Monday, September 1, 2014

Life as a Science Project

Time to start blogging again.  I was going to wait until the end of September, but a lifetime in academia has primed me to feel that the seasons change on Labor Day.  It's September: the start of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.  Harvest, cool weather, colors.

I haven't seen any fuzzy caterpillars in a long time, so I can't use them to predict anything of the coming winter -- but if the orange and grey coat on Miss Cookie the Semi-Feral Cat is any indication, we're in for a doozy of a winter.

So it's time to get back to work. 

I don't have a firm blogging schedule in mind, but in general my plan is to post up to three times a week, when I have the material.  Fridays will be the "Friday Favorites" stuff: reviews and commentaries on movies and books and things like that.  Wednesdays will likely be devoted to writer stuff.  More about that ON Wednesday.

And Mondays.... Mondays will be a kind of "Life in Michigan" column. Sometimes this will be closely related to writing.  Other times, the relation to writing will be less obvious -- just that this is the life that inspires what I write.


Fermentation: Life as a Science Project


I make my own bread. And though I don't cultivate my own sour dough, all bread making depends on the culture of live active yeast.

But it has been too hot to bake most of this summer.

I also make my own yogurt -- which is basically the art of spoiling milk in just the right way.  But before you can culture it with the right bacteria, you have to pasteurize it to kill the bad bacteria.

And it's too hot for pasteurization, even if the temperature is just right for culturing the yogurt.

But PICKLES!

I never made pickles because I don't like canning, but real fermented pickles (and kim chee and sour kraut) aren't really meant to be canned.  If you do a short cut version, where you just steep them in vinegar, sure -- can them.  But if you actually ferment your own pickles, then by golly, you don't need to heat anything up.  You just salt it and let it rot.

Here's how pickles work: you pour brine over them, and the salt kills the bad bacterial, but certain positive bacteria -- the "lacto" bacterias that make yogurt and sour cream and which everybody touts as being the key to health these days -- like the salt just fine.  They get to work turning the starches and other compounds in the food into vinegar, which will also help preserve the food.

I also happen to really like lacto-fermeted lemons, but often find people make them too salty, so wouldn't it be cool to make my own?

So this summer I layered a couple of slices of lemon, and then garlic, dill and cucumber slices in a jar with a little mustard seed and peppercorns, and poured brine over them. (One tablespoon salt to a pint of water -- an average brine -- could be saltier or not, depending on how long you want to keep the pickles.)  I also poured in a little booster of yogurt whey to be sure there was some lacto bacteria around to do the job.

I then put a small glass jar on top of them to press the floating veggies down into the brine.  And I've swished and burped them every day since.

One Week Later....

Almost every recipe I came across for lacto-fermenting pickles says they should be done in three days and to leave them a week if you like them more sour.  And they also say that the brine should become cloudy in a day or two, which they did.

However, in spite of bubbling and cloudiness, and a wonderful smell of dill and garlic, my pickles right now taste wonderfully of the spices and salt ... but aren't particularly sour.  As a matter of fact, to my taste, they aren't sour at all.

Hmmmmmm.

It may have something to do with the fact that I forgot to use distilled water, and there's chlorine in tap water.  They do say that the chlorine dissipates after a day, and I added more yogurt whey the second day -- AND the pickles did indeed ferment as advertised. However, it was whey from Dannon yogurt, which isn't very sour.  Maybe that's an issue.

Or maybe it's just that most people are in a hurry and find that it's good enough to just let the seasonings seep into the pickles.  After a few days, the pickles do taste pretty good. They're just not sour.  There was that one recipe which said to let the pickles ferment for a month or two -- this, to me, indicates that maybe the 3-day folks are not giving it time.

I'm thinking of sticking the jar in a warm water bath like I do with yogurt.  Keep them at 90-100 degrees for 24 hours and see what happens.

I'm also thinking of starting over -- just eating these and starting another batch, this time being really strict about my ingredients, AND using a warm water bath, AND leaving it longer.

But I'm not sure the garden has any more cucumbers for me.  It has been a blight year.  So I might make kim chee or pickled lemons.

OR... maybe I should cheat and put the pickles in a seasoned vinegar bath.  Not cook or can them -- so the healthy bacteria stay around -- but just give them a little more seasoning.

Or just eat them.  Because they do taste pretty good.

In the meantime....

Happy Labor Day!

Take a moment to remember that every aspect of your life was made possible by thousands of wage laborers.  Nobody built anything without them.  Labor built the roads, manufactured the tools, harvested the crops, built the buildings, wove the cotton, made your clothes. Labor keeps the water and electricity flowing, puts together the device you're reading this on, drove the truck to transport it.  Labor makes your Big Mac, films your movies and smiles for your cameras, and sings for you iPods.

And never forget that not all that labor is fairly paid or gets a day off, or has healthcare, or safety protections.

See you in the funny papers.

8 comments:

Lee McAulay said...

Hey, hello again! Nice to see you back blogging.
I'm a big fan of pickled things. The sort you layer with salt for 24 hours then rinse, dry and store in hot spicy vinegar. I just opened a jar of pickled onions from 2012 and they're crunchy, sour and jalapeno hot. They won't last long...
I haven't tried lacto-fermentation yet. I reckon Japanese pickled ginger would be quite easy. I might be wrong.
Hope you're having a good September so far (yeah, I know, it's early).
Cheers
Lee

The Daring Novelist said...

Hey Lee!

The 24-hour salting (if done at room temperature) should do a little fermenting. Maybe a little kick-start to the pickling process. If you were to do everything but can it, and just stick it in the fridge, there should still be some of that healthy bacteria sticking around.

I might end up doing that with my cucumber pickles next time. Not lovin' the lack of sour in these guys right now.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I live in a house divided, as far as pickles go. :) My daughter, for instance, *loves* cucumbers...can't stand pickles. She was asking me about the pickling process just a couple of days ago and I had a very vague answer for her. Now I have some detail to share!

Blogging schedule sounds great!

The Daring Novelist said...

Most pickles you get in the store are not fermented the way I describe above, btw. They might be started with a salting process the way Lee describes, but mostly they are just steeped in vinegar and spices.

Which can be a great way to make pickles -- don't get me wrong. Refridgerator pickles in particular are really tasty. Deli style pickles, though, are often lacto-fermented.

Kyra Halland said...

I'm not quite brave enough to make and eat my own homemade pickled things and canned stuff. My mother did canned tomatoes for years and years, until my dad gave up gardening on that scale, and no one ever died from eating them. It's a lot of work, though, and really too hot for the Arizona deserts in the summer.

The Daring Novelist said...

Fermenting isn't dangerous, nor do you have to create heat to do it. (Which is why I was doing it.) Nor is it much work, unless you want to create barrels of pickles to last ages.

And, actually that's true of non-fermented pickling. You can just let it marinate in the fridge in your seasoned vinegar, and you have a jar of pickled whatever.

But canning... yeah, that is a PITA.

chacha1 said...

I totally cheat the whole pickling thing and just go to a hot seasoned vinegar bath for the veg. Cooled and refrigerated and they last just long enough. :-)

The Daring Novelist said...

I do like to make marinated pickles, but you don't get the healthy bacteria that way. (Also, the fermentation process makes some very healthy compounds.)

I think I will try a hybrid process in future. (What I've tried so far shows me that a fermented cucumber soaks up the marinade twice as much!)