Archive for July 17th, 2008


Sharon July 17th, 2008

Usually I’m pretty fearless when it comes to the tough topics.  Want to talk about whether you probably should not do as I do, reproductively speaking?  Whether religion has anything good to add to peak oil and climate change discussions?  Why there are mostly white people in the conversation?  Even the most controversial topic I’ve ever gotten into – whether people should use dishwashers or not?  I’m for it – I’m right there diving in.

 But I’m drawing a line in the sand here, folks.  Here is a controversy I’m not willing to touch.  I will not discuss whether Sally Fallon and the Weston-Price folks are the Savior of Mankind or the Anti-Christ.  I just won’t.  For those of you who don’t know, Sally Fallon wrote a book – IMHO, it is a very good and interesting book on nutrition.  In it, she advocates many controversial things, including the fermenting of nearly everything.  This book comes up every time I talk about lacto-fermentation.  Now while I do like this book, I also think it is suffers from a common literary disease, known as “I’m fighting the conventional wisdom syndrome” – that is, when someone decides that they and they alone can overturn the conventional wisdom, they tend to get, umm…polemical, and they tend to try and make the distinctions between them and others very, very blatant – when often the distinctions are simply finer than they would like them to be.  You see, if you are setting yourself up as someone who stands against the tide, you want it to look like the tide only ever goes in one direction.  IMHO, the book is good – but not all the truth that ever was.

Now the thing is, people feel very strongly about this book, and about the Weston-Price Foundation to which Fallon is connected.  They either really love it, and everything about it, or really hate it – and many people who feel very strongly about this book feel that others should feel as strongly as they do.  They feel it quite loudly.  Since I don’t feel nearly as strongly, and this is my blog,  I’m going to play evil censor here, and ask that we contain the whole _Nourishing Traditions_ discussion and its merits and demerits and save it for another day, so that we can concentrate on actual lacto-fermenting.  Because, IMHO, even if you don’t believe everything Fallon says, lactofermented foods taste amazing, they are extremely good for you, and that’s enough reason to add them to your diet.

Lactofermentation is pretty simple – a salt brine is created, strong enough to kill off unwanted bacteria, mild enough to encourage lactic fermentation, which makes things sour and yummy.  It isn’t too picky – fermentation is faster in warm weather, slower in cool, so you want to watch it closely if you do it in the summer time.  Otherwise, easy peasy.  And the food is delicious, and nutritious, and amazing – I can’t say enough good things about most lactofermented foods.  Best of all, they are alive, and contain good enzymes that are good for you – for example, kimchi contains a natural antibiotic specific to e-coli, and so may other lactofermented foods, so these are good to eat with meats. 

My own passion for this stuff comes in part from a real liking for the taste and in part because during each of four pregnancies, I threw up between 20 and 40 times every single day for four straight months.  The category of things I could eat without throwing up was very, very small – and kimchi, sauerkraut and brined pickles were among them each time.  They were one of the few things that made me happy during those 16 months of hell.   I am not the only pregnant woman who could eat these things – they are a classic remedy for morning sickness in many countries.  Thus, they can do no wrong – and have only happy memories associated with them.

Add to this that lactofermentation is the only form of food preservation that actually makes the food more nutritious than if it wasn’t fermented - fermentation makes nutrients available, and foods more digestible, so we get more benefits.  Napa cabbage, made into kimchi, is more nutritious than fresh napa.  Regular cabbage, transformed into sauerkraut has more accessible vitamin C, and is more digestible, and doesn’t cause gas in most people the way regular cabbage does.  There’s really not a downside.

Now you may think you hate all these foods – if you’ve only ever eaten canned sauerkraut, you have no idea how delicious they are.  They also don’t have to be that sour - because these are living foods, you can adjust the sourness to taste.   A lot of my favorite kim chi panchan are very mild, even sweet and tangy.  Others are flaming hot (which I love).  So they are worth experimenting with.

The best books on this subject are Sander Katz’s great _Wild Fermentation_ – he has a website with a bunch of recipes and a lot of info on it here:, Fallon’s book _Nourishing Traditions_ and Linda Zeidrich’s _The Joy of Pickling_.

