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Will fermented food make me sick? People ask me this a lot and the answer is no, they won’t. Just don’t eat something moldy. And the only way you’ll get moldy pickles is if your veggies are open to the air. As long as they’re under water they won’t grow mold and they’ll be ok.

I used to have the same concerns, but when Sandor Ellix Katz passed through Oakland in 2007 he put my worries to rest. Salt, he said, does inhibit some bacteria, which keeps the vegetables from getting an unpleasant, mushy texture. But the salt isn’t the thing keeping the veggies from going bad; the lack of oxygen under the water favors friendly bacteria and keeps the unfriendly ones at bay. This study with balogna echos the same thing. When no salt was used, the sausages came out squishy. (Cured meats are fermented, too.)

Here’s a recording of Katz’s lecture that night at Oakland’s SOL collective.

Cover to Cover – Open Book – December 21, 2007 at 3:00pm

Click to listen (or download)

Katz also brings up a good point about botulism, which is caused by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum and is the illness people often associated with preserved food. It is very very difficult to give yourself botulism by making pickles. These bacteria are all over the place, but it’s only when they’re given room to grow unchecked by other competing bacteria that they can harm you. It just so happens that Clostridium botulinum is very heat resistant and if canned foods are not sterilized for long enough, they can survive while all other bacteria die off.

That seems to me to be a case of humans hurting themselves by making their food too clean, which reminds me of the hygiene hypothesis, the theory that overly sterile food and living environments are making human beings more susceptible to allergies and auto-immune disorders. I’ll write more about that later, but a good starting point is Nathanael Johnson’s article on the raw milk underground is a great place to start. In some states, farmers who sell raw milk are getting arrested for selling a dangerous product. That seems silly to me. What if the police wanted to shut you down for making unpasteurized sauerkraut?

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You know how to pickle anything. Now know this: It’s hard to screw up your pickles. They are forgiving and they can take your abuse. Here’s an example from my current kimchi batch. (This isn’t a detailed kimchi recipe, but one is coming soon.)

Back in mid-January my housemates and I harvested more mustard greens, broccoli leaves, and radishes from our garden than we could stuff in the fridge, so I decided to make kimchi with some of them. I chopped them up along with some carrots, a daikon radish, and a head of cauliflower that also needed some attention. Not your usual kimchi combination, but hey, you can pickle anything.

I filled a 5 gallon crock about two-thirds full and covered the veggies with brine to soften them up for a few hours. Like this:

Kimchi veggies soaking

It looked like a lot, so I didn’t hold back on the spices:

Kimchi spices

In the food processor I blended up all the onions, most of the garlic, half the fresh ginger, and about 20 thai chili peppers. I poured off some of the brine and added the eye-watering mixture to the greens. To seal the spiced veggies from the air and keep them from getting moldy, I pressed them under the brine with a flat glass lid, then weighed the lid down with glass jars full of water.

Jars pressing kimchi under the brine

After it had spent two weeks in the pantry I tasted the kimchi. It was awful! It was way too strong, and the garlic especially was so powerful it made my mouth hurt. What to do? I added two large bunches of bok choi, another large chunk of fresh ginger, and a bunch of sweet paprika powder (because I wanted it to have a nice red color). After another week, the kimchi tasted much better and it’s still doing fine fermenting away in the pantry today, two months since it started.

kimchi fixed and ready to eat

The moral? Making pickles is kind of like making soup—you can always add something to make it better later on.

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