I’ve received some e-mails recently about salt and fermentation. All have asked variations of the same question.
‘Is salt necessary in a ferment?’
Yes. Salt prevents bad bacteria from growing in a ferment during the initial stage of fermentation where the oxygen is used up and the lactic acid bacteria (LABs) begin to reproduce. Since fermentation always occurs in the same pattern no matter what you’re fermenting, you need to the salt to keep the bad guys at bay until the LABs kick in and start growing like crazy.
The correct salt concentration will actually encourage LABs to grow, giving them a competitive edge. Too little salt gives the bad guys an edge, which can lead to spoilage, especially if your container isn’t airtight.
However, you can have ‘too much of a good thing.’ If you add too much salt, it will also cripple or kill off the lactic acid bacteria. Plainly put, if you make it too salty, nothing will live, even the good guys. If you don’t get it so salty that it kills all of the microbes off, certain yeasts can live, also leading to spoilage.
Fermenting in a container that isn’t airtight combined with no salt is a good recipe to not wind up with lots of LABs in your ferment at best, and an end product that will encourage yeast and bad bacteria in your gut, at worst.
Smooth Versus Chunky
Most of the problem with salt comes in that the different salts don’t have a uniform crystal size, so they will weigh different amounts when measure by the teaspoon. That creates brines of different percentages.
I have three salts common to a traditional foods kitchen. I weighed one level tablespoon of each to give you an idea of the differences.
Redmond’s Real Salt- 15 grams
Himalayan Pink Salt- 15 grams
Celtic Sea Salt- 11 grams
The Redmond’s and the Pink salt are of very similar consistency, but the celtic grey salt is very large and chunky. To create a 2% brine, you would want to use 19 grams of salt per quart of water. So that’s about 1-1/4 tablespoons of the Redmond’s and Himalayan, but it requires about 1-3/4 Tablespoons of the Celtic. That’s a big difference. If you just go by tablespoons and you use a different grind than the person who wrote the recipe, you could be in for a failed ferment.
A Weighty Matter
Weighing your salt is the best means to getting the right brine. Kitchen scales that measure grams are relatively easy to come by. These scales can cost as little as $10 so they’re a good kitchen investment if you’re serious about baking and fermenting. If a small, electronic scale is absolutely out of the question, then knowing the weight of your particular salt combined with the knowledge of math to calculate the correct amount is needed. I like math, but not that much, so I make it easy on myself and let the scale do the work.
How do you know what percentage of brine to make? This page on the Pickl-It website spells out the details. Most things need a 2% brine, but there are some items, like beets and sauerkraut, that can be done with a higher percentage brine. When you want to create your own experimental ferments, making sure you have the right salinity and having an air-tight vessel such as the Pickl-It or the Harsch. Those two steps are key to getting the end product to turn out tasty and teeming with LABs.
Want to read more about fermentation, including articles with references and more information on vessel types? See our Related Posts for all of the articles in this series.