We’ve been talking to a lot of people who want to try preserving (or different types of preserving) lately and have found there are a few reasons that motivated people (i.e. people that want to try it) stay away: fear and confusion. We hope that sharing what we do will help people overcome the fear but realize that there are times that we’ve missed explaining some of the basics that really confused us (and still do from time to time) will help.
One of my all-time biggest confusions was around words that seemed dreadfully similar:
- Wild Fermenting
- Natural Fermenting
- Fermenting with a starter
There were other such terms but you get the basic idea. The confusion is common and understandable.
So let’s start with a basic definition of ‘fermentation’:
“A chemical reaction in which a ferment causes an organic molecule to split into simpler substances” (source)
This doesn’t often help people until I explain, “It’s like those kosher pickles you used to get in the deli that were made without vinegar.”
Fermentation essentially uses bacteria to break down something edible and transform it into something else edible (like the process that transforms a cucumber into a pickle or milk into cheese). It was a special bacteria called lactobacillus which was first discovered in cheese and yogurt which led to the name lactofermentation.
The term ‘lacto’ related to the bacteria, not the dairy it was contained in (the same bacteria also exists in fruit and vegetables) thus you can indeed have a lactofermented pickle that doesn’t have any dairy whatsoever. This means that wild fermentation, fermentation and lactofermentation can all be the same thing – it’s simply fermentation that occurs with the lactobacillus bacteria.
There is, however, a difference between a wild ferment and one that is made with a starter (such as many cheeses, yogurts, sourdough breads and other ferments).
A wild ferment is one that occurs spontaneously (i.e. it usually starts with only fruit and/or veggies, flavors and a brine which often uses salt). It tends to take longer than the alternative as the lactobacillus takes a while to come to life. This will work with almost any fruit and/ or vegetable as it will not rot before there’s enough bacteria living to transform it.
A ferment with a starter is typically accomplished faster as you help it start by adding living bacteria (such as whey) to the item you’re trying to ferment. This speeds the process and is effective for things like dairy, times when you want to speed the ferment or because of personal choice.
There are ultimately two types of fermentation: those using a starter and those which do not. You generally have a choice of methods (pretty much always if dealing with fruit and vegetables) and a good recipe will help you understand which to use (as will trial and error as you get familiar).
To the experienced fermenters out here, are there any differing thoughts out there in case I’ve missed something in the explanation?