Bokashi is the process of breaking down food and other organic matter via anaerobic (without air) fermentation. It was developed in Japan and translates into "fermented organic matter". It's often considered a form of composting, but it's closer to pickling one's food waste, and this has its many benefits over composting.
I first learned about bokashi back in 2013 through my friend, musician and permaculturist, Jonny Dubowsky. It was a whole new world that I hadn't been exposed to before and I was hooked. Organic matter and food scraps are inoculated with effective microorganisms in anaerobic conditions. There were quite a number of benefits that he outlined and that I learned about later, as I did more of my own deep dive, including taking a free bokashi-making course with Common Ground Compost a couple years back. (By the way, Laura, who runs Common Ground Compost is a compost-guru of sorts, and is always the first person I turn to when I have a composting-related question. I will totally do an interview with her in an upcoming blog post because she has lots of knowledge to share).
After doing the bokashi course, I started to do bokashi in my home, but you really need a place to bury it afterwards in order for it to turn into a soil amendment. Since I didn't really have a place to do that two years ago, I halted the bokashi-in-my-apartment, but started to pick it back up again this year, knowing that I now have a community garden plot that I can use it in (YAY!).
There are many scientifically-backed benefits of fermenting one's waste vs. composting, so I'll go over them here..
- You don't lose any biomass in bokashi since you're essentially pickling the food waste. This is more akin to fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut, than it is breaking down food. In one study, only 3.2% of the starting material “disappeared” during fermentation, while 60.2% “disappeared” during composting.
- On that topic of pickling, you're actually retaining more nutrients by fermenting the waste materials compared to composting.
- Because it wasn't breaking down, the bokashi method had a considerably lower carbon footprint than compost.
- Fermentation can be done at ambient temperatures, whereas compost tends to heat up and needs to have an average temperature of 60.5°C.
- A big benefit is that bokashi is effective at "composting" meat and dairy—(though I've found that it's best if you have a good mix of veggies and fruits in there as well). This is something you cannot do with compost unless it's at the highest temperatures. I think this is a HUGE benefit because if "composting" is to be widely adopted in the home, then I think you'll have to consider all types of food—and not just fruits and veggies.
- Bokashi is great at warding off vectors, like rodents or insects. Something about the pickling of the product makes it less appealing compared to compost.
- Fourthly, bokashi doesn't produce any strong smells—as long as you keep air out of your bokashi bucket. The most it ever smells like is maybe a strong apple cider vinegar, but again—be sure to press the air out or else it will smell terribly.
- No turning is required with bokashi. It's part of what makes bokashi pretty low maintenance in composting terms. You just drop your food in your bokashi bucket, add a layer of inoculated bran, press out the air and you'll have your product in two weeks time. In regular composting systems, you will need to turn it.
- Bokashi is quick and can be made in two weeks time. After the two weeks, it's in it's "pre-compost" form. You need to bury it in a compost heap or soil for it to properly turn into a soil amendment.
- Lastly, bokashi has many great uses. The product can be used as a safe sink drain cleaner, which I always need in my house since my plumbing is whack; it can be fed to farm animals, like pigs, as it's quite nutritious and a good digestive; you can make a bokashi tea fertilizer for your plants; and eventually it can be added to your compost heap to be turned into a soil amendment.
Bokashi has been tested against chemical fertilizers on plant growth, and has proven to be far more effective, like in this study, this study, this study, and about a dozen other studies that I've come across in my readings. So if anyone is a skeptic on bokashi benefits, you can start there.
So let's move on to doing bokashi in the home!
- 5-gallon bucket (you can get a bucket with a spigot, which can take out some of the leachate from the bokashi)
- inoculated bokashi bran (I'll teach you how to make the bran separately, or you can buy this)
- an old plate the size of your bucket or plastic bag to press the air out.
- Add a handful of inoculated bran to the bottom of the bin. Add your layer of food, being sure to cut up any bones in small pieces, if throwing bones in. Sprinkle another layer of inoculated bran on top.
- Press out any air by adding the plate or plastic bag on top. This will prevent any foul smells from occurring and will be an effective way for the microorganisms to do their magic. Close the lid.
- There will be a leachate, or liquid, that needs to be drained from the bucket. If you get a bucket with a spigot, this can just be allowed out into a cup, and you can use that to clean sink drains. Please note that this is rather acidic, so I wouldn't put it directly onto plants or in your vermicomposting bin at this stage unless diluted. (When it's diluted, it can be a great fertilizer for plants, particularly ones that like more acidic conditions. Just do 1 teaspoon of bokashi juice with 1/2-3/4 gallons of water and apply to soil).
If you want to make your own bokashi, here's what to do. This will make 10 pounds of bokashi:
- EM-1 1% (0.8 fluid oz)
- blackstrap molasses, 1% (0.8 fluid oz)
- water (80 fluid oz), which is 1 cup of water per pound of wheat bran
- 10 pounds of wheat bran
- mixing tub with top
- Black plastic bag
Please note: For other materials, such as coffee chaff, saw dust, wood shavings (walnut, teak, pine), dry fall leaves, coconut husks, dried brewery waste, etc., use 5% EM-1 and 5% molasses. It may be possible to use less than 5%, but you’ll have to test it out (4%, 3% and/or 2%) with the material you use.
Dissolve the molasses in the water and then add the EM microbes. You'll need to add this to the mixing bucket—but make sure that bucket is big enough to begin with. Add the liquid to the bran. You'll want it to be damp but not dripping. Adjust where needed
Place the bran into an airtight container but try to get all the air out by placing a garbage bag on top. Snap the top on the container and place in a warm place for two weeks or more.
If a white mold forms, that is okay. You can leave it. Let bran dry out. This will be good usually up to 10 months if storing, but be sure to keep it out of direct light.