sauerkraut

There are useful things that I like to make purely for the pleasure of it, to have just what we want at a higher quality than one can buy, and enjoy the thing knowing it’s homemade. Sauerkraut goes a step further, being so strikingly economical. As a health food, it succeeds in making me feel better immediately upon eating it. I love that it will balance stomach acid, whether you’ve too little or too much, but mostly I just love to eat it. I figure that fermenting sauerkraut is worthy of becoming a habit for life. Here’s how I’ve been making it.

Begin with a cabbage, sea salt, and a very clean, very strong glass kilner jar, (we like Le Parfait or Fido), with a fresh rubber seal. A small clean glass jar is useful later, too.

All set? Weigh the cabbage. Ours was conveniently a full kilogram.

Calculate how much 5% of the cabbage’s weight would be, then measure that amount in sea salt. (In our case, 50 grams.)

Reserving a nice big leaf, chop the cabbage as you like it (or grate it on a traditional kraut grater if you’re lucky!) and throw it in a clean, sturdy bowl.

Now bash it. We found this old muddler at a favourite antique shop, how easy would it be to turn one on a pole lathe! It works brilliantly – but the flat end of a handle-less rolling pin or whatever you find around would function.

We like making kraut with friends, taking turns having a bash. The goal is to see a good deal of liquid emerge from the cabbage.

When you put the cut, bashed cabbage in a clean, strong kilner jar, you want to see enough liquid to submerge the cabbage. Don’t worry, you can add more water later if necessary, though I’ve never needed to.

Tuck the cabbage leaf that you saved all round the top of the chopped stuff, putting it to bed so nothing is floating, nothing exposed to air. Place a small clean jar or glass with some water in it inside the large jar, to weigh down the big leaf, and close the large jar up tight.

A dark, cool cupboard will be an ideal place for the sauerkraut to live while it ferments.

In a while – my friend waited only a week while I waited three – open it, pull back the cabbage bedding, and sample your wares. When you figure it has fermented to your liking, eat it up. I move it to the fridge -some folks say there’s more probiotic action before refrigeration, and some folks are a little nervous of things like this and trust the fridge- and use it up within six weeks. This time I shall set a reminder to make some more before we run out!

We were very much impressed with the flavour. The texture was a shade crunchy for the smaller folk, so the verdict is to try a different cabbage. Savoy, preferably. And experiment with how thinly to cut the veg. Not bad for a first try. No mold, no burping the jar, no airlock required, no special crock, nothing to do but be patient.

We like Sandor Katz for great writing on fermentation, and tremendous ideas on what else to ferment.

Ah yes, you’ve caught us. Now we’re eyeing other people’s prize cabbages, and plotting to grow our own.

kefir

Living near the beautiful old English biodynamic dairy farm, I grew very fond of drinking kefir. Like yogurt, kefir is a cultured milk, fermented using kefir grains. Like kombucha the culture is a symbiosis of yeasts and bacteria, and an ancient drink. It is a probiotic, and thoroughly excellent for digestion.

kefir

To my delight I received milk kefir grains from a dear friend in Canada this summer. My tall girl thinks they look like a cup of rice pudding. They were resting in water when I received them waiting for me to get started. I set some whole goat’s milk out to come to room temperature, so as not to shock the grains. Then I set the strained kefir grains in a clean glass jar, poured the milk over, and covered it. Some people say to cover kefir with cloth, like a fermenting vinegar, others use a glass lid.

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After a few months of messing about with timing and proportions, I’m happy with my kefir process. I like to leave the kefir fermenting on the counter in a warm spot away from light, until I can see the whey separating, as it acquires a sparkling tingle like buttermilk or mild ginger beer. My children aren’t so fond of the stuff, so I just make about a pint at a time. So far my grains seem happy with that, but I’ll give some away when they outgrow those proportions – the grains will multiply, like kombucha mushrooms and sourdough cultures. I set a steel strainer (best to avoid other metals!) over another clean jar, stir my kefir, and strain it through.

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The grains remain, ready to place in a jar for the next batch of milk. I use three glass canning jars in rotation – one to set the milk in to come to room temperature, waiting for the grains to be added; one to hold the fermenting kefir; and one to catch the finished kefir. I put the finished kefir in the fridge to drink later, often first thing in the morning. It is the sort of habit the steadies me, and at the same time, works best if I’m being consistent with this and other rituals and routines in my life. One feeds the other, just as caring for my kefir means that it cares for my health. Quite nice.

kombucha

Before I lived with my sweetheart, I lived with a dear friend from art school, in the oldest neighbourhood in Vancouver. Years of beautiful meals and conversations around the built-in table. It had a pipe running through it, we painted it silver. I went to visit Jen in another gorgeous old flat across the city, and we fell into our familiar habit of talking about art and ideas around a very similar table. Over kombucha!

making kombucha

Sparkly, fermented sweet tea, good for digestion and detoxification and full of nutrients and probiotics. Otherwise known as the immortal elixir. Kombucha originated two thousand years ago somewhere in the Far East, spreading throughout Russia and all over the world, and arriving, belatedly, in my own kitchen. Jen sent me home with a bit of the zoogleat mat, the symbiotic bacteria and yeast, the scoby. Like my homemade vinegar, it has a mother culture.

making kombucha

So I’ve begun. I brewed strong black tea, and let it cool.

making kombucha

Perhaps next time I’ll stir the sugar in while it is hotter, oops.

making kombucha

This part is very real. Pull the mother out of the kombucha and add it to the fresh, cooled tea. Science project!

