Usually, we attribute fermentation with food and drinks. But fermentation can also play a role at the end of the food life cycle as well. We’re talking about your food scraps.
If you’re not tossing your food scraps in the rubbish bin (I shudder to think that you would be), then you are probably doing some kind of composting to ensure that those food scraps get put to good use, instead of rotting away in landfills, leaching methane into the air. Composting happens in a variety of ways, and the most common ones that people tend to be used to are “backyard” or “onsite” composting – the kind of composting that happens if you have outdoor space – and vermicomposting, a method that uses worms, and is popular for people living in smaller spaces, like in urban areas.
But when we remove oxygen from the composting process, the compost turns anaerobic, which in turn, leads to fermentation, and a whole other way to deal with food scraps. Bokashi is one of these methods, a popular way to process food waste, particularly for those with not a lot of room for a traditional composting setup.
Bokashi is a Japanese word meaning fermented organic matter, and that’s exactly what the bokashi method of processing food scraps does. As with any kind of fermentation, bokashi requires a few microorganisms to work, lactobacillus bacteria (the same stuff that gives yogurt and pickles their funky taste), phototrophic bacteria and yeast. These are sprinkled onto the food scraps, in the form of an inoculated material (often referred to as bokashi bran, which you can buy, or even make yourself). Once the food scraps and microorganisms are in an airtight bucket, the fermentation process begins.
Bokashi doesn’t require a lot of equipment, one of the main reason it has so many proponents; if you have room for an airtight bucket, then you have room to ferment your food waste. The other big draw is that you can ferment essentially anything, including many items that you might otherwise keep from your worm bin, like meat and dairy. Because of this easy and practical method, bokashi has many converts.
“I broke up with worms to date bokashi,” says Rebecca Louie, the woman behind the blog The Compostess and the author of Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small-Space Living, a book devoted to encouraging people to compost in all kinds of spaces. Don’t worry, she still has her worms, but Louie is a big proponent of bokashi, particularly for urban dwellers, and she has even gotten her officemates to embrace having a bucket at work.
As Louie explains it, with the bokashi method “you’re pre-composting the food.” So as opposed to traditional compost where the end product is broken down organic matter, with bokashi, “you open up the bucket when it’s finished and it looks exactly the same as when you put it in,” says Louie. That’s because, as Louie points out, “the burial in the soil is where the earthy magic happens.” As opposed to an aerobic composting process where at the end of the process you end up with rich humus (the soil looking stuff), with this anaerobic method you are simply playing a role in making organic nutrients available to the soil. In this way bokashi isn’t as much a form of composting as it is a pre-composting.
As with any kind of composting, it’s important to have a destination in mind; you want the fermented food scraps to go back into the earth. Fortunately, this can be done on a small scale; you can ferment your food scraps with a bokashi system and bury them in your balcony pots. Louie buries hers in her window boxes. Fermented food scraps can also be donated to a local garden.
At Louie’s New York office, the fermented food scraps go to two local gardens, El Sol Brillante and the Children’s Garden, who thanks to local community members have incorporated thousands of pounds of fermented food waste, helping to rehabilitate the soil.
For people who live in a more rural setting, a bokashi system is also practical, eliminating the need to turn the compost; you ferment your scraps and when they’re ready, dig them straight into the ground.
For anyone looking to get into bokashi, Louie gives one heads up: “A lot of it is marketed as odorless,” says Louie. That’s because the fermentation happens in a closed bucket, however, “when you open up the bucket you are going to smell the fermented version of whatever you put in it,” says Louie. That’s not to put people off, but it is something that’s good to know before you jump into the world of fermenting your food scraps. “The smell dissipates, but it’s a heads-up because people should know what they are getting into,” says Louie.
If you’re fermenting your food to eat and drink, why not ferment it to get it ready to go back into the ground? As Sandor Ellix Katz writes in The Art of Fermentation: An in-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World, “Moving toward a more harmonious way of life and greater resilience requires our active participation. This means finding ways to become more aware of and connected to the other forms of life that are around us and that constitute our food — plants and animals, as well as bacteria and fungi — and to the resources, such as water, fuel, materials, tools, and transportation, upon which we depend. It means taking responsibility for our shit, both literally and figuratively.”
Main photo: Mastermaq
Lead photo: Urban Wild