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In this post I run down different ways to store pickles mold-free while they ferment. Storage is a crucial aspect of making pickles and there’s more than one way to do it. Every technique achieves the same essential goal, though: keeping the pickles from being exposed to the air for too long. Otherwise, mold may gain a foothold and begin to grow. In most cases this means you want to keep the pickling food submerged in brine, away from the air.

On the other hand, it’s important to keep the surface of that brine open to the air. If you seal the pickle tightly with a lid, carbon dioxide—a natural byproduct of fermentation—will build up and create pressure that could cause leaks or even spray pickle juice everywhere when you open the lid. Salt-brine pickles ferment at room temperature, not in the fridge, and it’s best to leave them in a dark place like a cabinet. Because the jars stand open to the air, it’s a good idea to cover them with a towel to keep out dust and random flies. It is also wise to put your jar on top of a kitchen towel or in an open tupperware that will catch any drips.

Pickling can take as little as a week and as long as a month (or even longer) depending on the size and density of the food you’re pickling. The bigger and harder it is, the slower it pickles. The temperature of your storage space influences the timing too. The hotter it is, the faster the microorganisms will do their work. The good news is that it’s hard to over-pickle something. If you’re not sure your pickle is ready, give it a taste. When it tastes the way you like, remove your seal, put a lid on the pickle, and put it in the fridge. This will stop the fermentation, although the flavors of your spices will continue to soak into the pickle.

So, here are some techniques for keeping your food mold-free while it ferments: Read the rest of this entry »

cabbage and carraway seeds ready for pickling

Awesome picklers, it’s time for sauerkraut with caraway seed and dill. Familiar and exotic at the same time, sauerkraut is like the pickle poster boy of fermentation’s current popularity. Packed with enough beneficial micro-organisms to make foodies and health nuts go nuts, it also smothers sausages with perfect working-class, old-school credibility. Plus it’s easy to make and hard to screw up.

sauerkraut cabbage ready for shredding

Ingredients

As much cabbage as you like. I usually make 5 or 10 pounds at a time, but I think a half-gallon mason jar is about right for 1 head of cabbage. Tell me if I’m wrong.
A bunch of dill (I used 1 for 5 pounds of cabbage)
1-2 Tbsp caraway seeds per 5 pounds of cabbage
3 Tbsp salt per 5 pounds of cabbage

shredding cabbage for sauerkraut on a mandoline

First, shred your cabbage into a big bowl or crock. If there’s one trick to good sauerkraut, it’s getting the shreds nice and thin and consistently sized. Thin strips will get crispy, crunchy, and pickled all the way through while thick slices risk getting mushy on the outside and staying raw on the inside.

I like to chop the heads in half, cut out the hearts, and then split the halves and shred them with a mandoline. That gets the strips much thinner than a knife does. Watch your fingers!

adding salt to cabbage for sauerkraut

To get a good distribution of salt, stop to add spoonfuls of it as you go along and mix it in with a spoon. You can use your hand but that stings after a while.

cabbage with caraway and dill, soon to be sauerkraut

Mix in the caraway seeds and chopped dill a bit at a time as well. Then punch or pack it all down to force out air bubbles.

glass lid to seal cabbage during fermentation

While it ferments, you want your cabbage pressed under a salt brine away from air to keep it from rotting. In my crock I use a glass lid that just happens to fit perfectly. A plate would work well, too. If you’re using a mason jar, you could use a smaller jar filled with water like at the bottom of this post.

closeup of the glass plate

Here’s a closeup of the lid on top of the cabbage.

cabbage weighted with jars of water

Depending on how wet your cabbage is, the salt you’ve added may draw out enough water to completely submerge your kraut. To help bring water out, add pressure by placing a jar or several jars full of water on top. Throw a towel over the whole thing and leave it overnight or for a day. If there still isn’t enough after that, make up a brine of 1 tablespoon salt per cup of water to completely cover the kraut. Especially when packed with extra panache the sauerkraut tends to expand a bit, so if you’re using a plate it’s a good idea to have about an extra inch of brine. If you’re using a jar you might want to store it on a plate, a towel, or something else to catch any overflows.

Cover your fermentation vessel with a towel to keep the dust out and put it in a dark place to begin its voyage. Check on it every few days. A sort of thin white scum often forms at the surface. You can scoop it out if you like, but it’s not dangerous. If mold begins to blossom on the surface in little islands or as a thicker skin, you should scoop it out. Your cabbage is safe, but you don’t want mold in there when you remove the kraut. And get rid of any cabbage bits that float to the surface.

Within two weeks you’ll have a bunch of kraut on your hands. Harvest what you want to eat and stick it in a jar in the fridge, which will slow the fermentation. The rest you can leave as it was—it just gets riper and more delicious. I wanted to take a picture of it for you once it was ready, but we ate it all so quickly I didn’t get a chance!

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In case you missed it, there was a story on preserving food in the New York Times the day before yesterday, including a recipe for preserving asparagus (not pickling it). Here’s a snippet on the hipness of preserves:

Preserving food cannot be considered new and trendy, no matter how vigorously it’s rubbed with organic rosemary sprigs. But the recent revival of attention to it fits neatly into the modern renaissance of handcrafted food, heirloom agriculture, and using food in its season. Like baking bread or making a slow-cooked tomato sauce, preserving offers primal satisfactions and practical results. And in today’s swirl of food issues (local, seasonal, organic, industrial), home preserving can also be viewed as a quasi-political act. “Preserving is an extension of the values that made you shop in the farmers’ market in the first place,” Ms. Bone said.

“There’s an incredible surge of interest recently,” according to June Taylor of Berkeley, Calif., a pioneer in using local, seasonal produce and as few added ingredients as possible in her expensive, delicious fruit preserves. “People want to take back their food and their skills from the industrial giants.”

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