adventures in modern, urban domesticity

The Bokashi Experiment

Bokashi

Bokashi.  While it sounds like some kind of innovative spa treatment, it’s really the Japanese term for “fermented organic matter.”  Did you say fermented?  Well, then, sign me up!

We have had a building compost tumbler in place for over a year now, and the practice of separating out our vegetable food scraps has become second nature.  When our kitchen collection bucket fills up—which happens about twice a week—I take it down to our garbage courtyard, toss it in the tumbler, add some browns, and give it a spin. It takes about five minutes.  When it fills up about, every three months or so, we empty the tumbler into a waste bin to cure for another three months before we add it to the soil in our raised-bed garden.

Last year, we transformed more than 700 lbs of our kitchen scraps into fertilizer for the sad-looking plants in our courtyard. I imagine they appreciate it.

But while our tumbler takes care of produce waste, it can’t handle things like meat, dairy, and cooked food, which we were still tossing into the garbage.  When I heard about Bokashi a couple of years ago, I was intrigued.  We have pickled a number of things in our kitchen, but food waste was a new one, and frankly, it seemed like there was a high probability of things going wrong. Like, smelly wrong. But then again, if it allowed us to compost 100% of our food waste, it was worth trying out.

Bokashi buckets are basically just buckets with some drainage. You can make your own, but I didn’t have a weekend afternoon to devote to adding a spigot to a bucket (which I’m fairly certain would end up in disaster), so I just bought one off of Amazon, which took about 30 seconds and cost about $45.  When it arrived, it was bigger than I had imagined and required some reorganization of the tiny space under our kitchen sink.  While we previously had two bins—one for garbage and the other for recycling—we now needed to make room for the new bucket (I didn’t need it to be hanging around the dining room table…not everyone shares my enthusiasm for fermenting one’s food waste).

under the sink

Once we had the bin in situ and were ready to get started, I admit I hesitated. Can I really throw that leftover chicken stew my kids refused into that bin?  What about those lamb bones?  What sort of strange brew would we be concocting under our sink?

Essential to the success of this endeavor is the actual Bokashi, which is made from a mixture of wheat bran, rice bran, backstrap molasses, rock salt, and a combination of probiotics (lactobacilli, fungi/yeast, and phototropic bacilli), which you sprinkle on your scraps each time they are added. It smells slightly sweet and pungent, with a slight undertone of hamster cage, but not in a bad way.  This recipe, which has its roots in ancient Japanese farming practices, uses microorganisms to break down food waste quickly and in a sealed environment, thus preventing that special bouquet of decomposition you get when your food waste just piles up and hangs out in the garbage pail.  I ordered a 1 kg/2.2 lb. bag along with the bucket, but there are recipes online for making your own Bokashi mixture. Something to look forward to!

The process is extremely simple.  To get started, you sprinkle some Bokashi on the bottom of the bin.  Then you add your food scraps in layers of three inches or less, with a bit of Bokashi between each (like a nine-layer dip!).  There is a spigot along the bottom for draining the bucket every few days—you can use the liquid to water your plants. (Our bucket has produced very little liquid, so I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.)

bokashigridWhen you are not adding to the bin, you cover the top layer with plastic to seal it off and minimize its contact with oxygen.   This has caused some minor tweaking to our routine.  We scrape our plates and collect our food scraps into a plastic bin on our counter, and when everything is cleaned up, we then add the scraps to the bin all at once.

SONY DSC

Once you have filled the bin, you seal it up and  let it sit for two weeks.  After this point, you are supposed to bury it outside in the ground to complete the fermentation (like kimchi!).  But what if you are surrounded by concrete and have no ground in which to bury your fermented garbage?  Therein lies my grand experiment: apparently, after the two-week fermentation period you can add it to your compost bin where it can be reunited with your vegetable scraps and end up feeding your plants.

As of press time, our bin is almost full, layered with the archeological strata of our most recent dining habits:  lamb bones, chicken bones, old cheese, polenta, bean soup, hot cereal, all pickling into god knows what.  Each time we finish a meal, I hesitate a bit to open the bin, expecting to find something along the lines of my failed sauerkraut experiment.  But honestly, it’s never dramatic. It really just smells like the Bokashi itself.  In a few days, we will seal it and put it in a closet for two weeks.  When we open it up, I’m hoping to find something that I can add to our compost tumbler without ruining the batch.  If it works, we will feel triumphant.  If it doesn’t, well, we tried.  We can always sign up for Vokashi, a local service that will pick up your Bokashi scraps and bury them in area public gardens and green spaces- an interesting concept.

I hope it works, because the routine is really very simple, and it keeps smelly food out of the garbage pail.  The only garbage going in it these days is non-recyclable packaging.

