Suddenly Sauer: Preserving Food and Tradition in a Modern World

roots in a brine, it’s springtime!
June 28, 2010, 3:39 pm
Filed under: food, Pickled Anything

Baby Root Veggies in a Brine

Spring has sprung and the summer solstice is truly upon us here in Detroit.  The weather here has fairly consistently been a couple degrees above sweltering and there has been some severe weather afoot, coupled with intense daytime humidity, and a lot of sweaty faces.  Why bother mentioning the weather in a blog post about root vegetables and fermentation?  Quite simply put, these baby veggies are my first pickles of the season made from garden produce (as opposed to store bought veggies).  And the things that made them possible, other than a broadfork, compost, the sweat of my brow, and some open space, was a lot of rain and some early season heat.  Yes there’s no looking back now, it’s growing season!

Part of my work with The Greening of Detroit is managing a 1/2 acre plot in a park in Southwest Detroit.  We (the other apprentices and myself) have an acre under cultivation, which  is split into two plots.  One half is used for nutrition education and the other is grown primarily for market, I manage the market half.  Mostly, I grow salad mix and other greens, but in a couple beds very near and dear to my heart, I am growing golden beets and chioggia beets.  These two beet varieties are stunning and delicious, golden beets being the most brilliant variation of bright orange yellows, and chioggias displaying concentric circles of magenta and white (think Target).

The other day I set about the task of thinning these lovelies, a task which involves pulling beets up so that there is only one beet every inch or so, giving the roots room to grow larger.  This process left me with no small number of baby beets, none more than a 1/2 in diameter, which needed a new purpose in life.


I decided to return to a brining method, since lately I’ve only been making “kraut-style” ferments.  This means, rather than salting a vegetable and allowing it to sweat out its own brine, you first mix up a salt water solution and then pour it over  your veggies.  still simple, just slightly different.

The first step in this process was cleaning all my baby beets.  It took forever, and as you can see in the photo below, I had to remove a lot of beet matter to get what I was looking for.  I didn’t want to remove the skins completely because they’re not only home to much of the veggie nutrients, they’re also the most brilliantly colored part.

The roots, stems, and leaves I cut away to be left with….

These beauties!

Once I’d trimmed, rinsed, and packed all my baby veggies into a 1/2 gallon jar, I mixed up a spice mix and a salt water brine.

My spice mixture was: 1 Tbs pickling spice, 1 cinnamon stick, about 10 cloves, and 5 cardamom pods.

Pickling spice being measured into a muslin spice bag (can be purchased from any brewing supply store)

Once I’d made my spice mix, I tied the muslin bag and packed it in with the jarred beets.  I tried to get it into the middle rather than just setting it on top to make sure the flavors infused throughout.

Roots packed with the spice bag (you can see it on the right hand side of the jar)

Once all the roots and spices were packed in, I mixed up a brine using the same ratio I use for cucumber pickles: 1.5 Tbs salt to 2 cups water for a 1 quart jar of pickles.  Since my jar is 2 quarts, I doubled this, first dissolving 3 Tbs salt in about 1/2 cup hot water, then adding the rest of the water cold and 1/4 cup whey to make 4 cups total brine.

I poured the brine over the pickles until the jar was full, stuck a pint jar full of water one top to keep the beets below the brine’s surface, covered this with cheesecloth and a rubberband, and then stuck it in my basement where it’s about 65-70 degrees.  The brine overflowed a bit as the roots began to break down and compress, allowing the pint jar to sink in further and displace the solution, but this has little effect on the effectiveness of the brine.

One week later, I uncovered my jar, removed the pint jar water weight, and tasted my baby root pickles!  They were crunchy and delicious, well seasoned and zingy.  Unfortunately, the magenta dye from the chioggias totally took over and died not only the white rings of the chioggia beets, but also muddied the golden beets and the turnips.  Now, instead of the brightly colored veggies I put in the brine a week ago, I have a jar full of delicious root vegetables that are a slightly unappetizing shade of mauve.  yuk.

My future plans:  to repeat this whole process making one jar of just golden beets (in hopes that they retain their brightness) and one jar of dark red beets (cultivating that rich red color).  I’d also do some turnips with the goldens or the reds, or separately.  Their spicy undertones were a nice thing to discover amongst the sweet beets.  The flavor and crunch was a total success, but the color and overall appearance of the veggies definitely needs work.


