Secrets of Pickles, Kimchi and so on

April 6, 2015 · Filed Under Food and Drink, Science · Comment 

I bought a pickle crock a few months ago, and after a few batches of normal pickles, I put in a batch of kimchi a few days ago.  You might think I’m being trendy, and maybe I am.  One thing for sure is I really love home made pickles, and don’t know how I’ve lived for so long without them or what took me so long to start making my own!

Making your own pickles is very easy.

There’s an astonishing amount of misinformation about pickles on the Internet!  For years we’ve been told they are dangerous, and if you can them you have to add so much vinegar it makes them impossible to eat, and then cook them in a canner until they are a mushy mess.  None of this is true.  There are virtually no cases of people getting sick from fermented pickles.  It’s also not necessary to can them in order to preserve them or to make them safe.

True pickles are made without vinegar, because the fermenting process creates lactic acid which together with the added salt, is more than enough to preserve them and keep them safe.

I think I’ve spent hours looking for a good kimchi recipe, because most of what’s on the Internet completely misses the point of how pickles are fermented, and the recipes simply can’t work.  I’ve heard lots of people who tried to make kimchi say ‘oh, it didn’t work for me because I didn’t wait long enough.’  That’s what I said the first time I tried!  People who say this are simply using the wrong recipe.

Vegetables Without Sprays

For pickles you have to use organic or unsprayed fruit or vegetables.  Yes — you can pickle fruit too.  Pesticide residues, as well as changes in bacteria balance and so on will interfere with the fermentation process.

Anaerobic Process Under Water

This is critical to making pickles.  Under water.  Room temperature.

Whatever it is you are fermenting has to be submerged under water, and since most vegetables float, some sort of weight is necessary to put on top to keep it submerged.  This process will give off gas, and exposure to oxygen should be minimized, so either you need some sort of airlock or you need a jar with a tight fitting lid that you loosen every few hours.  If you forget to loosen the lid it will explode!  You have been warned.

If your pickles are exposed to oxygen when they are fermenting, a little mold will probably form on top.  This is harmless and can just be removed.

Any vegetables not completely covered with water will rot during the fermenting process, and should be removed.

A ceramic pickle crock is not very expensive, and very handy.  These have a built in air lock on top, that you can just add a little water to.  The air lock will let the pickle gasses escape, and prevents oxygen from entering.  Pickle crocks come with purpose made weights, that hold the contents below the water level.  With a pickle crock you are unlikely to have mold problems.  Also pickle crocks are usually partly made from unglazed ceramic, which can’t normally be completely cleaned, and will hold some of the pickling bacteria from one batch to help inoculate the next.  If necessary, the unglazed parts can be sterilized in boiling water.

A common mistake is to buy a pickle crock that’s too small.  You might think you could never eat 10 liters (2.5 gallons) of pickles, but they will lose volume as they ferment, and will taste very good once you’re finished!  They will also store a long time.  It is true, when making speciality pickles, like beet relish or similar things, that 10 liters might be a little on the large side.

If you find a recipe for fermented pickles or kimchi on the Internet that doesn’t have this step, it won’t work!  Pickles cannot be fermented in the refrigerator!

Pickles Need Salty Brine

It might be technically possible to make pickles without salt, but that’s defeating one of the important reasons for making pickles in the first place.  Salt is a preservative, and pickling foods is a way of preserving them.  Pickles with minimized salt content will have a very short shelf life.

The pickling process requires an astonishing amount of salt.  A typical recipe with 2-3 Kg (5-6 lbs) of vegetables may need as much as 5-6 Tablespoons.  The amount of salt is not usually very critical, so some people add more or less and often don’t measure it.  The salt needs to be very pure, without iodine or minerals, as these will cause the pickles to brown.

How can it be that so much salt gets added and the pickles are not ruined?  Even for people who normally salt their food, this seems like a lot of salt.  The trick is that the salt stays in the brine, and draws the water out of the vegetables.  Of course pickles are a little salty, but this is mostly because they are in salty brine.  Adding more or less salt to the batch as a whole, won’t significantly change the salt content of the pickles themselves, and if you discard the brine virtually all the salt gets discarded with it.  If you think the pickles are too salty after making them, you can rinse them then if necessary.

