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You may want the following:
- Mild, low-residue, nonantibacterial soap
- Dishwasher and dishwasher powder (optional)
- White vinegar for brewing equipment, if needed
Beginning fermenters sometimes worry about food poisoning and microbiological safety.
The safety concerns fall into two general categories. First, many of us have heard stories about improperly canned foods leading to potentially fatal cases of botulism. The concern with canned foods is real, although the number of actual incidents is pretty low. Every year in the United States, between 100 and 200 cases of botulism are reported and confirmed, and more probably go unidentified or unreported. Canned foods, whether canned at home or in factories, must be produced deliberately and methodically. The good news is that very specific procedures have been documented describing how to produce canned foods safely; if these procedures are followed closely, major problems are very, very unlikely. The even better news is that fermenting resembles canning only superficially. Both are food preserving techniques and both often involve Mason jars, but that’s where the similarities end. Canning involves destroying all the microbes, generally with heat, pressure, and chemicals, while fermenting involves supporting some microbes, discouraging others, and playing the first group against the second, by lowering the pH, controlling access to oxygen, and more subtly varying temperature. Canning is a massacre, while fermenting is a war of attrition and diplomacy. Fermenters’ problems are quite different from canners’. Canning’s greatest scourge, botulism, is not an issue for fermenters, in large part because of the lower pH involved in fermentation.
Second, fermenting goes against our refrigerator training. “Put it back in the refrigerator when you’re done,” our parents would repeat. We must untrain ourselves a bit if we wish to ferment. To everything there is a season, including refrigeration. It’s important to understand that refrigeration slows down the fermentation processes that we’re interested in. Sometimes, we do want to slow down these processes, but most of the time we don’t. Temperature is something we can adjust strategically.
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Sanitation is another place where canning and fermenting differ. Canning best practices dictate that we boil jars and lids before we use them and then boil everything for specific periods of time during the process, possibly under pressure to achieve an even higher temperature. Fermenting is more forgiving; it’s important to maintain a clean workspace but it need not be spotless. Jars and bottles should be free of foreign objects, insects in particular. Glass may be sterilized with hot or boiling water if desired but it’s not necessary. Mason jars are designed to be immersed in boiling water, put in the dishwasher, or washed by hand; any of these is adequate. Boiling is often the best option for cleaning small-necked jugs, but again, it’s not necessary.
In general, use mild, low-residue, unscented dish soap or dishwasher powder. Low-residue soap should be used on hands, too. Many green brands are good, although some of them are “green” in marketing only and contain harsh detergents or strong “natural” scents that take hours to dissipate!
Antibacterial soaps are particularly problematic. If they aren’t rinsed off hands and equipment completely, they can lead to failed ferments. Worse yet, some antibacterial soaps contain dangerous toxic ingredients such as triclosan. Humans are giant bags of microbes. Our overall health is a function of the health, diversity, and balance of our collections of microbes. Unconsciously poisoning these microbes can lead to a myriad of mysterious maladies. Antibacterial soaps generally don’t even do a good job at what they’re trying to do — they just wipe out some subset of the microbes they come across. The best advice is to stay away from antibacterial soap completely, whether or not you’re fermenting! In fact, triclosan, a common antibacterial ingredient, is now banned in soaps in parts of the United States and will hopefully continue to be banned more widely. Triclosan and antibacterial soaps were a victory of marketing over science and public health. They’ve been in consumer products for decades, and regulators are only now deciding that maybe they do more harm than good.
There are a few pieces of brewing equipment that are hard to clean and can’t go in a dishwasher, such as siphon pumps and tubing. Homebrew stores sell chemical sanitizing liquids for cleaning these sorts of things. Commercial brewers may not have many other options. But for home purposes, running white vinegar through these and then flushing them well with water should suffice, with no risks to our health or to our ferments.
More from Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond: A Fun and Flavorful Guide to Fermenting Your Own Probiotic Beverages at Home:
Reprinted with permission from Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond: A Fun and Flavorful Guide to Fermenting Your Own Probiotic Beverages at Home by Alex Lewin and Raquel Guajardo and published by Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc., 2017. Buy this book from our store: Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond: A Fun and Flavorful Guide to Fermenting Your Own Probiotic Beverages at Home.