Mustard Oil: For External Use Only?

If you listened to “America’s Test Kitchen” tonight, you heard Chris Kimball and Bridget Lancaster struggle with a listener’s question about mustard oil: Why is it labeled “for external use only,” and is the stuff safe to cook with? Bridget figured, rightly, that the oil was labeled that way to get around “some government regulation,” and that it was probably safe to use in small amounts. At this point I imagined readers of The Joy of Pickling waving their arms and shouting at their radios in their eagerness to supply a fuller answer.

For those of you who haven’t read The Joy of Picklingor at least not cover to cover, yet—here’s the lowdown on mustard oil: In 1989 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned its sale for culinary use because some laboratory studies performed in the 1950s associated the oil with nutritional deficiencies and cardiac lesions in rats. Subsequent studies have shown that the results for rats don’t apply to people, and that mustard oil in human diets is in fact associated with a lowered risk of heart disease. In addition, a 1999 U.S. Department of Agriculture report says that mustard oil, like horseradish, contains the pungent antimicrobial chemical allyl isothiocyanate, and that for this reason mustard oil and horseradish “pack a punch against Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and other food pathogens you definitely don’t want in your sandwich.”

Throughout much of India, people have for centuries favored mustard oil for frying and for making oil-based pickles. The unrefined oil has a unique, strong flavor. Use something else—such as raw sesame oil—if you don’t like the taste, but don’t avoid mustard oil out of fear that it will hurt you. Remember that the oil is all in mustard seeds and prepared mustard, which you’ve probably been eating all your life.

You can buy mustard oil at any Indian grocery. Today it’s often combined with cheaper refined oil, so look for the pure stuff. If it’s too strong for you, you can cut it with other oil at home.

Because mustard oil is rich in antioxidants, it will keep for months in a tightly closed container at room temperature.

Posted in Pickles, Preserving science | Tagged , , , | 13 Comments

Late-Harvest Treat: Haw Jelly

Haws left after harvest. These are for the birds.

A couple of weeks ago I gazed out my back door at a Washington hawthorn, its fruit beginning to drop following a cold snap, and considered the comment that Jan Grover made in this blog in October: “A friend who teaches told me about an abandoned orchard behind her school building, and I went there, intent on foraging the apples she described—and I discovered haws! There were two small, gnarled hawthorns smothered in bright-red haws, and I picked several pounds, brought them home, and turned them into what proved to be a Kool-Aid-red/pink jelly. . . . . The taste is slightly, ummmm, feral, and goes beautifully with autumn braises. Sugar, lemon juice, water—that was all it took: Haws are evidently crammed with pectin.”

If I wanted to try making haw jelly this year, I had to act fast. So I fetched an orchard ladder and sampled a haw. The tiny, orange-red fruit had only a taste of mealy flesh wrapped around five seeds.*  The fruit was neither tart nor bitter but had a sweet, spicy flavor similar to that of rosehips and medlar fruits. This was no surprise, since the hawthorn is cousin to the rose and the medlar both. The haws ought to make good jelly indeed.

As I picked them, most of the fruits came free of their stems. In fifteen minutes I had enough haws, I figured, to make a small batch of jelly. I rinsed them, shook them in the strainer to separate the remaining stems, and picked out the stems before cooking the haws in enough water to cover them.

The juice turned out a cloudy pink but clarified when I combined it with sugar. I added plenty of lemon juice, since the haws seemed low in acid. The syrup jelled quickly and firmly.

haw jellyThe finished jelly looks much like quince jelly—almost as clear and bright, in fact, as red currant jelly. You must put your nose close to smell to catch the warm, spicy aroma, but the flavor blooms in the mouth. It reminds Robert of tropical fruit—passion fruit, he thinks, or guava. But I think haw jelly puts guava jelly to shame. In flavor, only rosehip jelly compares.

Here’s my recipe for—

Haw Jelly

2 ½ pounds stemmed haws
2 cups sugar
½ cup strained lemon juice

cooking hawsPut the haws into a pot, and barely cover them with water (you’ll need about 6 cups). Simmer the haws, uncovered, for about an hour, mashing them with a potato masher or spoon every 20 minutes or so.

cooked hawsDrain off the haw juice through a coarse strainer, and then let it drip through a jelly bag for at least several hours or as long as overnight. Don’t worry if the juice looks cloudy. You should end up with 2¼ cups.

