May 4, 2014

How Long Will Ferments Last in the Fridge?

In our modern, ultra-sanitized, culture, people often freak out when I talk about lacto-fermenting foods.

Usually the conversation goes something like:

me: So you chop up your veggies, sprinkle some salt on it, put it in a jar then let it sit on your counter for 3 days.

student: Wha?!!  THREE DAYS with NO refrigeration?!

me: Yes, this is how people for hundreds of years have been preserving the harvest.  After 3 days, you put the jar in your fridge, or root cellar in the good-ole-days days before refrigeration.

student:  Are you sure it won't make me sick?  Are you sure it won't mold?  Will it explode?

...and the questions continue until either I convince them of the health benefits or they are totally grossed out and walk away.

This weekend I hosted a fermenting class in my home.  Prior to the class, because I am lazy efficient, I emailed my foodie friends and asked what kind of variety they could add to my dog and pony show.  One friend chimed in that she had a couple jars she could share.  

And that's all she said.

Fast forward to the day of the class and she shows up with the above jar of sauerkraut (labeled "Caris's Coleslaw.")

  From two-and-a-half YEARS ago.  

She said, "I think it's still good.  It's been in my fridge and hasn't been opened."

Preparing for the class, I brushed up on my fermenting knowledge by reading again from Nourishing Traditions. (If you don't have a personal copy, put it on your wish list - or very least check it out from the library.)  On page 91, in the intro to the section on fermented vegetables and fruit, Sally Fallon Morell writes:

The occasional batch that goes bad presents no danger - the smell will be so awful that nothing could persuade you to eat it.

Admittedly it was with a bit of fear and trepidation that I opened the jar.  It smelled fine.  And quite surprisingly it tasted fine, too.  I will be quick to say I don't know many people who keep jars of anything quite that long.  And, I probably wouldn't recommend you purposefully keeping lacto-fermented foods that long without adding additional "food" for the living organisms to eat (like additional fresh cabbage to existing sauerkraut.)

Sometimes mold will form on the top of some of my ferments.  Believe it or not, I will just scoop it out and continue to eat the rest of the jar.  On occasion, my banana peppers get a white film (kahn yeast) on the top.  According to Cultures for Health

Kahm yeast is a type of film that can readily be found in cultured and fermented foods. It is not harmful, although it may be unattractive or even smell a little odd. It should be removed from the ferment so it doesn’t impart a bad odor, but a little bit left in the jar won’t hurt the vegetables, and won’t hurt you. 
Kahm yeast is likely to develop if a fermentation solution is insufficiently acid, especially when you start it, or if there is not enough salt in the brine. Kahm can also develop if the culturing temperature is too warm, or if the brew is over-exposed to oxygen. Poor hygiene can be another cause. 
If kahm yeast develops in your ferment, skim it off the surface of the liquid. Discard any solid matter that has it. As usual, your senses are the test: if it smells and tastes okay, it probably is.

If you are a frequent fermenter or you have experienced mold or yeast, read the rest of the article here. 

What's your record for keeping ferments alive in your fridge?

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