Itsy Garden Small space gardening, cooking, and crafts Thu, 14 Jan 2021 23:36:11 +0000 Copyright 2015 - Please don't pick the flowers. Reproduction of any pictures or content from this website is prohibited without written authorization 60 Balcony Gardening Part 1: Seedlings in a Small Space Spring is here and I'm ready to garden! Unfortunately, the weather isn't much for supporting my enthusiasm. With some nights still dropping into the 30's, there just isn't a lot of hope for giving my crop a jump start.

Or is there...

Allow me to introduce the mini greenhouse. There are a number of brands and methods for starting your seeds early, but I'm fond of Jiffy. The tray & pellets are economical, reusable and do not make a mess, so this works great for apartment dwellers. Best of all, you will be able to plant the entire pellet into your containers once the threat of frost is over. It's small space gardening made easy!

So how do we get started? 

Make a plan of how many plants you intend to grow this season, and then use 1 extra pellet per plant type. If all of your seeds grow, awesome, then you have some seedlings to give away to friends and neighbors. You just don't want to risk your growing season on a couple of bad performers since it literally costs pennies to prepare each one. In my demo, I used the large sized tray and filled every spot, which will create far too many plants for a normal-sized balcony, but I like to give plant starts away -- especially herbs. Herbs also do well doubled up in larger containers, just be sure you're fertilizing enough through the season to support them. 


If you do not intend to use the full capacity of your small or large tray, don't space your pellets out. Bias them to one end and leave all of the empty spaces in an outer row. We'll get into the reason shortly.

Once you have all of your pellets placed, start drowning them. Over the course of 15 minutes, the pellets will triple in size by absorbing water. For a tray this size, it will take about 1/2 gallon of water. If you use too much, just drain them off.

After this point, proper watering is key to success.

In the picture above you see hydrated pellets, but note the pellet in the bottom left. It is a lighter tan color which means that it did not get enough water. If your seedling had already taken root in this pellet, it would be nearly dead. Similarly, the pods in the top center are very dark, meaning that they are too saturated with water. If your seedlings are left too long in this environment, they will mold and die. 

If you are doing a full tray, you are simply going to have to use a little caution when watering. Target the pods that are lighter, and water the darker ones less. If all of your pellets are dark, leave the lid off for a few hours to release excess water vapor. My method is to leave the lid on during the day so that the sun warms the seeds enough to sprout, but then I pull the tray away from the chill of the window sill at night and leave the lid off for circulation. 

If you have an empty row, however, you're in luck. You will be able to water your pods and then -tilt- the entire tray toward the empty rows to collect any extra water. If you have tried pellets in the past and had a mold issue, this is going to solve your problems. You'll also be able to leave the lid on longer and have faster growing seedlings. 

If you intend to grow a variety of plants, I would suggest a plot map. Though some seedlings have recognizable characteristics early on, many others can look quite similar at first, especially if growing different varietals of the same plant type. For instance, I grow three types of hot peppers every year, all of which look similar until they fruit. If one plant needs more sun than the others, I would want to control this right from the start.

Also, if you do have a seed that fails to grow, you can easily replace it thanks to your plot map. Simply make a grid where each box represents a space in your tray. If you did not fill your tray completely, just place an 'X' through any boxes that do not contain a pellet & seed. Now, mark each remaining box with the seed type used. As a bonus, you can save your plot maps year to year to keep track of what you tried and how many plants you grew. Use the back to take notes on how well different plants grew in your space, how much maintenance they required, and whether they provided enough yield to justify the space they took up.


So what kinds of plants would be good for your balcony or patio? The short answer is: the ones you'll most enjoy to eat fresh from your garden. 

-Herbs are always a winner, especially if you enjoy cooking. Some herbs, such as oregano, parsley and thyme even survive the winter if they are somewhat sheltered, producing aromatics year after year without the need to replant.  Basil is a fantastic container herb, but be sure to pick all of the leaves before the first frost (or transfer inside if you have room). I plant at least four containers of basil so that I can make fresh pesto, and to flavor the tomato sauce I can every summer. This year I am also trying out Chamomile, Spearmint and lavender for use in herbal teas. 

-Small peppers. If you enjoy spice, then many of your favorite peppers make great container plants. My personal favorites are Jalapenos, Cherry Bomb, Pepperoncini & Thai chilies. Eat them fresh, can them for pickled slices, dry them for spices, or my favorite -- Hot & sweet pepper jelly. I tested out a new recipe last summer, and we can not get enough of it, so check back for the recipe and video once pepper season is in full swing.

-Cucumbers. This comes with the caveat that you do need something for the vines to climb. Balcony railings work perfectly, otherwise if growing on a patio, be prepared to give your plants a guide line or trellis to cling to. I grow pickling cucumbers, and the yield is always impressive considering the little floor space the plant takes up. (I will also be showing you how to can crispy sweet pickle slices this summer that do not require chemicals or alum).  