In a preserving pan, combine the haw juice with the sugar and lemon juice. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring. Raise the heat to high, and boil the syrup until it sheets from a spoon or reaches 221 degrees F. Pour the hot syrup into two sterilized half-pint jars, and add lids and rings. Process the jars for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath. 

Makes 2 half-pints


* The fruits of the Washington hawthorn, Crataegus phaenopyrum, have three to five seeds; the haws of other species come in red, yellow, black, or purple and have as few as one seed per fruit. C. phaenopyrum is a native of the Eastern states that’s widely planted elsewhere in landscapes, though I don’t know why; its thorny branches shoot randomly in every direction. But the many other species of hawthorn grow in a similar fashion, and for that reason they are most appreciated as the stuff of impenetrable hedges; the word haw, in fact, means “hedge.” The genus has other virtues besides: The wood is very hard and therefore useful for making tools, and the leaves, flowers, and fruits have been used since ancient times in treating heart disease (recent medical studies are proving their efficacy). The hawthorn species most used in jelly making is C. monogyna, a native of Europe, northwest Africa, and western Asia that has become an invasive weed in Oregon and elsewhere. Native here is the Douglas hawthorn, C. douglasii. Next year I’ll have to try making jelly from the little black Douglas haws.

Posted in Fruits, Sweet preserves, Wild foods | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

For Winter Pies: Home-Canned ClearJel Filling

For at least fifteen years Extension agents have been urging home food preservers to try ClearJel, a kind of cornstarch used mainly in factory foods. Unlike regular cornstarch, ClearJel is made from waxy maize, a mutant variety discovered in China in 1909. The endosperm of this corn contains no amylose starch at all but in its place a substance called amylopectin, which turns the corn glutinous—that is, gluey—with cooking. Waxy corn is to regular dent corn as sticky rice is to long-grain rice.

In 1948 an American manufacturer used waxy corn to create ClearJel. Whereas regular cornstarch breaks down when exposed to high temperatures and acid foods, ClearJel does not. ClearJel withstands the heat of both canning and reheating.

Frankly, I have avoided this stuff. I can easily make a berry pie in winter, after all, by combining starch and sugar with berries from the freezer. Why would I can pie filling?

I answered that question myself last summer after stuffing half my freezer with Marionberries. I couldn’t spare any more freezer space for fruit. But I have two long rows of Marionberry vines in my garden, and the crop was especially heavy. What could I do with all the berries? Marionberries make rough, sour wine, so we prefer to make our blackberry wine from wild Himalayans. I could use some Marionberries in fruit leather or paste, but if I wanted to preserve more of the berries they would have to go into jars to be shelved in the garage.

I decided to try canning some pie filling with ClearJel. I bought a bagful of the stuff just a few miles from home at Nichols Garden Nursery. The store manager, Betty, made sure I got “regular” ClearJel, or ClearJel A, another name for the same thing. A different kind of waxy-maize cornstarch, called Instant ClearJel, is used without cooking; it isn’t intended for canning or heating of any sort.

Instructions for using ClearJel A vary. Nichols recommends substituting the same measure of ClearJel, or 10 percent less, for the regular cornstarch called for in a recipe. The Blue Chip Group, a bulk-food store in Utah, says to start by using half the amount of ClearJel as thickener called for in a recipe.

How much cornstarch do you put in a Marionberry or other blackberry pie? I wasn’t sure, because I usually use tapioca, not cornstarch, to thicken my berry pies. The cookbooks I consulted gave various recommendations, from 2 to 4 tablespoons cornstarch for 4 cups berries.

The Extension instructions call for 5 tablespoons ClearJel for only 3 1/3 cups fruit. But Extension’s ClearJel recipes seem odd in other ways. The blueberry, apple, and cherry pie-filling recipes call for food coloring—blue, yellow, red, or a combination—and the quantities of sugar are unusually high. I suspected these recipes were aimed at reproducing factory pies—the oversweetened, gluey, flat pies that come in throwaway foil plates. If I wanted one of those, I’d grab it out of the supermarket freezer case.

The 3 1/3 cups fruit called for in the Extension recipe also seemed wrong. What sort of pie would you make with so little fruit? Pie plates generally come in diameters of 9 and 10 inches—unless you use a throwaway foil plate, which is typically only 8 inches in diameter. Again, I suspected an urge to imitate a factory pie.

