A Little History of Glass & The Mason Jar

story

Blue sea glass is a special prize for those beach comers who keep their noses to the sand. The pearls polished by the ocean’s constant churning, whose previous life may have been a jar, emerges from the water laid on to a nest of sand. There are so many accounts across cultures and time of life originating from the great mysterious ocean. It is a wonder to consider the edges that hold those waters, made by the waters themselves, constitute the elements to make one of our great mythical and literal containers, glass.

Sand, the arms that hold earth’s massive liquid temperament, is a loose term primarily describing size. Formed by the long weathering of inland rocks who journeyed down to the waters to be finely broken down, sands made of quartz specifically are the ones when heated to extremely high temperatures (+3000 degrees) melts into a liquid that hardens off into glass. The first known glassmaker in history is nature. A bolt of lightning striking the beach will do the trick. (Fulgurite.)

The earliest glass human made glass is entirely unknown- a detail always worth celebrating. But some of the furthest back dating evidence of glass making employs liquid glass being poured into a breakable mold, and much of these earliest-known glass objects tend to be containers. This early glass-making process was so laborious- plus the additional production of other additives like plant ash and lime- that its luxury came and went through time according to the rise and fall of complex civilizations as it needed a structured civilization to carry it.

Sometime around the mid-first century in maybe somewhere around present day Lebanon a shattering breakthrough in glass-making occurred. It was discovered that glass could be blown into a bubble. Perhaps to some this was exciting enough, to others it meant that glass objects could be made quicker and with more variety which allowed glass to not be only a rare luxury item but something for anyone to own. Eventually in the 19th century a fellow in Toledo, Ohio patented the glass blowing machine which ensured the general mass affordability of glass jars.

Side step: In France during the Neopoleanic Wars a challenge was set for someone to find a method to preserve food for the soldiers aboard ships on long voyages. A candy-maker eventually figured out a method for creating a vacuum by using a hot water bath- the beginning of canning. The early days of canning worked its way to a certain point of maturation with the help of a whole variety of wars to keep figuring out how to feed more and more soldiers and eventually World War 1 that brought us the first whole meals in a (tin) can! Home canning with glass was mostly done by the rural homestead. The way to seal jars then was with wax as Appert had figured out way back when.

Then John Mason randomally swept in and changed all of food preservation forever. Using glass bottles that originally were blue due to impurities in the sand, he designed the very first screw top as an improvement to the wax finish. Secondly on the metal lid he added a rubber ring to create a better seal. Many-a company jumped aboard Mason’s innovations and some stayed true to his standards and design, including Ball who continues to make them today (and who at some point cleverly geared their marketing to appeal to the emerging hipster thing and won over fancy cocktail bars everywhere). Additionally, if you ever saw a Kerr jar you can attribute/ blame them with coming up with the two-peice lid thing we all have fumbling around in our kitchens.

But hipsters aside, the popularity of the Mason jar seems forever bound to society’s back-to-the-land urges as it ebbs and then peaks again with world ending events like WW2, the 60’s, and the Covid pandemic. As opposed to metal and plastic who can potentially leach, glass is a fantastic small scale fermentation device, as Mason jars have gracefully filled the role for so many of us. There have been plenty of times that I’ve pursued the romance of ceramic only to remember, amidst that one fatal lapse in refilling the water reservoir, my affection for Mason’s wonderful screw cap.

Dearly holding on to the speculative story of the first salt-based fermentations originating from sea water enabled by the dramatic alteration brought about by the container that rose its edges around it to hold its contents. That small dose of ocean was spliced to go with those humans anywhere they went. And today while we make our own salt water far away from an ocean, we carry a piece of it, made from the sands that contain it to plunge our vegetables in.