Ok, here’s the basic project – it works for making fermented (often called kosher-style) pickles, for pickled grape leaves, sauerkraut, kimchi and a host of other good things. You make a brine with some salt and water – kimchi a bit more, pickles a bit less.  For kimchi, I use 3 tablespoons of salt to a quart of water, for pickles 2 tablespoons.  If you are fermenting in warmer weather, a stronger, saltier brine will be useful, if in the cool weather, you can use less.  But it isn’t a very picky process – I’ve used quite little salt too.  But that’s about standard.

Chop up your vegetables (if chopping is called for) and dump them into some kind of non-reactive pot, crock or container.  Make a brine by mixing the salt and water until it is dissolved.  Let the veggies soak overnight if fairly finely chopped, or 48 hours if whole cukes – weight it down with a plastic baggie full of water or a plate covered with a weight – you want minimal to no exposure to air, but enough leakage to let gasses out (this is super important with daikon radishes, because they make explosive gasses – ask me how I know ;-) ).  Take the vegetables out, reserving the brine, and then pack them into a container that you plan to use, but now add spices, and flavorings.  Pour enough brine to cover, and leave it in a reasonably cool spot, no higher than 68 degrees, until it tastes like what you want taste. 

 The easiest way to ferment kimchi is after the initial brining, simply to pack the cabbage into jars, leaving a little headspace, add hot peppers, garlic and ginger, a little sugar and put them in mason jars with the rings on very lightly – the gas can get out, much air can get in – but the traditional method is a barrel or a crock with a lid that can be used to press down.  Or the baggie method works fine. 

How long to ferment? Kimchi usually takes about a week, depending on how strong you like it. Pickles can take several weeks, so can sauerkraut.  The key is to keep tasting it.

What’s the downside?  Well the downside is that these are living foods – they don’t keep forever, unless you can keep them very cool (fridge temps) or unless you can them.  And the bad part of canning them is that you kill many of the living organisms that make them so wonderful – and some of the taste.  If you have a fridge, putting them straight in the fridge will let you keep them for months – my kimchi and sauerkraut keep for about four months in my root cellaring space, which averages about 35-45 degrees.  But the foods do get sourer and sourer and stronger and stronger as you go on.   And they are pretty salty.

On the other hand, they are soooo good – stuffed pickled grape leaves, dill  pickles, mustard pickles, kimchi of all sorts, sauerkraut with dried cherries, juniper sauerkraut…ummm….

What do you do with them once you have them?  Well, we like sauerkraut in lots of things – with meats, in eastern-european style pies, etc….  Kimchi we eat in soup, and also stir fry with garlic and tofu or meat.  Pickles we just plain eat – and all four of my kids can keep up even with me.  Grape leaves we stuff.

 Ok, I will post recipes, but I have to do some family stuff first – later, I promise.  In the meantime, check out Katz’s site and this place for great kimchi


The Storage Life of Grains – Major and Minor

Sharon July 17th, 2008

I’ve had a number of participants in both my classes with food issues that meant that some grains weren’t an option for them.  A fairly large percentage of the population has sensitivities to wheat or corn (there’s some argument in the medical literature whether it is actually biologically possible to be allergic to rice – at a minimum, true rice allergies are extremely uncommon).  Another portion may not be aware that they cannot tolerate large quantities of wheat or corn until they try – I know at least two people with much stored wheat who have discovered they can’t eat it. 

So it behooves all of us to have some familiarity with, and perhaps some storage of, a range of grains beyond the big three – wheat, rice and corn.  Moreover, often minor grains haven’t had the major price rises that major ones have – as far as I know, as yet, no one is making ethanol with amaranth (I’m sure someone is or will be, though). 

Generally speaking, whole grains store for quite a while.  Bleached white grains, with all their nutritional goodness taken off also store a long while but are bad for you.  What stores very badly are any cracked, crushed, ground or processed grains the germ attached – whole grain flours, cracked grains or brown rice (more on this below) have a storage life measured in months, not years.  This is no problem if you don’t buy more than you eat in six months, and you rotate well – but just in case you might not be as careful as you should be on this one, generally speaking, you want to store whole grains – or the processed alternatives, which generally have inferior nutritional value, but some people might want to store them anyway.

