Friday, May 20, 2016

Just Skim the Mold Off the Top

Skimming scum sounds like aquarium maintenance, not a step in a recipe, but we've been dabbling in fermenting foods. We already make our own yogurt, which led me to using leftover liquid whey for lacto-fermenting fruit juice into homemade soda, which led me to lacto-fermenting veggies, which are made with salty water rather than whey.

Vocabulary lesson: It's called lacto-fermenting because the bacteria in action here are lactobacilli, a beneficial strain that break down lactose (the sugars in milk) and produce lactic acid from the fermentation of carbohydrates. Like yogurt, lacto-fermented veggies are probiotic, so they're trendy—I mean, good for your tummy.

A few summers ago, we watched a sauerkraut demonstration at the farmers' market. We haven't tried it at home yet, but I recently learned that it's the same process whether you are fermenting cabbage—sauerkraut, kimchi—or any other suitable vegetable. The veggies sit submerged in a brine at room temperature, you occasionally skim mold or scum off the top of the liquid (but the veggies are OK because they are not touching the surface), and cultures of good bacteria turn the veggies into pickles. And by golly, it works! (We have also pickled veggies using vinegar. Dare I say expect a future post on that? Let's say, distant future.)

Hence our jars of sauerbeans. (OK, in actual German they'd probably be sauerbohnen, but I think "sauerbeans" is cute.) They're tart and crunchy and have not given us food poisoning.

Photo disclaimer: Plenty of websites have pretty pictures of pristine countertop pickles, but this is what they look like at home. Cloudy liquid is to be expected as a result of the lactic acid forming in there, and it's a sign the vegetables are culturing properly. Don't be scared.

Read on for the important stuff like how to do it and what else to expect besides cloudy brine.

Many people ferment their veggies in gallon-size mason jars or large pickling crocks. I don't like experimenting with food on such a large scale (because if it turns out nasty, then I've wasted so much food!), so my recipe here uses just two quart jars.

Simple Fermented Green Beans
2 quarts water (see note below)
3 ounces pickling salt (see other note below)
1 pound green beans, washed and trimmed
(Also see note on seasoning)

Heat the water and salt, stirring, until the salt dissolves. Cool to room temperature (or else the bacteria won't culture properly).

Divide the green beans evenly between two quart-size mason jars, breaking beans in half if necessary so they will all fit below the neck of the jar. Pour in the room-temperature brine, enough to cover all the beans, but do not completely fill the jar. (I filled the jar too high, and then when I weighed the beans down, my brine overflowed, which was just annoying.)

Weigh the beans down so they will remain safely below the surface of the brine, protected from surface molds that thrive on oxygen. (The salt in the brine will help inhibit mold formation, but you'll probably still get some. I saw minimal pinkish scum this time.) Meanwhile, the good, anaerobic bacteria get to work underwater. For keeping my beans submerged, I used an idea recommended by Food52 and put some extra brine inside a sealed plastic baggie and shoved the baggie into the top of the jar.

Cover the jars with loose-fitting lids or cloth secured by a rubber band. They should not be airtight—gases need to escape as fermentation occurs. Leave the jars in a dark corner of your kitchen where they can sit at room temperature for two weeks.

Check the jars every day and skim off any mold or scum that grows on the surface of the brine. You do not have to clear off every last speck; you just don't want it to overrun the place. Scum is supposed to happen, and the veggies remain safe beneath the surface. Feel free to fork out a bean occasionally to taste the progress. Many recipes advise tasting daily; I think that's unnecessary. The first couple of times, all I tasted was a really salty green bean, so I waited longer in between samples and tasted maybe four times total during the two weeks' fermentation. It was probably a week before I detected a hint of sauer. If your kitchen is warmer, maybe your beans will ferment faster, and then tasting every day might be useful.

The beans should be fully pickled after two weeks, so now you can move the jars into the fridge, where the beans will continue to ferment much more slowly. Like anything in the fridge. Eat them within two months.

Note on water: Chlorinated water from your tap contains, ahem, chlorine, which is a disinfectant—not exactly a hospitable environment for bacteria, good or bad. So, you can use filtered water or you can boil and stir some tap water to evaporate most of the chlorine. That's what I do, dissolving the salt at the same time, and my pet bacteria multiply quite healthily. Just remember to let the water cool to room temperature before pouring it over the beans.

Note on salt: Iodized table salt contains another bacteria fighter: iodine. Don't use it. Use pickling salt or sea salt or any other salt without iodine. The recipe measures the salt in weight so that no matter what kind you use, you'll have the right amount. You can imagine that a tablespoon of coarse kosher salt would not be the same as a tablespoon of fine sea salt. Weigh the salt.

Note on seasoning: The simple recipe above results in some tasty green beans, but they can be made even tastier with some smashed cloves of garlic or sprigs of dill or a hot pepper, for example. Submerge any of these in the brine along with your beans to infuse extra flavor into the fermentation.

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