The most important thing I have learned to date about fermentation is this: If you get too hasty, it won’t be tasty! Fermentation takes time and patience. Just like good cheese, good wine, and good beef, you have to give your fermented veggies plenty of time to reach perfection. How long? Longer than you might think.
That said, if you tried and failed (like I did) at fermenting food at home, then it is very possible that you just got too impatient. Here is my story about my rush to fermentation, the frustrating (and wasteful) results, and the resolution.
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I got my start with fermenting late last October when I was introduced to Fermentools and received a one of these (which I love, by the way, but more on that later). I did a ton of research, asked a bunch of questions, and shared my newly acquired knowledge over here on this post: Veggie Fermenting Simplified. Everything I said in that blog post was true & accurate (as far as I know) and I tried a few recipes but still failed, er — so I thought. Either way, I was certainly not too eager to publish a recipe for a sauerkraut (or anything else for that matter) that I simply could not eat myself. So yes, my fermenting recipes are way behind! However, now that Eddie & I had THIS a couple nights ago and LOVED IT, I can at least share that crazy roller coaster experience! Even Eddie remarked that it was good (which is rare, he almost never compliments my cooking) so I guess you could say it was “remarkable!”
In addition to this sauerkraut, I also made a pint of garlic (which is STILL not done fermenting) and a quart of brussel sprouts (which turned bluish and were unspeakably stinky! Gag! But that is a different post). This weekend, I will be starting another batch of kraut. We love kraut, eat a lot of it, and now that I know how long it really takes, I want to make sure I have some ready well before the batch we have now is used up.
I will show some photos of the process below, but sticking with just the sauerkraut recipe for this post, I used:
- 4 1/2 pounds of shredded cabbage (which next time will get reduced by a pound, see why below)
- 1/2 pound of shredded carrots
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 2 teaspoons or so of celery seed
- 3T of Himalayan Sea Salt. (Oh, um, by the way . . . if I knew then what I know now, I would have cut that salt in half.)
All of that fit in a half gallon size canning jar (pounded in with a kraut pounder) to create its own brine. (Then, I learned something about over packing, which I will cover in Lesson #1 below). Detailed instructions are in the captions of the photos below, but I put the lid, ring, stopper, and airlock on and set it to ferment for two weeks . . . which is what my recipe said to do. And that is when the trouble started.
Lesson #1: As for over packing a jar, I say, “Just because it all fits, does not mean you should put it all in there.” LEAVE PLENTY of head space. Fermentation creates gas which expands — A LOT — and causes leaks. During the first two weeks this batch sat out, it leaked almost constantly. The day after I first made it, when the ferment really got going and was making all kinds of bubbles (which is a good thing), the liquid shot up through the airlock and leaked out all over the place — on the FIRST DAY! I cleaned that up, drained off some of the liquid, spooned out a little of the kraut, and put a fresh, clean lid & airlock back on the jar. It leaked again. And again. What the heck? I dealt with that at least 4-5 times, each time removing a bit more of the product yet it continued to expand. So yes, just because it fits, does not mean you should put it all in there. Next time I want to fill a half gallon jar, I will stop with FOUR pounds of cabbage.
First Taste Test: I taste tested this batch after a week and was not very convinced it was working. At that time, all I tasted was salt. It was NOT sauerkraut. Not even close. I felt disillusioned.
Lesson #2: Judging a good ferment is NOT dependent on a calendar but rather on whether it is still bubbling and, to some extent, how it tastes. Forget the calendar. Fermentation takes time. If your ferment is too salty or the flavor or texture is off but otherwise, it seems fine . . . wait longer.
I made this batch of sauerkraut on October 29, 2014 and since my recipe said to give it two weeks then move it to the fridge, that is what I did. Who am I to question a recipe I have never tried before? So on November 12, I put it in the fridge. What the recipe didn’t say was “Only if it has stopped bubbling!“ I did not know it this at the time, but if it is bubbling, it is not ready yet for cold storage. Wait longer.
Second Taste Test: Regardless, I taste tested this batch again anyway on November 12. I spit out. It was just intolerably salty and it was certainly not sauerkraut. I thought, “This is not going to be inedible. I should probably just toss it.” But I didn’t.