Fermented Okra Chips

Vegetable Fermentation

Okra chips is a neat snack to add more of your garden to the cupboard. When re-embarking on putting up our okra this year I recalled an event Ferment Pittsburgh was invited to themed as a slime presentation for kids. A jar of lacto-fermented okra was perfectly oozy for the job. But when venturing to jot this process out for the “net” here I questioned my memory and searched for other fermented okra recipes and astoundingly saw no mention of how the brine transforms very quickly into a thick slime. Weird. Nonetheless, while simply fermented okra is a wonderful slime-encased treat, following up with drying them into chips is a slime-less way to enjoy some deliciously preserved okra.

Process

Lacto-ferment the okra for a few days. Pack your okra whole into a jar with water, add a tablespoon of salt per a quart, and ferment at room temperature either with a lid or a cloth covering, doesn’t matter which but I prefer a lid. It’s August now so I usually go for about 3 days but in cooler weather maybe 5 or so would works to get a nice fermenty flavor.

Strain the fermented okra and perhaps give them a quick rinse if they are difficult to handle from their slime. Then dehydrate either whole or cut into rings. If you’re doing whole a little pierce with a knife will help them dry inside and out.

Then dehydrate according to your preferred method, oven or machine, or hot car window. About 135-ish degrees for around 24 hours, or however long it takes.

The finished okra can be tossed with salt and other seasonings and stored away in a jar.

Homemade Salsa Negra

homesteading

Aside from loving the wonderful condiment salsa negra, a recipe like this is extra special for putting a lot of the pieces of preserving throughout the year together. Homegrown garlic, transformed into black garlic– a post-growing season fall tradition of ours, a collection of dried peppers and smoked peppers saved from the garden, and homemade vinegar from your local fruit- all come together to make the best sauce that goes with everything from roasted chicken to ramen broth.

From a home-preserver perspective it feels disingenuous to recommend quantities of anything (You can read meander thoughts on that here if you want). It really should be based part on your taste preference and part on what amounts you have around to use. But the process is as follows:

In a skillet warm a couple glugs of oil. Add a handful of black garlic and a couple handfuls of your various dried peppers- as many hot ones as you want your salsa to be hot. If you want to include some tomato paste to add some sweetness, by all means. Some folks here will simply add a pinch of sugar, or nothing at all. Carefully warm until everything is soft and fragrant.

Transfer all the contents to a food processor or whatever your preferred mashing technique is. Add salt to taste and a dollop of vinegar to liven everything up, and puree. Store in a jar for however long it lasts.

While I wanted to get this recipe out in the monthly newsletter now in September to get folks planning for winter, as I scavenge my cupboards it seems I finished last winter’s salsa negra before I got to take a picture of the final product! But let’s be honest, “blogging” is blah, it’s the sharing of useful meaningful information that keeps our hands busy doing non-internet things that’s important- not ruining the moments of our lives by taking too many pictures! Damn last year’s salsa negra was good!

Saving Tomato Seeds from Your Garden

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When venturing out to save tomato seeds look for the plants and fruits that are performing best- most beautiful, undamaged fruit, best disease resistance, excellent flavor, etc. A single tomato, depending on variety can yield perhaps enough seeds alone for the following year, making it a crop you can still continue to enjoy while simultaneously saving its seed. I like to pick ripe fruit throughout the year from the best plants while keeping detailed notes for each batch of seeds that gets saved.

Tomatoes for seeds can be cut open or just smashed, then placed in a jar to let ferment for a day or two. The fermentation helps separate the seed from the tomato flesh and any membrane that might be clinging to it. Fermenting too long can possibly have an adverse effect on germination later on.

When you’re ready to strain, shake up the jar and let things settle. This will help get the viable seeds to collect at the bottom. Next I’ll pull out the tomato solids I can grab with my hands then top the jar off with water. Carefully pour off the water and the remaining tomato debris should pour out with it. Keep refilling the jar and pouring out until the water is clear and clean. Then you can strain out the seeds and lay them on a surface for drying.

