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).
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.)
When 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.
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.