’tis the season (to season your wares)
May 28, 2010, 3:58 am
Filed under: Pickled Anything, Uncategorized

On an unseasonably warm day in May, I stood in the back yard garden of my Southwest Detroit home watching a bottle of food grade wood conditioner melt from semi-solid to liquid in the heat.  My birthday gift to myself was to finally purchase 3 wooden kraut boards from Lehman’s non-electric, an amish catalog that sells exactly what it says–non-electric everythings.  I’ve been ooogling these boards for a year now, and when I grew my collection of ceramic crocks from 2 to 4 for my birthday, I decided it was finally time to take the plunge.

In the past, I’ve compromised to some pretty creative solutions when it came to the niche these puppies fill.  Basically, when making krauts and other fermented pickles, you need to keep your vegetables submerged below their brine.  A ceramic plate, a food grade plastic bag, or a wooden board are the items of choice for distributing weight across the veggie surface.  Metal corrodes and plastic leaches so these materials can’t be used.  Beyond those requirements, however, you can get pretty creative, and up until a week ago, I had been doing just that.

I am, however, a strong believer in the power of investing, which is a notably different consumer strategy than that which I was raised with.  Rather than buying things somewhat willy nilly, I’ve gotten in the habit of making note of the tools and items that repeatedly occur as those that could be of use to me.  Generally, I passively seek these things through a few different channels over a period of time.  With these kraut boards, I’ve looked into making them myself (cost of materials and necessary equipment ruled that out) and I talked to a local hardware store busy bee hardware, about building them for me.  With both of those options forever on the back burner, I simultaneously pursued my third option, buying something shiny and new.  I may be a traitor to my generation for saying this, but all the DIY training in the world doesn’t replace a real live artisanal good.  So I try to do my research and I try to buy to last.

These particular objects, which fit inside 5 gallon and 3 gallon ceramic crocks respectively, are made from poplar.  And, as of Monday May 24th, they’ve been sealed with food grade wood conditioner.

I plan to use these lids in my crocks to keep my fermentations below their brine, placing a water/stone filled mason jar on top for weight.

I also like to ferment smaller batch items in glass 1/2 gallon jars, with water/stone filled pint jars used as a weight.  The pint jars fit perfectly into the mouth of any wide-mouth mason jar and the glass makes for easy viewing of the fermentation magic happening within.

I’ve found a few good places for buying mason jars in Detroit, but my favorite is busy bee hardware on Gratiot and Russel.  They also sell pickle crocks of all sizes, and maybe if enough of us pester them about it, they’ll begin to cut some kraut boards too!  I’m planning on bringing one by there to show the guy I’ve nagging about them what I’m looking for, and to prove how serious I am.  While I love and trust Lehman’s… they are also far away, and I’d love to help move along this burgeoning preserves economy in my own town.

So, if you’re ever in Busy Bee Hardware, ask for wooden kraut boards, and in the mean time, use whatever you invent until you can’t stand it no more, or your birthday roles around and you’re feeling particularly acquisitive.

Would you like some culture with that dairy?
April 18, 2010, 9:08 pm
Filed under: food, Pickled Anything

I’ve heard the same story again and again, “I bought milk, it spoiled, I washed it down the sink as my stomach sank, then I cried.”

Ok, so maybe there were no tears involved, and maybe this is a bit more hyperbolic than most of your dairying experiences, but the point remains… that sweet fresh milk only lasts you a few days… and what then?  what to do then…

This past friday, myself and a gathering of individuals attempted to answer this question at the kickoff event for Urban Ecology Detroit, a group dedicated to urban ecology, an intentionally loosely defined topic, which hopes to draw enthusiasts of all sorts together for the common goal of learning.  The subject matter for this inaugural class was culturing dairy: what could be more universal than the desire to preserve our milk?  only the vegans were disappointed…

Quark becoming Quark (a cultured cream cheese)

Most simple dairy cultures are just a matter of adding things and waiting for things to change: sometimes 6 hours, sometimes 24, sometimes a few days.  In the class we talked about Cultured Butter, Buttermilk (both traditional and cultured), Clobber (wild cultured milk), Quark, and Yogurt.

I’ll spare you the nitty gritty details from the class, but there are a few introductory elements I’ll replicate here.

