Bokashi! The Fermentation That Builds Soil
The Ubiquitous Microbe Lactobacillus:
Cabbage leaves provide good habitat for air borne Lactobacillus. Lactobacillus also stars in a compost method known as bokashi, where food waste and scraps become “pickled” via the bokashi process.
And, speaking of microorganisms…There’s more to us than we realize. “The human body contains trillions of microorganisms — outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1.” source In fact, outer space depictions and microbial depictions often mirror each other.
Lactobacillus is just one genus of species out of 10,000 species of microbes that inhabit the human body. our ecosystem Lactobacillus has dozens of known strains including acidophilus, rhamnosus, and casei, etc. Lactobacillus lives on our skin, in our digestive tract, reproductive systems and urethras.
“Lactobacillus can help the body break down food, absorb nutrients, and fight off “bad” organisms that might cause diseases.” source Lactobacillus acidophilus produces lactic acid, H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide) and antibiotics (antimicrobials,) breaks down bile acids and creates an environment for the efficient utilization of nutrients such as protein, calcium, iron and phosphorus. (From: Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology, 1999) source
The predominantly gram positive Lactobacillus species is an oxygen tolerant, rod shaped anaerobe. It can function with or without oxygen depending on specific conditions.
In bokashi composting, Lactobacillus are key microbes that ferment the food scraps in an anaerobic state, without oxygen. When fermenting food for human consumption, Lacto-fermentation often utilizes salt to inhibit pathogens. source Lactobacillus is salt tolerant whereas many pathogens are not.
A byproduct of glucose metabolism by this species is lactic acid. “As bacteria (i.e Lactobacillus) break down sugar, lactic acid and carbon dioxide are formed, removing oxygen and making the food more acidic. This encourages the growth of even more lactic acid bacteria and prevents the growth of other microbes.” source
Lactobacillus is one of the key players in fermenting food. Fermented food can be found worldwide and traditions have been passed down for centuries. New and creative methods of fermenting food also keep evolving as part of the ingenuity of human experience. Key methods of fermentation include: lacto fermentation such as yogurt and sauerkraut-(sour flavors); yeast fermentation such as wine and bread; and specific mold fermentations such as miso and tempeh.
Juniper berries display a beautiful pale bloom on their blue colored berries. This bloom is comprised predominantly of yeast but Lactobacillus and other microbes are also present. Through various foodways techniques such as fermentation… A yeast ferment or lactobacillus fermentation can yield very interesting, unique and tasty but diverse results. Such as a lemony fermented, fizzy beverage or a lively addition to the food sauerkraut.
(juniper berries, photo by Dara Saville)
More About the Pickling Ferment of Bokashi Compost:
Bokashi in Words:
Bokashi comes from the Japanese word: ぼかし which means “fermented organic matter.” It also has other meanings in Japanese such as gradation and fading away. Bokashi can also be a description of printing processes and woodcuts (gradation of tone, fading). source Just like in English the same word can have different meanings and context.
Bokashi is a method of fermenting food scraps and food waste. The fermented scraps are then buried in the ground to convert to compost. One of the key components in bokashi is Lactobacillus bacteria known for its action in fermenting just about any fruit or vegetable. Indeed the bokashi food scraps rapidly start to fade away due to fermentation plus the action of microbes when transferred to soil.
Bokashi fermentation in agriculture was first developed by East Asian peoples. It is now widely used across Asia and Latin America in agriculture and has become a part of many people’s kitchens and gardens around the world as an effective step in composting.
A Japanese doctor, agronomist and researcher named Dr. Teruo Higa formulated a liquid carrier blend of essential microorganisms (EM). These amendments consist of nutrients and beneficial bacteria made available to the soil and are often used to inoculate a substrate such as bran. The bran (substrate) is just a useful way to contain and spread the beneficial organisms onto your soil or onto your food scraps in your bokashi bin.
Molasses is often used to feed the microbes in this EM liquid solution and then added to the inoculant. The inoculant can be rice or wheat bran, newspaper, hay, straw, dried grass, etc. Any type of high carbon material. EM are used in large or small scale agriculture to provide beneficial nutrients to soil or as a bokashi system to compost food.
