farm

Ferment Pittsburgh’s Justin Lubecki, together with his brother Nick, began a farming project in Spring 2017 an hour north of Pittsburgh to explore what it meant to feed themselves throughout the year. Experimenting with crops and traditional farming techniques the challenge then carries over to the kitchen to process, preserve, and eat them naturally.

Making A Sauerkraut Tradition (general kraut tutorial)

fermentation, Vegetable Fermentation

Sauerkraut is easily the number one food we eat in the winter. With fall rolling through we make a huge batch annually to use with almost every meal. A long slow simmered sauerkraut is the perfect canvass to marry with anything in the cellar- roots, potatoes, sausages for comfort all winter long- with a big dollop of yogurt.

We make ours in quantities that fit into 5 gallon buckets and if you were interested in doing the same, Home Depot and Lowes sell a white food grade 5 gallon bucket and lid in their paint section. I know food grade plastic is less than ideal but our house in an urban row stays pretty mild. The buckets with snap lids wonderfully safeguard the kraut from getting too gnarly, being a fly residence, and keeping the smell from filling the house. The 5 gallon size also accommodates 50# of fresh green cabbage perfectly. Having an abundant amount makes using it often as easy as remembering it’s there.

For sourcing your cabbage and other assorted veggies, if you’re making a large enough batch you might sell out the farm stand. Give the farm a call ahead of time and ask for a bulk order. If they have it they’ll be happy to accommodate. And then you’ll have no need to buy any of that out of season cabbage from the grocery store this winter.


The creative whim that can go into a sauerkraut from spices, herbs, fruit, and different vegetables is really special. I hope your creativity can be your guide whether you are making a pint, a quart, or more. We tend to make a bulk “traditional” batch, and portion smaller amounts off for making something more eccentric.

Here’s The Sauerkraut Process

Peel off any weird outer leaves from your green cabbage. Cut the cabbage in half to remove the core, then proceed to slice the cabbage into ribbons or whatever shape you’d like.


Mix with salt, let’s say 1 & 1/2- 2tsp per a pound of cabbage, but salt to whatever is your taste preference, there’s no wrong answer. Then massage, pound, stomp, or club your cabbage until its giving up its water.

Now pack the cabbage and its brine into your fermenting vessel of choice, pushing it down so that all the cabbage is in brine. Be careful not to overfill as it will rise and possibly spill over, so give a couple inches of headspace.

Either affix a lid or place a weighted cover and then a cloth draped over to keep the cabbage under the brine and the bugs out. I really like fixing a lid on top. It takes most of the work out it things. The Co2 that results in fermentation will protect the kraut from oxygen. Contact with oxygen carries the risk of mold growth and mushiness. Without a lid the Co2 doesn’t get trapped and maintenance to keep the cabbage submerged in the brine will be necessary. With the right amount of headspace in a bucket with a lid, we’ll just move it to a cool area and not touch it until we start tapping into the larder around Thanksgiving.

In the fall it’s really nice to take advantage of the mild days and cool nights by leaving the kraut outside in a shady area to ferment. We only bring it in once it starts getting too cold, then it move into the cellar or a cool corner of the house where it slowly disappears every day, one scoop at a time.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Growing a Sorghum Syrup Tradition

homesteading, Uncategorized

Growing and pressing sorghum is a fun crop to have in your garden rotation for homegrown sugar. Sorghum stalks are filled with a sugar-rich sap that once pressed out takes just a short bit of boiling to get syrup.

Growing sorghum

Growing sorghum is similar to growing corn. Look for cultivars that specialize in being pressed for sugar over ones that favor its grain production. Direct sow after the last frost in a bed prepared with high fertility with 1/4″ depth. Space similarly to corn with rows 3-4′ and 8″ in row. Overseeding is fine as you can thin as they grow up.

Harvesting

Harvest sorghum when the grains on its seedhead reach soft dough stage. This means that the grain has filled in and no longer exudes a milky ooze when bitten. They should be red colored. This happens usually towards the end of September and early October here in Western Pennsylvania.

To harvest pull all the leaves off in the field, which can be done by hand. Using a pair of snips cut off the seedhead. These can be saved and used as grain and/or seeds for next year. Then cut down the stalk using a machete, sickle, or other method and stack the stalks.

