How to Pickle Cabbages Whole

fermented cabbagesWhen years ago my young Moldovan friend Cristina asked me if I’d ever fermented whole cabbages, I just looked at her dubiously. I’d never even heard of fermented whole cabbages. Could salt really penetrate through an intact cabbage before rot set in? I wondered if Moldovans simply tucked little second-crop cabbages into crocks of shredded cabbage while making sauerkraut. But I’d never heard of that practice, either.

So when my daughter sent me pictures of big fermented whole cabbages in a Moldovan market, I had to figure out how to make such things. I found an article that two Cornell researchers had published in 1961 with the help of their Yugoslav exchange student, Gordana Niketic. As Gordana had apparently explained to her mentors, “In Yugoslavia, particularly in the republic of Serbia, whole heads of white or red cabbage are packed in salt brine. Although sometimes the cabbage cores are scored crosswise before packing the heads in brine, more often the heads are packed with no alteration of the cores.” Just as in Moldovan, the fermented cabbage leaves were used to make meat-and-rice filled rolls, or sarma, an originally Turkish word for food wrapped in leaves; the Moldovan term is sarmale or galush. Yugoslavs also baked slices or chunks of the cabbage with turkey, goose, or pork and served the cabbage cold as a salad. After fermenting whole red cabbages, they would drink the pretty pink brine as an appetizer.

Since methods of fermenting whole cabbages varied from one Yugoslav household to another, Gordana and the Cornell researchers decided to experiment. The first year they packed whole cored cabbages tightly into barrels and added brine at three different strengths. The second year, they packed a barrel the same way, at the highest brine strength from the year before, but with uncored cabbages. The third year they packed a barrel as I’d imagined, by mixing dry-salted shredded cabbage with whole small cabbages placed among the shreds.

The best whole-cabbage kraut from the first year, the three concluded, was made with the strongest brine, 3.5 percent, “calculated from the combined weight of brine and cabbage.”* Whereas the least salty cabbages were soft throughout, and the medium-salty cabbages were soft at the core, the saltiest cabbages “showed only slightly soft cores and their leaves were firm and flavorful,” with “an enjoyable blend of taste and mellowness.” When the leaves were used for sarma, their taste perfectly complemented the meat filling.           

Far superior than even the saltiest version from the first year, at least in the judgment of “a former native of Yugoslavia” (Gordana? Someone else?), was the whole-cabbage kraut made in the second year, from uncored cabbage. So, coring turned out to be unnecessary and possibly also detrimental to flavor. The researchers concluded that the best whole-cabbage kraut was made from uncored cabbages pickled at a brine strength of 3.0 to 3.5 percent—calculated, again, as the weight of the salt to the weight of cabbage and brine.

The third-year kraut, made from small whole cabbages packed with shredded cabbage and dry salt, proved a disappointment. The quicker fermentation that resulted made this kraut more pungent and sour—like ordinary dry-salted, shredded sauerkraut, I suppose.

I began my own whole-cabbage pickling experiment late last fall. Because most of my fall cabbages had been damaged by freezing weather, I used the second growth from spring cabbage plants, seven very small heads harvested before the weather turned very cold. I sliced each stem at the base of the head, leaving the core intact, and half-filled a 10-liter crock with the cabbages. I added 10 tablespoons pickling salt dissolved in 5 quarts water, to make an approximately 3.5-percent brine, calculated—because I’d read the Cornell study too carelessly—in the way that’s familiar to me, as the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine. In other words, my brine was weak, perhaps half the strength recommended by the Cornell team. I weighted the cabbages, and, a week or so later, I skimmed the brine once. The small amount of yeast growth didn’t continue.

A little more than two months after immersing the cabbages in their brine, I took them all out and examined them. Some of them showed a little softening around the edge of the core, and the largest one, 4½ inches across, had softened at the center of the leaves as well. If I’d used bigger cabbages, they might have rotted. Perhaps I could have prevented the softening by ending the fermentation sooner. But I simply cut away the soft parts, and all that remained tasted sweet, mellow, and very mildly tart and salty—really much nicer than typical shredded sauerkraut.