Why not? Because there were no signs of anything funky, moldy, pink, fuzzy — nothing like that. There seemed to be nothing wrong with it except for the fact it was ridiculously salty and I simply did not like it. Could I tolerate the saltiness? Not as it sat that day, but I maintained hope and stuck it in the fridge anyway.
Then just a few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with my friend & mentor, Chris from Joybilee Farms, who has been fermenting for years and years and probably more years. She told me, “I made three jars of kosher dills (2 quart size) and I ate one (all by myself) in September so it only had a month. And I left the other 2 for now (January).” I thought to myself, “ONLY a month? Geez, how long DOES it take?” Chris went on to say, “I have a jar of lime-carrots-garlic that I did a year ago. Last year the limes were too bitter and it didn’t taste much like anything. This year it’s perfect — limey, crunchy, garlic-y. But I think it needed a year in my fridge for the flavors to meld and the lactic acid to remove the harshness of the limes.”
I was blown away by that! No one told me (until that moment) that two weeks was no where near long enough!
Lesson #3: So, let’s say you put your ferment into cold storage too soon. You got hasty and now it is not tasty! (That is SO cheesy, I know, but you will remember it!) What can you do? Well, I did nothing. I just let it sit there (in the fridge) until January 13, 2015 when it finally stopped bubbling. That is two months and 29 days with all but two weeks of that in the fridge. Cold temperatures are not conducive to fermentation but it won’t stop it either. It just slows it down — which means you get to wait even longer. I suppose I could have taken it back out of the fridge, but I wasn’t sure what effect that would have so I did not risk it. I also suppose that I had not put it in the fridge in the first place, it would have been ready after about six weeks (a mistake I do not intend to make again). Regardless, judge by the bubbles (or the lack thereof). Whether it is in cold storage or not, if it is still bubbling (like my garlic here) then it is not ready yet. It is still an active ferment. Put it back and wait.
Lesson #4: I won’t try to pretend I know the science behind this, but I can state that in due time, a lot of the saltiness indeed goes away. Not completely away, but it will be MUCH improved and be replaced with the pleasantly pungent flavor of real sauerkraut. This same batch of way-too-salty kraut is now “remarkable.” Nonetheless, I have learned to cut back on the salt. I have learned that that “general rule” about “three tablespoons of salt to five pounds of veggie matter” is off. Since then, I have discovered new, better recipes that do not require so much salt, and I am guessing they ferment just fine so long as the veggies stay submerged in the brine and the airlock is functioning properly to keep the air out. So with my next batch, I will test that theory using less salt and let you know.
Final Taste Test: Remarkable. Eddie remarked on it, remember? Must have been remarkable. I agreed. I loved it. Compared to previous taste tests, it was the difference between night & day. So now, I am glad I did not throw it out. Not only will we eat it, but we will actually enjoy it.
Now, about those Fermentools. I would not even dream of trying to ferment without my Fermentools — no more than I would try to blog without a computer. This is not to say that this is the ONLY way (there are plenty of ways), but I have not seen any that were this easy, this fool proof, or made with this same consistent quality. Because they are so well made, they are dishwasher safe, virtually indestructible, and they do just exactly what they are supposed to do. We are talking about stainless steal lids, high quality washers, rubber stoppers & airlocks, and heavy glass disks for holding the food under the brine. The only guesswork left after that is the recipe itself — which, just like baking bread, will take some trial & error. Some things are taught only by experience. Anyway, I truly believe in and use Fermentools myself or I would not be writing about it here. Fortunately, once purchased, they are with you forever . . . like a good cast iron skillet. You will passing them down to your children.
Here are a few photos from my morning making sauerkraut, so you can see how easy it is to do! Here you see how to put the Fermentools washer, lid & airlock in place. You will need to know who to use the tools, right?
Next Up: What went wrong with my fermented brussel sprouts and what is taking my fermented garlic so long???
Good luck on your fermenting adventures! Just remember, Fermentation Takes Time! And if you have some good recipes to share, please feel free to link them up in the comments!
And here are some of those better recipes that I mentioned:
I participated in Simple Saturdays Blog Hop