Some people have personal trainers. Some seek the advice of life coaches. Me, I have a fermentation guru. She’s Petra Mayr-Brown, a communications professional by day and culinary mad scientist on nights and weekends (she refers to her Maple Grove kitchen as “The Lab”).
A couple of years ago, while catching up over coffee, she told me she and her husband, Rich, had gotten a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share and were feeling overwhelmed by all the produce that arrived each week.
“I started looking into fermenting,” she told me. “It seems much less complicated and safer than canning, so I’m going to try it.”
The daughter of two German immigrants, she already had more than a passing acquaintance with sauerkraut, which is fermented cabbage.
“My mom always served it, but she never made it herself. Even when we traveled to visit relatives in Germany, they served store-brought kraut,” she said.
Armed with dim childhood memories and plenty of online research, she was off and running. The next time we met, Mayr-Brown sweetly slipped me a jar of one of her early sauerkraut batches. I popped the lid and took a taste. It was a gustatory revelation.
The thinly sliced ribbons of cabbage were sweet and crunchy. Tendrils of carrot added color, and a few sprinkled-in caraway seeds provided Old Country authenticity. Lingering around the whole business was a funky, tart, mouth-puckering taste I wanted to get to know better.
Not only was I hooked, but I was inspired to begin my own adventures in fermentation, especially after doing some reading about how fermented foods promote an increase in probiotics, the bacteria that help promote gut health.
I began pestering Mayr-Brown for guidance and suggestions, and, like any wise and patient guru, she patiently showed me the path to fermented enlightenment. She helped me figure out what sort of vessel to purchase (a 7.5-liter ceramic Gartopf, ordered online). She suggested prep ideas and ingredient tips (she’s a big believer in using the highest-quality salt). Soon, I was dishing up my own homemade kimchi and sauerkraut, sharing it freely and giving full props to her.
With the fervor of the converted, I even made a pilgrimage to a visiting wise woman, stopping by the Fermentation on Wheels bus when it rolled into town last summer. A converted 1986 International Harvester school bus, it’s been traveling the country as a rolling fermentation lab and workshop space, helmed by self-described “gastronomic nomad” Tara Whitsitt.
She gave a brief talk and demonstration at Gyst Fermentation Bar, which specializes in all things fermented, including artisanal cheese, pickles, salumi, chocolate, beer, wine and coffee.
Easy to do
Gyst’s director of fermentation is Jim Bovino, and he conducts regular on-site classes for people who want to know more about this old-is-new food prep method, but who aren’t lucky enough to have a personal fermentation guru like I do.
Bovino says summer is a great time to start home fermenting, especially if a CSA share, farmers market purchase or abundant home garden require a no-fuss food preservation solution.
“Canning is labor- and energy-intensive, it’s hot, and there can be safety concerns if it’s not done correctly,” he said. “This is the ideal method for a lazy person. Why spend a week canning if you can just put stuff in a crock and walk away?”
“Find what’s seasonal now and start experimenting,” he suggested. “Here at Gyst, we ferment greens, beets, carrots, turnips, you name it.” Any clean jar can be used as a curing vessel.
“I suggest starting with a quart or half-gallon wide-mouth Ball jar,” Bovino said.
“The only other piece of equipment you need is something to weigh down and submerge the vegetables beneath the brine, like a clean rock, ceramic weights, or another, smaller jar, filled with water or marbles.”
While the ideal fermentation temperature is between the upper 40s and low 60s, warmer temps will simply speed the process along.
“Keep tasting the vegetables every few days to make sure you get the taste and texture you want,” he said. Once the fermented vegetables are removed from the curing vessel, they should be stored in the refrigerator, where they will last for at least six months or longer.
“They don’t really ‘go bad’ in the sense that they develop harmful bacteria, because that doesn’t happen,” said Bovino. “They just get a little bit mushier with age.”
Makes 1 to 1 1/2 quarts.
Note: A mandoline is a tool to create uniform cuts in a vegetable. From Jim Bovino of Gyst Fermentation Bar in Minneapolis.
• 1 medium head of green cabbage (about 3 lb.), with 1 whole leaf reserved
• 1 1/2 tbsp. kosher or sea salt (or, to be more precise, calculate total cabbage weight and add 2.5 percent of that weight in salt)
• 1 tbsp. caraway seeds, optional
• Half-gallon Ball jar or other wide-mouth container
Clean off outer leaves of cabbage and cut away any blemishes. Quarter, core and slice cabbage into thin ribbons on mandoline, with food processor or by hand.
In large mixing bowl, work salt into the cabbage ribbons, massaging the leaves until they become limp. If desired, add caraway seeds. Cover bowl and let mixture “sweat” for 2 to 3 hours, forming a natural brine. Press mixture, with brine, into a clean jar, ensuring that cabbage is beneath brine. Cover with a whole cabbage leaf or plastic wrap. Weigh down with ceramic weights, a smaller jar weighed down with water or marbles, or a clean rock.
Place curing vessel on a plate (in case liquid leaches out) and store in a cool, dark place, ideally no less than 48 degrees and no more than 65 degrees. Taste every few days. When the sauerkraut reaches desired taste and consistency, move container to refrigerator. It can be stored there for six months or longer.
Traditional Whole Pickled Carrots in Coriander Orange Brine
Makes 1 quart.
Note: From Jim Bovino of Gyst Fermentation Bar in Minneapolis.
• Whole carrots with tops: enough to fill 1 wide-mouth quart jar
• 3 tbsp. whole coriander
• 1 1/2 c. water plus 1 tsp. to dissolve salt, divided
• 2 bay leaves
• 3 tbsp. kosher or sea salt
• 1 orange
Trim carrots’ green, leafy tops to about 1/4 inch high. Scrub carrots to remove any dirt and debris (no need to peel.) Pack carrots vertically into the jar, tops up. (The carrot tops should not be above the shoulder of the jar. If they are larger, cut them down to fit.)
To prepare the brine: Using mortar and pestle (or whatever’s handy), slightly crush coriander seeds. Bring 1 1/2 cups water to just below boiling, approximately 185 degrees. Add coriander seeds and bay leaves to water. Set aside and allow to reach room temperature.
Dissolve salt in 1 teaspoon water and add to cooled mixture. Zest and juice orange, removing seeds. Add orange zest and juice to brine, stirring well, then pour over carrots in jar. Liquid should cover carrots completely, so no part of them is exposed to air. Add more water if needed to cover.
Place a small piece of plastic wrap over top of carrots and weigh down with ceramic weights, a clean smaller jar weighed down with water or marbles, or a clean rock. Place jar on a plate (in case liquid leaches out) and store in a cool, dark place, ideally no more than 65 degrees. Taste every few days, and when carrots reach desired taste and consistency, move container to refrigerator. They can be stored there for six months or longer.
Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who covers food, health and science. She blogs at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.