Last night one of the fermented cabbages made an excellent dinner salad, sliced and mixed with toasted walnuts, black pepper, and unrefined sunflower oil. No vinegar was called for; the cabbage was already tart. Walnut oil or roasted hazelnut oil might be nice in place of sunflower oil, Robert suggest, and maybe next time we’ll add some smoked meat.

The rest of the cabbages are resting in their brine in a gallon jar in the refrigerator. My next challenge will be to make some of them into sarma, or sarmale. Or maybe I should say golabki (in Polish), golubtsy (in Russian), malfoof (in Arabic), kohlrouladen or krautwickel (in German), or töltött káposzta (in Hungarian). There are a lot of other names, too, because cabbage rolls—made from fermented, briefly brined, or simply blanched cabbage—are eaten throughout much of the world. Every region has favorite ingredients, and every cook seems to have a unique recipe. I guess it’s time for me to develop my own.


*In other words, 3.5 percent was the strength not of the initial brine but of the finished pickle. Because the amount of brine needed to cover whole cabbages can vary greatly, depending on the relation between the size of the cabbages and the breadth of the barrel, the researchers controlled the salt content with a much more accurate measurement than that of initial brine strength (the weight of salt as a percentage of the weight of brine). To do as they did, put the cabbages into the container, weighing each and noting the weight, in metric if you have a digital scale. Cover the cabbages with water, measuring the water in liters as you add it and noting the volume. Then calculate how much the water weighs: Every liter weighs a kilogram. Add the weight of the water and cabbage, in kilograms. To determine how much salt to use, use the following formula:

Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x  x/100-x, where x is the desired brine strength. So, for a brine strength of 3.5 percent, your formula becomes

Weight of salt = Weight of cabbage and water x 3.5/96.5

Remove enough of the water from your container to dissolve the salt in, and pour this brine back over the cabbages.

If this calculation seems too much bother, I suggest simply fermenting your cabbages in a strong brine—say, about 1 cup fine salt per 1 gallon water. You’ll need at least half as much brine, by volume, as the volume of the cabbages. For example, if your cabbages rise three-quarters of the way up a 4-gallon crock—to the 3-gallon level—you’ll need at least 1½ gallons brine. Mix up more brine as needed so that the cabbages are well immersed.

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.

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.

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.

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. 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.

Another Cause of Soft Pickles

cuke beetle scars on Agnes
Cucumber beetle scars on Agnes cucumbers

I threw out half of my first crock of brined cucumbers this year, because the cucumbers were strangely soft. Much more upsetting than the loss was the fact that I couldn’t explain it. I am supposed to understand such things!

Now I’ve figured it out. The spotted cucumber beetles have been more numerous than ever this summer. For a week or two, stepping into the vegetable garden was like entering a bee swarm, except that I could swat the yellow devils with impunity. Early in the season, many cucumbers were scarred from the beetles’ bites. These scars looked like scars, not open wounds, not rotten spots. I’d seen them many times before, though never in such quantity. As usual, I ignored the scars as I filled the first crock.

A cucumber beetle scar on another variety
A cucumber beetle scar on another variety

The most scarred cucumbers, it turned out, were of the Agnes variety. In fact, few other cucumbers had any scarring at all. Nearly all the cucumbers I ended up throwing out were Agnes. Their skins rubbed off at the scar sites. When I’d press on a scar, the soft flesh below would spurt out. Where a scar had touched the smooth skin of a neighboring cucumber in the crock, the second cucumber sometimes suffered a bit of softening, too.

Agnes, developed in Holland, is always bitter-free, so I doubt that the bitter-loving beetles are especially attracted by its flavor. I suspect that they like this variety, or at least can most easily injure it, because its skin is especially thin.

I’m still pickling Agnes cucumbers, but I’m taking care to cut away every bit of scarring. And I’ll do that in the future no matter what cucumber variety I’m pickling.

Is There Mold in That Paste Tomato?

This picture, from Sherri Venditti, shows black mold in a nameless, open-pollinated paste-tomato variety.
This picture, from Sherri Venditti, shows black mold in the fruit of a nameless, open-pollinated paste-tomato variety.