“Effective microorganisms (EM) are mixed cultures of beneficial naturally-occurring organisms… (and) consist mainly of the photosynthesizing bacteria, lactic acid bacteria, yeasts, actinomycetes and fermenting fungi.” Effective Microorganisms
When this bokashi ferment is put in the living soil microbial, aerobic and anaerobic processes along with other essential soil organisms combine to further break the food waste down into its basic nutrients. This process enhances, amends, and builds the soil. This process turns food waste into soil. Soil becomes compost. The soil becomes part of a web–the web of life.
This liquid EM is not essential to buy, although it is often considered an optimum composition of microorganisms for making your own bokashi. Many people and farmers make their own batch of microbial brew. Some people attest to a lactobacillus fermentation as being just as effective. Here is a DIY tutorial to make your own bokashi brew that you can inoculate rice or wheat bran with. Rice Wash and Milk Fermentation
Personally, I buy the EM inoculated, organic bran. One 5 pound bag lasts me 3 or 4 months of daily use. Although I haven’t ruled out making my own microbial brew, I enjoy the ease of using the inoculated bran and there are many great companies or bokashi groups to procure it from. You do not need to add molasses or anything else to the bran when you buy it. It is fully cultured and ready to go.
This fermentation method of beneficial microbes when added to a substrate such as bran, newspaper, or straw, etc. will “pickle” the food.
It is a two-step process.
- Ferment food waste by pickling it.
- Then bury in the ground
The bokashi will not be fully broken down until buried in living soil. The soil microbes feast on the pickled food scraps and convert the scraps to compost. These beneficial microorganisms ferment or pickle food waste anaerobically, in a sense pre-digesting it. When this fermented food waste (bokashi) is then put into soil it is already more bioavailable. Fermenting food waste in this way rapidly quickens the transformation process.
Bokashi Super Power:
Bokashi is also ideal because it will break down specific food items that regular composting cannot easily do. This includes: dairy, meat, cooked foods, citrus peels, egg shells, small or chopped food bones, etc.
(Bokashi: Eggshell will quickly compost but also a whole cooked egg.)
The benefit of the bokashi method is that in a month’s time your food scraps will turn into soil. This includes 2 weeks fermenting in your bin and about 2 weeks being broken down in the soil. Compare this to traditional methods of heap composting, which can take 6 months to a year and needs aeration and moisture. Hot composting methods can take about 4 weeks but also require more labor than bokashi. All in all it does not matter which method(s) you choose. And, each method is beneficial and, there is no need to choose just one method if you don’t want to.
I enjoy the bokashi method because it uses up all food waste. And, I live in an apartment so Bokashi is useful to my lifestyle and also adaptable to small spaces. Also when I dug up the buried bokashi in the fierce Chihuhahuan desert sun to see it’s progress. I noticed something spectacular. A month later in the foot deep trench there was still MOISTURE in the soil from the composted food scraps. All other soil directly surrounding it was a baked, bone dry landscape.
Bokashi can be made in bucket sized amounts indoors. You can transfer the bokashi to your yard, garden, community garden, friend or neighbor’s yard as collaboration or to pots filled with healthy soil. Usually potting soil is not recommended. You can also bring a soil factory inside during cold weather or if you do not have access to land. Make your own by filling a bin with soil.
Bury your bokashi in a shallow hole, pit, or trench about 6- 8 inches deep whether in the ground or in a pot or soil factory bin. You can use the same spot over and over again as your bokashi area. The fermentation process usually deters rodents.
Bokashi composting can dramatically reduce greenhouse gasses, transform food waste into healthy soils, and help replenish ailing soils and soil life.
This shows the power of bokashi to transform the huge effect of global and local food waste. I definitely feel empowered to transform my own daily food waste with the bokashi method. In the height of the pandemic last winter I took up the process of “making bokashi.” This is an easy step by step process and I will show you how.
How to do Bokashi:
Use a 5 gallon bucket with a lid and spout. Drill holes in the bottom of one bucket. Place a second bucket inside. Prop the inside bucket up on a small shelf (stones or a few small bricks.) The liquid from the fermentation will collect there over time and must be drained daily. As you can see I splurged and bought a bucket with a screw on type lid and spout.