The other issue that applies is whether a grain has a hard outer coating or a soft one.  If the grain has a hard one, it stores longer than the softer ones.  The hard grains (which include “soft” wheat – a designation that refers to its baking qualities, not its structure)  generally store for at least a decade, often 20+ years.  The soft grains store, in a cool, oxygen free environment for 6-9 years, depending on which reference you look at.

Because you are storing whole grains, many people will want a grain grinder. I did a post on this subject last time I did the class, and I won’t repeat myself.  A grain grinder is very nice, particularly if you would like to eat foods in familiar forms – ie, bready or pasty kinds of things.  But you can get along without one – for much of human history, grains were pounded or ground by hand or eaten whole.  You could just not eat breads or other ground foods and mostly eat bulghur, hominy and whole rice, quinoa, amaranth, etc…  A grain grinder is a nicety – a very, very useful nicety – but not necessary to life, and you can store grains without one. 

Wheat is a great storage food - but most of us probably shouldn’t eat just wheat.   Any food storage should include a balance of grains – especially if you have young kids.  No more than 50% of your food storage should be wheat based with children unless your family comes universally from genetic “wheat people” and daily eat huge quantities of wheat.  It should be noted that wheat is a wonderful food – and for those who can tolerate it, a great base for a diet, particularly if you are “from” bread.  Just don’t make it the only thing.  The good thing about wheat is that, properly packed into buckets with oxygen absorbers, dry ice, etc…  it will keep for decades.  If kept at temps below 70 degrees, it stays good for 20-30 years.  I am not recommending that you keep it that long – better to eat and enjoy it.  But it will last. 

Corn is also an allergenic food, although also a good one.  For corn, the major issue is that lacks  protein unless it is nixtamelized – that is, unless an alkaline substance is added to it.  The native peoples of the Americas routinely added wood ashes to their food, which resolved the issue.  European colonists in the new world adopted corn, but not the technique of making its full nutritional value accessible, and thus suffered from pellagra.  Kwashiorkor is a related disease, caused by weaning children from breastmilk to non-nixtamelized corn. 

So if corn is one of your primary staple foods, you should learn to make hominy, which is hulled (nixtamelized) corn.  Or you can simply grind or cook corn and add 2 tablespoons of clean (ie, you haven’t burned anything else with it) hardwood ash to each cup of  your corn. 

Take 3 cups of dried corn and 10 cups of water.  Soak the corn overnight in a bowl of teh water.  The next day, put the corn and water (use an enameled or ceramic pot if using the ash – unenameled metal will react with the ash) in a pot.  Cover and bring to a rapid boil.  When the corn comes to a boil, add either 1 cup of culinary ash or 2 tablespoons of baking soda.  You’ll see a dramatic color change in the kernels – they will get brighter looking.

Lower the heat and cover.  Simmer over low for 5 1/2 hours (the corn can be brought to a boil on the stove and then simmered in a sun oven) until the hulls start to com loose and the corn changes back to its original color.  stir occasionally, and add water if necessary.  When all the corn is softened, put the corn under cold water, and rubt it to remove the hulls.  Discard th hulls (compost, give to chickens), and drain the hulled corn.  You can serve the hominy with butter, or with milk straight, or you can dry it in the sun or a dehydrator (to check if it is dry enough, use a fingernail to break open a kernel – if there’s any moisture, keep drying).  It will keep 1-2 years in dry form. 

Dried hominy can be reconstituted, and is delicious in posole, a stew of dried chiles, meat (usually pork) and dried hominy.  Recipes here:

Or you can make masa, which is ground hulled corn.  For dry masa meal, you can dry the hominy and grind it, but traditional masa is ground in a metate from freshly hulled corn.  It is delicious, but a good bit of work, since most grinders can’t easily handle something that wet.  We’ve pulled off a rough parallel with a stick blender, though.

In _Little House in the Big Woods_ Laura Ingalls Wilder described her mother making hominy with lye but this is rough on the skin – I think baking soda or ash is easier (ashes contain lye, but the unprocessed substance is much easier to deal with).  The instructions there are pretty clear, though, if you really want to try it.  Be CAREFUL if you do – lye is very caustic.  Laura talks about eating hulled corn fried in pork fat, with maple syrip or like cereal, in milk.