I stopped growing modern paste tomatoes such as San Marzano a few years ago, when I began finding furry mold growing in fruits that appeared perfect on the exterior. So, while talking about preserving tomatoes to the Multnomah County Master Gardeners the other night, I asked if others had had the same experience. Indeed they had: At least three people in the audience had found mold inside their paste tomatoes.

I would guess that extended heating in a boiling-water bath would kill the mold, but I’m not sure. What I’m sure about is this: I would never recommend preserving tomatoes of this type without cutting them open first.

This year, for the first time, Sherri also found fuzzy white mold growing in one of the tomatoes.
This year, for the first time, Sherri also found fuzzy white mold growing in one of the tomatoes.


Experiment with Specialty Pectins

As many readers of this blog already know, I almost never use packaged pectin. After writing a whole book about old-fashioned fruit preserves, made as they were before packaged pectin was invented, I’ve felt no need for Sure-Jell or MCP or any such stuff. But recently Nadia Hassani, who wrote about her own experiment with pectins in her blog “Spoonfuls of Germany,” told me how much she liked Dr. Oetker’s Gelfix, a pectin mix from her native Germany, and offered to send me some. Gelfix seems to be sold all over Europe, but in the United States it can only be ordered through the Internet. I said I’d try it.

I decided to compare the Gelfix with a new product from Ball, a pectin mix that comes in a small plastic jar instead of a box, with flexible instructions that allow you to vary both the batch size and the sugar content. And then I saw a box of Pomona pectin at Nichols Garden Nursery and decided to include it in the test, too. Available mainly from special sources like Nichols and food co-ops (though some supermarkets are beginning to carry it), Pomona also offers flexible recipes, which allow the use of little sugar or even none at all.

I pulled bags and bags of frozen raspberries out of the freezer. I was accustomed to making raspberry jam with nothing but sugar and a little lemon juice added. My raspberry jam took a few minutes of boiling to set, but it always set to a pleasant, soft gel, and never turned out stiff or sticky or syrupy. How would I like raspberry jam made with these specialty pectins?

I started by examining the packages.

GelfixGelfix. Nadia had sent me Gelfix Extra, which requires only one part sugar for two parts fruit, by weight. Dr. Oetker also makes Gelfix Classic, which requires one part sugar for one part fruit, and Gelfix Super, which call for only one part sugar for three parts fruit. Nadia finds jam made with Gelfix Classic too sweet. Gelfix Super contains fructose—to boost the sweetness of the jam, apparently, while keeping the calories low. (In case your jam doesn’t set, Dr. Oetker sells packets of citric acid, too. Lemon juice works as well.)

Gelfix pectins are made from both apple pomace and citrus peels. The Classic and Extra versions contain dextrose, a form of sugar that’s included in Sure-Jell and Ball pectins as well and that’s replaced by the fructose in Gelfix Super. Gelfix Extra and Gelfix Super contain sorbic acid, a preservative, apparently to retard the fermentation and mold growth to which low-sugar jams are prone. All three Gelfix versions contain citric acid, which takes the place of the lemon juice traditionally added to jam to aid in gelling. All three also contain hydrogenated vegetable oil, which I imagine is meant to replace the traditional pat of butter that helps keep the jam pot from boiling over. The fat must be in a very small amount and somehow granulated, because the Gelfix pectin mixture is a powder, not a paste.

The Gelfix box contains two packets, each of which makes at least two and a half pints of jam. On the Internet I found prices for Gelfix ranging from $4.65 to $5.95 per box. At $5.00 per box, probably about the best you could do with shipping included, Gelfix would add about a dollar per pint to the cost of your jam.

Keep in mind that the Gelfix instructions are in German. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Ball pectinBall. I turned to the Ball product, called RealFruit [sic] Classic Pectin. Again that word classic. I began to understand that this is a code word for old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires a high sugar content for good gelling.1 Only two other ingredients are listed on the label, pectin (from citrus, apple, or both, the label doesn’t say) and citric acid. Ball’s Classic Pectin, in other words, has the same ingredients as Gelfix Classic except for the vegetable fat.