Sorghum stalks are firm but can snap easily. If it happens its not a big deal but it helps to keep in mind where you’re planning to press to minimize moving them around.

Pressing

We’ve tried pressing sorghum a couple of different ways. The first time we tried we used a wooden hand-cranked apple crusher. It was immediately obvious that we were missing out on a lot of juice. A proper pressing mechanism is handy.

A tabletop sugarcane press does a great job. They seem to cost around $100- $250, but can do a lot of sorghum every year.

Get a friend and start cranking. Do a handful of stalks at a time according to how much your machine and cranker can handle. Usually we’ll have one person feed the stalks and the other turn the crank as the juice flows out to a pot below.

Boiling

Sorghum syrup boils down at a 10:1 ratio rather than 60:1 like maple sap. It’s a much quicker process and one I don’t mind doing on my home stove, as it’ll be just a few short hours.

Boiling will make a lot of crud on the top so skim the surface throughout the process. Boiling is done when a the sorghum reaches you desired syrup consistency. If you have a hydrometer, 74 Brix is the level of store-sold syrup. We fill them in mason jars hot and flip upside down for a seal.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Saving Vegetable Seeds

farm, homesteading

With fall just starting to show, now is the perfect time to think about putting some seeds away for next year. While growing your own food invokes essential traditions with family and community each year, seed saving is a worthwhile practice that can carry those important traditions across generations. Here are a couple straight-forward veggies that are a good place to start saving.

When choosing a fruit to collect seeds from consider carefully as seed saving is akin to adopting a new family member. Once you’ve chosen the plants you want to work with, look for the general attributes of the fruit and the plant as they would be the parent of the future generations in your garden. Choose for characteristics you like, perhaps the plant’s performance, fruit size, disease resistance, etc.

Tomatoes

Some genetic crossing with other closeby tomato varieties are possible, so maybe consider spacing different varieties apart in your garden. Collect ripe fruits. Crush them in a container and stir twice daily. There is a pulp that surrounds the seeds that will be reduced by a light fermentation. The seeds should eventually sink to the bottom after about 2-4 days. Caution that over-fermentation can reduce germination.

When the seeds are ready add water, stir, and pour off the water with the tomato solids. Keep repeating until the seeds are left with some pretty clean water. Strain the seeds and lay out on a cloth to dry.

Peppers

Use ripe fruit. Remove the seeds from the flesh. No washing necessary. Allow to air dry. Varieties should be grown with some separation if genetic purity is desired, around 50′.

Eggplant

Use mature fruit whose flesh leaves an indent when pressed. Remove seeds by cutting and crushing the fruits. A knife will likely slice through some seeds so maybe just cut in half then tear the rest with your hands. Place in a bowl and add water and continue to crush, squeeze, or rub free the seeds. Wash out in a way similar to tomatoes but there’s no fermentation required. Lay out to dry. Varieties should be separated by around 50′ if you want genetic purity.

Beans, Grains, & Potatoes

Plants like beans, potatoes, and grains are quite simple as the harvest is the seed itself. Just let the plant reach full maturity, harvest, and store away as you would as if it were food. Beans and grains tend to be left on the plant until it fully dies back, they are further dried indoors for a few weeks just to be sure, then packed away. Potatoes are stored in the root cellar or a cool basement.

Note on Drying Seeds

Let the seeds dry on their own if your ambient temperatures allow them to do so without molding. Try not to use anything to speed up drying however a light fan for air-flow can be okay.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Homemade Hominy – Nixtamalization

farm, Homegrown Grains

If I had to choose only one grain to grow it would be corn. Of the great variety of products corn can become, hominy is essential. Whether dent or flint, these corns are perfectly edible and are eaten as polenta and grits, but their kernel’s hull bind up niacin which causes deficiencies that lead to health conditions like Pellegra. In comes the innovative technique called nixtamalization. It was eventually discovered that corn soaked in an alkaline brine dissolved the hemicellulose walls of the corn and freed the niacin for human to ingest. Additionally the process softened the kernels and in some cases dramatically increased the minerals available and greatly reduced mycotoxins.