 BTW, if you want to store whole grains but can’t convince family or friends you will eat this stuff, you might try storing lots of popcorn.  Now popcorn has the same issues as un-nixtamelized dry corn (nixtamelization is not necessary if you are only eating corn occasionally or as part of a wide range of grains – but because corn grows so well, so widely, I suspect some of us may come to rely on it more than we do now), and is not good for grinding into meal (too hard), but it is such an accessible food that occasionally food storage opponents will be ok with a 25 lb bucket of popcorn, and the mental image of endless movie nights that suggests.

Ok, on to Rice.  Here we come to one of the most common confusions in food storage.  Most of the foods we recommend storing are whole grains, which generally store better than grains that have been hulled or ground.  Brown rice looks, to most people, like a whole grain.  The problem is that it isn’t – rice actually has a hull on it, and once the hull is removed, the oils in rice go rancid very, very quickly.  Many people cannot taste rancid grains – they can’t tell if the oils have spoiled – and rancid grains are not good for you.  You shouldn’t eat them.  Brown rice oxidizes and spoils very quickly – the maximum storage life for brown rice out of a freezer is 6-12 months – and that’s a maximum – I’ve had it spoil faster.  Which is why most storage programs recommend white rice.  I’m actually going to do a post next week on finding *whole* unhulled rice and the possibilities of hulling it in the US – Kerri from AK who comments here kindly did a whole lot of research on this subject, and I want to pass it on, but it deserves its own post.  For most people, who do not want to build a rice huller, white rice, which is far less nutritious than brown, is the right choice for long term storage – generally speaking, you don’t want to buy more brown rice than you will use in 6-12 months, and less if you can’t taste (or aren’t sure if you can taste) rancid grains. 

Now 80% of the world’s population mostly eats these three grains.  This can be an advantage if you prefer to buy from smaller producers.  But there are a lot of other great grains out there.

Most of us know Rye best from bread – the big advantage of rye is that it will tolerate colder climates than wheat, and added to wheat flour, it makes delicious bread.  Rye grains, sprouted, also make a delicious porridge.  Rye is a soft grain, and keeps properly stored, for 5-6 years.

Amaranth is wonderful – it is also tremendously easy to grow in many climates, including mine. It can be popped like popcorn and it has a terrific flavor – we love it, and it is also one of the most beautiful and useful plants I grow.  It is great in flatbreads or granola.  I’ve seen several reliable sources with wildly differing estimates of how long amaranth keeps – from 3 years to 10 years and beyond.  I’m going to say we should treat it like a soft grain (with a soft hull) and call it 5 years, but if someone has a better figure, let me know.

Quinoa is hugely popular among people who can’t eat wheat, people keeping kosher for passover (it isn’t a true grain so we can eat it) and a host of new converts.  It is often used like rice or couscous, with food served over it.  It is a soft grain and keeps 6-9 years.  Quinoa has a coating that contains saponins, that are very bitter and soapy – you must rinse it until the water stops soaping before eating it.  The rinse water supposedly can be used to do laundry, though.

Barley is one of the oldest grains – one of the best things about barley is the sweetness it develops when sprouted – malted or sprouted barley adds a light, sweet flavor to breads.  Pearled barley is essentially the white rice of barley, and keeps forever – whole barley keeps forever, but has hulls which are not the sort of thing you want to eat – whole barley at the home level, without some way to hull it, is mostly good for beer making.  There are hulless barleys, but there’s no clear answer on how long they store – at a minimum, I would recommend treating them as a soft grain.  Hulled barley keeps 5-7 years.

Buckwheat is essential in pancakes at our house, and in soba noodles – easily grown, easily ground, it makes a crop quite quickly in late summer.  The greens are nutritious (as are amaranth’s) and a good salad green in hot climates where lettuce bolts, or anywhere you are using it as a cover crop.  It is a hard grain, and lasts for decades.

Millet is a hard grain as well – most of us know it as birdseed, but it is a common food grain in India and much of Northern Asia, and has a delicate taste – it is quite delicious.  We use it like rice or couscous – it is also very digestible.  It stores for decades.

Spelt, Kamut and Emmer I’ll deal with together, because they are all forms of wheat with special qualities.  All keep like wheat – more or less forever.  Emmer is a very old form of wheat that some people with wheat sensitivities can tolerate (although it is not good for celiacs) – it has a heavy hull.  It is also a good variety for those growing wheat on extremely poor soils.  Kamut is a commercial variety that some people with wheat allergies seem to be able to tolerate – those who produce it claim it is a very old variety, but there’s limited evidence on this.  The same is true of spelt, which is either a wheat or a close relative, depending on how you interpret the genetic evidence.  Again, it is not suitable for people with celiac.  All keep very well, all are lower gluten than conventional wheat and make a heavier bread, but all taste good.