Had I chosen the wrong product for a fair comparison? I’d found a Ball pectin for low-sugar jams on the shelf at Bi-Mart, but on peeling back the label I’d learned that this Instant Pectin was intended only for freezer jam. Now I wondered if Ball made a pectin mix more like Gelfix Extra–a product Bi-Mart hadn’t stocked. A quick Internet search told me this was so. I should have bought Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin instead of the Classic Pectin.2

I couldn’t have known this without checking the Web. Here in Oregon, Ball’s new products, unlike the company’s mason jars and lids, are only slowly gaining acceptance in supermarkets and other stores. Ball’s Pickle Crisp is another product that none of the stores in my area have stocked. I’d never seen Ball pectin of any kind until I found it at Bi-Mart, a low-cost dry-goods store that caters to rural folk here in the Pacific Northwest. Now my raspberries were thawed and waiting. I decided to carry on my experiment with Ball’s Classic Pectin.

Ball inner label
Ball’s sturdy peel-back label reseals against the jar time after time.

The instructions inside the Ball pectin label surprised me. There were two recipes, one for “Traditional Jam” and one for “Reduced Sugar Jam,” identical except for the amounts of sugar called for. Packages of old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin are full of warnings: You must never alter the quantity of sugar, or your jam will fail! The Ball pectin, I figured, must be all or partially amidated, or subjected to a treatment with ammonia that makes high-methoxyl pectin behave more like low-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires little or no sugar but gels in reaction with calcium. Normally, low-methoxyl pectins require added calcium for making jam. Amidated pectins do not; they are much less fussy about calcium levels. Jams and jellies made with amidated pectins are unusual, too, in that they will regel after you melt them. The Ball pectin isn’t so old-fashioned after all.

Ball’s “Traditional” recipe calls for 1 2/3 cups sugar to 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. A weight measurement would be more precise, and also more useful for comparison with the Gelfix proportions. But the old saw “A pint is a pound the whole world round” proves more or less accurate for both mashed raspberries and granulated sugar. So the recipe calls for at least as much sugar as fruit, by weight. Truly traditional jam making, without packaged pectin, typically calls for three parts sugar to every four parts fruit, by weight, though you’d use less sugar with low-pectin fruits and more with high-pectin, high-acid fruits. Ball’s recipe is typical not for no-pectin-added jams but for jams made from high-methoxyl pectins, the only kind sold before the 1980s.

Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe calls for much less sugar, only 1 cup for 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. This is more in line with traditional jams. Still, I balked at the either-or choice. The label seemed to be telling me that the pectin could make good jam with a standard amount of sugar or a very high amount of sugar, but not with some amount in between. Why couldn’t there be a single recipe with the sugar amount specified as a range? Most likely, I figured, the marketing people at Ball think consumers can’t handle choices that aren’t black and white.

But the Ball instructions offer cooks another, more flexible choice: that of batch size. Here’s another command you may remember from boxes of high-methoxyl pectin: Never alter the batch size! If you don’t have quite enough berries, go pick some more! If you have too many, leave them out!

Actually, traditional jam makers have to be careful about batch size, too. If your batch is too big for your pot, for one thing, your jam will boil over. For another thing, evaporation is part of the process of reaching the gel point. A bigger batch has proportionately less surface area and so will gel more slowly. Also, natural pectin reacts best when both heating and cooling are rapid.

The Ball label invites multiplying the recipes but warns against exceeding ten jars per batch. You have to do a little figuring to understand out what this means: If the basic recipe makes two half-pints, the ten jars referred to must be half-pint jars. So you can multiply the recipe by five, but no more.

The Ball jar contains enough pectin, according to the label, to make up to 22 half-pints. You’d fill fewer jars with less added sugar, but even with the reduced-sugar recipe you should be able to fill 18 half-pint jars. The 4.7-ounce pectin container costs about five dollars, so using the low-sugar recipe with Ball Classic Pectin would add about 27 cents per pint to the cost of your jam making. At least in the United States, the Ball product is considerably cheaper than the Gelfix product.

