Saturday, February 16, 2013

First time...not always a charm.

Earlier this week, I decided to try my first attempt at making naturally lactofermented vegetables.  These are something that we have both been eating more of lately, in the form of sauerkraut and pickles, but the only non-pasturized naturally fermented vegetables that I have been able to find commercially available are confined to these two options.  There is only so much kraut that one can eat, and pickles don't go with everything (though Christa would probably disagree with me on that last point).  Given this, and my desire to prepare most of what we eat from as close to scratch as possible, I want to become more familiar with the art of natural fermentation.

Lactofermentation is a fairly straightforward process (so I say).  Food is submerged in liquid, either the liquid naturally occurring in the food that is released during chopping and crushing, or a solution of brine that prevents the growth of undesirable bacteria until the beneficial microbes have a chance to dominate the environment.  Once these desirable microbes have colonized the food, they produce lactic acid which in turn prevents spoilage and the growth of dangerous microbes.  The process also increases the available nutrients of the product being fermented, and preserves it naturally while giving the whole shebang a tangy flavor that many people (ourselves included) enjoy.

Carrots would be my first foray into the world of home fermentation.  Why carrots?  Well, not only are they colorful, tasty, and...ok, to be honest with you I had nearly 5 pounds of carrots in my refrigerator and I was starting to run out of ways to use them.  One can only make so much carrot soup (which is delicious and will soon have its own post), and my latest renditions of carrots-in-everything were getting kind of old.  So, my muse was a giant sack of carrots, and I was compelled by little more than the shear quantity of them at hand.

I got my recipe for fermented ginger carrots from Nourishing Traditions, which is an interesting cookbook.  The recipes are firmly founded in solid nutritional concepts, but to be honest with you many of them lack a do I put this...most of the ones that I have tried don't really come together all that great.  It is a wonderful source of inspiration, but I am convinced that the author is not a cook by trade.  Again, I like the book, I have recommended it, but I think that a lot of the recipes need some tweaking - this is fine, as I rarely follow a recipe to the letter after the first time that I have tried it (and sometimes not even on the first attempt).  Oh, so these carrots.  That's what I was trying to tell you about.  The recipe called for 4 cups of shredded carrots, a tablespoon of salt, some ground fresh ginger, and some liquid whey.  I happen to have had all of these available.

I pounded the carrots as best as I could after shredding them and mixing them with the salt and ginger.  Carrots are rather hard, and they didn't produce much liquid of their own.  I added the prescribed amount of whey, packed the whole deal into a VERY clean one quart mason jar, and then proceeded to pound on the vegetables with the large handle of a jar scraper, since I do not own a dedicated vegetable tamper.  I needed to add a little bit more whey in order to ensure that all the carrots were submerged entirely, but finally I sealed up the jar and placed it in my food dehydrator on the kitchen counter.  I put it in the dehydrator so that it would be dark....effectively it served as a very expensive box.

Bubbles!  I am god of the pickles!
Three days later, and upon inspection of the jar I saw bubbles.  Bubble!  Success!   The little microbes had been hard at work, producing gasses and lactic acid.  I was on the fast track to becoming a master of fermentation.  The sky was the limit, and I thought of all of the relishes and pickles that I would soon be turning out in quantity, and where I would put my huge cucumber garden in order to satiate Christa's unending desire for pickles of all kinds.  I would need to start growing cabbage, too, and of course the mason jars weren't going to cut it.  I began trying to figure out in my mind whether a 10 quart or a 15 quart stone crock would be better suited to making sauerkraut for our purposes.

And then, I opened the jar to try my delicious pickled carrots.  Ok, first of all I should have expected the top of the jar to blow off like a jack in the box when I loosened the retaining ring, but it still caught me completely by surprise when it hit the ceiling.  Expletive deleted.  I performed a smell test.  So far, so good!  Then, when I grabbed a fork to sample some of the carrot relish, I was treated to this sight.
Yech!  So, maybe not a pickling deity. 
Slime.  Slick, clear, slime.  It was as if the carrots were suspended in mucous.  Some quick research led me to believe that some undesirable bacteria had colonized my carrots and turned my dreams into a pile of gooey snot.  I have since read that using grey salt (which I did) may be inadvisable, as the moisture can sometimes harbor unwanted microbes that may be introduced into the fermentation.

I dumped the contents of the jar into the garbage can.  Fortunately it was only a single, small test batch.  I'm not discouraged by the process, either.  While it can be easy to get caught up in the moment, it's not realistic to expect perfect results the first (or second, or third) time that we try something.  They may not even be edible.  This applies not just to pickled carrots, but to pickled cucumbers, or any recipe, or any new skill or hobby.  It's one of those 'life lessons' that you hear about and hope that you recognize when they happen.  Don't let a single failure stop you from giving it everything you've got next time around, and recognize that you'll probably make mistakes along the way, whether you are trying to make carrot relish or paint your house or find that one right person to share your life with.  Let it go and focus on the now.

That's all.  Nothing tasty to share with you today, but hopefully one day I will have some good recipes for pickled something-or-other.  Until then.


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