Dry gradually, which I do by leaving either on my breezy porch or in a room with a ceiling fan on- caution that fruit flies will be looking for them. Mix up the seeds occasionally to ensure even drying as they can tend to clump up. After a lazy week or two pack them up in a jar or bag or elsewhere safely away until you’re ready to use them next season.

Saving Zucchini & Cucumber Seed

fermentation, homesteading, Vegetable Fermentation

Zucchini and cucumber seeds are vegetables that both use a little fermentation to help in saving the seeds. When saving them you’ll want as mature of a fruit as you can get. Even after you harvest them it can help to let them cure for a couple days before cutting them open. It’s still a strange feeling to stop eating the favorite plants of a crop and let them grow out for seed. Maybe the pleasure is in the hope it gives to next year.

For zucchini start by cutting off any “neck” that is only flesh and doesn’t contain any seeds. Then carefully with a good knife cut the first half inch or so or around the perimeter of the vegetable so it can be pulled apart into two halves. The reason for this procedure is to prevent throwing a knife straight through the seed cavity and slicing a handful of them.

Next, scoop out the seeds.

Or thumb out the seeds.

The seeds will have a thin coating around them. To remove that place the seeds and anything stuck to them into a container and cover it with water. Add a cover to keep the flies out and ferment for 1-2 days. Caution not to forget about the ferment for too long as it can eventually begin to deteriorate the seeds germinating potential.

After the light fermentation the seed should be free from their covering. Check to make sure then you can stir up the seeds in the water, the good seeds should sink to the bottom and you can pour the rest off the top. This can be repeated by adding more water, stirring, and pouring until the seeds are generally clean. Then drain, rinse, and dry the seeds in a warm, dry place, and mix them up periodically to keep it going evenly.

A Brief Rundown of Eggplants & Fermentation

fruit, story

Garden egg, Guinea squash, bitter tomato, aubergine, brinjal, gaji, eggplant- whatever you call it- amidst my comprehensive spread of cookbooks and culinary and world history they offer next to no substance save a single customary eggplant recipe or two and move on. Maguelonne Toussaint- Samat’s History of Food, a usual starting point for many-a food research, with an eggplant on the cover of the second edition, offers nothing about eggplant at all, while the other texts say something silly like “Europeans brought it back from India/ Africa. It was bitter.”

The eggplant lineage that we eat at some point split to what we can roughly call eggplants from China or India and eggplants from Africa. They are related, but not the same. Thailand, Japan, etc adopted the China/ India eggplant and then Europe claimed all of them including some of the African ones (making pre-European contact historical research about them quite difficult to do as that’s where a lot of sources like to begin). Researchers believe eggplants were first domesticated in China/ India but those plant’s wild origins came from Africa, where many eggplants still roam wild.

In addition to their excellent fiber, minerals and antioxidants, eggplants are great sponges for fats and sauces. It’s commonly known around these parts too that many eggplants need salted and some rest time to remove their natural bitterness. I first heard it from fancy cook Deborah Madison who thinks we’re dabbing with paper towels because we aren’t eating them fresh. That does seem true, but it’s also worth thinking about red eggplants from Africa who are always bitter and moreso the longer they stay on the stem. Picking early is a way to temper the bitterness, however one Ethiopian writer when describing eggplants never mentions any process to de-bitter it, instead he waxes about how prized the bitterest ones are- I guess it’s a matter of perspective. Deborah also classifies skin toughness by color which, as a grower of eggplants seemed bunk at first but I’ll agree in regards only to green skinned, which also have a neat apple-like tartness. Picked on the younger side seems to make for a more tender skin all around. The lesson here boiled down is clearly to get your eggplants in season from the farmer’s market, rather than the grocery store, but also maybe to consider embracing some bitter?

One of the earliest known writings on eggplants by a Persian scholar from around the 900’s made a big list of reasons not to consume it because of its harm to your health. He then went on to rattle off a slew of great health benefits it offers after it is prepared for eating. And in the 2000’s there was up-to-date confirmation by a researcher from Vietnam who found that fermenting raw eggplant in a salt brine for 8 days purged the anti-nutrients it contained such as tannin, phytate, oxalate, and steroidal glycoalkaloid. Great news considering that since eggplant has such a high water content its perishabilibity is fast on the horizon, that coupled with how we need to buy them in season too, fermentation coming in handy again!