Could I make a berry pie I could be proud of with ClearJel?

I wouldn’t use too much of the stuff. I decided to average the recommended amounts for ordinary cornstarch—that is, I would use 3 tablespoons for 4 cups fruit.

And I decided to use the full 4 cups fruit, not 3 1/3 as in the Extension recipe. I needed 4 cups fruit, actually, to leave a headspace measurement of 1½ inches in the mason jar, as the Extension recipe called for. (I’m glad I didn’t try to use more than 4 cups, because a mixture of fruit and ClearJel expands so much with heating that a fuller jar would leak its contents during processing.)

The Extension instructions also call, strangely, for water—1 1/3 cups of it. Thankfully, the recipe says you can substitute juice for the water. I could have mashed some of the fruit, or macerated the berries in part of the sugar to draw out their juice, but easiest of all was substituting fermented juice—that is, wine. A case of Marionberrry wine was sitting in the garage somewhere, but I couldn’t find it, and so I used Himalayan blackberry wine instead. Cabernet or Merlot would have worked as well, I think. I used 6 tablespoons wine, an amount that seemed adequate, though it was only twice the volume of ClearJel I was using. The Extension recipe calls for more than four times as much liquid as ClearJel.

The pie filling shrank as the jar cooled after processing, leaving about 2 inches headspace. When the processed jar had cooled, the berries were covered in a clear, shiny, sauce that kept them in a mass when the jar was turned. The mass was loose, not solid as in a factory pie.

I tried the filling both baked in a two-crust pie and then straight from the jar in a baked sweet pie crust. Nobody complained about gooiness. I left the single-crust pie on the kitchen counter, and my husband and I ate it slowly, over five days. The filling neither soaked the crust nor attracted fruit flies. On the fifth day it was just as tasty as on the first.

So here’s my recipe for–

Marionberry Pie Filling with ClearJel

2/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons regular ClearJel
½ cup Marionberry, blackberry, or red grape wine
4 cups Marionberries
½ teaspoon grated orange zest

In a pot, stir together the sugar and ClearJel. Add the wine, and, stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a boil. Boil the mixture for 1 minute, and then gently fold in the berries and the orange zest. Remove the pot from the heat.

Pack the mixture into a quart mason jar, making sure to leave 1 ½ inches headspace. Add a lid and ring, and process the jar in a boiling-water bath for 30 minutes (or 35 minutes, at more than 1,000 in elevation, or 40 minutes, at more than 3,000 feet.)

Use the filling in a two-crust 9-inch pie, and bake the pie as usual, or spread the filling in a baked 9-inch pie shell to serve without further cooking.

For a one-crust pie, I recommend using a pâte sablée, with sugar and egg yolk. You might add some grated lemon rind to balance the sweetness of the dough and filling, or spread a layer of lemon curd on the crust before adding the berry filling. Or you might serve the pie with crème fraîche or clotted cream.

Later I tried making the pie filling with Himalayan blackberries and juice from the same berries. Because Himalayan blackberries are relatively low in acid, I added 4 teaspoons lemon juice to the mix. Extra acid is needed in ClearJel pie fillings, according to the Extension instructions, to help stabilize the starch.

Peach tart with ClearJel

Peach tart with ClearJel

I also tried a peach pie filling with ClearJel. This time I used ¾ cup sugar for 4 cups fruit and 3 tablespoons ClearJel, and for liquid I used ¼ tablespoons lemon juice and 2 tablespoons apple juice. I also added a little grated nutmeg, about 1/8 teaspoon. Again I served the filling in a baked sweet crust. The filling turned out a little gooey for my taste; I’d prefer the pie with a top crust. But my friends liked it, and one remarked on how fresh and firm the peach slices remained after the processing they had undergone.

Some Mennonite-run grocery stores carry ClearJel, and your Extension home-ec agent may be able to identify other sources in your area. If not, you can buy ClearJel over the Internet from vendors such as Nichols, King Arthur, or Barry Farm.

Posted in Fruits, Preserving science, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Better Boiling-Water Canner?

tamale steamer cum canner

An aluminum tamale steamer serves as a rust-free, extra-tall canner.

