Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Fermenting Vegetables - How to Do It

Another beautiful day here in Vancouver; I am so happy to be here.

I realized after my first post that while I provided several delicious 'recipes' for fermented vegetables, I neglected to provide instruction on how to actually do it. So here goes.

First off, you'll have a lot more fun if you can do it with friends and/or family. That will also cut down on the chopping and massaging time, which can be a lot depending how many vegetables you're processing. It's always nice to do the first go-round with someone who has experience, but not necessary. You can't screw this up folks. Fear not salmonella or botulism or whatever else the USDA wants you to be afraid of... fermentation is a natural process that has been used by all civilizations worldwide for millennia... or as long as humans have been preserving food. It was probably the first preservation method, in fact.

1) Jars or crocks. Don't use metal. Glass or ceramic is preferred, but food-grade plastic would do if its all you can get. Wide-mouth is not essential but is preferred if you are using Mason/Ball/other canning jars. Old-fashioned crocks are great but hard to find.
2) NON-IODIZED salt. Sea salt, gourmet salt, Kosher salt, doesn't matter. Just NOT IODIZED is essential.
3) Purified water. Berkey, Brita, whatever. If you must use tap water and its chlorinated, let it sit out overnight and the chlorine will gas off.
4) Vegetables. Anything will due, but I only ferment organic foods and I prefer biodynamic if I get can it. Root vegetables work well, and Asian greens work great. Regular lettuce, no. Tomatoes, you can do but they will be mushy (you still get the great microbial benefits and could use them in soup, but might not be a good choice for your first batch). - I will do a separate post with a list of good fermenting vegetables, or check the 'recipes' in my first post, but you really can't go wrong. Use what you've got, what's in season, what's a good deal at the moment, whatever! Experiment. Note: I recommend a kim chee or modified kim chee or sauerkraut (if you enjoy it) for your first batch - they are easy, nearly always turn out, and you want your first batch to be impressive and enjoyable. Beets are another 'no-fail'.
5) Spices. I prefer whole spices (rather than powdered). Chile peppers of all kinds, peppercorns (of all kinds), mustard seeds, juniper berries, etc etc etc. Use whatever spices you like. Caraway and coriander are common, but I don't care for either so I don't use them in my ferments.

1) Clean your jars. They certainly don't have to be sterilized, but if they're dusty or grimy wash them.
2) Chop/shred/julienne your vegetables. You want each batch to have fairly uniform sized vegetables. The vegetables are not going to change in size once they start fermenting, so think about what you want to eventually eat. Big chunks for salad? Or shreds for cheesy bread? I usually shred carrots, dice or julienne kohlrabi and beets, and make thin strips of greens. A food processor makes quick work of this, but does lend a different energy to the food than doing it by hand.
3) Massage vegetables. This draws the water out. Massaging is much more effective if you salt the vegetables first, but if you are super-paranoid about how much salt you're using or terrified of screwing it up (don't be), keep track of how much salt you sprinkle on and subtract that from the amount you put in the brine. Tough greens like collards and kale should be massaged, beets and other firm root vegetables will also benefit. Bok choi and lighter Asian greens do not need to be massaged. 
4) Pack your jars. Alternately layer your vegetables, garlic/onions/spices/apples if used. Make it pretty if you like. Really CRAM THEM IN. You'd be amazed how many vegetables will fit in a quart jar. After they ferment for a while, you can consolidate and I typically can fit the contents of 4 quarts into one quart after they have softened/fermented for a bit. Note: put 'floaters' (especially apples) anywhere but the top layer. You don't want stuff floating, because fermentation is an anaerobic process.
5) Pack it down. Depending what vegetables you've used, and how much you've managed to cram in the jars, you may not even need brine for the veg to be covered by liquid (the vegetables' own juices may suffice). But you do need salt! So if you didn't salt your vegetables to massage them, sacrifice some space in the jar for brine.
6) If the vegetables are not completely covered by brine, add some. I recommend at least an inch of headspace, because you're going to be squishing the veg back under the brine, and the jars tend to overflow when you do this.

You could go all over the spectrum with this, but the method I learned is 1 Tablespoon of salt to 1 Quart of water. It's a fine place to start. I learned from the book Wild Fermentation that the less salt you use (up to and including none), the faster the product will ferment, but the less time it will keep. The more salt you use, the longer it will take to ferment (resulting in a more sour final product), but it will keep longer. If you're cutting back on sodium, I recommend getting the book and trying his no-salt recipes. Or not worrying about it. I recently read an article in Scientific American that salt causing hypertension may be a myth, anyway.

Leave the vegetables at room temperature for several days. This could be anywhere from 3 days to a couple weeks, depending how 'ripe' you want your ferment to be, and how warm your house is. It may start bubbling, but its ok if it doesn't. You want to leave the jars open to the air (but perhaps covered with a towel or cheesecloth or plate) at this time, because they probably will be releasing air bubbles. Taste them, smell them, and when they smell sort-of sour (like sauerkraut), you can put them in the fridge or root cellar or other cool area. Cover them for the cold storage. I prefer plastic lids because the metal ones tend to corrode. The method I learned recommends leaving them in cold storage to mature for another 4 - 6 weeks, but a lot of people I know start tasting them and devour the jars before this has occurred.

Fermented vegetables will last a long time. I have eaten ones that I stored in my root cellar that are 2 years old and they are fine.

What I have heard is if they are 'off', they will be so foul you wouldn't even consider eating them. If the color is off and they are really cloudy, give a taste test. If it doesn't seem right, feed it to the compost. If you are worried about it going off, use more salt to begin with (up to 1.5Tbsp/Qt water). Salt preserves the vegetables until the bactieral processes take over. (Note: color being off or being cloudy does not automatically mean they are bad. I have had great batches that looked terrible, but tasted great).

Other posts I am inspired to write: the science (and art!) of fermentation, lists of suggested foods and spices to ferment, recipes for the final product, learning to love cabbage, and sourcing food, among others. Feel free to write me and suggest a next post!

Much love and happy fermentations.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Seasonal Fermentation

What a lovely and abundant season. Even though all the gardens are a month behind, and it seems it will never warm up here in Vancouver, I'm really enjoying the mild climate compared to the 100 degree days that Denver is getting, or the 100% humidity that my folks get in Wisconsin.

And there is still plenty at the Farmer's Market. Kim chee ingredients have in fact just started becoming available. I almost had to fight someone for the last Napa cabbage at Kitsilano last weekend. I think I got a little bit from almost every farm vendor. I definitely trolled the market exhaustively looking for the best deals.

So - first a little background. I met Catherine at a "Wild Foods" potluck hosted by our own Garliq, I don't mind shamelessly pugging his website either:
Living Medicine Project. I had been thinking of hosting a fermented vegetable class, as I enjoy passing on this knowledge and wanted to practice up before possibly hosting a 'by donation' sort of class.

Much to our mutual good fortune, Catherine brought her friend Janet and already the three of us are thick as thieves. We've fermented twice now and are also planning a shopping trip to Value Village, which will be Awesome to have some ladies to shop with. I do have to give my friend Diether credit for also helping at fermentation night #2.

So, here's what we made. And the reason this is called 'seasonal fermentation' is that you ferment what's available now - what's in your garden, or in your CSA, or at the farmer's market.

First jar (July 14): cabbage, bok choi (Napa cabbage), pak choi, carrots, radish (including greens), garlic, chives (for lack of 'real' green onions), hot peppers (dried Thai dragons from Klippers), black peppercorns. Everything from the Main Street Farmer's market (Wednesdays in Vancouver), except the hot peppers which I got at the Winter Farmer's market. This jar was aromatic and fairly bubbling after only 3 days, so I weighted mine down with a bag of water to keep it submerged and put it in the fridge after 3 days at room temp. I will let it mature in the fridge for another 4 weeks at least before I eat it (a root cellar is ideal for this, but I don't have one of those in Vancouver). You'll see anything from 3 - 9 days at room temp - I say when it gets fragrant and bubbly, it can go in cold storage.

Next batches (July 18) - food mostly from Kitsilano Farmer's Market, Sundays:

-one jar of cukes, onions, garlic (yet another attempt at pickles - I haven't had luck in the past, but maybe they'll turn out better this time)
-two jars of eggplant, kohlrabi, red peppers, onions, and garlic (have you noticed yet that onions and garlic go in every jar?)
-There was a mixture of garlic scapes and whole chives that went in most of the July 18 jars, too.
- 4 jars (one for each of us) of beets (including greens), kohlrabi, onions, and garlic - seasoned with fennel and hot peppers (dried cayennes)
- 4 jars of kale, carrots, daikon radish greens, onions, apples and garlic. Possibly seasoned with fennel, we can't be sure what we did.
- 4 jars of cabbage, daikon radish, garlic, onions, and red radish - seasoned with dried cayennes and juniper berries
- 4 jars of cabbage, onions, daikon radish, seasoned with juniper berries, powdered mustard (whole mustard would have been better but we didn't have any).

To top it all off, we snacked on fresh salad, home-made zuchini hummous with red and yellow peppers for dipping, home-made broccoli quiche (with my own Rosie's eggs), fruit salad, and fresh oysters from the farmer's market.

I can only hope I've made you hungry. Until next time,