We’ll deal with that later.

garbage pail

 

 

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12 Comments on “The Bokashi Experiment

  1. Miranda
    March 3, 2013

    I have been wondering about this myself! I have recently been looking into Bokashi, and my husband and I want to start composting, but we have very little yard space, (we live in a townhouse) and its winter. So I started looking into Bokashi. I actually have my first batch fermenting now! I made my own EM innoculant from rice water, milk, and molasses, and have used that in a simple Bokashi recipe I found online. I have been wondering if you can throw the fermented Bokashi bucket into a tumbler or pile; please post how it turns out! Good Luck!

    • domaphile
      March 3, 2013

      Hi Miranda-
      It looks like we are about the same place in the process. It took us about two weeks to fill up our bin and last week we sealed it off for two weeks of fermentation. So far, we have had no smell and if this all works out, we would get a second bin to alternate while the other is fermenting. That said, I’m a bit nervous about what we will find next week when we open it up and whether or not it will be suitable to go into our outdoor tumbler. If not, I will be bummed out! I would love to know more about your homemade bokashi blend – because if we commit to this we will need to start making our own. Keep me posted on how it goes!

      Best,
      Heather

  2. Pingback: » March: goes in with tree-tapping, goes out with syrup! domaphile

  3. Miranda
    March 15, 2013

    Hello Heather,
    I just pulled my bokashi out of the closet, and it looks and smells just like its supposed to! I am very pleased with how this turned out! Now I have to dry it, I am going to try putting it in the oven on warm for an hour, and see how that works. I also am going to make my own bucket, just gotta grab some supplies. I have been postponing cleaning out my refridgerator so I could try this! The mix was easy to make, wheat bran, molasses, EM (I made my own), and water. Two weeks in an airtight container in a dark place, and homemade bokashi! How did yours turn out? Keep on posting!

    Miranda

    • domaphile
      March 16, 2013

      Hi Miranda – That is certainly good news. I was supposed to pull mine out last weekend, but we got really busy and I was sort of nervous to do it – so I postponed it for another week. Planning to do it tomorrow and I will keep you posted. Are you drying it before you add it to a compost bin? Or are you going to bury it? What is your next step?

      • Miranda
        March 22, 2013

        I did dry it before I started using it. (This was my homemade Bokashi batch, not the actual food bucket.) I just put it in some baking pans in my oven on the lowest setting, on and off, for about 12 hours, stirring occasionally. I made my own bucket with parts I picked up at Menards, and cleaned out my fridge (finally!). The bucket is about 3/4 full now, and I am using your suggestion about having a container on the counter that I empty into the bin at the end of the night. It has been working out well, my husband is even participating! So we still have some time to go, finish filling the bucket, then seal and put in a closet for two weeks. I think we are going to try burying it the first time, since we don’t have our compost setup yet. I have some lilac bushes in my yard that have never bloomed very well. I pruned them down quite a bit last year, so I think we are going to try there first, and see how the lilacs do this season.
        How did yours turn out? Were you able to put it in your compost?

  4. Pingback: » Debts of Domestic Gratitude domaphile

  5. Aleila
    May 2, 2013

    Hi Heather,

    Curious about what happened with the bokashi-ed food scraps!

    So glad you tired this. I have been wanted to do this for sometime. I am a nut about keeping a “clean” garbage pail in my kitchen, storing food scraps in the freezer until garbage day. Drives my family nuts but I don’t like smelling decomposing garbage in my kitchen.

    THanks for sharing!

    • domaphile
      May 2, 2013

      Hi Aleila-

      So, I was supposed to keep them in the bin for 2-3 weeks (at least) before adding them to my compost tumbler outside, which can be done in place of burying the scraps in the ground. However, my husband became seriously ill very suddenly in March just as I was supposed to make the transfer and I wasn’t able to do it (composting was the last thing on my mind for several weeks!). He is much better now and I am thinking I should open the bin and see what the story is some 8-10 weeks later. There is no smell coming from it at all, but I must admit I am sort of nervous about opening it. I am waiting for a weekend day where I can do it outdoors and hopefully this Saturday will be the day. I will most definitely report on my results!

      Cheers,
      Heather

      • Aleila
        May 2, 2013

        Hi Heather,

        So sorry to hear about your hubby but glad to hear his is better. Good luck this weekend with your discovery. I am sure it will be okay, it might be soil by now!

        Cheers,
        Aleila

  6. Michele
    August 19, 2013

    It has been a few months, what happened? Was a conclusion reached about how adequate this process works on meat and dairy products? Thanks so much all the best.

  7. Pingback: » Bokashi Update (and other news from the world of composting). domaphile

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This entry was posted on February 18, 2013 by in HOME EC, URBAN HOMESTEAD and tagged , , .

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