I’ve always hated my graniteware canner. You know what I mean—one of those big, lightweight, speckled black pots with the cheap chromed rack inside. My rack rusted out in the first year of use. After I replaced it I noticed the pot itself was rusting, too, as the thin enamel coating flaked off the steel in spots. My jars always came of the pot covered with metallic scum. I couldn’t use the pot for sterilizing empty jars, or the scum would end up all over the interior of the jars. Worst of all, the canner wasn’t quite tall enough for quart jars. I couldn’t cover them with even a half-inch of water (the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends submerging jars by 1 to 2 inches) without the water boiling over and putting out the stove flame.

My graniteware canner is old, I admit—about thirty years old, I’d guess. But canners of this type haven’t improved. The 21- to 21.5-quart models—intended to hold seven quart jars—are still only 9.75 to 10 inches tall. If the specs give a greater height, the manufacturer is probably measuring from the base of the pot to the top of the lid handle.

Although I haven’t thrown out my rusty old canner, it has sat undisturbed in the garage for many years. For boiling-water canning I mostly use my two stainless-steel stockpots, along with the stainless-steel racks that I bought to fit each of them. This setup works perfectly for processing pint and half-pint jars.

But even the taller stockpot is too short for quart jars. So for canning tomatoes, fruits, and juices I’ve substituted my old pressure canner, with the lid left loose. This isn’t the best solution, though, because the thick aluminum wall of the pot takes a long time to transfer heat.

That’s why I started looking longingly at the tamale steamers in the grocery store. These aluminum pots are heavy enough to be sturdy, but light enough to heat up quickly. They come in various sizes: 12, 20, 32, and 50 quarts. Each pot has an indentation around the side, two inches or so from the base, to support a perforated rack. I figured that one of the bigger pots ought to make a good canner.

And so I bought the second-largest size, 32 quarts, and tried it out with quart jars of quince juice. The interior diameter of this pot measures only 14.5 inches, compared to the 15.75-inch width of my graniteware canner, yet seven quart jars fit roomily in the tamale steamer. I could even fit in an eighth jar while retaining at least a quarter-inch of space between the jars.

Even with its raised rack, the tamale steamer is plenty tall—13.5 inches. I can cover my quart jars with 2 inches of water and not worry at all about a boilover. With this pot, I can properly submerge even 1-liter Weck juice bottles.

One problem with the steamer is that it’s made for steaming, not boiling. The rack rests so high that you need about 6.5 quarts of water just to reach its level. All of that water takes a long time to heat. This might not be a concern when you are canning all day long, but heating so much water for a single batch seems wasteful

The solution is easy, though: Next time I process quart jars I’ll take out the raised rack and set a smaller one, probably borrowed from my pressure canner, in the bottom of the tamale steamer. With such an adjustment, the 13-inch-tall 20-quart steamer would be adequate for processing quart jars. In fact, the 20-quart steamer might even be tall enough for quart jars even with the raised rack in place.

Aluminum tamale steamers aren’t expensive. I paid $25 for the 32-quart pot. In comparison, graniteware canners range in price from about $20 to about $40.

So, consider treating yourself soon to a superior boiling-water canner—and treating your friends and family to a big Christmas tamale party.

Posted in Preserving science | Tagged , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Dietary Propaganda, Hoover Style

FOOD posterI don’t know where my friend Raphaël stumbled upon this poster, but when he showed it to me I first thought it something new. It seemed, after all, to spell out the latest dietary consensus, a set of rules that gourmets, locavores, ecologists, vegetarians and vegans, gluten-intolerants and -phobics, and anti-obesity activists could all agree on. But then I noticed the name at the bottom. Not the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but the U.S. Food Administration. What was that? And why would any agency of the U.S. government discourage the eating of wheat?

And so I studied a little history. President Woodrow Wilson, I learned, created the U.S. Food Administration in 1917, to cope with food shortages in wartime Europe and resultant price rises in the United States. He appointed as head of the new agency the then little-known Herbert Hoover, who had previously led the Belgian Relief Organization and who insisted on working without pay to model self-sacrifice for the American populace. Hoover’s job was to cut food consumption at home and to mobilize the resulting surplus to feed both the fast-growing U.S. army and allied armies and civilians. As much as possible, Hoover wanted to accomplish all this without rationing or any other sort of coercion. He would convince Americans to cooperate voluntarily.