So how’s it done? Two ways of creating a proper alkaline brine is through the addition of lime (from stone) and lye (wood ash). Lime, also known as Cal, is limestone baked at a really high temperature (converting the calcium carbonate to calcium oxide), then when treated with water (where it becomes calcium hydroxide), and dehydrated to a fine white powder as lime or Cal. It naturally increases the kernel’s minerals when used in processing as well as influencing the familiar aromas we associate with tortillas. Lye on the other hand, being more widely accessible, was used by people who might not have had access to limestone deposits, as it is produced by soaking wood ash in soft water. There is food grade lye you can buy which works the same as a wood ash solution but lacks the mineral contribution provided by natural wood ash.

How its done

Get yourself some field corn, whether flint or dent, either will do. Your best bet is to grow it yourself if you can. But if you can’t, research the Open-pollinated varieties grown in your area. Popular out our way is Wapsi Valley, which is a dent corn pictured above (note the dents on the tops of the kernels). We found it by researching OP corn for feed for sale locally and learned more about the varieties, such as how they are actually delicious heirlooms. If you tell the farmer you buy the seed from that your eating it they may think your crazy as lots of people think it’s just for livestock anymore.

Either way, when you have some corn, weigh the threshed kernels and put them in a pot and cover with water to about 2-3 extra inches above the kernels. Add Cal at about 1 gram per every 100 grams of corn. If you’re looking for Cal, check out a grocery store from Central and South America. For the lye method see below.

Bring the pot to a simmer and let it go until the kernels are a little tender. It could take around 45 minutes, or more or less. Caution that boiling with Cal can create bitter flavors.

Remove pot from heat and let it sit for 24 hours.

Strain the kernels and give them a rinse while also massaging them. You now should be seeing the hulls wash off like whispy, soggy paper. The job is done. Wash off the husks according to what you intend to make. Retaining the hulls adds some gelatinization which is helpful in making thin products like tortillas.

The hominy can now be stored a couple different ways. They can be frozen as they are, or dehydrated and stored dry, in which you would soak them like any other grain before cooking or grinding them into hominy grits. You can also grind them fresh to make tortillas for dinner tonight!


Lye Method

If you’re using food grade lye use roughly the same ratio as above 1 gram lye for 100 grams of kernels. For information on food grade lye and/ or using wood ash itself you can refer to this post regarding lye and bagels. Sodium hydroxide, which is what pure lye is, in the right quantities can burn you so use care in avoiding skin contact with the lye brine if you’re using this method.

Cover threshed corn with water, add lye granules or lye brine, and bring to a boil.

Simmer for 30 minutes, turn off heat and steep for another 30 minutes.

Drain the lye water and soak in clean water for 30 minutes.

Change the water once again and bring to a boil one more time, and simmer until kernels are tender. Wash hulls as you wish.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Homemade Blueberry Vinegar

fermentation, homesteading

Blueberry vinegar first began as a failed attempt at blueberry wine, but is now an annual tradition and the primary vinegar we use for everything. Making vinegar is a perfect use for old, blemished, and forgotten fruit.

This recipe is for a sweet blueberry vinegar that is excellent as a finishing vinegar or to dress up salads. No fancy task here, though a hydrometer is laxidazically used to measure the sugar content along the way. It’s an essential tool for alcohol ferments that costs ~$20, though is not required for here.

For every gallon of fresh blueberries you’ll need:

  • 1# Sugar
  • 7/8 gallon of water (or just a tad less than a full gallon)

To start, load up your bloobs into your fermentation vessel and give ’em a preliminary mash.

Add water and sugar and give a good stir to dissolve. You could certainly dissolve the sugar before adding but the lazy method is always refreshing. The sugar will dissolve eventually. Cover your container with a breathable cover, like a t-shirt affixed with a rubber band to keep insects out.

After about 48 hours I’ll measure the sugar with a hydrometer. I like to shoot for 22-24 Brix, which is the equivalent of wine’s starting brix. Measuring this isn’t necessary, as the recipe water and sugar amounts will get you close enough.