Culturing dairy is a timeless technique common in cultures where dairy animals have been a predominant part of everyday subsistence.  Culturing dairy (adding bacteria that yield certain desirable characteristics, or allowing the bacterial flora that naturally populate unpasteurized milk to flourish under ideal living conditions) yields a dairy product that is much easier for us to digest, and that is naturally preserved.  The ease of digestion comes from the fact that bacteria digest milk sugars (lactose) and convert them into lactic acid, and because the bacteria essentially begin the digestion process for us, leaving less work for our digestive tracts.  Lucky for us, cultured dairy also tends to be delicious: pleasantly tart, creamy, textured, sweet, and all other complex flavors abound.

I’m posting recipes for the items we discussed in class here– most of them are extremely simple, and, strangely enough, difficult to find instruction for.

Creme Fraiche

Pour cream slowly off the top of your non-homogenized whole milk.  If it’s raw milk and your kitchen is warm enough (about 70 degrees), cover with a cheese cloth and let sit until cream thickens (a few days).  For pasteurized cream, or for culturing cream at cooler temperatures, pour off cream and add 2 Tbs cultured buttermilk to your cream.  Allow it to sit and it should thicken in 24 hours or less.  Once the cream is thickened (regardless of method), scrape it out of the container it was setting in and save it in a jar.  Keep in the fridge, where it will continue to ripen.


This is the stuff that’s left after you scrape off your cultured cream.  The milk that separates our of the heavy cream and sinks to the bottom also thickens up (after 24 hours when started with buttermilk, and after a few days when left to spontaneously ferment).  I read that clobber was traditionally eaten with molasses, nutmeg, and cinnamon for breakfast (by whom I don’t know), but I mostly use it to create quark


Quark is a German word, which until my recent google search I understood to mean cultured cream cheese.  Turns out, I’m not entirely correct.  Nonetheless, I like the name and feel that it works, so I’m going to choose to let it stick.  I make quark by simply straining the whey out of clobber.  I line a strainer with cheese cloth, allowing the whey to drip into the bowl housing the strainer, and I place the whole contraption in the fridge for a day, spooning out the quark once its dry enough.  I like to whip my quark with salt and sundried tomatoes, or lemon zest and honey.  But truly, the possibilities are endless.  I also save my whey at this step and use it as a starter for other ferments.

me squeezing lemon juice into my little quark whipping contraption

Cultured Butter

While making a successful batch of butter didn’t happen in the workshop, I did manage to make up a batch when I got home, and because it was my intention to make butter, I’m still going to include directions here.  Once I’ve saved  one quart jar full of creme fraiche, which usually takes about four gallons of raw milk, I make butter!  Take chilled cream and pour it into a food processor, press the on butter, and wait.  The separation will take longer than you expect, you may even panic and think it won’t happen, but after 15-20 minutes, an unmistakable change will take place– all the butterfat will begin to clump together and be suspended in milky white buttermilk.  When this happens, strain the butter solids out and save the real buttermilk (if you desire), then pour the butter solids into a bowl.  Press the butter mass with a spatula and watch how it continues to exude buttermilk.  Press the butter, pour off the buttermilk, and repeat this until the butter stops exuding milk.  You may dribble a bit of cold water over the butter and press again just to be sure it runs clean.  When you’re satisfied, place your butter in a container and enjoy!

Buttermilk (Cultured)

One of my favorite fermented dairy products is cultured buttermilk.  While traditional buttermilk comes from the butter making process (as explored above), cultured buttermilk is the result of a buttermilk culture being added to whole milk.  I like buttermilk not only for its delicate flavor, but also because it is an immensely helpful starter for other dairy ferments.  In order to make your own buttermilk that can be saved as a starter, you must pasteurize your milk.  This means you need to heat your milk to 190 degrees and then cool it down to room temperature before adding your culture.  If you don’t pasteurize your milk, the naturally present bacteria will eventually overwhelm your buttermilk starter.  Then you’ll just be making clobber.  yummy… but now quite the same.  You’ll need a buttermilk culture in the beginning.  I get mine from Calder Dairy, but you might also buy a starter online from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company if you don’t have a local supplier.  Once you have your cultured buttermilk starter, add about 1/4- 1/2 cup to a quart of pasteurized milk.  Let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours, agitating every so often, then stick it in the fridge.


