Your City Guide to Fall Fermenting, Pickling, and Making Stuff in Jars
Odds are that you already own a ton of mason jars because they make for smart-looking glassware. (No judgement—they do.) But this fall, why not put those bad Balls to work for the job they were born to do: harboring all of your sweet and tangy concoctions.
That’s right folks, I’m talking about the immeasurable satisfaction of fermenting and pickling your own foodstuffs. Besides being better for you than what you’d find in stores, these recipes make great indoor weekend projects (and even better DIY gifts for those awkward company Yankee swaps.) They also might force an unwitting roommate outside of their flavor-comfort zones, which is always a good experience. Best of all, you can ferment and pickle easily from your city apartment kitchen. So let’s start with my favorite thing in the world (not counting my job at Zipcar):
No matter how much I read into the science of fermentation, it always feels like a tiny culinary magic trick every time I see it happen. How can you just leave food out to rot, only to discover weeks later that this whole new food has been created? And it’s alive and delicious and crawling with millions of gut-healthy bacteria! Crazy. Anyway, let’s make some sauerkraut.
3 tbsp. non-iodized sea salt
Apart from being a gift from the cabbage gods, sauerkraut is the easiest thing to ferment. The only two ingredients you’ll need are cabbage and salt—so I can’t stress enough the importance of using the freshest ingredients available.
First peel off a few large whole leaves from the cabbage head and set them aside. Then shred 5lbs. of cabbage into a large bowl, and gradually sprinkle 3 tablespoons of sea salt over it. In between the sprinkles, use your hands to firmly massage the salt into the cabbage, making sure every piece has salt on it.
Keep roughly massaging and squeezing the cabbage for 10 minutes. You’ll notice water is being produced, which is a good thing. That’s actually the brine that the cabbage is making itself, which will end up being food for wild microbes (!), so the longer you squeeze the better. Step away from the bowl for 20 minutes or so and let the salt pull the rest of the water out on its own.
Now you’ll need a vessel. I use a large fermenting crock, but you can divvy up the loot into large jars or use a clean food-grade bucket. This is the time to add caraway seeds, juniper berries, or whatever other spices you want. (I prefer it au naturel.) Transfer the kraut to the container, and using all of your force, pack the kraut as tightly as possible into the jars with your fist. Keep packing it down until there’s at least an inch of brine covering the cabbage. The fermentation needs to take place in an anaerobic (airless) environment, which is why it’s crucial that all of the cabbage is submerged.
Now place the whole leaves on top of the cabbage (and under the brine) to keep any of the cabbage bits from floating up to the top. Next, take a weight and place it on top of the leaves so it holds everything down beneath the brine. A common weight for smaller containers is a clean jar full of water or a plate, but anything (clean) that fits and holds down the cabbage will work. Remember: if any food is exposed to the air, it will lose its magical fermenting powers and become ordinary brown garbage. Cover with a cheesecloth so no flies get in.
After the first week, the Lactobacillus bacteria will have started to take over, giving the sauerkraut that tangy taste and probiotic charge. Taste your kraut after the first 3 weeks to see how it’s coming along, knowing the longer you let it ferment, the tangier/softer it will get. You will almost certainly see a thin level of surface “mold” (it’s not mold) form on top of the brine in the first couple weeks. This is called kahm yeast, and it’s a harmless by-product of the fermentation. (Just hold your nose, scoop it out, and throw it away.) That said, the kraut itself (under the brine) should never be red, gray, or brown, and it should smell funky—not rancid. Transfer the cabbage and all that good brine to a sealed jar and put in the fridge when it’s tasting right, and enjoy your kraut with eggs, on sandwiches, with sausages, or by the forkful.
Kombucha (1 gallon)
1 cup black tea
1 tbsp. sugar
1 bottle of kombucha
2 tbsp. loose plain black tea (not Earl Grey)
1 cup sugar
2 cups white vinegar
The first (and last) thing you’re going to need to make kombucha is a “mother” or SCOBY—short for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. (It’s basically a big rubbery patty of bacteria that gives life to your ‘buch. Yum!)
