With an uncommonly dry June and cool July, we’ve just reached the point in the gardening season when production is getting heavier, but we don’t necessarily have the yield to make a round in the pressure canner worthwhile. One solution that High Rocks Grow Appalachia has found is fermentation in small batches. The process of fermentation involves allowing organisms such as bacteria and yeast to colonize food in a controlled environment. These organisms may be added, as in commercial yeasts, or occur naturally in the air or on the surface of vegetables. Certain fermented products, such as beer, yogurt and sauerkraut may already feature in many of our diets. Fermenting vegetables requires very little active work (just a little patience), and it doesn’t require turning on the stove in the heat of summer.
Thursday, July 24th, High Rocks Grow Appalachia hosted experienced home fermenter Gabriel Rogers of Elkins, WV, to give us an introductory course in lacto-fermenting vegetables. Rogers studied under Sandor Katz, home fermentation legend and author of The Art of Fermentation. Lacto-fermentation encourages the growth of Lactobacillus, a genus of bacteria that create lactic acid. The acidic environment that Lactobacillus produces prevents the growth of harmful bacteria, thus preserving the food.
Grow Appalachia participants and other community members gathered around the tables in the Hillsboro Library community room. Many people brought some extra produce from their gardens, and before long we had the tables covered with vegetables, cutting implements, large bowls, mason jars and other tools of the trade. But before we were ready to roll our sleeves up, Rogers introduced us to the two basic brining, or salting techniques for fermenting vegetables. Salt helps speed up the fermentation, adds flavor and also aids in preservation.
The first technique is the dry brine. Dry brining is used with cabbage and other water-rich vegetables that will be finely shredded (one participant tried it with carrots). First grate or chop the cabbage into a large bowl and sprinkle with salt. You want the final solution to be about 2% salt, or 2-3 teaspoons of salt per pound of cabbage. Massage the salted cabbage until it has produced enough water to be submerged if pressed down. Rogers prefers to ferment sauerkraut in a large, cylindrical ceramic crock, but mason jars also work fine. Fill your crock or jar, leaving a couple inches of head space. Overfilled jars may overflow as they begin to ferment.
Rogers demonstrating the dry brine technique of massaging water out of the cabbage
The alternative technique is the wet brine. A wet brine works better for cucumber pickles, dilly beans, fermented beets, hot peppers and any other vegetable that you would like to keep whole or chopped in large chunks. To start, make a brine solution of 5%, or about 2-3 tablespoons of salt per quart of water. If you find yourself unsure of your ratios while preparing either wet or dry brine, Rogers recommends tasting it. If it tastes like the correct saltiness for sauerkraut or pickle brine, it probably is. Stuff your mason jar or crock with vegetables and seasonings (dill, garlic, mustard seed, etc.) and fill it the rest of the way with brine. Once again, account for a couple inches of head space.
An important final step is adding a weight to keep the vegetables completely submerged, no matter which brining technique you use. What works as a weight will vary depending on your container — a plate that is just smaller than the opening of your crock, a (clean!) stone, a small jar lid that fits inside a bigger jar, and a zip top baggie filled with water just under the top of your container all work well. Since fermentation occurs in an oxygen starved environment, any vegetable pieces exposed to the air may mold. Mold needs air to grow, so if it does happen, it is probably contained to the surface of your ferment and can be skimmed off. However, it is preferable and more appetizing to prevent mold growth if possible. After the weight, cover your container completely with a jar lid, or a rag or old t-shirt secured with a rubber band. This does not need to be air tight, but will prevent flies and other bugs from having access to the fermenting liquid.
Leave the fermenting vegetables at room temperature (60-70 degrees F is ideal). This can feel very wrong to those accustomed to canning at high temperatures, but the combination of acid and salt generates a very prohibitive environment for food borne illness to grow. The USDA hasn’t recorded one case of botulism from fermented vegetables, making it one of the safest forms of home preservation. For more information on fermentation and food safety, check out this article (bias duly noted, as it is a fermentation forum). How soon your bubbling jars will be ready to eat depends on several factors, most notably temperature and personal preference. In my experience, cucumber pickles take 5-7 days, but can be done in as little as 3 if you have a very warm kitchen. Sauerkraut can be done in a week, but usually 2-3 is better. In a cold house, fermentation will occur more slowly. If you’re new to fermentation, wait a few days, then taste every day or so. When you like the flavor and texture, put the veggies in the fridge. Be aware that the fermentation will slow in the fridge, but not come to a complete stop, so the fermented flavor will intensify with age.
By the end of our workshop, everyone had gotten in on the fermenting frenzy, and there were plenty of jars to be sent home with everyone. I’ve already started eating the dill pickles that I made, which are excellent, and I can’t wait to try the sauerkraut.
In addition to being an effective preserver of food, Lactobacillus is among the important gut bacteria labeled “pro-biotics.” Lacto-fermented veggies are not only tasty, but easier to digest than raw, and immune-boosting. Time to enjoy some tangy, slightly effervescent and very healthy pickles straight from the garden!