-Peas. A great early season crop that tends to have a good yield. Same as with the cucumbers, you will have to provide support for the vines to climb. Peas are great since they produce while it is still chilly out, and right up until the first heat wave. After that, they die off, allowing you to plant something new in their spot that enjoys the summer heat (such as more cucumbers!). 

-Tomatoes. Let's begin here by saying that tomatoes do take up a lot of space, water and fertilizer. Of all the plants that I grow, tomatoes are the most needy. You can chose small container varieties of cherry tomatoes that will be a joy to have on your balcony, but I'm crazy. I love fresh San Marzano tomatoes, which are impossible to find where I live. Canned San Marzanos are my go-to tomato for chunky sauces year round, but a batch of marinara made with fresh tomatoes is simply incredible. I manage to grow seven plants on the sides of my balcony, which by August, looks like an absolute jungle. The yield per space isn't even particularly great compared to other produce options, but they are my indulgence. I look forward to a few pots of fresh sauce every year, and will always grow them.

-Strawberries. Fruit is typically a tough option for a small space. Trees & bushes simply don't fit in most areas, or they have more environmental requirements than can be accommodated. Ever-bearing strawberries are the exception. These plants are compact, hardy, have low watering requirements and unlike other varieties of strawberries, produce fruit all summer long. My favorite variety is Azore, though I am trying Seascape this season as well. Strawberries are the one crop that you will not be using your mini greenhouse to grow, but I wanted to mention it now so that you can plan them into your garden. My suggestion is to avoid purchasing hanging pots and root stock from bigbox stores, since my experience has been lackluster. Instead, find nurseries online with a solid reputation for plants that produce great fruit -- it's well worth the extra postage.

So now that we know what we're growing, let's take a moment to discuss how to keep our seedlings happy in their greenhouse long term. 

We addressed watering and how to use the lid to generate heat during the day, along with how its daily removal will help prevent rot. But what do we do when the seedlings become too big yet its still too cold to plant them outside? You have two options: 

-Just leave them in place and make sure they are receiving enough water every day. While you can't expect your seedlings to grow larger with such limited resources, they will be fine for many weeks. Once the plants hit the lid, just keep it off entirely while protecting them from drafts.

-Transfer them to temporary containers with potting soil. Jiffy makes peat pots that will allow your plants to grow deeper roots while still indoors and can be planted directly into your outdoor containers. Transferring your plants to peat pots will take up a lot more room, so save these for your largest plants, such as tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberry root stocks (which will arrive with long, established roots). 

For my needs, I use a combination of both methods. Large plants get the peat pots while my herbs and slower growing pepper plants stay in the tray until the weather begins to warm. Just be aware that some people with seasonal allergies may not respond well to having potting soil indoors. Before potting your indoor seedlings, open the bag and make sure its presence will not cause issues. If it does, just leave your seedlings in the tray until the treat of frost has passed. 

After 4 weeks of care and attention, your seedlings should be going strong. Above are several rows of basil, only a few of which I'll be sharing. We love fresh pesto pasta, so I know by now to grow a bunch!

From left to right: Basil, Lavender (the first tiny sprout just popped up!), Chamomile & Spearmint. All of these can shelter in the tray for an extended amount of time if properly watered. 

And here is my future harvest. I have already removed some cucumbers and tomatoes into peat pots because they got too big. Next to be removed are the peas on the right side. Since we are beyond the frost point, I will be planting them directly into pots on the balcony, along with my new strawberry root stock. Everything else will enjoy the warmth of my windowsill for a few weeks more before finding their spots outdoors.

Next in our series I'll show you how to create the watering system I use to grow 30+ plants on my standard sized balcony without going crazy.

What plants have you tried growing on your balcony, patio or open space? Tell us about your favorites in the comments below! 


Thu, 13 Apr 2017 22:25:00 +0000
Lemon Extract & Infusions No one likes to waste food, least of all me. I have made so many attempts to recycle food scraps into treasure over the years, with varying degrees of success. There is always a balance point between quality and the time spent mastering a new recipe or technique that its often more pratical to just feed the compost worms.

Extracts, tinctures & Infusions, however, are the exception.

If you have time to zest a lemon or put herbs in a jar, then you are on your way to making natural flavorings for a fraciton of the cost of the immitation stuff. Throughout the growing season, I'll be posting a variety of ideas for stocking your kitchen when herbs, fruits and spices are fresh and plentiful so that you can enjoy the tastes year round. Most even make great gourmet gifts, so let's get started.