Posters like the one Raphaël found were essential to the propaganda effort. On work sites and in public places, posters told Americans that “Food Will Win the War.” Accustomed to prodigal consumption of cheap and abundant foodstuffs, Americans were now encouraged to grow their own, to can and dry local produce, and to eat all leftovers instead of throwing them out. They were urged to eat potatoes and corn instead of wheat and to deny themselves sugar and meat and butter as well, so that the foods most in demand could go to the army and the allies.

Door-to-door canvassing complemented the poster campaign. Canvassers asked housewives to sign and post pledge cards attesting to their efforts to conserve foods. Following the lead of restaurants and hotels, householders were soon observing wheatless Mondays and Wednesdays and meatless Tuesdays. Even schoolchildren signed a pledge:

I’ll eat corn-meal, oatmeal and rice
And nice sweet hominy;
Cornflakes and mush with lots of milk
Are good enough for me.
At table I’ll not leave a scrap
Of food upon my plate.
And I’ll not eat between meals but
For supper time I’ll wait.

The campaign was impressively effective. In some cities nearly all households signed the pledges. Nationwide, home food consumption fell by 15 percent over a 12-month period from 1918 to 1919.

Immediately after the Armistice of 1918, the U.S. Food Administration began shutting down its activities. The agency was finally terminated in 1920. But the food conservation campaign had a lasting effect in Europe: The surplus stores created by U.S. food shipments helped prevent a European postwar famine.

The needs of others, apparently, can be a more compelling cause for sensible eating than today’s dominant appeal to personal health and good looks.

Here are a few of the other posters produced by the U.S. Food Administration.

Food poster 2

potato poster



The posters are scattered among various collections, including the National Archives and the USDA National Agricultural Library. You can see some of the other posters here, here, and here.

NOTE: The children’s pledge appears in The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917-1918, by George H. Nash (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996, page 158). For more about the U.S. Food Administration, see History of the United States Food Administration, 1917-1919, by William C. Mullendore (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1941). Records of the U.S. Food Administration are stored in the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University.

Posted in Food history | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Kohlrabi Kraut Again, with Sea Vegetable

kohlrabi kraut 6At the Good Food Awards blind tastings on September 15, my favorite sauerkraut was flecked with bits of green seaweed, whose tangy flavor and as well as strong color complemented the pale, sour cabbage.* So when I made my last batch of kohlrabi kraut this fall, I decided to incorporate sea palm, Postelsia palmaeformis, sent to me by a friend in California. The small, mild-flavored species of kelp, which stands erect in ever-pounding surf with its palm-like fronds exposed to the air, grows on rocky shores from Vancouver Island to south-central California. Its harvest is illegal, however, in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, and even in California some fear the species may be threatened. My friend swore, however, that her sea palm was harvested sustainably, and I was happy for the opportunity to experiment with it.

I used just an ounce of dried sea palm for 10 pounds of kohlrabi, and I cut the long seaweed fronds into short lengths with scissors before mixing them with the kohlrabi. Next time I’ll cut much shorter pieces, because the dried seaweed swells immensely as the kraut ferments. But the moist, mild kraut looks and tastes lovely with the chewy, minerally green bits. Here’s the recipe:

Kohlrabi Kraut with Sea Palm

Peel the kohlrabi with a sturdy knife, and cut any woody parts out of the flesh.

10 pounds peeled and coarsely grated kohlrabi
6 tablespoons pickling salt
1 ounce dried sea palm fronds, cut into short pieces

Thoroughly mix 5 pounds of the kohlrabi with 3 tablespoons of the salt and half of the sea palm pieces, and pack the mixture into a crock or other suitable container with a volume of at least 1.5 gallons. Mix the remaining ingredients in the same way, and pack this batch on top of the first. Weight the mixture, cover the container, and let the kohlrabi ferment at room temperature for two weeks or longer, until the kraut is as sour as you like.

Have you tried seaweed in your sauerkraut? I’d love to know what kinds you have used and how you liked the results.


*This must have been OlyKraut’s Sea Vegetable Gourmet Sauerkraut, which has just been announced as a finalist for the Good Food Awards 2014.

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Vegetables, Wild foods | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Can Pickles Cure the Flu?

