The big Fall pickle was a delicious success! We tried a couple new tricks, solidified some hunches and showed off some hard cider, as well. We now have pickled raw materials on hand for a mess of custom mixes, plenty of backbone and bonifidus for all manner of yummy comestibles.
The pickle: We processed garlic, onions (yellow and red), carrots, and a mix of sweet red, yellow, and orange bell peppers with deseeded jalapenos. Local peppers are in season and we tried to use as much locally grown produce as possible. The original idea was to have each ingredient separate for custom mixing post-pickle but the pepper mix (vs. sweet peppers and hot peppers-a mistake in communication) has turned out to balance flavor with heat remarkably well. We used whey as the inoculant, so everything has a mellow (not vinegary) nose. 6lbs. of garlic turns into half a gallon shredded and half a gallon of whole cloves. 15lbs. of onions is about two gallons shredded. And 15lbs. of mixed peppers came out to 3/4 gallons shredded. There's a gallon of shredded carrots, too; they were left to ferment for three days, while everything else got a full week. Since we use the carrots to balance heat from the peppers, they don't need but a light ferment. We had one casualty- a mixed jar Christy made by herself looked good a couple days in but had turned brown by the end of the week. Not sure what went wrong with it (didn't clean the glass above the waterline is just a guess) but it smelled obviously bad, as well as was noticeably off-color. In contrast, everything else we pickled kept their bright colors, with the onion mixing intoa marblized pink. The process itself took two weekends but we could have done with just a pair of Sundays with more help.
The new technique is an interim step between pickling in quart jars under an oil seal (a la Sally Fallon) and pickling in a crock with a weighted plate to hold things down (history's technique). With a plate or flat, clean stone weighted by a jar of water, all the fermenting veggies are held below the waterline despite the buoyant effect of the offgassed CO2 bubbles. Larger batches do well in a crock and we considered just making one big mix but if your ratios are off a bit, you lose control of the flavor profile. Hence the individual batches of separate ingredients. In a smaller jar, it's easy to wipe the jar clean above the waterline and float in some olive oil. This seals out the air and lets the lactobacillii set up shop in an anaerobic environment. Lacto-fermentation generates CO2, though, and distributes it well throughout the mix. So stuff floats up into the oil, a potential for mess we didn't want to deal with in the half-gallon jars we planned to use. So, when it was time to seal each jar, we wiped them clean to the waterline as before and then capped them off with a plastic bag full of water. The weight of the water held everything in place, while the baggie made a seal. In a gallon baggie, we put a little over a cup of water, tied off the baggie, and used what was left to seal the top of the jar. This worked out very well for a first shot experiment. What was un-anticipated was the mold that set up shop in the humid space between the water-filled bag and the top of the jar, sealed in by the rest of the bag. Since all the hairy gunk was above the bag and waterline, the pickles were untouched and cleanup was relatively simple. Since most other pickle people we're reading have experience this, we were unfazed.
What we'll change next time: We left about two inches room at the top of each batch but we could leave more room next time. I'm not sure it's necessary to do this, however, as we're also going to use more water, enough to fully fill the rest of the jar. In a tied-off baggie, this will plug the top of the jar while still allowing fluid from inside to bubble out as necessary. While we didn't see as much expansion and bubbling over as we've seen with cabbage, there was still some overflow. So perhaps three inches room would solve the problem. As we did it this time, the waterline in each jar was just above the bottom of each bag. Expecting overflow, we could make that waterline at the top of the jar and use positive pressure to keep the moldies out. We won't fold the bag over the rim and seal it with a lid ring next time, keeping a closed, safe space for mold to grow! Since we anticipated bubbling over, we had the jars on a towel in a big pan to catch the overflow. With curious kitties in the house, I pulled the towel up and over the jars and capped the stack with a box of baking aids. This created conditions for mold to grow in the damp towel-enclosed space inside. Not a big deal but worth dealing with, say by finding a different kitty-proofing method perhaps. And newspaper will evaporate off the water quicker than cotton, thereby further inhibiting moldigrowth.