Last year we got really into this pickle & marinate technique for our eggplants. It’s very delicious but just be mindful to not over poach your eggos or they’ll turn to mush in the marinade. But apparently there is also an Eastern-European tradition of doing something similar that’s sometimes called Sour Eggplant. Most recipes describe it as eggplants first roasted whole, then cut in half and stuffed with a shredded carrot mixture (garlic, herbs, etc), then either packed in oil or just left at room temperature covered to allow to ferment and get sour. Otherwise preserving eggplant by lacto-fermentation is a breeze, especially because raw they are quite firm and hold shape and texture no problem. There are also recipes around for things like fermented baba ganoush. While I have made it before I can’t honestly say it was on purpose (though the popular technique is to ferment the eggplant and use that instead of roasted eggplant rather than just forgetting baba on the counter).

Fermented Method of Homemade Tomato Paste

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The first tomato paste I ever tried to make was a romantic pursuit involving crushing the tomatoes and laying them out in the late summer sun to gently dry. While it didn’t turn out as I hoped, the flies loved it. With the second attempt I tried cooking the tomatoes down on the stove top then roasting them in the oven on low heat for what seemed like an eternity. For the perfect combo of quick and romance of fermentation there is this wonderful method.

Start by cutting up the tomatoes and placing them into a container to ferment in. Nothing else needs added, just leave at room temperature with a secure covering- cloth or otherwise, for 3-7 days.

The fermentation will separate the water from the solids to the point that you can hand scoop out the tomato peices leaving behind a big pool of tomato water. Run the tomato bits through a food mill to get the seeds and skins out.

Then strain the solids to the consistency of paste you desire. When it’s done you can mix in some salt or coat the surface with oil after its packed in a jar to help a little with preserving- or leave it as is. Keep in mind that it’s an alive and active ferment so if you pop on a lid it will produce some gas.

Making Old Fashioned Corn Syrup

sugar

Not all plants have a use for the ones that for whatever reason don’t produce fruit. In the case of field corn, any stalk without an ear is prime for turning into corn syrup.

As field corn begins to develop ears it’s likely that you’ll notice a few that don’t. When that happens it’s time to make syrup.

Cut down the earless stalks at the base and give the wound a lick. Hopefully you taste a pleasant sweetness. That is the sugars destined for the ear that had nowhere else to go. Trim off the tassels and tear off the leaves.

Now there are two ways to go from here. The first is the low tech way- snip you corn stalks into smaller peices, throw them crush them well to access the juices. Then put in a pot and add water to cover and boil to extract the sugar. Boil the water down until it’s sweet then strain out the solids. Finish boiling into a syrup.

The more high tech way is to use a sugar cane press where you simply run the stalks through the press and the resulting liquid can be boiled down into syrup.

In both cases the sugar to water ratio is similar to making maple syrup. (What is that like 60:1 if I remember correctly.) Therefore you’ll need quite a few stalks to make a decent amount of syrup.

Making a Jam & Jelly Tradition

fruit, sugar

The first jelly I ever made was out of the wild foraging legend Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus. It was made from elderberry and sumac. And forever after making jelly and jam has been lashed tightly to such wild adventures as sudden stops along country roads and climbing up forgotten hillsides around the city in search of clearings covered in berries.

Fruit and berries, as we know, are among the most fleeting of the fleet, so preserving such limited time special flavors is special to the utmost. Due to their higher sugar content, mashing them up with enough liquid gives us a soda, a brew, and/ or ultimately vinegar. All of those products are expressions of the fruit or berry with the soft or hard kiss of fermentation attached to it. To preserve fruit’s fresher summery personality here comes sugar more.

