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.
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?