Friday, August 29, 2008

the baby bokashi bucket

What is the minimum volume for a successful bokashi fermentation?

Pickles aren’t pickled any more. All right, so some still are—the good ones!—but more and more often these days, cucumbers are preserved in vinegar and sterilized at high heat, rather than truly pickled.

Why is that on bokashislope? Maybe because it’s dinnertime -VBG- Seriously, it’s because I just realized why I’ve been getting some blank looks when I talk about pickling kitchen waste. I thought it was an easier way to explain bokashi than “anaerobic bucket fermentation via Effective Microbes,” but my explanation hasn’t been successful in getting the point across, because people don’t know what it means.

[Heavy sigh.]

Pickling, in the old sense, is fermentation in brine. The active microbes in pickling are lactobacilli. (They’re in bokashi, too!) There’s more info on making old-fashioned pickles here.
Of course, the end result is a little different from those bokashi buckets...

EM for bokashi has three main components—phototrophic bacteria, yeasts, and lactobacilli—working together, often with other microbes, to break down matter. As opposed to pickling, which uses salt to preserve matter altered by the lactobacilli (as well as to regulate the rate of fermentation). So my “pickling kitchen waste” isn’t a perfect explanation anyway.

But it is an easy way for me to approach this new idea. I understand pickling; I’ve had a fair amount of experience with it and other sorts of kitchen-based fermenting over the years. Talk to me about mother cultures and starters, and I can follow along fairly well. As opposed to considering osmotolerance in indigenous micro-organisms.

Whatever that might mean.

Leaving the academic terms to the academics, let’s turn back to those hypothetical pickles and their unsalted cucumber friends who’ll be finding their way into bokashi buckets:

How many of them—or whatever sort of organic matter—must be added to the bucket for successful bokashi fermentation?

Short answer: dunno. Yet.

If I were actually making pickles, it wouldn’t be a question of weight so much as volume relative to container size and brine concentration. But other fermentations do have minimum-size requirements: a sourdough starter, for example, won’t delevop its proper tang without enough raw matter. Making vinegar at home works best in batches of a gallon or larger—at least for me, using the process I learned from my grandmother. Yogurt and crème fraiche can be made successfully, reliably, a pint at a time, and in cooler climes than zone 8b, I used to make crème fraiche in one-cup batches with nary a failure. But the one time I tried to make a single-serving batch of lacto-fermented soda ...well, let’s just say that experiment shall not be repeated.


So what about bokashi? Is there a minimum volume, relative or absolute? I haven’t been able to find any ready answers, though nothing I’ve read yet suggests that there would be. It does seem, however, as if smaller batches might behave differently, especially with certain ingredients. And in bucket bokashi, even a transient off odor could be considered failure, though it would not be in other contexts...

Not just craving pickles, now I’m curious. So I’m going to try to ferment a very small batch of bokashi. And if it works, a smaller one after that, maybe with a few other variables tweaked here and there. Along, of course, with the larger buckets, in which relatively large colonies of microbes can happily propagate.



N.B. Yes, that’s a metal sieve. Though I know that metal and fermentation do not get along, I don’t expect it to fall apart in a single use. If it does, I’ll have learned something! And the baby bucket’s heading for a dark cabinet, so the translucence won’t matter much, though I admit I’ll end up trying to see through the sides. -G-

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bucket Boo-Boos

What not to put in your bokashi bucket

If you could put it in a compost bin or pile, it can probably go in the bucket, too, though dried materials receive no benefit from fermentation. An indoor bucket with spigot is most appropriate for high-nutrient items, that is to say kitchen waste, as opposed to lawn clippings and dried leaves. (As yet, I’ve found little information on fermentation as a sterilizer of weed seeds, but I’m still learning!)

You can put some things in a bokashi bucket that shouldn’t go in a traditional compost bin or pile—meat scraps, dairy, and oils, plus crushed shrimp shells and fishheads and small or broken-up bones; pretty much all your non-liquid foodstuff remains. But there are some things that should never, ever go in your bokashi bucket, and others that ought to be included only in small quantities.

The No-No’s:

*No synthetics—plastics, cleansers, rubbers, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc.

*No used cat litter or human waste

*No diseased plant or animal remains

*No living things (insects, worms, etc.)

This seems like common sense, doesn’t it?

Only a little:

*limited liquid food waste (beer, milk, yogurt, juice, etc.)

Too much moisture impedes fermentation

* selected molded/spoiled foodstuffs

And not at all during the first couple of days (more on that in another post)

Oddly, bokashi pioneer Dr. Teuro Higa recommends that tea bags not be added, but he seems to be a minority of one in that regard.

So now, if you have your bucket and EM bokashi bran, you’re well on your way to having fermented kitchen waste. Sounds...delightful, doesn’t it? And let’s not forget about that bokashi juice.


Damming the trashstream to a trickle,


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bokashi Quick-start

For bokashi, you need three things: an airtight container (preferably a lidded bucket with seive and spigot), bokashi, and kitchen or garden waste.


The fastest way to get started with bokashi is to buy a kit. (I have no affiliation with the company, BTW, just like the price compared to the others I saw.) Kits always contain at least one bokashi bucket—a plastic bucket with spigot and tight-fitting lid, typically with a removable seive—and many offer a second bucket and a starter bag of EM bokashi bran, marketed simply as bokashi, the bran-and-EM product that starts the fermentation process. (1) Several retailers also provide an instructional pamphlet, and at least one kit has a “mashing tool” as well, to aid in expelling excess air and fluids from waste.