I’ve been thinking that there’s something steadying in nurturing these kinds of fermentations, sourdough culture, cream cheese, yogurt, such that even if one’s life isn’t particularly full of routine and ritual, order and awareness, it becomes more so by taking this up. Almost as if an older way of being is intrinsic to the slow food, and the slow food influences my life towards a little more peacefulness, rather than requiring a peaceful life before beginning to make the food.

making kombucha

Not that I haven’t forgotten yogurt for a few unintentional hours in the airing cupboard on more than one occasion.

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p>Cover with a clean cloth to allow it to breathe while staying clean, put it in a dark place for about a week, and then taste it. When its ready, begin again, nurturing the new relationship, like the ones you might have feeding the sourdough starter and the yogurt culture. Devoted. I’m so excited. I’ve got the last batch of kombucha in the fridge, to drink, and live forever. If not, Jen’s given me another route to immortality, or at least better digestion, which do seem to be intimately connected.

cider vinegar

A bottle of leftover apple cider travelled with us from a flat in London we’d stayed in at the end of summer, to our cottage in the countryside. I brought it home to subject it to a science experiment. After several unsuccessful experiments using leftover wine and even the elderberry seeds left from summer’s cordial-making, I’m ever so pleased to have pulled off my own homemade vinegar.

apple cider vinegar © elisa rathje 2012

Apple cider fermenting on the mother from an older bottle of unpasteurised vinegar, exposed to wild yeasts in the air, protected by a cheesecloth.

apple cider vinegar © elisa rathje 2012

I cleaned the jar well and poured the cider over the mother, gave it a spoonful of sugar to begin with (probably an unnecessary step) and stirred it now and then, where it rested on the kitchen counter, otherwise covered by the cheesecloth. I waited throughout autumn, a bit nervously, and tasted it in the first days of winter. Glorious – just a beautiful flavour. I’ll decant the cider vinegar into a bottle, and use it in the kitchen, I love it in salad dressings particularly. Or you know, as a hair tonic. My mistake, previously, was not to have used a wide-mouthed crock or jar, the process needs air! I’m inspired to try making red wine vinegar and fruit vinegars next, using the mother from this batch to give it a good start. Do you make vinegar?

apple wine

For those of us who have been daydreaming about making homemade wine, I’m delighted to offer a look into an annual apple & pear pressing day. I give you the wonderful Patricia Mellett of Making the Best.

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Firstly roughly chop fruit.

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They go into a ‘scratter’ (crusher).

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Pears work well too. You can make wine from lots of things such as tea, parsnips and even rosehips.

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The scratter turns the fruit into pulp. To make wine on a small scale at home it can be done in a food processer!

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The pulp is then put into the cider press to produce the juice.

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Take a gravity reading of the juice and add sugar to bring the gravity up to the desired level for the alcohol level you want in the wine (about 1075-1080 will be enough).

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Once you have the juice at the desired gravity, you put it into a demijohn and add the yeast – white wine yeast is best. Fit a bung and airlock and keep the demijohn in a warm place – you want about 20 to 25 degrees C. Fermentation will start within a day or two – you can tell that it has because bubbles will pass through the airlock. Fermentation will be complete after one or two weeks (the bubbles will stop). Once fermentation is complete, syphon off the wine into a fresh demijohn and refit the bung and airlock. Now wait for the wine to clear. This can take several months, but you can help things along if you are in a hurry by using a clearing agent. Once the wine is clear, syphon into bottles and cork them.

Adding Pectolase at the juice stage may help clearing substantially. You can also add a yeast nutrient to the juice to help fermentation if you wish. Some winemakers use a campden tablet to sterilise the juice before fermentation (this helps to get rid of the natural yeast in fruit). You don’t have to do this, but it helps to produce more reliable wine. If you do add campden to the juice, wait at least 48 hours before you add the yeast so that the campden tablet has time to wear off. The wine will be best after at least 6 months. This gives time for the flavours to develop.

It is very important that the demijohns, bottles and anything else that is going to come into contact with the fermenting juice, and later the wine, has been sterilised. It is best to use a dedicated steriliser like “VWP”. After using this, rinse items in clean cold water.

What are you going to do with the rosehips you have just collected Elisa? Wine maybe?

Oh, now I wish I’d made apple wine with them! I’ve made something traditional with my rosehips, I’ll show you soon. I’m thinking about perry, and ginger wine too. I feel much more brave now, thank you Patricia! That’s ever so inspiring. Patricia’s gorgeous shop in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, Making the Best, has brewing kits and supplies and classes, and other wonderful things to make.