Continuing on my path of discovering fermentation, last night I started my first batch of sauerkraut.
The hardest part of making sauerkraut so far has been finding a crock to let it ferment in. I found expensive crocks online. I found utensil crocks from China at a nearby kitchen store. But it wasn’t until I visited a place called Good’s Store on the edge of Amish country that I finally found the crock of my fermenting dreams. For $13 I bought a new one-gallon clay crock made in the USA by Burley Clay Products.
The rest of the process was easy.
I sliced up two heads of cabbage—one purple, one green—and mixed it up in a large bowl with 4 or 5 tablespoons of sea salt. Almost immediately the salt began pulling the water from the cabbage through osmosis. When all my cabbage was chopped, I packed it tightly into the crock, and watched in amazement as the brine developed.
I placed a small plate on top of the cabbage and placed a bottle of water on top of the plate, which all works to keep the cabbage below the surface of the brine. I covered the whole thing with a dishtowel and put it aside to let the fermentation begin. I’ll check it everyday and in a week or so I’ll start tasting it.
As I mentioned before in my post about pickles, my fascination with fermentation is a result of my hearing Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview with Sandor Katz. I bought Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation, which has inspired me to move beyond pickles. The book is an amazing collection of stories, techniques, and recipes that have given me a much broader understanding of the fermentation process, as well as the courage to put that understanding into practice.
But I won’t stop at sauerkraut. In fact, after I set the crock of kraut aside last night, I began boiling raw milk to make a simple farmer cheese, another astoundingly simple process.
I brought 3 pints of raw cow’s milk (from nearby Camphill Village Kimberton Hills dairy) to a slow boil. After removing from the heat, I slowly stirred in 3/16 cup white vinegar, which caused the milk to curdle. I poured the separated curds and whey through a basket strainer covered with cheesecloth into a bowl. The whey ended up in the bowl and I was left with the curds, which I sprinkled with some sea salt. I took the corners of the cheesecloth and pulled the curds into a ball to expunge the excess whey. And there you go: Farmer Cheese.
I’ll eat some tonight for dinner with a delicious tomato salad.
Speaking of which, my garden is pushing tomatoes now. Here’s what I harvested last night after putting the kids to bed. Brandywine, Cosmonaut Volkov, Green Zebra, Indigo Rose, and Amish Paste.
There is a lot of real estate opening up in my garden lately. The zukes and cukes are done, the victims of squash bugs and cucumber beetles. The corn is finishing up this week, and my carrots will be coming out this week too. So what’s next for this imperfect plot? Fall brassicas. Please join me in welcoming this year’s Brussels, Broccoli, Cabbage, and Kale. We’ll also be planting more peas and more bush beans.
And maybe, just maybe, this will be the year I set up a cold frame.
Driving to work a few weeks ago, I heard a Fresh Air podcast of Terry Gross interviewing Sandor Katz, the author of The Art of Fermentation. He talked about how fermentation is the “the flavorful space between fresh and rotten” and just how easy it is to ferment your garden harvest.
I was instantly hooked on the idea.
It turns out that a lot of what I eat and drink everyday is made possible because of the fermentation process. Coffee, beer, yogurt, bread, cheese—all sorts of things are fermented. And for thousands of years humans have been preserving their garden produce by fermenting it.
When we got back from a few days at the shore, the cucumbers in our garden were perfect and plentiful, so I knew it was time to join the ranks for my fermenting forbearers by making pickles..
Real pickles. Not those vinegar-soaked refrigerator pickles. I’m talking about lacto-fermented, homegrown, organic, ripe-on-the-vine, pickled-in-the-brine, super-duper cucumber pickles.
Here’s what I used:
‣ 5 tbsp salt
‣ 2 quarts water
‣ 8 medium cucumbers
‣ 8 to 10 grape leaves
‣ a few horseradish leaves
‣ string beans
‣ chard stems
‣ mustard seed
‣ 4 quart-size ball jars
And here’s how I did it:
I add the salt to the water, heated it up (not boiling), stirred it, let the salt dissolve, and let it cool.
Meanwhile, I cut the cumbers in half and sliced the halves into spears.
I put a grape leaf on the bottom of each jar. Grape leaves are a very important part of the process, because they give the pickles their crunch. Without the tannins that are present in grape leaves (or other leaves such as horseradish or oak), your cucumbers will be disgustingly mushy. And nobody likes a mushy pickle. Nobody.
Then I filled the jar with cucumber spears, jamming them in good and tight, along with onion slices, green beans, dill, garlic, mustard seed, and chard stems. And I rolled up some more grape and horseradish leaves and jammed them in too, leaving about two inches from the top of the vegetables to the top of the jar.
Next I poured the brine into the jars. Everything I read about this online said you should leave about an inch from the top of the brine to the top of the jar, not sure why, but that’s what I did. The trick is getting the veggies to stay submerged. I put another grape leaf on top to help hold the cukes down.
After I poured the brine, I tapped the jars on the table to release any air bubbles. Then I put on the lids, not too tight, and left them on the table for a few days, each morning opening the lids and sort of burping the jars.
Once the brine started getting cloudy, I knew the fermentation process had begun. I waited a few more days.
When we finally tried them, my 4-year-old daughter declared these pickles to be the best pickles ever. And she’s right.