The growing season is well underway. My garden is brimming with towering corn stalks, creeping bean vines and a bushy tomato jungle.
All these plants are making more than I can eat right now. Rather than see anything that comes out of my garden go to waste, I’m starting to preserve all of this delicious, local produce.
The first on my agenda this year is beets.
I have a fairly indifferent attitude toward beets. They are a sweet addition to salads and can make a flavorful soup. But they take a while to cook and stain EVERYTHING they touch bright pink: cutting boards, counter tops, clothes and skin. The pink washes off the counter tops and skin well enough but stays in the grains of my wooden cutting boards and the fibers of my cotton t-shirts. (That said, I hear they make a wonderful dye for wool.)
So I recommend a plastic cutting board and an apron when handling beets.
The University of Illinois Extension lists a variety of ways to preserve beets including freezing, canning, pickling or drying. I opted for a variation on canning this time in the ancient practice of fermenting.
Like a lot of my gen-Yers, I grew up in a quiet suburban neighborhood, far away from farms and conveniently close to a refrigerator. I had no need for fermentation to keep my food from growing harmful bacteria and usually tossed foods that had started to ferment.
As an adult, I’ve chosen to live without a refrigerator at times (read: when I’m on extended backpacking trips in the woods). And I’ve learned from cultures around the world that fridges are nice, but not necessary if you take a little time to preserve food by introducing healthy bacteria cultures that create an environment unsuitable for molds that will breakdown and decompose the food.
And I’ve learned a lot of this through reading “The Art of Fermentation” by Sandor Ellix Katz. The bright orange tome details fermentation practices from beer and wine to cheese, vegetables, fruit and meat.
I decided to start off with an easy one: Vegetable ferment in salt.
“A head of cabbage forgotten on an obscure shelf of your pantry will not spontaneously transform itself into sauerkraut. Vegetables left exposed to air start to grow molds, and if left long enough, those molds can reduce a head of cabbage to a puddle of slime, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to crunchy, delicious, and aromatic sauerkraut.”
– Sandor Ellix Katz
Beets fermented in salt:
Step 1: Wash beets and remove greens (sidenote: the greens are totally edible raw or cooked) I used about 12 beets, but you can use as many or as few as you like.
Step 2: Shred beets with skins. I threw mine into the food processor, but dicing works too. The goal is to create as much surface area as possible for the next step.
Step 3: Add salt, and pound and crush the shredded beets. I put the beets into a metal bowl, added about 2 tablespoons of salt, and went to town squeezing and mashing them with my hands. The idea is to break the cell walls to release the water held inside the rigid plant cell. The salt helps draw more water out. The more water you can get the beets to release, the less you have to add later.
Step 4: Pack the beets into a mason jar. I got all 12 beets to pack into one quart jar. You want everything to be tight, so when you think the jar is full, shove your hand down in the jar and push to create more space. All the juices released from pounding should cover the beets. If not, add some water.
Step 5: Screw on the lid and wait. How long? It’s up to you. Katz recommends giving the vegetables at least three days to ferment and then give it a taste. If you like what you taste, start eating. If it’s not a strong enough flavor, wait a few more days and try again.
When you reach a flavor you like, putting the jar in the fridge virtually stops the fermentation process, so you can take your time eating it. You can also boil the jar for lengthy preservation, but that kills any lactic acid bacteria that have grown in the process, i.e. the flavor will change.
Every 24 hours during the first three-plus days of fermentation, unscrew the lid to release built-up pressure. This will be more than just air, it will mean pink juice that stains. So I recommend doing this in the sink. If you do not release the pressure, you risk the lid deforming and causing an uncontrolled spew of pink.
Additionally, if you have space, I recommend leaving the jar in the sink for the first week of fermentation. I kept coming back to the jar and finding slow leaks from the lid. They slowed, and then stopped after a few days.