Fun to Watch, Fun to Eat: Mixed Vegetables Brined in Glass

mixed-pickle-4I love to ferment vegetables in gallon glass jars, which I leave on the kitchen counter so I can watch the colors mellow. I especially like to do this with mixed vegetables. A mixed vegetable pickle is not only a thing of beauty and an adventure to eat; it’s also a practical use for homegrown produce–in spring or fall, when your garden may provide you only a handful of this and a handful of that, or at any time of the year if your garden is small. What could be easier than combining these handfuls in a jar, adding some herbs and garlic, and pouring over some brine?

You can put what you like in your mixed pickle. In spring, replace the beans in my recipe with asparagus tips. In summer you might use whole tiny cucumbers or larger cucumbers, cut into chunks. Turnips, kohlrabi, cabbage, and radish are all good additions in the cooler months. If you want your pickles to stand out at a party, add a piece of raw beet to color them a shocking pink.

You don’t really need to weigh your vegetables. Just gather enough to fill your jar about three-quarters of the way to the top. This allows room for the brine to bubble and for a brine bag or other weight on top of the vegetables. For a gallon jar, you need about three quarts of prepared vegetables.

You can be creative with the aromatic ingredients as well with the main ones. I usually use licorice-like tarragon—except in the depths of winter, when my tarragon plant has died to the ground. Thyme and winter savory are always available in the pot on my deck, and they always go well in a mixed pickle. Sweet bay is a good addition, too. When I made a mixed fermented pickle last week, however, I passed over all of these for young dill that had grown from seeds I’d scattered in late summer, intending for them to sprout in spring. Dillweed has a fresher, less bitter flavor than fully or partially dried dill seed, so I was happy to find a use for the little plants before they froze.

Once fermentation gets under way, expect your brine to get cloudy. The cloudiness doesn’t mean your pickles are spoiling. Even the appearance of yeast or mold on top of the brine is little cause for concern, provided you keep the vegetables well immersed and skim off any scum promptly. If you use a brine bag as described in the recipe, no yeast or mold will be able to grow. (An airlock provides similar protection; it allows the bacteria in the pickle to release carbon dioxide while preventing airborne microbes from contaminating the brine. In the third edition of The Joy of Pickling you’ll find a list of companies that sell lids and jars with airlocks of various kinds.)

Mixed Fermented Pickle

What I call pickling salt (it’s usually labeled “canning and pickling salt”) is fine, pure sodium chloride. If you would prefer to substitute a coarser kind of salt, such as kosher, measure it by weight instead of by volume. But don’t substitute table salt, which has additives that could discolor your pickles.

1 pound cauliflower or broccoli florets
2 sweet green or red peppers, cut into squares or strips
1/2 pound whole young snap beans
1/2 pound shallots or pickling onions, peeled, or larger onions, cut into chunks or rings
1/4 pound tiny carrots, or larger carrots cut into rounds or thin sticks
3 garlic cloves, slivered
2 to 3 tarragon sprigs
2 to 3 thyme sprigs
1⁄2 cup (4.7 ounces) pickling salt
3 quarts water
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

Toss all the vegetables together, and pack them into a gallon jar, distributing the garlic and herbs among them. Dissolve the salt in the water, and pour enough brine over the vegetables to cover them. Add the vinegar. Push a gallon-size freezer bag into the top of the jar, pour the remaining brine into the bag, and seal the bag. Make sure the bag presses against the glass all the way around. Set the jar in a bowl, to protect your counter and cabinets in case of a spillover. Store the jar at room temperature.

Within three days, if you look close, you should see tiny bubbles in the brine. After a week you might start tasting the vegetables. They should be fully fermented in two to three weeks, when the bubbling has stopped and they taste quite sour. At this point you should remove the brine bag, cap the jar, and store it in the refrigerator. The pickled vegetables should keep in the refrigerator for several months.

Makes about 3 quarts

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.

Other airlock devices for small-batch pickling include the Fermenta Lock Airlock , the Pickl-It system, and the ReCAP Fermenting Set. Have you tried any of these? Do you know of others? I would be grateful if you’d share your experiences.

Brined Turnips, Korean Style

 

A reader’s query reminded me that I hadn’t made turnip kimchi in a long, long time. I don’t know why not; it’s easy and quick to make, and everybody seems to like this pungent, garlicky pickle. So I made a batch, and it disappeared almost as soon as it was ready.

Here’s the recipe:

Sunmukimchi (Turnip Kimchi)

1 pound small turnips, peeled
1½ tablespoons pickling salt
1 to 2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
3 scallions, minced
8 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
1¼ cups water

 If the turnips are bigger than about 2 inches across, halve them lengthwise. Then slice them very thin crosswise. Put the slices into a bowl, and rub them with 1 tablespoon of the salt. Let them stand at room temperature for about 3 hours, occasionally turning them in their brine.

Drain and rinse the turnip slices, and then drain them again. Add the remaining ½ tablespoon salt, the pepper flakes, the scallions, the garlic, and the sugar. Mix well. Pack the mixture into a quart jar, and pour the water over. The turnips should be covered by about 1 inch. I haven’t found it necessary to weight the turnips; perhaps the garlic and pepper ward off spoilage organisms. If you’re worried, though, add a brine-filled plastic bag or other weight. Cap the jar loosely (unless you’re using a brine bag), and let the jar stand at room temperature.

After six to eight days, when the turnip slices are as sour as you like, cap the jar tightly. Store the jar in the refrigerator, where the kimchi should keep well for several weeks.

This reminds me: It’s time to plant turnips for a winter harvest!