The easiest way to make a SCOBY is to grow one from existing kombucha and sweet black tea. First, brew a cup of unflavored black tea, and mix it with a tablespoon of sugar until it’s dissolved. Let it cool, then pour it into a large glass jar. Next, buy a bottle of the best kombucha you can get your paws on (spare no expense since it will be the last time you buy it in a store) and pour it into the jar with the sweet tea. Cover it with a cheesecloth, secure with a rubber band, and store out of sunlight for about 7 days.
After a week you should see the SCOBY starting to form in blobs on the surface, but it’s not ready yet. (If nothing happens in 3 weeks, start over.) Wait about 30 days until the mother grows to be about a ¼ inch thick patty. That’s your new mother!
Now we can brew. Boil 14 cups of water, and stir in the cup of sugar until it dissolves. Steep the 2 tablespoons of loose tea for a few minutes and let it cool. Strain, pour into a large glass jar, and add the vinegar. Then drop the SCOBY in there, cover it with the cheesecloth, and secure with a rubber band. Store out of sunlight for 7–30 days, tasting along the way. (The longer it ferments, the less sweet and more tart it gets.) Take out the SCOBY and set aside with enough of the liquid (2 cups) to start your next batch, which you’ll use instead of the vinegar. What’s left is the kombucha, which you can add fruit juice or ginger to for flavoring, then transfer to bottles like these. Enjoy!
The main difference between pickles and ferments is pickled stuff (usually) requires a vinegar brine to sit in, while ferments need sugar, yeast, or some kind of food for the microbes to eat.
1 lb. cucumbers (or any veggie)
1 cup water
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbs. sugar OR salt
Fridge pickles get a bad rap for being a shortcut pickle, but who cares? They’re crazy simple to make, taste like the “real” (read: fermented) deal, and allow much more room for improvising.
All you do is combine equal parts water and vinegar (any kind, but I prefer apple cider) with a bit of sugar (or salt) in a saucepan, bring it to a boil, and immediately let it cool. That’s your basic brine recipe for anything. Now fill a mason jar with whatever spices you want (peppercorns, cayenne, fresh dill, etc.) and maybe throw some whole garlic cloves in there to be cool. Then stuff your veggies into the jar, and submerge them with the brine. Seal it up, and wait about a week before eating them for maximum pickle-ocity.
Sound too simple for you? Well, good news everyone—you can put pretty much anything in your brines. Try adding honey or maple syrup instead of sugar for a different kind of sweetness, or substitute the sugar altogether with salt for a tart pickle. I like to add a cup of pilsner while the brine is boiling to give it a malty sweetness. (Along with tons of mustard seeds and Old Bay seasoning.) And don’t forget to try other veggies like carrots, green beans, and—my favorite—daikon radishes.
Pickled red onions
1 large red onion
1 cup rice vinegar
1 tsp salt
¼ cup sugar
1 garlic clove (quartered)
This is one of the great underdogs in the pickled community. It’s estimated that 1 in 3 Americans neglect to put pickled red onions on their grain bowls, tacos, salads, and savory soups every day—and that’s just not right. (Neither as a sentiment nor a statistic.)
Here’s a different method of pickling for you. Start by putting everything except the onion into your pickling jar, and shaking it until the salt and sugar dissolve. Next slice your red onion as thinly as possible into tiny crescents, and put them in a strainer. Take a tea kettle or pot of boiling water and pour it over the onions (preferably over a sink) to blanch them, then immediately pour ice-cold water over them. Drain them and throw them into your jar, put them in the fridge, and enjoy for the next few months.
Now that you’ve got the fundamentals of fermenting and pickling down, start experimenting on your own or with the help of the master himself, Sandor Ellix Katz. Have fun!