Put a layer of inoculated bran on the bottom of your spout bucket. Or use a DIY bucket without a gap on the bottom and add a layer of absorbent material such as: wood shavings, peat moss, or newspapers. This will absorb your liquid and will have to be replaced periodically. Compost it with your pickled food scraps. Add your food waste. Cut or chop food into smaller pieces as this speeds up the process.
Cover top of your newly added contents with inoculated bran. About 2-3 tablespoons are all that is needed. Or cover the substrate of choice if you are making your own inoculant. Substrate choices are: wood shavings, newspaper, leaves, dried grass, bran, etc. Compress the contents and keep air out. This is an anaerobic process. You can use a plate to push down on contents when they are added. Or use a potato masher or spatula or even your hands. I find a plate to fit works well. Keep the plate on the contents and also secure a lid on the bucket each time.
Remember to drain your bucket. Moisture will eventually accumulate but will vary according to the moisture content of your food. Do not pour large amounts of liquid in the bokashi. Use only the moisture within the food such as a lemon peel, pieces of apple, leftovers, etc. Do not add moldy food. Food that is starting to decompose is fine as long as it is not moldy or rotten. If contents start to smell bad add more inoculated bran.
A thin white mold often develops during the curing process inside your bokashi bin. This is normal and a sign that the fermentation is working. Blue, green or black mold is unwelcome. Remove mold and add more inoculated bran/substrate. Also drain liquids if in excess. When draining, be careful. Wear gloves. The liquid is highly acidic and the drained liquid can only last one day. It can smell fierce!
Bonus: use drained liquid to clear sink pipes and keep them clean.
For garden or houseplants: Use a DILUTED solution of 1:100. Or 1 ounce by volume of drained bokashi liquid to 100 ounces by volume of water as a plant food or soil amendment. Keep from spraying on leaves or contacting roots directly. Spray soil and let water bring nutrients to plants. A soil barrier around the roots and stems is important.
Complete these steps: Add bran, add food scraps, add bran, compress and cover contents with a plate, cover bucket with lid, drain liquid daily if needed.
An extra bucket is useful. When your first bucket is full let it ferment with lid on for 2 weeks. Use your extra bucket like the one above to start a second bokashi bucket. If it does not have a spout… line it with newspaper and extra bran on the bottom before you layer it with food scraps, then bran, etc. This way you keep your bokashi process on a roll.
When the full bokashi bucket has been pickling and fermenting for two weeks you can bury it in soil. This can be your yard, a garden plot, a consenting 😉 neighbor’s plot, your potted plants- that have healthy/living soil, (potting soil discouraged,) an indoor soil factory. This is an ideal opportunity for collaboration.
Also did you know that it is an Asian foodways tradition to make pickles by utilizing lactobacillus inoculated bran? Both the bran and cucumber or vegetable is replaced sequentially until the bran is fully inoculated to produce delicious fermented pickles. Likewise, healthy bokashi should smell like…Well, pickles!
Here’s a recipe to try: Nukazuke Rice Bran Pickles
Lactobacillus is in the air, waterways, soil, vegetation, and animal bodies including our own. We share an opportunity of symbiosis with Lactobacillus.
Resources and Further Reading
Website on Bokashi and farming practices:
I bought my organic bokashi bran from here.
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. Chelsea Green Publishing. Vermont, 2012.
Fermentation as Metaphor by Sandor Ellix Katz. Chelsea Green Publishing. Vermont, 2020.
Wildcrafted Fermentation by Pascal Baudar. Chelsea Green Publishing. Vermont, 2020.
Cultured Food in a Jar by Donna Schwenk. Hay House Inc. California, 2017.
Koji Alchemy by Rich Shih and Jeremy Umansky. Chelsea Green Publishing. Vermont, 2020.
The Ecology of Herbal Medicine by Dara Saville. New Mexico University Press. Albuquerque, New Mexico. 2021.
And, oh so many other wonderful articles, books, recipes and wisdoms passed down.