Soon enough your blueberries will start to ferment from wild yeast. It’s a helpful thing to come by and stir the top once or twice a day, or as you remember. The fermentation will push the blueberry solids to the top so we need to break up that cap every so often. Don’t worry about using a clean tool to do it, we’re making vinegar after all.

A hydrometer can help chart the processes of your fermentation, though the old way is just observing the bubbling activity and intuition. If the mixture can ferment down to around 10 or below Brix then we will be looking at a 5-6% acidity vinegar, which is our goal. Without a hydrometer you can let it go until the bubbling has calmed down to just occasional pricks. There’s no wrong way here. We like a sweet blueberry vin so like to catch it before the fermentation has completed. However you could very well just let it ferment to dry all the same. Regardless, when the time is right, add a little acidic acid inoculation via a splash of live vinegar, over-the-hill kombucha, vinegar mother, or a backslop of last year’s bloob vin. You can also just let the mixture sit untouched with its breathable lid until it eventually sours. Whichever way, it’s time to just let it sit.

Taste it ocassionally until that one magical day when your bloobs taste unmistakably like vinegar. Now is a good time to press which can be done by emptying the contents through a pillow case, then twisting and squeezing it until enough of the juice has run out.

After a couple days rack off the solids accumulated at the bottom by carefully pouring the liquid out until it reaches the sludge. Discard the sludge and store your delicious vin away in a lidded containers or a carboy.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Ferment Hot Pepper Flakes (& Hot Sauce)

fermentation, Vegetable Fermentation

Fermented hot sauce can be a complicated or quite simple affair, but is indisputably indispensable for bringing your winter stored potatoes, squash, and beans to life. My preferred method is just pureeing hot peppers with a little salt, letting it ferment, and donezo! That works well with fresh peppers but you can also ferment them submerged in a salt brine if they’re dried. Though if you want to take your fermented peppers one step further, try making fermented hot pepper flakes from your fermented hot sauce.


It’s a pretty open door as to how you might want to get creative with making your fermented hot sauce. Add a clove of garlic (or maybe roasted garlic) to your puree, or a hunk of onion, perhaps some garden herbs like oregano. Follow you gardens and markets.


A great little trick is fermented hot pepper flakes. These pepper flakes are a fun addition to a pantry, sneaking a hot and tangy zing to your foods, and super easy to do, while stretching one product into two. Instructions are below, just be sure to do your drying outside if possible or where there’s good ventilation!

Fermented Hot Sauce Method

1. Clean and destem your choice of fresh hot pepper or hot pepper medley. Prepare any other ingrdients: garlic, onion, fruit, herbs, etc.
2. Grind everything together in a food processor or blender. Add a bits of water as necessary to get a fully purred slurry to a nice slushy consistency.
3. Stir in salt for a 3% brine, so that’s about 1-3 tablespoons per a quart of slurry.
4. Ferment with lid on or off according to preference. I like to do the lid on and burp it every few days to keep the weird films from developing on the surface. Without a lid make sure to stir it up every few days.
5. Ferment to your preference, maybe 1 week, maybe a few months. Pack it away in the fridge to store when or cap it at room temperature with a snug twist sealing lid.

Fermented Hot Pepper Flakes

  1. After your hot sauce is done fermenting strain out the solids using a fine mesh strainer.
  2. Bottle up your hot sauce liquid, then dehydrate the solids using your favorite method. If you don’t have a dehydrator you can dry it with a regular old fan or in the oven at the lowest setting. (The oven will require some close monitoring and frequent stirring. A fan might be better done outside.)
    3. Be sure to break up the fermented solids every so often when dehydrating as they will clump together. Also be careful as the drying fumes could be intense!
    4. Grind up the dried solids or break up with your hands and store away!

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Wild Fermented Berry Country Soda

fermentation

We are in berry season and who doesn’t love a refreshing bubbly water. This recipe is great for blemished, damaged, or overripe strawberries, blueberries, raspberries  or fruit of any kind. It does not disappoint! This process came by accident on a bike touring trip where I stumbled across a sprawling wild berry patch. I picked a bunch into a mason jar for eating later but it macerated and fermented as I rode that day in the hot sun. The recipe has been refined since then but still doesn’t beat the original that was cooled overnight by being submerged in a river.

