Monday, August 16, 2010

Very Devious Am I

I like hacking things together, coming up with my own ways of getting things done, and generally making things work without resorting to purchased solutions.  But sometimes I'm not above paying for a partial fix.

Though it didn't make my formal list of goals for 2010, this was meant to be the year of experimentation with lacto-fermentation.  I actually started last year, trying to make some sauerkraut in a half-gallon glass canning jar.  It probably would have worked, except that I had trouble keeping the top of the kraut submerged below the surface of the liquid.  So the part sticking up above the liquid got funkier than I was comfortable with.  I tossed the whole batch, which really disappointed me.  I later learned I could have just scraped off the funky part, and the kraut underneath probably would have been fine.  More disappointment.

Now, there exists a brilliantly designed, patented, and well-marketed solution to this problem of top spoilage with sauerkraut.  Which is to say: an expensive product.  Like $100+ expensive, and that for the smallest model in the product line.  They're ceramic fermentation crocks and they're made in Germany.  They have a neat fix to hold whatever vegetables you put in there below the liquid, and a neat-o liquid airlock as well, which allows gas to escape the fermentation chamber but not get in, supposedly preventing contamination.  Since they're patented, they can't legally be copied here.  And since they're made in Germany and very heavy, they have a very high carbon footprint when brought to the area I live.  But here's the thing - I don't care about the airlock, because from what I've read, the lacto-bacillus will outcompete just about any other organism if you give it suitable conditions.  I don't really care about the aesthetics of glazed ceramic either.  All I want is something to keep my vegetables submerged while they ferment.

So a while back I went to a local potter with a one-gallon glass jar and asked him to make me simple, unglazed, half-moon weights that fit snugly inside the glass jar.  I have several of these glass jars, bought cheaply at our local bulk foods store.  These will be my new fermentation crocks.  The ceramic pieces will hold my vegetables down below the waterline, where airborne stuff won't have a chance to spoil it.  At less than $3 for the glass jar and $16 per pair of weights (tax included in both cases), that's less than $20 per gallon-sized crock.  That's a huge savings over what I'd pay for the ready-made crock.  Not only that, but since I have several of the glass jars, my weights can be moved from jar to jar as each batch finishes.  I couldn't do that with the weights from a purchased set.  If I were still a student with access to a pottery class, I probably would have tried making these for myself.  You could certainly do that if you have access to a wheel and the use of a kiln.

The embodied energy of these simple pieces of ceramic is still quite high.  After all, the clay was almost certainly not local, so it was probably transported in a wet state, and clay is heavy.  Pottery kilns consume an enormous amount of energy.  But at least my money went to support a local craftsman practicing an important skill.  And these are tools that will help me with the lowest energy method of food preservation for years or decades to come if I'm careful with them.  Indeed, the ceramic will never wear out, though they could break.  Potentially, these could still be in use centuries from now.  Ask an archaeologist what the most common artifact is worldwide.  Even if the weights should break, chances are very good that I could simply continue using them in a broken state.  I think that qualifies as appropriate technology.

I put three types of cabbage in the garden for a fall crop, two dozen plants all together.  Though I'm eager to get started, waiting isn't such a bad thing in this case.  Lacto-fermentation is best done at cooler temperatures.  I plan to try at least a few different recipes, including one with caraway and cranberry.  I'll let you know what my favorites turn out to be.  In the meantime, if you have favorite lacto-fermented recipes, I'd love to hear about them.


Chile said...

Brilliant solution! I'll have to look around for a potting studio here.

I like sauerkraut but I love kimchi. Sandor Katz' book "Wild Fermentation" has a good basic kimchi recipe and I also use several from a vegetarian Korean cookbook.

Here's a link to several tasty kimchi recipes from my CSA.

meemsnyc said...

What a fantastic idea! I saw other bloggers doing sauerkraut, but I couldn't get over the mold that grew on top. It's not something I'm comfortable with. But your idea makes it so simple!

kariwhite said...

