Tuesday, August 4, 2009


It started with the 'kraut, the wonderfully simple and seemingly fool-proof sauerkraut made in quart jars from The Country Gourmet . Then I got my hands on Sandor Ellix Katz's excellent book, Wild Fermentation , and I got to fermenting turnips, beets, kimchi, apples, eggplant.... Any vegetable or fruit I had too much of, into a jar of brine it went. Not everything worked out equally well. Beets, kimchi, apples=great. Eggplant, turnips, overgrown radishes=compost.

I've since gotten my fermentation fever under control. Sauerkraut and sour dills are the must-haves. Sour beets produce an amazingly flavorful borscht. I'll do apples again because we have many, many apples on those dozens of old trees out at Bide-A-Wee, and they look so very beautiful in the jar, and are a unique treat, fizzy in the middle, turning into salty cider from the inside out. Hard to describe.

This week I found myself with excess produce as a result of that old eyes-bigger-than-stomach type phenomenon that overcomes many of us at the farmers market. Oh, and I'd apparently forgotten that I have a good-sized garden at home. So the cauliflower and beets that had been lingering in the crisper, the larger green beans from a market buy, a red onion, the last of the garden snow peas and baby carrots I recently thinned out, all went into a gallon jar along with a few cloves of garlic, a dozen or so peppercorns, some thyme and tarragon.

The brine consisted of one-half cup of sea salt or pickling salt to three quarts of water. I heat the water on the stove just to warm, so the salt dissolves easily. Toss the vegetables and herbs and garlic together in a big bowl, then put everything into the jar. Add brine to cover. The recipe I was using, from
The Joy of Pickling (which I see has just come out in a new, revised edition, 250 flavor-packed recipes where before there were only 200!), called for two tablespoons of red wine vinegar added to the jar; I had champagne vinegar, so used that instead.

To hold the vegetables under the brine, you take a plastic zipper bag, fit it in the mouth of the jar, and add leftover brine so it settles in and seals.

I put up those pickles yesterday, and the beets, cut into chunks, started to color the brine immediately. Today the brine is dark as midnight, and you just see little starry glimmers of white cauliflower where the florets touch the glass. I'll leave that out at cool room temp (basement) for a week or so, at which point fermentation will be well underway. Then I'll move the jar to the fridge to slow things down. You can start eating the vegetables at any point, and they'll keep indefinitely--I'm just about through my last jar of sour dills from last year.

One other tip, from Russian master picklers: If you put a couple of oak, grape, or currant leaves in with your fermented pickles, they'll stay crisp, not go mushy. I'm not sure why that works, something to do with the tannins in those leaves, I guess. What I do know is that it works. I did an experiment a couple of years ago, made a jar of sour dills with currant leaves added, and one with nothing. The jar with currant leaves stayed nicely crisp;the jar without went mushy, and found the fate of all failed pickles, the compost pile.

Text and photos copyright 2009 by Brett Laidlaw


Laura said...

I am eager to help my poor pickles stay crisp, but can't find grape or currant leaves. Do you have any tips, or should I just go foraging for an oak tree in the neighborhood?

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Laura: The oak leaves should do the trick. That's the first type of leaf listed in both "Wild Fermentation" and "The Joy of Pickling." Sour cherry leaves are another option. If you're gathering leaves off the ground, I would just be sure to do so in an area that hasn't been treated with any lawn chemicals. Both recipes call for a couple of "handfuls" to about a gallon of pickles.

(A less organic option is alum powder, long used in commercial pickles to maintain crispness, but I don't know anything about amounts or proportions for using alum.)

Thanks for writing, and happy fermenting!