Tools for Measuring Brine Strength

In making fermented pickles, brine strength is critical. A too-salty pickle can be entirely unpalatable, although what’s too salty for one person can be just right for another, and what’s too salty for a person one day can be perfect for the same person a day later. If salt raises your blood pressure, though, fermented pickles aren’t for you at all, because you can’t make them without salt. By regulating the growth of various microbes that are naturally present on the vegetables in the pickle crock, salt minimizes the risk of spoilage and maximizes your chance of producing firm and delicious pickles with a complex, sour taste.

Salt varies in density depending on its coarseness, so in mixing brine you can correctly measure salt by volume only if your salt has the same density as the recipe writer’s. This is why, in The Joy of Pickling, I always call for pickling salt—fine, pure sodium chloride. If you’re using another kind of salt—for example, kosher (which is generally less dense than pickling salt, no matter what the package says)—you may need to measure it by weight rather than by volume. Tables for translating between volume and weight are on pages 38 and 39 of The Joy of Pickling, revised edition.

Now, what if you’ve made up some brine and then wondered whether you’ve done it right? Maybe the salt looks fine to you, but it isn’t labeled as pickling salt, and your kitchen scale is broken. Maybe you’re not sure that you counted cups or tablespoons correctly, or that your scale is accurate. Can you check the brine strength?

You can, indeed, and my Husband the Chemist wanted to be sure I had the tools to do so. So he bought me a refractometer and a hydrometer, and I used them recently while making up brine for beef tongue.

A hydrometer for measuring brine strength is also called, confusingly, a salinometer, a salimeter, a salometer, and a brinometer. My husband bought one at www.butcher-packer.com (search for “salinometer”). Priced at only $13.50, it’s a glass tube sealed at both ends. The swollen bottom end has a lump of lead enclosed at the tip, and the narrow top end has a precisely placed slip of paper printed with a scale. The hydrometer works by the same principle as the egg that picklers once floated to check brine strength, except that the hydrometer tells you not simply that your brine is quite strong but exactly how strong it is.

To use the hydrometer, float it in a tall container of brine. My hydrometer came in a thin, narrow plastic storage tube which is meant to double as a cylinder for floating the hydrometer, but my husband recommends buying a regular hydrometer cylinder, or “jar,” in the size of 500 milliliters. With your hydrometer floating in brine, look for the number at the top of the brine. What does the number mean? To find out, you need a table like the one at www.wedlinydomowe.com (an amazingly complete and authoritative source of information on meat curing); click on “Making Brine,” in the right column on the home page. In the Wedliny Domowe table, the column headed “Salometer Degrees” matches the scale on your hydrometer. Look down the column for your hydrometer reading, and then find the corresponding figure under “Pounds of Salt per Gallon of Water” or “Percent of Sodium Chloride (Salt) by Weight.” To adjust your brine, add salt or water until you get the hydrometer reading that matches the salt percentage or weight you’re aiming for.

Note that a salinity hydrometer is scaled for brine at a certain temperature—normally 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Fortunately, my hydrometer came with a table of adjustments in case the brine is warmer or colder.

Note also that you can accurately measure brine strength only before you’ve added sugar (as is generally done for meat curing, though not for fermenting vegetables). Once you’ve added sugar, the hydrometer will measure the density of the solution, not the salinity of the brine.

A refractometer is fancier and more expensive than a hydrometer. The same basic instrument that grape growers use to determine the sugar content of their grapes, a refractometer looks like a little telescope. You drop a little brine onto the plate at one end and then look into the eyepiece at the other end, aiming the device toward a lighted window or other light source. You see the brine strength clearly indicated on a scale before your eye.

My husband got my refractometer at www.coleparmer.com, where “low-cost” salinity hydrometers range from $105 to $258. One model measures salt content in parts per thousand; others measure the percentage of salt by weight of the solution. You can translate percentage of salt to either weight or volume by using the tables on pages 38 and 39 of my book.

Like a hydrometer, a refractometer is temperature-specific (in this case it’s the temperature of the air, not the brine, that matters), but you can calibrate the instrument before performing your test.

Do home picklers really need either of these instruments? Generally no, in my opinion, but either one can be useful at times, and a hydrometer costs so little that you may want to have one on hand just in case you need it, as well as for science lessons for the kids or grandkids. A refractometer, of course, is a bigger investment. You may want one if you go into pickling as a business.

Tiny Bubbles in the Pickle Jar

 

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In the past couple of weeks two people have told me that they never see little bubbles rising in their containers of fermenting cucumbers. Usually bubbles start appearing after three or four days of brining. I explained that the bubbles may be hard to see because they’re very small. Their movement is most noticeable if the pickles are in a clear glass jar and the jar is moved. The bubbles are usually easy to see at the top of the brine, where they collect. If the brine spills over the top of the jar, you know it’s because gas has bubbled up inside and expanded the volume of the brine.

In the picture above, the cucumbers have been brining for about four days. You can see the bubbles at the top of the brine and a little further down in the gallon jar, just above the point where the jar begins narrowing.

Notice that I’m not using a plastic brine bag to hold down the cucumbers; instead I’ve laid the biggest cucumbers crosswise across the top to hold down the rest. Some of the dry spices are floating; that’s okay. But the brine is pushing grapes leaves too close to the surface, where they might attract the wrong microbes. After taking this picture, I tucked the grape leaves down around the cucumbers.

Approximately a day after I took this picture, a yeast scum began forming at the top of the jar. The yeast isn’t essential to the brining process, but it’s a sign that all is well. I skim off the scum when it gets heavy.