By starting with fresh vegetables, and salting them, they often have enough water in them to make their own brine.  In this way, a minimum of flavors are lost.  It’s very common to need to add a little water or brine, but you want to keep this to a minimum because it will dilute the flavors.

If you see a recipe on the Internet that calls for first salting the vegetables, then rinsing and discarding the liquid, look for another recipe!  This is not how fermented pickles are made.

Storing Pickles

The fermentation process occurs at room temperature, and slows down considerably at cooler temperatures.  This is mostly the issue for storing pickles, stopping the fermentation and keeping them from getting too sour.  The salt and lactic acid in pickles are very effective preservatives, and when stored in a cool place like a refrigerator or root cellar, they will keep a long time.  Ideally, they will be kept as close to, but above, 0C/32F as possible.  The salt content will provide some protection from freezing, and a light freezing won’t harm them.  Canning or deep freezing are also possibilities, and will stop the fermentation process, but will also change the texture and flavor of the pickles.  Canning has the advantage of being able to store the pickles at room temperature or transport them easily.

Pickles will keep longer if they are stored covered in brine.

If you have a pickle crock and a root cellar, the traditional way is to just put the entire crock of pickles in the cellar for storage.

Special Issues for Kimchi

Kimchi needs a special kind of red pepper flake powder called gochugaru.  This is milder than normal red pepper powder.  This can be bought online or at Asian groceries.

In traditional kimchi the basic ingredients are scallions, garlic, gochugaru, napa cabbage, daikon radish, salt and if you aren’t vegetarian also shrimp or fish sauce.  The spices are made into a paste, with a little added water, then rubbed on the cabbage with the salt.  This is then fermented at room temperature for about 3 weeks.  The cabbage has enough natural fermentation bacteria and doesn’t need any added inoculant, and it probably has enough water it doesn’t need any added water or brine.

Beyond the traditional ingredients, many people also add ginger, carrots and other things.

Ignore all the recipes out there that call for salting and rinsing the cabbage, or making the kimchi in jars without liquid in the refrigerator!

This is Your Brain on Beer

December 3, 2014 · Filed Under Food and Drink, Political · Comment 

If you grew up in America in the ’70s or ’80s, you certainly know this ad that was played on TV.  Even then it was very controversial, and no one really took it seriously, but it was an important part of the mindset that led to the war on drugs.  It was part of this vague, pseudo-science, that in effect was to make young people believe cigarettes were the only safe drug to use.

We’ve just had a similar ‘education campaign’ in Europe, that led to the drinking age being raised in several places, including Holland.  This happened even over the objections of parents of young people, the majority of whom wanted their children to continue to be able to buy alcohol.  Drinking damages the brains of young people, was the rallying call.  Isn’t it time we grew up, and stopped this kind of nonsense?

A recent study now shows no statistical correlation between alcohol use in young people and brain development.  How is this study different from all those other studies in the past that showed young brains were damaged?  Well, previous studies concentrated on young people who had signs of dependence on alcohol, and who often had other psychiatric problems.  This latest study focused on a typical cross section of the population, and compared young but otherwise normal drinkers with their non-drinking counterparts.

Labeling Calories is Misleading and Should be Banned

October 31, 2014 · Filed Under Food and Drink, Science · Comment 

It wasn’t long ago since tar and nicotine content labeling were determined misleading and removed from cigarette packaging. Not only misleading, but a powerful advertising mechanism, making addicted customers think they were buying a safer product. Now it’s time to take the next big step in consumer protection, and ban labeling of calories in food.

What is a Calorie?

A calorie is a measure of heat. Quite literally, in order to determine the amount of calories in food, the food is set alight and the amount of heat given off is measured.

Since our bodies don’t metabolize food this way, there’s no meaningful comparison that can made between calories and human health.

What do we Know About the Effect of Calories on our Health?

