Thursday, December 17, 2015

A crock -- of sauerkraut, that is

This process of fermenting veggies is, for me anyway, fraught with uncertainties.  Mostly about screwing it up and being poisoned. But, after reading salient parts of a couple of books I picked up at the library the other day, this seems almost (perhaps totally) impossible to do. The two authors are considered experts on the subject: The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, and the Nourishing Traditions cookbook by Sally Fallon. Each tells tales of removing thick layers of mold and even maggots (!) from the top of the container, and finding delicious kraut underneath. No big deal. Same for strong odor, pink colors, and all kinds of other oddments that might arise during the process.

Over a year ago, before I moved into this house, I experimented with making some kraut using some directions found online and a mason jar. It should have worked, and probably did work just fine. But I didn't manage to get all the cabbage submerged as directed, so I worried. Spotting what might have been a tiny speck of mold at one edge during the process, I panicked and eventually tossed the whole batch. Perhaps I should have done a little more research first. But, that issue of the liquid not covering the veggies is a real one, as that is what is likeliest to prevent mold in the first place. I believe that even the first directions I followed made mention of this, suggested putting a plate on top of the cabbage and a weight on top of the plate, to hold the veggies down below the liquid. In a mason jar? Really? There were also other details omitted from those directions, all of which might have been nice to know.

But, this time around I did a lot more research online, all of which made the same suggestion about the use of weight. "Put something over it, weight it down with rocks, or a small jar filled with rocks." All kinds of ways to weight down cabbage as it ferments in a mason jar. None of them sounding particularly convenient.

All of this takes me to my little shopping expedition the other day, from which I returned home the proud owner of a stoneware crock about 1 gallon in size, and a set of two semi-circular stoneware weights that fit perfectly inside. That's more my style. Easy. Clean. The kraut can be put into jars later for storage.

Yesterday, armed with a big cabbage, my new tools and a pounder (aka potato masher), I set to work. In the end I discovered that sometimes, things just need to be learned from experience as much as from instructions. The liquid used in fermentation comes solely from salt and cabbage being pounded together so that the liquid in the veggie is released. I kept on pounding, pounding (great workout, by the way), trying to get the liquid to rise to at least the surface. It may end up being mashed cabbage kraut, but that's OK. Live and learn. One step I remembered after all that pounding was simply to press down on the cabbage (after pounding some unspecified amount but surely less that I did) to force the liquid to rise. So, instead of continuing to pound, I just  pressed it down into a compact mass. Sure enough, liquid soon covered the mass of cabbage. Success! At that point I put my fancy weights in and carried the entire (heavy!) thing downstairs so it could ferment away at its leisure.

Naturally, I can't leave things alone, so this morning I removed the dish towel and plate that were serving as a lid. Less than 24 hours had elapsed and the crock was emitting a strong odor. Was that good or bad? I told myself all kinds of things. Is that yellow/green color normal? Is the temperature in this room too warm? On to more testing and research.

The strong odor is totally normal. In this case, the color is also normal (at least, that's what I'm telling myself). Katz and Fallon differ in one thing: Fallon adds fermented whey to her crocks to speed fermentation via inoculation. Katz is a total believer that wild fermentation is all that's needed. Since I made some yogurt the other day and had some whey separated from that, I used some whey in this batch and the whey is naturally this color. So it makes sense. As to room temp, a little experimentation with my instant-read cooking thermometer in this room as well as in the pantry this morning where it had been living, it seems that while the temp here is fine (about 68f now, lower at night), the temp in the pantry (59f, consistent day and night) is actually more ideal. So, for now it's been carted back upstairs to continue its work in the pantry.

And I, hopefully, will relax about the process, keep an eye for mold and simply remove any that appears. And maybe even bring myself to taste it one of these days. I love the idea, just not so much the practice. But after awhile that will change as I grow more confident in the process.

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