Pomona package & instruxPomona. The last brand in my study contains no added sugar at all.3 The list of ingredients on a box of Pomona’s Universal Pectin is brief and precise: “1 packet low methoxyl citrus pectin and 1 packet monocalcium phosphate.” Low-methoxyl pectins need calcium to form a gel, but they can gel with less sugar and less acid than can high-methoxyl pectins. So no citric acid is included in the Pomona package, and with higher-acid fruits adding lemon juice is optional.

The monocalcium phosphate, the Pomona instructions say, is to be combined with water. You mix ½ teaspoon of the powder with ½ cup water, and you store this “calcium water” in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months. Although the Pomona instructions call for adding calcium water to every kind of fruit, too much calcium can interfere with gelling. So the amount of calcium water called for varies from 2 to 4 teaspoons per four cups fruit or juice. You shake the jar just before you measure some out.

Inside the Pomona package are recipes for low-sugar jams and jellies, no-sugar-added jams, and uncooked freezer jams. My favorites are the all-purpose recipes for cooked jam and jelly sweetened with a little sugar (1/4 to ½ cup per 1 cup fruit) or honey (1/8 to 1/3 cup per 1 cup fruit). For jam, you use ½ to ¾ teaspoons pectin for 1 cup fruit; for jelly, you use a little more pectin, ¾ to 1 teaspoon per 1 cup fruit. Otherwise the two recipes are the same. You refine these basic recipes according to the amount of fruit you want to use and how sweet your jam or jelly to be. These recipes are much more flexible than Ball’s.

The price of a box of Pomona pectin varies from about four to six dollars per box. A box contains 8 to 9 teaspoons pectin. This makes four batches of berry jam, if you use 4 cups of prepared berries per batch. Depending on how much sugar you add, your output will be 18 to 20 half-pint jars of jam. At $5.00 per box, the pectin would add 25 to 28 cents to your costs per jar, about the same as for the Ball pectin.

Making the Jam

I had thawed enough berries to make four batches of jam with about 2 pounds of fruit per batch. I used Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe (1 cup sugar per 1 1/3 cups prepared fruit) for the best comparison with the Gelfix recipe (1 pound sugar per 2 pounds fruit). With the Pomona pectin, I made two batches of jam, one with 1 cup sugar per 2 cups fruit, and another with ½ cup sugar per 2 cups fruit.

The process differed slightly among the brands. With Gelfix, you boil the fruit, sugar, and pectin together for 3 minutes before testing a drop of jam on a chilled dish. With Ball, you bring the fruit and pectin to a full boil, stir in the sugar, and boil hard for 1 minute. With Pomona, you stir the pectin into the sugar, bring the fruit and calcium water to a boil, add the pectin-sugar mix, and boil hard for 1 to 2 minutes. Since I like a softer set, I chose a 1-minute boiling time with the Pomona pectin.

In all cases, the boiling was brief enough to produce a pinkish rather than dark red jam. In all cases, too, the jam set up quickly. As soon as I would take the pot off the heat, the surface of the jam would wrinkle with any disturbance; this is a sure sign of gelling. With the Ball pectin, the jam was clumping as I filled the last jar.

Although the Gelfix instructions say nothing about boiling-water processing, which isn’t normally done in Europe, I processed all the jars the same way. I sterilized them first in the canner, and after filling and closing them I gave them a 5-minute boiling-water bath.

The Taste Test

While my son Ben and his wife were visiting, we held a blind jam tasting with warm biscuits. We had to work at identifying differences among the jams—except in the case of the very-low-sugar Pomona, which lacked the sheen of the others and tasted more tart. To me, this stuff looked and tasted like cooked puréed fruit, not jam, but my husband, Robert, actually preferred its fruitier, less sugary flavor. The other, sweeter Pomona jam was a bit softer than the rest, probably because I’d given it the minimal boiling time. The Gelfix jam, which turned out slightly softer than the Ball, was Robert’s favorite. Deanna preferred the Ball, and Ben was torn between the not-so-low-sugar Pomona and the Ball jam. Most interesting to me was this: No one could tell that the Ball jam had more sugar.