Some studies have shown for example a relationship between eating a lot of high calorie food and weight gain, or eating fewer calories and loosing weight. It might be that some health professional recommends some specific diet that might include a change in the number of calories.

Statistics show however that most people who try to lose weight with a low calorie diet nearly always fail in the end, and gain back even more weight. I would be very suspicious of any health professional recommending such a diet.

In any case, this weight gain or loss is not always permanent, and nothing credible can be said about it’s effect on our health. Any generalized statement on public health related to calories would not be credible, and likewise labeling foods with their calorie content is misleading to consumers.

Any public campaign that results in people eating more or fewer calories, is food company propaganda, as they strive to make ever more money off of misleading people in their perception of their own health.

How is Food Calorie Content Used?

Around the time of WWII and just before, protein was used as a measure for food and ‘food quality’. This is the major reason why meat and dairy production was so dramatically increased in the years following the war. In these years, the chicken egg was often identified as ‘the perfect food’, because it’s almost pure protein. In some Germanic languages the word for protein is the same as egg white, probably for this reason.

In the years after choosing protein as the measure of food quality, a major backlash occurred. This was primarily because by this measure a vegetarian diet was inadequate, and most of the world at the time was vegetarian or vegan. There was quite a lot of indignation as institutions such as the WHO began imposing high protein diets on the world’s population, in the name of improving public health.

We should receive current efforts to change our calorie intake with the same indignation.

After much debate, protein was eventually replaced with calories. I think most people involved in this issue don’t recognize calories as a great improvement over protein, only that it no longer stigmatizes a vegetarian diet.

After choosing calorie, it became clear this measure also had it’s flaws. Different people and cultures react differently on a diet with a fixed numbers of calories. It depends a lot on how active you are, as well as your age, sex and genetic factors. They ‘fixed’ this problem by creating various charts, and acceptable calorie ranges, instead of trying to work from a single number.

There’s really nothing any more that can be said about diets being healthy according to calories than there was with protein, only no one has a better idea at the moment of a another measure to use.

Spam, Salt, Sugar, Spam, Spam, Fat and Spam

October 5, 2014 · Filed Under Food and Drink, Political, Science · Comment 

The Netherlands is a tiny country, but even still is the worlds second largest exporter of food.  Chances are, if you eat a tasteless tomato, cucumber or gouda cheese, that’s been imported, it’s probably from here.

When the WRR issues a report [in Dutch], a think tank which advises the government on food policy, the chances are good the consequences of this will be heard around the world.

The report goes into some detail on how production of meat and dairy are bad for the environment.  Basically the problem is the animal feed here is based largely on GMO soy imported from Latin America, at great expense to the environment and livelihoods of people there.  It’s then fed to the farm animals here, which live in factory farms and poop it out.   It’s then spread all over the country, which contaminates pretty much everything.

Many farmers are extremely unhappy, because there are actually EU rules on how much animal waste can be disposed of in this way, and they are regularly at or over these limits in the Netherlands.  These rules make it much more expensive for the farmers, because they have to export the waste to other countries.

As well as polluting the environment, diets based on this food are making people fat and causing health problems all over the world.  This type of food production is also one of the major contributors to global warming.

After a reasonably good general analysis of the problem, the report advises the Dutch government to use their influence around the world to oblige people to eat less dairy, meat, sugar, salt and ‘bad’ fats.

Where did the sugar, salt and fat come from?  As far as this report is concerned, it seems to have come out of the blue.  The report has a number of citations for different things, but nothing that seems to lead to any credible justification for this.  It just is, because, well they are a think tank and so must be awesome.

Of course trying to eat less salt, sugar and ‘bad’ fat, can only lead you to more industrial processed foods.  It’s no problem to make processed foods without these ingredients.  It may really taste bad, but when you make foods in a laboratory or factory, you can make it any way you want.  Small farmers on the other hand, depend on these ingredients.

Nothing in this report suggests people should eat more locally or naturally produced food.  Could it be that the people’s message, demanding higher quality and sustainable food, is being spammed by governments and the food industry?