In an article in Letters of Applied Microbiology, Japanese scientists report that feeding a pickle microbe to mice infected with the flu alleviates the rodents’ symptoms. The scientists previously found that this same bacterium, already in commercial use as a probiotic, can ease acute gastroenteritis caused by Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which sometimes occurs in raw seafood, and irritable bowel syndrome. But the flu results have gotten by far the most attention from the media. UK’s Daily Express, for example, hailed the “New Wonder Cure for Killer Flu.” Picklers around the world may wonder, Is this miracle drug in my pickle crock? Can it cure me of the flu, too?

Actually, the microbe hasn’t cured anybody’s flu. But it did reduce weight loss in infected mice and reduce other symptoms of mouse malaise, such as ruffled fur and lethargy. In other words, the mice treated with the bacterial extract were a little less sick than the untreated ones (that is, until all the mice were forced to inhale enough carbon dioxide to kill them).

The bacterial extract hasn’t been tested in humans. We don’t yet know whether it would alleviate human flu symptoms, and we certainly can’t bet that it would prevent or cure influenza. And we should keep in mind that two of the scientists who wrote the article work for Kagome, the company that markets the microbe, although they declared no conflict of interest. Still, the results are promising.

The name of the miracle bacterium, Lactobacillus brevis, may ring a bell. If you make fermented pickles, you’ve surely cultivated the species. L. brevis predominates in the last stage of fermentation of sauerkraut and brined vegetables. This bacterium is also among the lactic-acid-producing species found in tibicos (water kefir) “grains”; it is, in fact, responsible for producing the polysaccharide gel of which tibicos grains are composed. Among brewers, unfortunately, mention of L. brevis provokes dread, because the species can spoil beer by souring it (although at the moment, oddly, soured beer is nearly as trendy as soured vegetables).

To understand how L. brevis may affect human health is to grapple with the theory of probiotics—that is, live microbes consumed to promote health through their effects in the intestines. L. brevis is one of the lactic-acid-producing bacteria found in healthy human intestines, vaginas, and feces. In recent years scientists have produced plenty of evidence that a healthy immune system depends on a healthy balance of intestinal microflora. When the balance gets out of whack—from the use of antibiotics, from improper diet, or even from emotional stress—we may be able to alleviate the problem by ingesting good bacteria.

Even assuming that the Japanese bacterial extract will prove effective in humans, whether eating pickles will vanquish your flu symptoms is hard to say. First, for L. brevis to be present at all, your pickles must be fully fermented and unpasteurized. Assuming L. brevis is present, it may be slightly different from the strain the Japanese scientists have studied, a strain known as L. brevis KB290. The scientists isolated KB290 strain from suguki pickles, that is, pickled suigukina, a kind of turnip grown near Kyoto. Suguki is one of many traditional Japanese pickles that are identified with a particular city, with particular varieties of produce grown in the region, and even with particular producers. But although the Japanese rightly view suguki as unique, it is made much like other fermented pickles: The turnips are peeled, cut, and briefly salted so that the slices become flexible. They are next packed firmly into buckets, layered with salt, and then weighted. Then they are drained, and they are weighted again until fermentation is complete. They are not enhanced with garlic, chile, or other seasonings. The only really remarkable thing about these pickles is the way they are weighted, using a big stick called a tenbin; have a look at the photo here. Even sans tenbin, fermenting turnips from your garden or local market would probably produce a pickle similar in taste and microbial content to Kyoto’s suguki.

L. brevis would be present in your own turnip pickles, but don’t count on breeding the strain KB290. A strain, to a microbiologist, is derived from a single colony and has been protected from contamination through carefully controlled procedures. These procedures make it possible to test the strain for efficacy and safety and, assuming the strain passes the tests, to market it as efficacious and safe. A strain is not, however, different enough from other strains of the same species to be called a subspecies. And no strain would last in nature. In nature, bacteria undergo continual mutations and lose and gain genetic material. Bacteria thrive in communities made up not only of multiple strains of the same species but of multiple species as well.

Japanese scientists no doubt isolated and tested multiple L. brevis strains before selecting KB290 for marketing as a commercial probiotic. KB290 must have performed better in meeting the requirements of any effective probiotic, for example, in adhering to intestinal cells, in persisting and multiplying, and in producing substances, such as acids, that curb the growth of pathogens. KB290 had to work reliably in all of these ways so it could be marketed on its own, as a drug.

