Safety and Sanitation

Here’s what you need to know about food safety and methods of preservation. ‘Canning is a massacre, while fermenting is a war of attrition and diplomacy.’

| May 2019

Photo from Quarto Publishing Group USA Inc.

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.

Photo from Adobe Stock

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!



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