  1. Pack ripe, crushed berries into mason jar maybe about 1/3 of the way.
  2. Top with water and tightly secure screw lid.
  3. Leave out in the hot sun or counter for a day or two. Keep an eye out for a heavily bulging lid- that’s the sign we’re looking for.
  4. Place jar in the fridge to chill. (Tip: liquid absorbs carbonation better at colder temperatures, you can even roll the jar occasionally to distribute the Co2.)
  5. Enjoy your naturally carbonated, naturally sweetened sparkling beverage!

Lacto-Fermented Pickles of Any Kind

fermentation, homesteading, Uncategorized, Vegetable Fermentation

The chase is in full swing. Fleeting moments that contain green beans, cucumbers, peppers, eggplant, and all the rest are here to either catch or miss. Each jar and crock filled is a thriving moment of anticipation for that winter day when you unlock the memories of summer and you proudly present them to your fellow diners- these are my pickles! In addition to the fantastic name, dilly beans were likely my very first homemade pickle. However, like all recipes, are open to your play and creativity.

For the modest backyard garden that gathers maybe a handful of something every other day or so, setting up a continuous pickling regiment is great. Line up your either mason jars, old peanut butter jars, etc and make them as you go- one little jar at time perhaps. Either way the laid-back nature of lacto-fermented pickles assures you can have the time to make delicious pickles this summer.


Pack as much fresh or dried herb as you can while leaving some room still for the veg. Dill blossoms, green coriander, fresh garlic or scapes, fennel blossom, hot peppers etc. It’s nice to shuve the whole thing, stalks and all, when using fresh herbs.

With whatever remaining leftover room squish in as many cucumbers, beans or whatever veg or veg combo into your jar as you can manage.

I like to eyeball my salt (and maybe return later to taste and adjust) but for the rest a nice middle ground place is 2-3 TBS of salt per a quart. That will hit about the 3.6- 5.2% salinity which is delicious.

Add water to cover everything as best as possible and fasten the lid securely.

Leave it out on counter for 3 days, or until you notice some vigorous bubbling activity. The tell-tale sign will be a bulge in the lid. When that occurs, move to the back of the fridge until you forget and remember again that it’s there some time later in the winter. This quick counter to fridge process ensures the crispest pickle for anyone pickling in some hot weather. The fermentation will crawl along slower but to me sure beats having mush.

Forget about the pickles in the back of fridge for at least a month or two but even better the longer you wait. Also, consider not removing the lid once you get a bulge in it. The reason is, that accumulated Co2 is pushing any oxygen up and away from any plant parts not submerged by the brine thus keeping mold away as if it were submerged. There is also an added bonus of getting some effervescent pickles when you open them!

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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Pickled & Marinated Preserved Summer Veg

homesteading, Uncategorized

This is quickly becoming a favorite process of ours for preserving summer veg. It’s especially exciting for those who spend their winters pizza-ing through their larder. It works with almost any firm veg and involves a flash boil in pickling brine to pick up on a wonderful pickled bite, then submerging in oil to marinate and preserve until you’re ready to use it. This veg is absolutely delicious and are a wonder to dig out of a jar, already coated in fat to enhance any future meals.


Make a simple pickle brine of 1:1 ratio water to vinegar, and add a teaspoon of salt for every 4 cups of liquid. (The brine amounts depend on how much veg your preserving.) Bring it to a boil.

After cutting your veg to the shape and size of your desires, plop them into the boiling brine for roughly 2-5 minutes. However this time is more dependant on the vegetable you’re using. The goal is to soften it to al dente- softened but still retaining some bite. No worries if it’s not perfect.

In the meantime drop any decorative seasonings into a jar- a clove of garlic, herbs like thyme, oregano, perhaps a sliver of hot pepper.

When the veg is ready, strain it and immediately pack it into the prepared jar. Also immediately, cover it completely to the top with oil, pop on the lid and let it be.

This marinated pickle lasts a couple months in the pantry but can also last quite a lot longer in the fridge.

*Most of these posts are resources for Ferment Pittsburgh’s monthly newsletter that features seasonal ideas, techniques, and musings. Consider jumping aboard?

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