Yogurt has become something of a holy grail of dairy culturing for me, perhaps because I’ve been trying to perfect it for about 2 years now, and probably also because it figures so prominently in my diet.  In the class we made 2 quarts of yogurt.  First I lightly pasteurized the milk by heating it to 190 degrees, stirring it consistently once it began to form a skin on its surface.  One of the participants mentioned that she holds her milk at 190 for ten minutes when pasteurizing, which further improves the texture of her yogurt.  After using fully pasteurized milk for yogurt for the first time, I have come to believe that her suggestion is absolutely correct.  Whether you have the patience to keep your milk at 190 for ten minutes is another story.

Regardless of what you decide, the next step is to use a cold water or ice bath to cool your milk to 95 degrees.  The temperature at this step should range anywhere from 90 to 110 degrees.  On the lower end, your milk will culture slowly (6-8+ hours) and develop a less tart flavor. On the higher end, your milk will culture quickly (2-3 hours) and it will be more tart.  I would suggest cooling to 95 so that in the time it takes you to complete the next few steps, you loose a bit of heat but not enough to drop below 90 degrees.  Once your milk is cooled, take 2 Tbs – 1/2 cup of starter (can be store bought or saved from a previous batch) and add 1 cup of your milk to it.  Stir to homogenize.  Add mixture into the rest of the milk, stir, and then pour into your incubation vessel.  The yogurt now has to be kept between 90 and 110 degrees, undisturbed, until it has finished fermenting.  I use a fancy (read: Styrofoam) contraption called a yogotherm to incubate my yogurt, but you could also place yogurt in a yogurt container and put it in an insulated bag with a hot water bottle, or in the oven with the pilot light left on.  Experiment with your own kitchen and supplies.  When you think your yogurt is ready (based on temperature of milk when you added the culture), open the lid, taste what’s inside, and either let it continue to ferment or stick it in the fridge.  The yogurt will thicken up slightly once it’s refrigerated, so don’t judge it tooooo harshly.

There are a few things to keep in mind about culturing dairy, and they mostly have to do with the relationship between your homemade product and the kind of cultured dairy available in stores.  Many commercially produced dairy products have thickeners such as pectin or guar gum added to them to achieve their consistency.  This means that a) you shouldn’t necessarily expect your homemade products to be as gelatinous/thick as store bought cultures and b) you should be careful when buying dairy cultures as starters because some additives may inhibit your fermentation.  Choose products with live cultures listed in the ingredients, and avoid as many additives as possible.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the dairy culturing class was tasting all the dairy products perched atop Gwen’s whimsical sweet breads!  You should definitely check out her recipes, and consider baking up a loaf, to be enjoyed with a side of quark.

Thanks to Eve VanDalsen for the lovely photos, and happy fermenting!

Hibiscus Soda Floats
March 31, 2010, 11:57 am
Filed under: beverages, Pickled Anything

In the slow uphill climb toward realizing my dreams, I made progress today akin to landing on the moon.  I tasted the first of, hopefully, many truly delicious cultured soda and cashew based ice cream floats.  Sound strange? I wish you could taste the goodness for yourself.

Cultured Hibiscus Soda and Vegan Vanilla Ice Cream

I photographed this with one hand while pouring, hence the stylized angle

The finished product.  Yum.


30 hibiscus flowers
1 1/2 cups cane sugar
1/2 gallon water
1 cup whey

First I brought the water to a boil, then I turned off the heat, added the flowers, and let them steep for 15-20 minutes.  Then I strained out the flowers, allowed the mixture to return to room temperature, added another 1/2 gallon of water, and 1 cup of whey.

I poured the mixture into my lovely new blue glass grolsch style bottles (see image below) and then set it in the fermentation cupboard.  After 4 days, it wasn’t carbonated, but I let it sit through the weekend (a total of 6 days I believe) and then refrigerated it.  When I opened it, it was perfectly fizzy and pleasantly tart. yum.

Non-Dairy Vanilla Ice Cream

6 medjool dates, soaked in water
1 cup cashew pieces, soaked in water for 1 hour
1/2 Tbs coarse sea salt
1 tsp vanilla extract

For the ice cream, I blended the cashews in a blender with some of the soaking water from the dates, gradually adding more water as the mixture became smoother.  Then I added the vanilla, salt, and dates, and I kept adding water until there were 4 cups of goodness.  Then I threw the whole thing in the ice cream maker and voila…  Ice cream floats!