Your pickle crock, in contrast, hosts various strains of L. brevis along with other species of Lactobacillus and fermentative bacteria in other genera, such as Leuconostoc and Pediococcus. Since bacteria are genetically fluid, their diversity is more important to your health than the identity of any particular strain in the crock. Lactic-acid-producing bacteria in naturally fermented foods increases the spectrum of genes available to your intestinal microflora regardless of whether specific strains are able to take up permanent residency in your gut.

So, go ahead and pickle some turnips. Make plain sauerruben, as instructed below, or try my recipe for spicy Korean pickled turnips, sunmukimchi (The Joy of Pickling, 2nd edition, page 67). If you get the flu this winter, eating some of your own pickled turnips just might help you get better faster. In any case, turnips may help keep you healthy generally, especially if you eat the vitamin- and calcium-rich green turnip tops.


5 pounds turnips, peeled and shredded (with a kraut board, food processor, or grater)
3 tablespoons pickling salt, plus more for the brine

In a large bowl, mix the turnips with 3 tablespoons pickling salt. Pack the mixture firmly into a 3-quart or gallon jar. Push a gallon-size freezer bag into the jar, and fill it with  brine made of 1 1/2 tablespoons pickling salt to each quart of water. Seal the bag. Set the jar in a place where the temperature remains between 60° and 75°F.

After 24 hours, check to make sure that the turnips are well submerged in their own brine. If they aren’t, add some fresh brine (1 1/2 tablespoons pickling salt per 1 quart water) to cover them well. If any scum forms within the jar, skim it off and rinse and replace the bag.

After two weeks, begin tasting the sauerruben. It will be fully fermented in two to four weeks at 70° to 75°F, or within four to six weeks at 60°F. When it’s ready, remove the bag, cap the jar, and store it in the refrigerator or another very cool place, tightly covered.

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Preserving science, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

La Cuisine Rose

I have a longstanding horror of the all-white meal—the epitome of domestic artistry in the late nineteenth century, when American housewives drowned meat and vegetables in white sauce and favored angel cake and whipped cream for dessert. When I find myself serving up white fish and new potatoes on the same plate, or bowls of parsnip soup with white bread on the side, I bolt, frantic, for the parsley patch. White sauce is so foreign to my food culture that I had to watch studiously as our French houseguest, Raphaël, whipped up some béchamel for mushroom crêpes the other day. I really should know how to do that, I thought. But I was relieved when all the sauce got rolled inside the crêpes, which on the outside remained brilliant yellow from the healthy yolks of homegrown chickens.

Pink lunch fixings: kohlrabi kraut, picnic ham, pink oyster mushrooms, and shallots

Pink lunch fixings: kohlrabi kraut, picnic ham, pink oyster mushrooms, and shallots

Victorian cooks played with other monotone color schemes, including pink—from strawberries, lobster, and tomatoes, for example. The idea of an all-pink meal struck me as more amusing than scary as I tossed kraut made from grated kohlrabi, pinkened with red shiso, to even out the color. For lunch, I could heat up some of the kraut with sautéed pink shallots and pieces of home-brined, home-smoked picnic ham (grass fed, from Heritage Farms. And we could somehow incorporate the heap of pink oyster mushrooms that Raphaël had brought home from the Mushroomery.

Pink lunch

Pink lunch

As the Mushroomery’s apprentice, Alex, had warned us, pink oysters are more a delight to the eye than to the palate. With heating, we found out, they turn out salmon orange and rather tough, so I’m glad we cooked them separately from the kohlrabi and ham. But the gently heated kraut kept its lovely pink color, which contrasted prettily with the intense pink of the smoked meat. I only regretted that we had no red-fleshed apples this year; I could only imagine the sweet, tender pink slices of fruit nestled in the tart kraut.

My kohlrabi kraut, by the way, turned out exceptionally moist and tender. And topping the fermentation jar with wilted shiso apparently worked not only to provide a comely color but to prevent the growth of yeast or mold. Next time I’ll use more shiso; I’ll put some at the bottom of the jar and more in the middle, for a stronger pink that’s even throughout. Actually, I still have plenty of shiso and kohlrabi to harvest from the bed where I need to plant garlic soon, so I think I’ll start a big pot of pink kohlrabi kraut today.