Gelfix works well if you can get it, if you can read or translate the German instructions, and if the price and the addition of vegetable fat don’t put you off.

Ball’s RealFruit Classic Pectin is cheaper than Gelfix but requires more sugar. If you want to make your jam with less sugar, look for Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin. Be sure you don’t buy Ball’s Instant Pectin by mistake; it’s intended only for freezer jam.

Pomona pectin costs no more than the Ball mix and is the clear choice among the three if you want to add pectin but not dextrose to your jam. Pomona also allows more flexibility in the amount of sugar you add to your jam than does either of the other products I tested. The necessity of adding calcium water is little bother. The only problem I see with Pomona is its limited availability. To encourage your local store to carry it, send your name and your store’s name and address to

One final suggestion: For truly traditional jam, try making it without added pectin. Use three parts sugar to four parts mashed raspberries, and add a squirt of juice from a fresh lemon. The process is simple and quick, and the result is delicious. For more information, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.



1. The main component of pectin is something called galacturonic acid. Molecules of this acid have groups of atoms called carboxyl groups. In nature, about 80 percent of these carboxyl groups are esterified with methane—in other words, turned to esters, groups of atoms that give fruits their fruity aromas. Methoxyl refers to a methane group, CH3, that is attached to a larger organic molecule through an oxygen atom. This arrangement is commonly described as R-O-CH3, with R representing the larger molecule. The linkage by way of an oxygen atom is also called an ester linkage.

When pectin is extracted, the proportion of esters decreases, to a varying degree. The ratio of esterified to non-esterified galacturonic acid determines the behavior of pectin in making jam and jelly. So pectins are classified as high-methoxyl (or HM, or high-ester) or low-methoxyl (or LM, or low-ester), depending on whether more or less than half of the galacturonic acid is esterified. As far as I know, Pomona is the only pectin packaged for home preservers that is identified on the package as low- or high-methoxyl.

2. Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin contains dextrose, pectin, citric acid, and calcium ascorbate. The last ingredient helps preserve color while presumably providing the calcium needed for low-methoxyl jams to gel.

3. When figuring how much sugar you’re adding to your jam, you must account for how much sugar is in your pectin package. Nadia had informed me that, for a given weight of fruit to be prepared, Sure-Jell is heavier than Gelfix. The weight is mainly in sugar, in the form of dextrose. I compared the Ball mix with the other two in this way: If 1 kilo fruit makes 6 cups “Reduced Sugar” jam with the Ball pectin, and the 133-gram jar contains enough pectin to make 18 cups of this jam, then we can figure that the Ball mix would add 44 grams per kilo of fruit, compared with 32 grams per kilo for Sure-Jell and 25 grams per kilo for Gelfix. These differences, to me, are minor. But I appreciate that Pomona leaves the addition of sugar entirely up to the jam maker.

Summer Kraut in a Quart Mason Jar

Sauerkraut is traditionally made in autumn, when cabbages grow big, white, and sweet in the chilly air. The cold weather helps them develop a high water and sugar content, which in turn helps the cabbages to ferment well. But you can make kraut from early cabbage—that is, cabbage you’ve harvested in mid-summer. I did so recently, when I found my refrigerator drawers overstuffed with the little red and green cabbages I’d brought in from the garden. This was the perfect opportunity, I figured, to try out the airlock mason-jar cap that Richard Washburn of New Eden Farm had kindly sent me.

airlock capDevices like Richard’s have become popular among fermentation faddists, folks who will try fermenting just about anything, in small amounts. Many of these new breed of picklers are using little salt—so little that their pickles are prone to spoilage. Some people compensate for this by adding whey to boost the acidity of the brine or by using an airlock to keep out yeast and mold.

Richard makes his device with a standard little plastic airlock, available from home winemaking suppliers for a dollar or two. When the airlock is partially filled with water and inserted in an opening of a sealed container full of fermenting liquid or vegetables, the carbon dioxide produced by the fermentative microbes is released through the water, thus preventing the container from building up so much pressure that it explodes. By keeping air from entering the container, the airlock also serves as a barrier to airborne yeasts and molds that might otherwise contaminate the ferment. This is the same way that a crock with a water trough works.