DIY Bucket

But bokashi kits aren’t exactly cheap. If you happened to have a bucket with a tight-fitting lid and a spigot at the bottom, you could rig your own sieve with an overturned (non-metal) colander or something and use that. Hey, if you’re a homebrewer, you might just hit the local brew supply shop...

Austin Homebrew Supply has a nice spigot; just drill a one-inch hole and attach
this, available for $3.49 plus tax. (nut and washer included) Bet they’d have screens, too.

Note: If you’re not sure your bucket is airtight—remember, bokashi is an anaerobic process, so air is not desired—cover bokashi with a plastic sheet before fastening lid. This is also a good idea if you don’t have a whole lot of organic matter to add at the start, I’m told.


Even if you already have a lidded, spigoted bucket and seiving materials, there’s still one expense that can’t easily (2) be gotten around: the EM bokashi bran. But that’s not too terribly expensive, and again, there’s a trade-off between $$ and time spent. A 2-lb. container of EM bokashi bran runs between $10 and $20 US, depending on where you’re buying and what sort. (3) That’s enough for at least one bucket, quite likely two or three.

Or EM bokashi bran can be made at home from liquid EM inoculant plus molasses, bran, water, and optional other ingredients, and a single bottle can be used to make more EM bokashi bran than you really want to think about storing until use! One small bottle costs a bit less than twice as much as a single container of commercially packaged EM bokashi bran, plus the cost of carrier (bran, rice hulls, etc.), molasses, and any desired additional ingredients. And time.

For a beginner, commercially packaged EM bokashi bran is the better option—who wants to wait a month before starting to compost?—but I expect many converts will decide to make their own. Even at a rate of one container per month, the cost may not be prohibitive, but it does seem a tad wasteful to go buying small containers of anything!

EM America’s “recipe” gets criticized on some blogs, mostly for taking much longer to mix than it says it will, but it’s simple. Wheat bran and molasses can be purchased in bulk from grocery or feed stores.


Once you have your bucket and bokashi, you:

*Add a scoop of EM bokashi bran.

*Add kitchen waste (smaller pieces turn faster). Compress to expel air/water. Add a scoop of EM bokashi bran after each inch of waste.

*Drain bokashi juice at least twice a week and more as needed, beginning after two or three days.

*Repeat until bucket is full. Add an extra scoop of EM bokashi bran and set bucket aside to cure for ten days to two weeks. Drain as before.

*Decant into compost or curing location.

Having two buckets would be simpler. For my household and others that don’t generate a whole lot of food waste, it should be possible to just keep scraps in the fridge or freezer awhile. And I think I’m going to do that, so that I can measure how much food waste I actually produce.

Because I’d really like to know.

In a ferment,


(1) I get confused when people use the same word for product, process, and result, so on this blog, I’ll be using the term “EM bokashi bran” for the inoculant + inert carrier blend.

(2) A sometime brewer, I am suspicious of the idea that any microbial starter must be repurchased rather than maintained. But I don’t yet know enough about EM to say it isn’t so. And it may well be technically possible but so labor-intensive as to be impractical. Stay tuned.
In the meantime, the easiest obvious solution is to hit up your progressive-composting friends for a cup of inoculant.

(3) There are a number of different EM formulations and bases out there. More on that in another post.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What the *$#%& is bokashi?

Bokashi is:

A) A Japanese term meaning “fermented” or “fermented organic matter”

B) The commercial name for EM (effective microbes) in a carrier, typically wheat or rice bran

C) Non-methane-producing waste disposal solution

D) All of the above.

Sometimes called indoor composting—though technically it isn’t—bokashi ferments kitchen waste, essentially pickling waste produce, meat scraps, etc. This anaerobic process requires no light or airflow, has no effective minimum volume, and creates little odor. So it’s quite possible to do indoors, say, in a cabinet under the sink.

Or right next to the kitchen wastebasket, for those of us who need reminding. -G-

The end result is not compost, but a lowered-volume fermented product that can be composted quickly from that point. As a bonus, the probiotic liquid produced, affectionately called “bokashi juice,” can be used as a soil conditioner, plant food, and (supposedly) in a hundred other household, agricultural and commercial applications.

Okay, fine, pour the juice down the drain and call it septic system maintenance. But that still leaves the solids; something will have to be done with that bucket full of fermented waste. What about the apartment-dweller without a compost pile?

Here’s what sold me on the concept: cured bokashi can be finished by composting in small batches, or even added to planters, there to finish breaking down into slow-release fertilizer during the growing process. The bokashi composter may need to find an out-of-the-way corner for a second bucket to cure while one is being fed, and a bit of earth to compost any bokashi not being planter-filler, but not necessarily so much space as a traditional compost pile, nor for so long a time.

Hey, by the time my landlord saw it, it might be ready to sift onto his precious rose-bed!

Sounds like the right solution for my circumstances. If you, too, are interested, check out the links and resources (a growing list, naturally) and check back from time to time. I’ll be trying a few different things with my bokashi, from different EM products and buckets to maybe even harvesting some indigenous microorganisms of my own. And, of course, various ways to finish the pickled waste.