Not a true grain (neither is amaranth or quinoa), Flaxseed in its whole form also keeps nearly forever – for a decade or more.  Given the importance of omega-3 fatty acids and the pleasant taste of flaxseed, this is an excellent thing to keep in storage – we love it.

 All of these are worth eating and experimenting with – and storing.  But please don’t just store them – eat them. 

A few recipe links:

More recipes in future posts!

Water Bath Canning 101

Sharon July 17th, 2008

Ok, today’s subject will be canning and lactofermentation.  I’ll start with the canning.  Today’s subject is Water Bath Canning, which is different than Pressure Canning – we’ll talk about the latter next week.  I’m going to start from the very beginning here – I know lots of people who read this blog already have a lot of experience on this front, but just in case you don’t, it is worth going over the basics.  The first thing I’m going to say is that I don’t want you to be scared, and I don’t want you not to try this, but I do want you to swear up and down before you do any canning that you will pay attention, read instructions carefully and follow the rules.  Because, even though your Mom always did it this, you really can die from not being careful with canning.  It probably won’t happen – but why mess with it?  Properly done, canning is easy and safe – just do it properly.

Water Bath Canning is the appropriate method for canning *only* high acid foods.  Such foods include pickles, jams, jellies, fruit juices, rhubarb (which is technically a vegetable but so acidic it can be water bath canned) and all-tomato products.  Everything else must be pressure canned.  The reason for this is that the bacteria, clostridium botulinum, that causes botulism, is endemic the soil – it is all over your vegetables and fruits in most cases.  That’s not a problem in an aerobic (there’s plenty of air) environment – your body can handle it just fine (although babies under 1 year sometimes have trouble with it).  But in a warm, anaerobic environment like a canning jar, it goes crazy.  And botulism will kill you and your family – it is not something to mess with.

Now any food with a ph lower than 4.4 (acidic) provides an environment inhospitable to botulism – which is why high acid foods can be safely pressure canned.  But, the thing is, most of us don’t have the chemist’s equipment to confirm acidity – for example, tomatoes can have an acidity level as low as 4.0, or as high as 4.7, if they are overripe or a low acid hybrid. And there are a couple of cases of botulism found in tomato products.  This is why following the instructions of a *RECENT* canning book is essential – any cookbook written before 1994 is not safe to use – that is, you can use the recipe, but you must follow current guidelines for canning – generally speaking, if you aren’t using just fruit and sugar, or pickles, but mixing ingredients, say, in tomato sauce or salsa, you must follow the instructions for the ingredient in the food that requires the longest and most intense processing – that is, if you are making salsa with tomatoes and hot peppers, unless you know the recipe is safe (that is, you have gotten it from a USDA approved, recent book or website that specifically says that it is a combination food that is safe to water bath can, *AND* you have followed instructions exactly, not adding any more ingredients or changing proportions at all).  For tomato products with nothing else in them, add 2 tsp of lemon juice per pint, or 4 per quart, or the same amount of vinegar, to ensure their acidity stays below minimum levels.  This might also be wise if you are canning very overripe fruit. 

Ok, for canning you need a few things.  You need a large pot with a lid – canning kettles with racks are great, but you can use any big pot with a lid, and something to keep the jars off the bottom of the pot so they won’t break – a steamer, a baker’s rack – anything that will lift the jars off the bottom and allow water to circulate.  Ideally, you will also have a canning kit – it comes with a jar lifter (big tongs designed to lift full canning jars), a magnet (for pulling the lids out of boiling water), and a funnel the right size for pouring hot things into canning jars.  You don’t actually need these things – they are merely convenient – but they are really convenient, and nice and cheap, so I recommend them.  You can take the jars out with regular tongs – I have done this.  I’ve also had one splash back and send boiling water at me – your choice.  You can fill the jars without the funnel, but why struggle?  The stuff is also available used at your friendly neighborhood yard sale.

