicted, and discouraged.

9. I in turn don’t want to discourage and frustrate any of my readers. I know many people who are just starting out on the real/traditional food journey and the last thing I want to do is discourage them. Getting started with fermenting is often frustrating and overwhelming enough as it is, let alone adding all of this new info to the mix. My personal feeling is if you have specific gut issues that you are trying to heal, then I would be very careful as to how you ferment and would consider investing in the proper tools. If you have no gut issues and are just wanting to get started, then I say go for it, even if you’re doing it the “old way”.  Kefir is one of the easiest ferments to start off with. As you gain experience and confidence, you can branch out and invest in the more expensive tools.

That said, I am not a doctor, nor am I an expert on gut health and healing (since my autoimmune diagnosis, I have become somewhat of an expert, so this is an area I take very seriously now), so please, please, please do your own research, ask your own doctor or naturopath, talk to experts, and make the best decision you can for your family.

I Am So Confused, But I Want to Know More

Yeah. Me too. So, let’s just keep an eye on KerryAnn’s blog. You can sign up for email updates for Cooking Traditional Foods here. That way, we won’t miss her new posts. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

For now, you can read through her entire lactofermention series here.

I really can’t wait to hear your feedback. Bring it on! Leave a comment below and tell me your thoughts. Are you going to change your methods, or stay the same? Any advice to share with others (and me!)? Let’s start discussing!

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About Jessica Espinoza

Jessica is a real food wellness educator and the founder of the Delicious Obsessions website. She has had a life-long passion for food and being in the kitchen is where she is the happiest. She began helping her mother cook and bake around the age of three and she's been in the kitchen ever since, including working in a restaurant in her hometown for almost a decade, where she worked every position before finally becoming the lead chef. Jessica started Delicious Obsessions in 2010 as a way to help share her love for food and cooking. Since then, it has grown into a trusted online resource with a vibrant community of people learning to live healthy, happy lives through real food and natural living.

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