Is there a risk of botulism in fermented foods? Foodborne Botulism is very rare in the U.S. The environment that botulism prefers is the opposite of the environment we create when fermenting foods. The leading causes of foodborne botulism is improper canning techniques in home canned foods.
The main method of fermenting vegetables and sauerkraut on this blog is lacto-fermentation. This method creates an anaerobic environment (free of oxygen) where only lactobacillus bacteria can survive. The lactobacillus bacteria act as a preservative, keeping harmful bacteria from living in the ferment.
Will lacto-fermented pickles or sauerkraut give you botulism? No.
Fermenting foods creates an environment that botulism doesn’t like. In the article, “Debunking the Botulism Fear“, Christopher Weeks explains:
Fermenting foods creates an environment that is antagonistic to botulism. It’s what scientists call “competitive exclusion.” Beneficial bacteria begin to acidify the food, a condition C. botulinum doesn’t like. Adding salt to a ferment also reduces C. botulinum’s ability to grow, and encourages beneficial bacteria to take over. There are also other “competitive factors” that beneficial bacteria and fungi create in smaller quantities to exclude pathogenic varieties.
Christopher Weeks article, Debunking the Botulism Fear, is well researched and goes into depth on botulism and fermented foods. I highly recommend reading it.
Tips for Safe Fermentation
- Use fresh ingredients. Don’t use old, soggy cabbage or vegetables for your ferments. At this point they already started rotting on their own and could cause a ferment to go bad.
- Maintain good hygiene – Clean your vegetables. Wash your tools and hands with hot, soapy water before use.
- Use the exact amount of salt the recipe calls for. Some people are concerned about salt content, but it’s extremely important to create an environment that is inhospitable for harmful bacteria to survive. All my recipes are tested and use the right amount of salt for safe fermentation without being too salty.
- Salt distribution – Make sure salt is evenly distributed in the cabbage when making sauerkraut. When making pickles make sure salt is completely dissolved in the brine.
- Do not use iodized salt or table salt. Table salt has additives that can make the ferment go bad. I recommend fine high quality sea salt.
- Purified water – Make sure to always use either distilled or purified water when fermenting vegetables. Tap water contains chemicals like chlorine that harm good bacteria, which could lead to a bad ferment.
You don’t have to worry about botulism when fermenting foods. In fact, fermenting foods is safer than canning, because we are creating an environment where harmful bacteria, such as botulism, can’t survive.