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.
I live on a 2/3 acre homestead in a residential neighborhood. A major goal is to demonstrate how much food a non-expert can produce in my particular climate and hardiness zone, with the soils native to my immediate area. We have gardens of annual and perennial plants, keep laying hens and honey bees, and regularly bite off more than we can chew. Another major goal is to pay off our mortgage as fast as possible. Here I blog about frugality, self-reliance, gardening, cooking and baking, food preservation, practical skills, half-baked experiments, and preparing to thrive in a lower-energy future.