70 degrees brix is the amount of sugar content honey needs to resist spoilage. A ripe apple alone only has upwards of maybe around 13 brix. By boiling the fruit we can concentrate the sugars, while also, naturally, adding sugar to also bump up the brix.

Jam

Jam is the fruit or berry cooked down slowly. To make it simply cook down the fruit (perhaps with a splash of water as necessary to keep it from burning) then add as much or as little sugar as you wish until it is dissolved, you may even add none. The more sugar the better it will be at preserving. 1:1 fruit to sugar is common, but too sweet for me. Gosh, I wanna be able to taste the fruit still, so 1: 1/2 suits me better if I do add some. Adding a slight pinch of salt too really lifts the flavor better than not.

Pectin

Those familiar with jelly making are likely aware of the distinct difference between jelly and jam and that’s the added ingredient of pectin. Pectin is a naturally occurring plant fiber that creates that gelatin “set” character rather than jam’s oozy one. Some ingredients contain enough of their own pectin that no additional pectin needs to be added. Most commonly we’ll head to the grocery stores to get little packets of it in powdered form when we’re attempting to make a jelly with something lacking ample enough pectin to set itself. However with some planning this isn’t absolutely necessary. Taking the fruits naturally high in pectin like underripe apples, rosehips, cranberries, and the rind of grapefruits, oranges, and lemons we can make our own. The first packaged pectin was made from scraps leftover from a large apple juice producer. Here’s the technique:

Chop up fruit scraps like cores, peels, and peices- everything- and place in a pot with enough water until it’s not quite covered. Bring to a boil, then take your time simmering everything until the apple parts are good and mushy. Then let it strain in a suspended cheesecloth overnight. The remaining liquid is your pectin that should work with about ¼ cup per a cup of jelly- though that’s a pretty open-ended estimate.

The downside to adding pectin whether powdered or homemade is that it will take on some of the flavor, which in a storebought sense is sort of tart appley. The upside is that we can make jelly out of anything- kombucha, coffee, wine, flower syrups…

Jelly

To make jelly, fruits and berries that have their own pectin first need boiled down to mush in order to access it, but regardless this generally goes for whatever you’re working with. Add enough water to cover your fruit and boil and simmer until the flavors are released. Then strain out the solids and the resulting juice can be measured then reboiled with roughly a 1:1 ratio of sugar. Whisk in pectin if needed. If using a storebought packet, follow their instructions. Check the “set” of the jelly by cooling off a small scoop of it on a metal spoon and popping it in the fridge or freezer to see if a film develops. Continue to simmer it until reaching the desired set.

Both jam and jelly can be preserved in jars passed through a hot water bath or just popped into the fridge. If a little mold pops up on the surface it’s usually no big deal to just scrape it off.

Continuous Sour Pickles

Vegetable Fermentation

In my backyard at home I have four pickling cucumber plants that are giving round about 6-12 cucumbers a day or so right now. Those 6 or so picked nice and small fit perfectly in a pint jar and make it easy to do sour pickles one jar at a time as the cucumbers roll in. Since there’s the summer heat to contend with and I want a crisp pickle we’ll let the fermenting just get started at room temperature then turn to the refrigerator for a long slow souring process. Additionally, I do not like to cut them open as the seed pod and inner flesh risks getting mushy.

Process

Pack as many little cucumbers into your jar as you can manage.

Add a clove of garlic and a handful of fresh herbs like dill and cilantro to each jar. Add as much salt as is your preference. For a moderately salty pickle add 2-3 TBS of salt per a quart. That will hit about the 3.6- 5.2% salinity which is pretty tasty.

Cover everything with water and fasten the lid securely.

Leave it out on counter for 3 days, or until you notice some vigorous bubbling activity. If you’re using a lid with a pop top, I like to use that as an indicator. When the lid is bulging it’s ready for the fridge, where you can move it to the back and forget about it until some time later in the winter.

Enjoy!