I have never bought a new canning jar – I get them constantly for a buck a box or sometimes $3 for 5 boxes – they are one of those things most people seem to have in their garage.  Put out requests on freecycle or Craigslist, and see what you can find before you buy them.

The only ones that are really considered safe to use are the newer kind, that have two piece, screw on lids.  The old ones with the jar rubbers can technically be used for high acid foods, but they aren’t recommended, can only be used with new rubbers, and I’m not going to explain how to do it here, because there’s a lot of controversy about whether it is safe.  If you have the old zinc lid or wire and rubber canning jars, use them to display stored food, or store dehydrated stuff – don’t can with them.

You also don’t need to buy new rings – as long as the rings aren’t rusted through, and as long as they fit on the jar (often canning jars come with the rings), you can reuse them.  These I occasionally do buy new, as not all jars come with them. 

You need a new lid every time – and jars come in two sizes – regular and wide mouthed.  So you not only need a new lid, but an appropriately sized one.  I buy my canning lids buy the case, because I do a lot of canning – they store for quite some years as long as they are kept cool and dry, and are much cheaper if you can afford to buy them in bulk. 

Now in a real crisis, it is technically possible, although NOT RECOMMENDED to reuse lids that have been carefully pried up and checked to ensure there are no dents or damage to the rubber inside – BUT ONLY ON VERY HIGH ACID FOODS.  I am telling you this because in a real crisis, it might be useful knowledge.  I do not advise it – you do it at your own risk.  At a minimum I would never, ever, ever use it on any low-acid or even borderline food  – pickles and acid fruit jams only.  The best use for used canning lids is for jars of food that you are dehydrating and storing, or for mason jars you fill with beans and grains that aren’t canned.

So what do you do?  Let’s say you want to make raspberry jam.  You would take fresh (you really don’t want to leave your stuff sitting around too long before you can it – off flavors can permeate a whole batch of something) raspberries, add sugar to taste or to meet the requirements of the brand of pectin you are using (we use low sugar pectins only because we find regular ones make a jam that is simply too sweet for us), and follow the instructions for the pectin. 

In the meantime, wash your canning jars and lids carefully, and check the jars for tiny nicks on the top, because that can ruin your seal.  Then submerge the jars in a pot of boiling water that comes up at least 2 inches above the top of the jars.  Bring the water to a boil, and boil the jars.  Meanwhile, boil the lids and rings as well.  When your jam is hot and ready to be ladled in, use the jar lifter to take out the jars, and put them upside down on  a clean dishtowel to drain.  Then flip them, and use a ladle or spoon and the funnel to fill the jars to the recommended headspace.

Headspace is the amount of space between the food and the lid that you need to create a good seal.  Often it is 1 inch, but check the recipe every time, because it may be more.  When the jar is filled to the appropriate level, wipe the rim of the jar with a clean dishcloth to remove any food that might prevent a good seal, put the lid on, put the ring on (not super tightly – enough to hold the lid in place firmly), and use the jar lifter to pu the food in the canning kettle.  Process for the appropriate amount of time listed for the ingredient – jams are usually 15 minutes.  Processing time begins when the water returns to a rolling boil – start timing then. 

When you are done, use the lifter to take the jars out of the boiling water bath, and put them carefully (don’t bang them around) on a clean, dry dishtowel.  You will hear a seal being formed within a few minutes – the sound is “thwuck”.  Some will seal right out of the kettle, others a few minutes later – this is normal.  Allow the food to cool without being disturbed.  When the jars are cool enough to touch, press down on the lid.  If it is suctioned down and has no give, it is sealed.  If you can push down on it and it pops up again, it isn’t.  If it isn’t sealed, you can either reprocess with a new lid for the same amount of time, or you can stick it in the fridge and use that one first.

 You may have been taught to can by someone who did oven canning (jars are baked), inverted the jars to create a seal, or did open kettle canning (poured hot food into jars and put on lids and let them seal themselves) these are not safe – DON’T DO IT!!!!  Neither are weird things like putting an asprin (ugh!) in the jar.  There have been cases of botulism with some of these methods, others could potentially cause botulism.

None of this means, however, that you can’t use Mom’s wonderful pickled beet recipe – you just have to use current techniques to can that old recipe. 

That’s really all there is to water bath canning.  It is very easy, and very convenient, as long as you do it wisely.