Richard attaches the airlock to a plastic wide-mouth Ball storage cap with a silicone grommet. The cap fits both a wide-mouth quart jar and a wide-mouth two-quart jar.

One of my 1¼-pound cabbages, grated, would easily fit in a quart jar. I could even add some carrot or apple or both, as Russians often do to boost the sugar content of early cabbage. Since none of my apples were ripe yet, I chose carrots. I cut the cabbage quickly on my inexpensive little Kyocera mandoline, whose secret is its ever-sharp ceramic blade. I grated the carrots on an ordinary box grater.

Because the word sauerkraut usually applies to long-fermented cabbage, and because I intended to ferment my cabbage for only a few days, I will call it—

Russian krautRussian Pickled Cabbage, by the Quart

1¼ pounds grated cabbage (about 1 small) and grated carrot (about 2)
2 teaspoons pickling salt
1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds

Mix the cabbage, salt, and caraway. Pack the mixture firmly into a quart jar, and weight the mixture. If it isn’t covered well by brine within a day, stir ½ teaspoon salt into ½ cup water, and add enough of this brine to cover the cabbage well. Let the cabbage ferment at room temperature for 3 to 5 days, and then serve it immediately or store it in the refrigerator.

Using an airlock doesn’t erase the need to weight the vegetables; they must stay under the surface of their brine. So I added a glass candle holder, and then a second, and a third. The third ended up pressing against the airlock cap. A freezer-weight plastic bag filled with brine would have worked as well.

By the third day the sauerkraut was bubbly, and after four days it was lightly sour. There was no sign of yeast or mold in the jar, so I can attest that Richard’s airlock cap did not fail me. I replaced it with an unaltered plastic cap and stored the jar in the refrigerator.

Russians often serve pickled cabbage as a salad, dressed with a little sugar and unrefined sunflower oil. Adding sugar may sound strange, but the sweetness balances the sourness of the vegetables and the bitterness of the caraway (which you can of course leave out, if you prefer). Sunflower oil has a strong taste that takes getting used to, but it’s worth trying if you have a Russian market in your area. Otherwise, you can dress your salad with olive, walnut, or hazelnut oil. Or use your pickled cabbage in any way you might use long-fermented sauerkraut.

New BPA-Free Mason Jar Lids: Are They Really Safer?

I can see from the WordPress statistics on this blog that a lot of people are searching for information about bisphenol-A (BPA) in mason jar lids. Apparently word is getting around that Ball and Kerr lids are now BPA-free. The rumor is true: According to Jarden Home Brands, the manufacturer of both Ball and Kerr products, lids produced since last fall have no BPA. Starting this summer, boxes of the lids will be labeled “BPA-free.”

As you might expect, Jarden isn’t saying what chemical or chemicals have taken the place of BPA in the new lids. There are some fifteen other bisphenols, each of them labeled with a different letter or two. At least one, bisphenol-S (BPS), has been thought a safe substitute for BPA. A report published in Environmental Health Perspectives in March of this year found otherwise. BPS, the authors concluded, “disrupts membrane-initiated E2-induced cell signaling, leading to altered cell proliferation, cell death, and PRL release.” E2 is the estrogen estradiol. PRL is prolactin. In other words, BPS messes with your hormones.

Other bisphenols may be at least as dangerous. A report published in the same journal in 2011 concluded, “Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled—independent of the type of resin, product, or retail source—leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA [estrogenic activity], including those advertised as BPA free. In some cases, BPA-free products released chemicals having more EA than did BPA-containing products.”

Until we have further evidence to the contrary, we can assume that plastic-coated jar lids contain dangerous chemicals, and we should limit contact between the lids and the food we put in jars. Though we can’t keep delivery people from turning packages of gift jars upside down, at home we can take care to keep our jars upright, in the pantry and in the refrigerator.

For more information about BPA and ways to avoid it in home canning, see my article “Home Canning, BPA-Free.”