What we're doing with it all: I've called this stuff "backbone and bonifidus" because that's what it is to our meals. The basic Lewis "power mix" is two parts garlic, two parts peppers, one part onion, and one part carrot. I threw all of this in the blender with some soy sauce and dulse (for mineral content) and cracked pepper. Once it had blended well, I added a bit of olive oil, while the machine is still running, a drop at a time. Good food processors have a little reverse nipple on top just for this- I made an emulsion by mixing in the oil slowly, so everything stays together instead of separating. I put this in a squeeze bottle and took it to work. I put it in soup and pho, hummous, our beans, on sandwiches, tacos, whatever. At home, I took the same mix, added some carrots, and ground in olives to make a tapenade. If you add tomatoes, you get salsa. Avocado becomes guacamole. With the separate ingredients waiting, we can make custom batches for specific needs or, for barter, let folks make their own according to their tastes, whims or needs.
The cider: Cider is almost ridiculously easy. It makes itself, afterall, if allowed to, just ask the birds. In a gallon jug of pasteurized (first time I've looked for pasteurized in a long time, let me tell you) apple juice, I added a fifth of a bag of champagne yeast. Any yeast will work (bread yeast is most common in prison hooch) but the champagne yeast yields the best flavor. Wild yeast is in the air you're breathing right now, most likely, so I could just leave the stuff open for a while but I wouldn't have near as much control over what it tastes like. I stuck a sterilized cork and airlock on top and let it run for ten days, which is when the airlock stopped bubbling, indicating a cessation of the yeast's activities. This is a picture of the the kind of airlock I prefer: http://firstpitch.files.wordpress.com/2007/01/bubbly-airlock.jpg; I like this kind because it's easier to see the bubbles moving and thereby know when fermentation has stopped (when the bubbles do). This person filled their jug too much but the bubbles make it easier to see what's going on in the picture. You fill the airlock halfway with water. This provides the barrier that keeps wild yeasts n bugs out. Once the yeast gets going, the chamber connected to the jug will receive the CO2 coming off the juice and empty out under the pressure. Bubbles will then be observed rolling up into the (now full) other chamber, to exit via the top. Letting the batch go until the bubbles and fermentation stopped yielded a completely "dry" batch, meaning all the sugar had been eaten by our little friends and turned into alcohol. The test and "first" batch came out to about seven percent alcohol and was very dry- not at all sweet. The "second" batch received eight ounces of unrefined cane sugar to further feed the lil' buggies. This necessitated reserving a cup or so of juice and then pouring a couple cups into a saucepan. I heated the juice to dissolve the sugar. Once this was added back to the jug, I poured back whatever of what I'd reserved that still fit in the jug. Adding this half pound of sugar meant two percent more alcohol after ten days. Interestingly, Christy liked the dry character of the hard cider but Der Schtellinator deemed it too dry to drink. These were the batches we showed off over the course of the pickle. The latest batch received a pound of sugar and a half pound of honey, as well as yeast nutrient. The nutrient is basically a multivitamin for the lil' buggies and was purchased where the yeast was. This was a controlled fermentation process, so all the cleanliness rules from pickling apply.
The hard part of cider: Like I said, cider is easy. Measuring the alcohol content adds the challenge. Our local homebrewer's resource is DeFalco's (www.defalcos.com) and they had what we needed for all of this. To measure alcohol content, one uses a hydrometer to get a specific gravity reading before and after fermenting. Since alcohol is lighter than water and sugars are heavier, the difference between the two readings gives a clue to alcohol content. DeFalco's sells a hydrometer with a handy reference page and their hydrometer is graduated in a number of scales; since I don't care what else is in the juice besides water and sugar, the specific gravity readings, starting at 1.000 for straight water and 1.51 for juice (and potentially getting to .9somethingsomething) was too detailed. I found working with the potential alcohol scale easier than the specific gravity. According to this scale, the pound and a half of sweets added should give us an alcohol content of 13.5% if we allow full fermentation. I think I'll pull this one a day or two early, to leave a little sugar for the palate, though. When I bought the hydrometer, I also bought a wine thief and a standing tube for making hydrometer readings in. I also bought an iodine-based sterilant called Iodophor, to clean the 'meter, stopper, bubbler, and testtube. In hindsight, I didn't need to buy the wine thief (a large blown-glass pipette)- I could have used a turkey baster, if I was too drunk or lazy to pour from the jug into the test tube. And I can drop the 'meter into the jug and fish it out again (w/ sterile tongs), were I that frugally motivated.
We'll post pictures as we sort them out, come back for more! Happy, bubbly jars to you!