Fabulously creative solution! Now I just need to find a potter. :)

Cowgirl in the City said...

Awesome post! My hubby and I just bought a gallon crock to make our own saurkraut. I'm excited to see how yours (and ours!) turns out!

Robin said...

Alton Brown did an episode on lacto fermentation - the pickles looked amazing!

Unknown said...

what else works well is one of those plastic bread holders with the thing that inserts and pulls out the loaf. you just push it down on top of the cabbage and then weight it down - works great!

Anonymous said...

What a(nother) good idea. I use a brine filled plastic bag, but I prefer your weights.
I have to say I'm only on my 3rd ever batch of fermented food, but I've been really pleased so far. DD1 had a school project on countries in the (soccer)World Cup and she got North Korea, so we made kimchi and rice, which all her class tried, and amazingly, nearly all liked. (Several in her class only eat about 6 things, most of which come from a freezer store).
I got given 2 enormous turnips, which we won't eat as they are, so they're being turned into Saurruben as I write. We'll see...


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much! Just this morning I was cleaning out the fridge and thinking I should make sauerkraut with that one leftover cabbage. Thanks for sharing your great idea!

Anonymous said...


I realize safety issues change from day to day and maybe they've done some kind of study and found out that things have changed (or were not how they thought to begin with)... BUT, some years ago there was a big concern with unglazed pottery containing large amounts of lead that could leach out into your food, especially if it was acidic. I remember my sister was really upset because she'd bought an unglazed ceramic pitcher and she was keeping her orange juice in it. So be safe and check into this, OK? Not trying to be rude, but concerned for your safety. I read your blog a lot and enjoy it, wouldn't want you getting sick!

I make my sauerkraut by the jar all the time, and what I do is, after I've packed the cabbage into the jar, I tear off a piece of cabbage leaf and fit in down into the neck of the jar. Then I take a half-pint tapered canning jar, fill it with water, put a lid on it, and set it down into the neck of the jar that's filled with cabbage. Works for me!

Best of luck to you. Hugs, Ilene

patricew said...

I had thought of doing the same thing! You beat me to it!We have several local potters, one is practically across the street. I have my first ever batch of sauerkraut sitting in a large glass jar I think I got at TJ Maxx, it was a cookie jar for awhile. If the kraut turns out well I might commission my potter too. I thought about getting a crock made as well, but I kind of like being able to watch the process in the glass jar. Right now I am holding down the cabbage with the saltwater filled bag trick.

Anonymous said...

All the lights in my head just lit up! This is brilliant!! I, too, use half-gallon jars, but haven't found a way around using a plastic freezer bag of brine. And this is so much simpler than getting a potter to make a Hartzch (sp?) knock-off. Ok, off to talk to my potter friends...

Anonymous said...

Another option to check out, if there's a homebrew store in your area: a 2-gallon foodsafe plastic bucket with an airtight lid fitted for an airlock, plus a little plastic airlock, will only set you back about seven bucks. Not designed for kraut, but would work beautifully, I think. I'm planning to try it out this fall.

Anonymous said...

When I fermented stuff, I filled a gallon ziploc bag 3/4 full with water and laid in on top.

The weight of the water holds everything down, and water takes the form of the jar, sealing it perfectly.


Dani said...

Hi Kate

I tried making sauerkraut last year - had to toss it out as my family complained about the smell - is that normal when making sauerkraut?


Kate said...

Chile, thanks for the link. Kimchi is going to be one of the first two batches I start. I love it too.

meemsnyc, I'm not entirely sure, but this method *may* still result in mold on top. But my understanding is that it will be on the surface of the liquid. It's quite widely reported and apparently safe to simply remove and then consume the stuff underneath the liquid. I think the airlock on the fancy German crocks is meant to eliminate even this lesser degree of mold, though I don't know if it's 100% effective. I'll let you know what my experience shows.