I used hibiscus flowers from Honey Bee Market, a grocer in mexicantown that sells all manner of latino stock grocery items.  The birth of my hibiscus tea love affair began at Pilar’s Tamales in Ann Arbor, an amazing business (food cart and shop) run by a woman named Sylvia who makes inspired tamales and traditional El Salvadorean food.  Her hibiscus tea is sweet, citrusy, and tart, and I was hoping to capture that same essence in the soda.  Mostly, I made the hibiscus soda because my friend Hannah requested/suggested it.  Any requests and/or flavor ideas are always appreciated!!! I’m a firm believer that just about anything can be made into soda, or ice cream, or both.  bring it.

The Pickling of the Mustard Green
March 22, 2010, 1:57 am
Filed under: Pickled Anything

Turmeric, Garlic, and Fennel Seed Mustard Greens

may the image speak for itself.

This pungent delicacy was one of the only remnants I had of my day spent working at the cultured pickle shop in Berkeley.  I toted my little 6oz jar all the way back to Michigan in my carry on luggage, swearing to place a hex on any unsuspecting  security official who attempted to confiscate my admittadly suspicious container.  No amount of rearranging would have squeezed it into my toiletry ziploc.  After weeks of covetousness and allowing myself only the tinniest of bites, I decided to take matters into my own hands, embarking on an experiment in, hopes of recreating this most supreme pickle in my own kitchen.

It’s been at least two months since I actually started the ferment, so I’ll need to consult my trusty notebook to review what actually went into the bowl.  When I say “trusty” it should be noted that if I’m actually hoping to label myself as a scientist, my scientific method is deeply flawed.

Pardon my mess.

Nonetheless, I did manage to keep track of the quantities of ingredients used, and I have the process in my head, so I’ll now attempt to elaborate on what can only be euphemistically described as my “short hand.”

PICKLED MUSTARD GREENS: with Fresh Turmeric, Garlic, and Fennel Seed

Chop 1 bunch mustard greens into 1 inch strips

Sprinkle with 1 Tbs salt and mix until greens begin to wilt and exude juices (won’t take very long)

add 1/2 Tbs fennel seed

grate 1 inch fresh turmeric into mixture

finely chop 1-3 cloves garlic

I mixed all the ingredients and then packed them into a small jar (only made about 6 oz) and put it in my cupboard with a water seal*

I let it ferment for about 7 weeks, tasting it about every 2 weeks.  At first it really wasn’t very good… but I put it back in the cupboard and let it keep going.  I was thinking it might be a lost cause, but when I checked on it most recently, it was GREAT!  The sourness had developed and helped blend all the strong flavors.  It’s still really pungent, but in the best possible expression of the word.  And the experience helped to remind me of an important lesson, which is: patience!  Thinking something tastes too strong or weird is often resolved by allowing it to just keep fermenting.  Bacteria are amazing, they get up to all sorts of crazy shit when given ample time to do so.  Often, they create masterpieces.

*A water seal is just a ziploc bag, filled with enough water to press on the entire surface of the greens and force brine up the sides of the jar.  This creates a pretty airtight fermenting environment, meaning minimal/no mold.  Remember to use food grade plastic!  This is a great method for  weighing down (topping) small batches!

I’m going to eat my pickled mustard greens on homemade sourdough bagels with cashew butter.  I learned to eat pickles with nut butter from the masters (i.e. the people at cultured).  If you haven’t tried it, I recommend it highly.

Also, and I’m putting this in writing in hopes that it will manifest, Greg from Brother Nature Produce agreed to grow me some mustard greens for the express purpose of pickling them.  A half a year from now, pickled mustard greens could be coming to a kitchen near you!

