Garden, Plant, Cook!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Sauerkraut, dill pickles, preserved lemons & yogurt - what do they have in common?

Dear Folks,

I just made a batch of sauerkraut!  Oh my is it wonderful and "real" sauerkraut.  By that I mean it was made the old fashioned way, which is the theme of this post - lacto-fermentation.  The picture here is my finished sauerkraut at day 10 - the dark area you see in the middle is some of my bay tree leaves and some peppercorns for extra flavor.  The plastic on the top is just to keep dust out.

I have been making my own yogurt from time to time for a number of years which began in earnest when I had my own goats, but even before that I played around with making homemade yogurt and was somewhat successful.  Meaning I did get yogurt but I really did not understand all the principles of it - you add existing live culture yogurt (lacto) to milk, keep warm for 10+ hours and you have yogurt or something which resembles yogurt (fermentation) - tangy, good, maybe not quite 'thick' but useable.

As someone who has a cast iron stomach, I do not usually suffer from digestion problems - the exception is the rare (thank God) food poisoning or stomach virus, both of which knockout all of your good flora and funa.  So I learned a long time ago that eating yogurt got me back on track faster when one of these things hit me and also I genuinely love yogurt and experiment all the time with yogurt in foods - particularly in using it as a substitute for the less nourishing sour cream or mayo.

When one of the Permies on the Valley Permaculture Alliance posted a thread about lacto-fermentation, I checked it out and learned a lot of wonderful new-to-me things including how to make real sauerkraut.  I also learned about what I call 'real dill pickles' - you know the wonderful ones that you could find in old fashioned country stores in pickle barrels or a good Kosher Deli.

What is different about both of these great foods is they are NOT MADE with vinegar but use a variation of the lacto-fermentation activity to "pickle" the cabbage or cucumbers.  People who are passionate about lacto-fermented products will tell you all about the health benefits.  I do not need encouragement - they are just plain good tasting and good for you :-)

Historically, pickling of vegetables and fruits was done with brine solutions to which herbs and spices were added, if desired.  It was a great way to preserve foods for long periods in an age before mechanical refrigeration.  Back in March I posted about corning my own beef for St. Patrick's day - another old use of the brining process to flavor and preserve meat.

When commercial canned products became popular most producers chose vinegar as the preserving agent rather than brining the food.  Both preserve food, but only canning required the 'cooking' of the vegetables before or during the canning process - which of course also cooks the food.

Read up on pickling here at wikipedia

The simple description of the process of lacto-fermentation is the use of bacteria*, which exists on natural or organically grown foods, some salt and the juice of the vegetable or the addition of some water to make the brining solution.  It is basically that simple.  Where the vegetable 'weeps' juice in the presence of salt, like cabbage, usually no or very little extra water is needed.  Where the veggies are mostly whole, like cucumbers you will need to make a brine solution.

Here is probably the most important part of doing this correctly.  The-Food-Must-Be-Submerged-At-All-Times!  The combination of the natural bacteria, brine and no-air, creates an environment which creates lactic acid and acts as the process of 'cooking in acid' which is what pickling is.  (A not un-similar process is fresh cevche where lime juice is used to 'cook' fresh seafood.)

First, I have to say I probably did this a little differently from what others may prefer, but it worked for me.  Many people use ceramic crocks for pickling - a truly old world preference that many have enjoyed.  I wanted to see what was going on and monitor so I used a large mason jar.  Next you have to weigh the veggie down so it is always under the liquid.  I have since purchased glass pickle weights, however - here is what worked really well for me.  I put an 8 ounce mason jam jar filed with water in the wide mouth of the larger mason jar.  I used sywran wrap but it really is not necessary.  What is necessary is that you do not completely seal the surface of the food under the liquid.  Gas will form in the fermentation process and it must be allowed to escape, so a weight of some sort must 'almost' cover the surface of the food, allowing the gas to escape.

After you figure out what container you are going to use, you need to determine how much will fill the container and adjust for the collapse of the cabbage as it weeps.  I did it wrong when I began this batch by putting the cabbage and salt into the jar FIRST.  It only took a half of typical cabbage head before the salt started to cause the cabbage to collapse, then I HAD to chop and add the rest of the head.

So here is the proportions of what you will typically get - 1 head of cabbage - about 4-5 pounds will fill a 1/2 gallon container when it completely collapses and weeps its juices - this can take anywhere from a couple to about 6 hours.

1 head of cabbage
about 3 - 5 teaspoons of kosher salt
As needed a bit of brine made by dissolving 1 teaspoon of kosher salt into 1 cup of water. If making hot, cool completely before using.
Optional:  *Whey from yogurt (contains the good bacteria)

BIG bowl - non-reactive (no metal)
Containers for pickling
Cover of some kind of cloth or plastic to keep dust out but not to seal the container
Wooden or plastic (no metal) spoons or utensil as needed

Shred or chop the cabbage and layer into a bowl large enough to hold it all, alternating with some salt and finishing with a total of about 3 teaspoons of salt.  Cover and let sit for about 2 hours.

Fill your container(s) with the cabbage, pushing firmly down to really pack in.  (The next time I do the sauerkraut I will use quart jars as the width of the 1/2 gallon required me to make the weight 'work' better.  The quarts are completely straight so weighting with the needed space around will be easier).

Add all of the liquid from the bowl.  The jar or jars should have about an inch to a 1 1/2 inches of head space, and there should be at least a half inch of liquid over the mass of cabbage when you are done packing into the jars.  If you need the additional brine add now.

Add the weight and cover lightly with something just to keep the dust out.  Place in a draft proof area of the kitchen where you can keep an eye on it.  By the end of 6-8 hours you should be seeing bubbling in the jar.  You can press down on the weight and release the gas periodically, but it should not be necessary.  You do want to make sure there is always liquid above the mass of cabbage so pushing down may be necessary.  Eventually the cabbage will generally stay down.

Your sauerkraut is done when it stops bubbling - anywhere from about 10 days (like mine) to about 3-4 weeks.  Constant temperature is most helpful, fluctuating temperatures may interfere.  It is not uncommon for a 'foam/or scum' to appear on the top of the liquid and can just be skimmed away.  Your 'kraut should always smell tangy and NOT moldy.  If any mold appears toss completely and start over.

The whole point of this kind of fermentation is that the acid is a preservative made in conjunction with good bacteria or yeast.

I started a small jar of preserved lemon yesterday.  This is done a bit differently where you push the cut open lemons with kosher salt releasing their juices, added water is usually not necessary.  Some folks just make them using an identical process to the sauerkraut, with brine, but most people use the salted cut lemons/push to release juices process.  This is my first real attempt at preserved lemons.  I tried it several years ago and did it completely wrong and it molded (I actually did a lot more "to them" then I should have - these are simple processes.)

*Optional Whey - many fermenters use a bit of whey in addition to the salt/juice/water which jump-starts the fermentation process because of the bacteria in the whey.  I am saving some of my yogurt whey to make the garlic-dill pickles in my next fermentation go-round.

Read up more on the lacto-fermentation thread on the Valley Permaculture Alliance site and consider becoming a member to share and learn as I have :-)  This is a great group of people helping each other with gardening, cooking and sustainability practices.

I am so enthused about the possibilities of fermenting all sorts of veggies and maybe fruits!

Have a wonderful day in the garden and kitchen, 

-- Catherine, The Herb Lady

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