To me, August is the summer month when the largest variety of locally grown fruits and vegetables surround us at farm stands, farmers’ markets and in our home gardens. The bounty often leads us to look for ways to preserve this food, so we have summer goodness to enjoy during the long winter.
Pickled and fermented foods have been in the media spotlight over the past year. Pickling and fermenting fruits and vegetables is a relatively easy process. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has general information on how to pickle and ferment, how to choose the best produce, tested recipes that will produce a delicious and safe product and resources to help you if something goes wrong in the pickling or fermenting process.
So what’s the difference between pickling and fermenting? Pickling is when a food is preserved in a brine or vinegar. Fermenting is the process of using yeasts and bacteria to convert the carbohydrates in food to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Many foods we eat including bread, beer, wine and yogurt are fermented.
According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, when pickling or fermenting food, choose the freshest produce available. Weigh or measure foods accurately, because it’s important that the ratio of produce to pickling or fermenting brine is correct to ensure safety of the finished product. The level of acidity in the finished product is as important for food safety as it is for taste. Use canning or pickling salt so the brine is not cloudy. Flake salt is not recommended because it’s difficult to get an accurate measure. White and brown sugar are typically used as sweeteners. Vinegar needs to have at least 5 percent acidity. White vinegar is often used as it won’t change the color of the finished product.
When fermenting food, make sure to use ceramic crocks, food grade plastic buckets or glass containers. A 1 gallon container is needed for 5 pounds of vegetables. During fermentation, food must be kept 1 to 2 inches below the brine. This ensures an anaerobic environment. Many people use a ceramic dinner plate to push down the food and then weight the plate in place using quart mason jars filled with water and sealed. It’s also suggested that you drape a towel or other clean cloth over the crock to keep out insects and airborne molds and yeasts. Make sure that the fermenting container, plate and weights are washed well in hot, soapy water before using them.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation also has information and recipes for making jams and jelly, canning, freezing, drying, curing and smoking food. Also available is a free, on-line self-study course called “Preserving Food at Home”. This information can found at http://hchfp.uga.edu. A great recipe and how-to book called “So Easy to Preserve” as well as a step by step DVD set is available for purchase at the So Easy To Preserve website found at www.setp.uga.edu.
Jen Reardon is a registered dietitian nutritionist who leads the Western Region EFNEP program for Cornell Cooperative Extension and owns Nutrition By Design.