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Vegetables, Wild foods | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

A Handmade Pickle Weight, Pickle Seasoning, and a Cookbook Giveaway

kohlrabi kraut with pickle weight 2I want to share these photos of an excellent stoneware pickling weight for one- and two-quart mason jars. Note the cute little knob handle and the holes to let the brine through. The weight was designed and created by Ken Albala, a prolific author of culinary history books and a professor at the University of the Pacific who somehow finds time to putter in his pottery. Do you suppose we could convince Ken to quit his other gigs and devote himself to supplying the world with pickle weights?

kohlrabi kraut with pickle weightThe dark stuff on top of the kohlrabi, by the way, is red shiso, wilted with a little salt. I’m hoping that the shiso will prevent any yeast growth while also turning the kohlrabi pink. If the kraut turns out well, I’ll post another photo later.

When you visit Ken Albala’s blog, be sure to see the post on Funky Dust Pickle Powder. Ken simply shaved some brined cucumbers thin, dried them in a dehydrator, and ground them to a powder to use as a sour and spicy seasoning. I may have to try this myself.

Another of my favorite bloggers, Nadia Hassani of Spoonfuls of Germany, is giving away a copy of The Bengali Five Spice Chronicles. If you’d like a chance to win this cookbook, let her know before Friday, September 27.

Posted in Books and blogs, Fermented foods, Pickles, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Tasting Pickles for the Good Food Awards

I made a day trip to San Francisco on Sunday for the Good Food Awards, a project I knew little about beyond what the website told me: The contest celebrates American-made commercial foods that are tasty, free of artificial ingredients, and crafted from produce that’s grown locally with a commitment to environmental and social responsibility. I was to be a judge in the Good Food Awards Blind Tastings.

pickles for tastingThe project is now in its fourth year, I learned. This year it attracted a total of 1,450 entries, from all fifty states. There must have been hundreds of us judges, divided among sections for beer, spirits, cheese, chocolate, confections, charcuterie, pickles, sweet preserves, and oils. I was a pickle judge. Pictured here are the pickles we tasted, coded for identification and divided into groups by region.

Some of my fellow pickle judges. At right is Brenda Crowe, of Olympic Provisions, Portland.

Some of my fellow pickle judges. At right is Brenda Crow, of Olympic Provisions, Portland.

Although we spent about six hours tasting pickles, none of us got to taste them all. In the morning groups of judged selected finalists for each region, and in the afternoon everyone rated all the finalists for all the regions.

I don’t know which pickles were the top scorers, but for me there were some clear standouts. They included a fermented bean relish; a smoky onion relish; kraut with a bit of seaweed added; cabbage kimchi made of leaf stems only, in a thick pepper paste rather than a brine; paper-thin bread-and-butters that were neither too sweet nor spicy and that curled beautifully on the plate; and a cumin-flavored mixed pickle in which the colorful vegetables were perfectly cut into little cubes. I look forward to learning which pickles win awards and, especially, who made them.

Chris Forbes and Todd Champagne, who organized and led the pickle section.

Chris Forbes and Todd Champagne, who organized and led the pickle section.

Most gratifying for me was meeting among the judges professional picklers who got their start with help from The Joy of Pickling. For example, Dan Rosenberg and Addie Rose Holland have a company called Real Pickles, which now employs fourteen people and sells fermented pickles through 350 stores in the Northeast. Todd and Jordan Champagne run Happy Girl Kitchen, a business in Pacific Grove, California, that manufactures pickles and sweet preserves, offers preserving workshops, and operates a café. I loved hearing the stories of pickling and preserving entrepreneurs whom I’ve unwittingly advised over the years.

Are you a pro pickler who doesn’t yet know about the Good Food Awards? If so, I encourage you to enter the competition next year. I saw room for improvement in various areas: There was a general overuse of hot pepper, in the form of dry powder or flakes. I tasted no pickled whole peppers and no fully cured sauerkraut. A few brined pickles were at the height of fermentation; they bubbled out of their jars. The fermented cucumbers were almost all oversized, and I tasted nothing you could call a gherkin or cornichon. There were no fermented cucumbers from the Northeast, whence fermented cukes entered American culinary tradition. Yet Northeasterners entered the only pickled okra I tasted. Where were the Southern okra pickles?

I have no doubt that the Good Food Awards will attract many more outstanding entries next year. I hope that some of my blog readers will be among the contestants.

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Vegetables | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments