Garden cooking DIY: Fermenting vegetables

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Fermenting is extremely easy to do—all your need is salt, your chosen vegetables, like red cabbage, a jar or crock and perhaps, water.

Fermented vegetables are trendy right now, though the process is ancient and was much-loved by our grandparents. When canning and freezing techniques for preserving produce took over in the early 1900s, fermenting fell away, but recent interest in the health benefits of probiotics in aiding digestion and intestinal wellness (due to the good bacteria staying intact on the vegetables) has brought it back into the kitchen spotlight. It’s the good bacteria that breaks down the vegetables.

Many report that that flavors in fermented foods are livelier and more complex and food scientists know nutrients not only stay more intact than with canning and freezing, they actually increase and are made more accessible for the body to absorb.

Fermenting is extremely easy to do—all your need is salt, your chosen vegetables (cabbage and cucumbers in my examples), a jar or crock and perhaps, water. It’s a perfect activity for the home gardener to preserve late-summer fare without the more laborious process of canning. This lost art is finding its way home!

Cleanliness is important. Wash your produce well, especially if it could have come in contact with manure.  You don’t need to sterilize your equipment, like with canning, and botulism cannot form because the acidity level prevents the bacteria from forming.

Sauerkraut

For many of us, making sauerkraut is a part of our heritage, though it may remain a mystery unless we were a hands-on part of the process. It’s the easiest of all fermentations and a perfect way to learn. This example uses one medium head of cabbage (about 2 pounds) and one tablespoon of salt to make one quart of kraut. I used red cabbage because it’s so pretty. Shredding or slicing the cabbage extra-thin breaks down the cells, which releases the sugars and also helps the salt do its work, which is to draw out the water, which creates the brine. It also crisps up the vegetables by hardening the pectin, and the saline environment preserves it by keeping spoilage at bay. Kosher or pickling salt is the best choice as it has more surface area to be in contact with the vegetables. Avoid iodized salt as many report that it interferes with fermentation.

The steps are:

  1. Remove the outer few leaves of the cabbage and reserve one for later.
  2. Halve and quarter the head, slice out the core, and thinly slice until very fine.
  3. Toss the cabbage with a tablespoon of salt and massage the mixture for a few minutes until it gets moist and reduces by about one-third. Cover with a dishtowel and let sit for 30 minutes to allow brine to form. Massage for one more minute.
  4. Spoon cabbage into a quart jar, tapping it down with the flat end of a handle of a utensil or the bottom of a thin drinking glass. Fill to the shoulder point where the jar begins to slope to the opening.
  5. Pour the collected brine into the jar…it should cover the cabbage, but if it doesn’t make additional brine (see below) and fill to just below the rim of the jar.
  6. Fold a cabbage leaf into a square and place on top of the cabbage, pressing it down to keep the cabbage below the brine. Rule of thumb with fermenting: “Below the brine, you’re fine.”
  7. Fill a small juice glass, or any container that will fit in the opening, with water and set on the cabbage leaf, and press down. This will aid in keeping the cabbage below the brine.
  8. Cover the top with a small towel or napkin and set in a small pan or pie tin (in case it bubbles over) and place out of direct or bright light and where the temperature will remain as constant as possible and somewhere between 55—75 degrees. Darkness is fine, but I prefer it out in the open where I can observe.
  9. Allow to ferment for 10 days. If a bit of scum or slime forms, simply scoop it off with a spoon…it’s harmless.
  10. When your sauerkraut is done, it will taste tart, sour and will be slightly crunchy. Cover and place in the fridge for up to a year.

Fermented pickles

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One cup of water with 1 ½ tablespoons of salt dissolved into it created enough brine to cover the cucumbers.

You can ferment cucumbers, making pickles, in much the same way as making sauerkraut, but you will need to make a brine. I sliced 12 medium sized (4 to 5-inch) pickling cucumbers into ½-inch slices and packed them into a quart jar with a small onion, sliced, a one-inch square of ginger thinly sliced and several heads of dill. One cup of water with 1 ½ tablespoons of salt dissolved into it created enough brine to cover the cucumbers. I place a folder plastic food storage bag on top of the cukes and weighted it down with a juice glass filled with water. Place in a cool, dark place. Pickles will be ready in 5 to 7 days.

From my DIY column in the September/October 2016 issue of Northern Gardener magazine.

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