It’s that time of year! Between home gardens, CSAs, and the Farmer’s Markets our kitchens are brimming with fresh produce just waiting to be turned into delectable cultured creations. Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve found to help me keep my process efficient and successful.
Stock up on your herbs and spices. Nothing is more frustrating than getting all your vegetables ready to culture and realizing you don’t have the herbs and spices on hand for your recipes. On the way to the farmer’s market, hit your local natural food store bulk section and make sure you have the common herbs and spices on hand.
I generally use whole black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, mustard seeds, whole cardamom, cumin seeds, caraway seed, juniper berries, and dill seed. Our local co-op loves it when people bring in their own spice jars to fill and not only is it less wasteful (no small plastic bags) but all your jars will be properly labeled in advance. For fresh flavor enhancers be sure to grab some garlic, ginger, dill heads, and horseradish if you like a spicy bite in your recipes.
Set aside a time and make several things at once. While I keep cultures like kefir going during the week, I’ve found it far more efficient to reserve my vegetable culturing for the weekend. We hit the farmer’s market on Saturday morning and pick up our buying club produce box biweekly. I generally sort through what I have to determine what will be incorporated directly into meals and what will be cultured. By making several things at once I can get all the slicing, chopping, and shredding out of the way. I only have to clean up once. The food processor and mandolin parts go in the dishwasher and I’m done!
Make sure your supplies are clean and ready to go. I use my dishwasher a lot. It’s a great way to make sure my jars and utensils are properly sterilized. But dishwashers can leave soap residue behind which can derail the culturing process. Before starting I give everything a quick rinse just to be sure I have successfully vanquished the soap.
Start your brine first. Many cultured veggies require salt water brine. Since it’s easier to dissolve salt in warm water, get your brine going before you do anything else. That way it can cool completely while you prep the vegetables. Remember, hot brine will kill the natural bacteria you are counting on for the best tasting veggies!
Remember the 80/20 rule, particularly for simple recipes. When working with something like sauerkraut, grated carrots, beets, or any other recipe that normally only includes one type of vegetable, try the 80/20 rule: 80% primary vegetable, 20% secondary vegetable (or fruit). You’ll be amazed at the complex taste profile that can develop. For example, pair 80% cabbage with 20% shredded carrots or 20% shredded apple to make a delicious kraut.
Use fermentation containers with airlocks and glass weights. While not strictly necessary by any means, I almost always culture using an airlock and glass weights. The glass weights keep the vegetables submerged under the brine. The airlock keeps the culture in an airtight environment while allowing the gas created during fermentation to escape. This system means I don’t have to worry about scum and mold developing and I don’t have to take time to “burp” my cultures. I can make them and forget about them until it’s time to put them in the fridge.
We carry two types of airlock systems on our site and I use them both. The Fermented Vegetable Masters come in half-gallon and gallon sizes and include glass weights. The Perfect Pickler systems fit on standard wide-mouth jars so they work well for smaller batches (pints, quarts, and even half gallons).
Leave extra headspace if you are using a starter culture. Just a quick tip: if you are using a starter culture like Caldwell’s or Body Ecology for your ferment, leave extra headspace. I’d recommend 2” instead of the 1” typical when using just salt or a salt and why combination. Starter cultures tend to create more bubbly vegetables and they can bubble up over the edge or into the airlock making a mess to deal with.
Write the date on the jar. A Sharpie marker can be your best friend! Write the date you made the culture on each jar. This is extremely helpful for remembering when to harvest each batch. Once you get more than a couple of items going, it can be really difficult to remember when you made each of them. At a glance I know if it’s time to move a culture into cold storage.
Don’t sweat the recipe. Now don’t get me wrong, to have a final product that is safe to eat and taste good you do need to use adequate salt in any recipe. But the recommendations for herbs, spices, exact veggie variety ratios, etc. can all generally be played with. So if you don’t have any mustard seed on hand and the recipe calls for it, don’t worry about it, substitute some other spice that sounds yummy to you.
Do something crazy each time. Keep an extra jar on hand and try something new each time. Maybe it’s a mix of random left over veggies. Maybe it’s a new herb and spice combination. Be brave and don’t worry if it turns out or not. You’ll learn something valuable with every experiment and who knows, you might find a new family favorite. Note, please be sure to use adequate salt no matter what ingredient mix you try (see “don’t sweat the recipe”—safety first after all!)