Kari, thanks. I'm sure you can find one. It's an occupation which has held on.

Cowgirl, I'll check up on your posts to see how it turns out. Good luck.

Robin, I guess it's positively trendy these days.

Jan, I'm not familiar with the gadget you refer to, but I'm all for improvisation.

Hazel, that's what I tried last year, but it didn't seem to work all that well for me, sadly. The America author/lacto-fermentation guru, Sandor Katz, recommends not using plastic, even food-grade plastic, because it apparently leaches stuff in the acidic environment of a l-f crock. I didn't go with glass and ceramic specifically for this reason, but if I dodge the plastic issue by doing so, fine by me. I think it's awesome that your daughter made kimchi and that the other kids liked it. Good for her and them!

Anna, you're welcome. Happy kraut making!

Ilene, I don't find your comment rude at all. Thank you for the warning and your concern. I feel fairly certain that lead is not a worry with the particular clays this potter uses, and he definitely knew exactly what I planned to use the weights for. But I will speak to him about this issue just to be on the safe side. Thanks for the heads up.

Patrice, great minds think alike, I guess.

Emily, glad to share the idea. Hope your friends can help you out with the weights. I have half-gallon mason jars too, but I prefer the larger volume of these regular glass gallon jars. It seems better to me to make fairly large batches, given the size of the average cabbage. If I really get into l-f as a preservation method, and the weights work well, I may even order more of them.

Ghost, my husband has some carboys for brewing, and they have airlocks, but the very narrow openings rule them out for lacto-fermented vegetables. You might want to consider my reference to Sandor Katz's claim that even food grade plastic leaches chemicals in an acidic environment. I don't like to be a downer, and please take the issue for whatever it's worth to you. Just wanted to mention it in case you've never heard such concerns.

tortoise, yes, that seems to be one common approach.

Dani, I'm hardly an expert on making kraut, with my one failed attempt. But I'm pretty sure all natural lacto-ferments have an odor associated with them. Perhaps you can find an out of the way part of the house to keep the crock and try again? I know temperatures also affect the process, so maybe if you can keep the crock cooler the smell might be less? Good luck if you try again.

Diana said...

Oh goody! I'm a potter, AND I just discovered a deposit of local clay on my land. I even think I'm going throwing with a friend tonight - maybe I'll make some!

PS: I was wondering if you had a lacto-fermented ketchup recipe to share?

Judy T said...

I've never tried making my own sauerkraut but I remember my mom making it in a crock. She would use an old china plate weighted down with a brick (clean one, of course). a similar solution, I think. I remember the year that she broke the one plate that fit best- she was devastated, and we spent hours scouring garage sales looking for one the right size to fit the crock.

Leigh said...

The weights are brilliantly clever! You go girl. I too have been frustrated with trying to lacto-ferment in wide mouthed canning jars. I like working with the size, but keeping the stuff under the brine, is well, you know. I need to see if I can find someone who can do the same for me.

Kate said...

Diana, it would be totally awesome to have sets of these weights from locally sourced clay! The energy needed to fire the kiln would still be enormous, but local materials would be really cool. Please let me know if it works out.

Judy, it's funny, isn't it, how attached we become to our tools? Did she ever find a good replacement?

Leigh, I was using the half-gallon canning jars too. Now I wonder whether I shouldn't have asked for a set of weights sized for those jars. I suppose if I feel the need I can always place the order. But I wouldn't give up the weights sized for the larger jars; I like having the larger capacity.

James said...

Um, How about a cheap zip-top plastic bag, and put in small pebbles, or ball bearings, or other loose heavy items. Place on top of veggies and watery stuff, add stones/weights until all your veggies are submerged and then seal the bag shut. That sounds easier than having weights made for you.

webefuddled said...

I found that an empty pimiento jar works great to keep the vegetables submerged. They are short and squatty and fit perfectly in a wide mouthed mason jar.