When Life Gives you Lemons… Pickle Them!
March 11, 2010, 1:41 am
Filed under: food, Pickled Anything

Coincident with the first truly sunny week of spring (always a risky thing to say in MI), I set out to preserve some of that brightness in a jar.  I’ve had Moroccan preserved lemons on the brain ever since I visited the Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, CA, where I ate some of the most magical fermented foods on offer in this here world.  Turnip Tangerine Kombucha, Mustard Greens with Turmeric, Garlic, and Fennel Seed, pumpkin kimchee… the list went on and on.  But sometime around lunch, when the employees sat down together for a cultured smorgasbord, I tasted a true delight.  A single sardine waited unassumingly in my shallow bowl, sprawled languidly aside one small quarter of a pickled lemon.  The two tasted fantastic together, I was instantly hooked by the oily, tangy, sauerness.  Which brings me back to my experiment… I want some pickled lemons of my own!

So, for better or for worse, here in Detroit the only place lemons grow on trees is at the Belle Isle conservatory (a beautiful place to visit, but not exactly a place for foraging).  So I swallowed my pride and bought a bag of organic California lemons from whole foods– I’m especially diligent about using pesticide free produce when pickling, I’m wary of the pesticides becoming even more concentrated as they ferment (yuk) and I think pesticides are meant to be anti-bacterial/anti-microbial, which is really no fun for the little guys doing all the dirty work.

The process, stolen from the internet, was easy:

Preserved Lemons

9 lemons

non-iodized, additive-free salt

Wash lemons well.  Slice off both ends on the lemon, leaving some of the rind intact, and then slice the lemon into quarters, BUT taking care not to cut all the way through the lemon on one end, so that the quarters stay together and you are left with a lovely sort of lemon flower.

Add 1 TBS salt to a 1 quart jar.  Rub generous amounts of salt over the insides of the lemons and squish them into the jar, packing them tightly.  Squish until enough lemon juice has been pushed out to cover the lemons completely.

Place the lid on the jar lightly, so that some air can still escape but no bugs or dust can get in.

Place in a cool dark place and allow to ferment.  I’m not sure how long for because I’m posting this a day after I put them in the fermentation chamber (i.e. the cupboard next to my fridge).

I’m so eager about my lemons that I couldn’t wait until after they were pickled to make a post about them.  I’m thinking maybe I’ll edit retroactively with more info about length of ferment and some photos of the finished product.  For now, I’m adding pictures of the process up to to the point of fermentation.





As you can see, there is nothing quite so sunny as salted lemons.  With spring in the air, it seems like an appropriate sort of celebration.   There has also been mention of a possible pickled lemon and mint sorbet.  More on this to come.

Hamentashen. Purim Potluck Comes Home
February 27, 2010, 8:22 pm
Filed under: food

It began because Amit wanted to make vegan hamentashen.  These traditional Jewish Purim treats, modeled after the Purim story villain Hamen’s three cornered hat, have honestly never been that exciting to me.  Nonetheless, I always acquiesce when desert is involved, and I was more than happy to help her realize her kitchen dreams.

I found a recipe from Elana’s Pantry, a blog that always provides when I’m looking for alternative baking recipes, and especially so for Jewish treats.  Sure enough, her recipe for vegan hamentashen was simple as pie (actually, easier than pie) and Amit set about making the batter immediately.

In the food processor we blended:

2 cups pastry flour
2 cups bread flour
4 Tbs honey
2Tbs vanilla
4Tbs water
4Tbs walnut oil

Once it was sticky enough to hold together, she stuck it in the freezer to chill.  A half hour later, she tried to roll out the dough but it was too crumbly.  Instead she ended up rolling individual balls, pressing them into disks, spooning raspberry jam into their centers, and folding and pressing the sides together to make a triangle.  I added some more water to the dough as we shaped it, which helped make the process easier.

This is what the dough looked like before we added water… it was too crumbly to work with- note the cast aside rolling pin in the background

The finished product, however, was beautiful.  And the dough was good and crunchy, the perfect compliment to the jelly filling!

When dinner was over, Amit treated us all to a retelling of the Purim story, complete with audience participation, loud booing whenever Hamen’s name was spoken (we didn’t have gregers (spelling?) but we tried anyway) and all manner of side stories, reminiscences, and feminist re-interpretations.  All in all, it was a successful first attempt at celebrating Purim since the bygone days of congregational Purim carnivals.  No free goldfish, but lots of good company.  Beginning to create a vibrant Jewish community, with the help and participation of Jews and non-Jews alike, has been deeply satisfying.  Thanks to everyone (Amit especially) who continues to partake in this revitalization.  I can only hope it continues.