Sugar, Salt, Saturated Fat and the War Against Small Farmers

June 23, 2014 · Filed Under Food and Drink, Food Sovereignty · 3 Comments 

It’s in the news again.  The three evil foods; salt, sugar and saturated fat.  As if these were really foods in the first place.   We all know we are supposed to be distracted from caring about the quality of our foods, if it’s natural and if it comes from a trustworthy place, by focusing on the ingredient label for a look at it’s component parts.  The reason of course is that food companies don’t want to fundamentally change the way they produce food, to make it more natural or healthy.  Processing food a different way is however no problem, and generating consumer demand based on the ingredient list means they can just keep making small changes to their formulas, and make more processed foods to meet these demands.

A few months ago the EFSA declared aspartame safe, the chemical name for the NutraSweet sweetener.  A few minutes searching on Google will show all manner of scientific studies (like a recent one in Italy that proved it can cause cancer) or that it’s approval in the US was seriously procedurally flawed and was never proven safe, or places like New Mexico and Hawaii that have also proposed bans.  There are numerous people on the Internet complaining of serious medical problems linked to it’s consumption.  The EFSA however could find no evidence that it was unhealthy.

Aspartame is also a product of genetic engineering.  It’s not itself genetically engineered, but it’s produced with genetically engineered micro-organisms.

And the reason why sugar, salt and saturated fat are all unhealthy?  Yes, anyone??  Any credible scientific studies or even a reasonable explanation?  I personally have not seen any.

Now however, our attention is on salt, sugar and saturated fat.  One of the recent people to declare these ingredients bad was Oliver de Schutter in a recent report to the UN.  Worse than tobacco he says!  Until recently, de Schutter was one of the loudest proponents for small farmers, but if he wanted to pick three ingredients to more directly attack small farmers could he have done better?

Saturated Fat:  This is in almost all unprocessed animal products.  It’s more or less a naturally occurring byproduct of the meat and dairy industry.  It’s only by processing the dairy or meat in ways not normally done by small farmers that this is removed.  ‘Tropical oils’, like coconut and palm kernel oils are the only other major source of saturated fats, and these are a pretty small part of most people’s diets.

Not only is there not a lot of proof saturated fat is linked to health issues, but you will really only find it in unprocessed meat and dairy products, like would be produced by a small farmer.

Salt:  This or sugar are used in almost all traditional processing of food.  All pickled or fermented products (like sauerkraut), most cured meats and almost all cheese, require salt in their processing.  Other foods, like breads or potatoes, depend on salt for flavor.

Sugar:  If anything, modest consumption of sugar may be important for health.  For example, it’s known as an appetite suppressant.  For traditionally and naturally processed foods like jams or jellies, not using enough sugar can result in a runnier product with a shorter shelf life.

To declare these ingredients bad is to attack small farmers, plain and simple.  If you don’t eat salt, sugar and saturated fat, that means eating mass produced industrial foods.

Use your common sense.  Is aspartame healthier for you than sugar?!  We need to simply reject this sort of argument for our food, and punish any politicians who support it.  If overwhelming evidence that the safety of aspartame is uncertain is not enough, then empty claims over sugar, salt and saturated fat are not enough either.

One example of this manipulation at my local supermarket is with potato chips.  We are all supposed to think potato chips are bad, because they are salty and well just junk.  Right?  Actually, they are just fried potatoes.  Certainly you can buy better or worse brands, and better or worse potatoes can be used, but the principle is not a bad one.  During times when salt is supposed to be bad, my supermarket changes the formula on the house brand and increases the salt to make them almost inedible.  In this way, people who eat them in a normal way are supposed to find them too salty and look for something ‘healthier’ to eat.

In hindsight, I remember this going on in the US when I was growing up, and one of the reasons most Americans think of potato chips as a ‘bad’ food.

It’s time to return potato chips to something made by people we trust, that don’t manipulate the salt levels.

No more attacks on small farmers.  No more rules for school lunches that force kids to eat processed and mass produced foods.  No more reasons that kids (or anyone else) should be encouraged to eat dangerous chemicals like aspartame.

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