Last year I attended one of Kate Payne's pickling workshops. She treated us to a spread of gorgeous home-brined goodies, and went over the basics of making pickles. Kate talked about quick-pickling and water bath canning first, two methods that I was pretty familiar with already, then launched into the topic I had bee dying to learn about, fermentation.
I'm a pretty adventurous cook, or so I like to think, but when it comes to playing with bacteria, I was a bit gun-shy. How would I know it was safe? What should it look like, smell like, taste like? Kate did a great job of answering my questions, but I knew that only time and experimentation could make me an expert. There was nothing to it but to do it, and so I embarked on my journey into the world of brine.
My first batch, a jar full of dill cucumbers, came out horribly. I had used way too much salt, and the dill flavor had been completely over-run by the garlic. This resulted in rubbery little cucumbers that tasted a lot like old sea water. Gross, but then noone got sick, so I didn't feel completely defeated.
After that I tried fermenting something smaller. A handfull of snow peas, spiced with anise, ginger, and hot pepper went into the hot garage. At the same time I tried a second batch of cucumber pickles, only in a smaller, more manageable jar. Both jars fermented, but the cucumbers became weird and cloudy after a while, which freaked me out. They went in the trash, but the snow peas did not. They were delicious! Crunchy, slightly sour, and bursting with spice, I think of the snow peas as my first real success with fermentation.
Recently, we gave sourdough a go. We have a chef friend who delights in doing things the hard, slow way, so when Scott expressed an interest in bread-baking, Kyle bestowed on us a tub of his own personal sourdough starter. Kyle harvested the yeast from wild grape-vines, so the starter has a richer than usual flavor. Commercial sourdough starters can sometimes lack the flavor and nutritional benefit of wild yeast.
Making from-scratch sourdough definitely has a learning curve. After what felt like an eternity of feeding and tending, we finally baked bread. We let the first loaf rise for eight hours before baking. It came out a beatiful color and shape, but had barely any sourdough flavor. We punched the second loaf down several times and gave it more than twenty-four hours to rise. The flavor was amazing, but unfortunately I didn't form the boule properly, so the loaf was oddly flat. We're hoping that the third run will be the charm.
My latest adventure in fermentation was making sauerkraut. I shredded and salted a head of cabbage, then squeezed and squeezed until a puddle of brine filled my bowl. I'm not crazy about sauerkraut as a rule, so I decided to jazz it up by brining it with some fresh ginger, curry powder, and crushed red pepper. This could have gone horribly wrong, of course, but I like to live dangerously so I gave it a go. Two weeks later, when it was finally time to for a taste-test, my risk was rewarded. This kraut tastes amazing. The ginger still smells fresh and vibrant, and the curry off-sets the skunky factor of the cabbage really well. Of course, I don't know what on earth to eat it with, but hey, that's not the worst problem to have.
If you are itching to get started on fermenting, I highly reccoment checking out Wild Fermentation or The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. If you live in or near Austin, Kate Payne teaches classes on the subject pretty regularly. She's super knowledgeable, and a very nice person too. I had read plenty of books on the subject, but I felt like I needed the reassurance of a real, live teacher to finally make the leap. If you are curious about curing or preserving carnivorous things, check out Biscuits of Today, a very adventurous cooking blog written by my pal, Meredith.