As I write this article, my garden is just begining to sprout on the windowsill. The visions of harvesting fresh produce and herbs are still months away, but why wait when I have a drawer full of lemons. After producing the Hot Toddy tutorial, I also had plenty of peels. Time to break out some canning jars. 

To prepare your peels, simply seperate the outer zest from the white pith (which would make your extract bitter if used). I find it easiest to remove the peel while the lemon is still whole, and then juice it afterwards for whatever use I had intended. If I am making an extract or tincture for my own use, I will typically use a microplane. If making a batch as a gift, then I use a channel knife so that the peels provide a nice presentation. 

Here is as good a time as any to state the difference between extracts, tinctures and infusions (at least as far as it applies to our series):

-An infusion is literally the addition of one element to another. For our use, an infusion will be the weakest form of flavoring, and most often found as a mixer for drinks.

-An extract is a very concentrated infusion, typically consisting of equal parts of all ingredients. These are most commonly used in small quantities but to great effect.

-A tincture lies between extracts and infusions, typically at about a 1:4 part ratio (though some recipes can be as little as a 1:8 ratio and still be a tincture)

Our lemon peels can be turned into all three depending how much of our next prime ingredient is added: alcohol.

No, this is not the Itsy Garden Pub, alcohol is just a better solvent for extracting most flavors. If you obstain from all sources of alcohol, however, you can purchase food grade vegetable glycerin to use instead. If you would like to read more about extract solvents, check out this great article

Just don't be tempted to add any water or your mixture will go from clear to this:


It was still usable, but it's not going to win any awards for prettiest extract in the cupboard.

For my extracts, I tend to use Everclear as it is the highest proof, non-flavored, ingestable solvent that can be purchased. Everclear is not legal for sale everywhere, so if you live in a location that does not allow it, just go for the highest proof vodka you can find. Quality does matter with your vodka, so if the bottle you purchase has any off flavors, I would suggest purifying it through a Brita pitcher until it tastes clean. To prove that vodka works just fine, here is the video and resulting tincture -- 

Now it's just a matter of what you want to use your lemon essence for. In the video, I am making a simple tincture since I like to add the lemon flavor to certain meats and veggies. Lemon peels impart a lot of flavor into your solvent, so a weaker solution goes a long way. For baking, however, I like have a small jar of 1:1 extract on hand so as not to dilute batters or icings with too much liquid. You can also just keep a single jar of alcohol and add lemon peels as you get them. The mixture will just grow stronger over time until it's perfect for your needs. If it becomes too strong, just thin it out with more alcohol. If using zest and the tiny pieces become a bother, just strain it out after a minimum of 2 weeks.

So we covered uses for lemon tincture in cooking, and lemon extract in baking, but what about a lemon infusion? Well how about homemade Lemoncello! While most think about making batches as gifts for the holidays, Lemoncello is a star during the summer too. While cocktails and Sangria come immediatly to mind, it also pairs incredbily well with bing cherries. In fact, I'll be making some cherry preserves this summer that feature it. The only catch is that it traditionally takes 80 days from start to finish, so don't wait.

Simply determine how much Lemoncello you might use and prepare some glass containers (mason jars work great!). For each liter of vodka, you will eventually be adding 4 cups of water & ~3 cups of sugar (depending on sweetness preference), so double up as nessesary. To get started, put your vodka in some mason jars and add a bunch of peels. A general ratio is: the peels of 10 lemons per 1 liter of vodka. You don't need to use up 10 lemons in one shot though, feel free to add peels as you generate them. Once you hit 10 sets of peels, you can start your official infusion count down, or not, those peels can really just sit there until you're ready. If you're in a hurry though, filter out the peels and add simple syrup after 40 days of infusion, then bottle and set aside for at least another 40 days to mellow. (I'll have a video up of the full process once my own Lemoncello has finished infusing, but at least you can get started now.)

And there you have it. Delicious flavor saved from the landfill. Set a jar of Everclear or Vodka in your cabinet and just keep adding your peels for a never-ending supply of perfect lemon flavor with no effort at all.

Have you made your own batch of lemon extract, tincture or infusion? Share what you use if for in the comments below.   


Sat, 18 Mar 2017 04:53:00 +0000
Hot Toddy Ah, winter. The season of soup, snow and cuddly blankets. I have been a fan ever since childhood, and still get downright giddy when I hear that we might get a few flurries. Don't get me wrong, I love the other seasons too, but there is something magical about these dark and restful months. That is, until you catch the flu.

I'm a firm supporter of flu shots and pony up to the pharmacy every year (ok, I forgot last year and wouldn't you guess, I caught the flu!). The unfortunate truth is that the shot is never 100% effective, so today we discuss your flu season back-up plan.

It's time to call in the Toddy!

The good news is that you can keep most of these ingredients on hand for up to a month. Your two fresh ingredients, lemon and ginger, can both stay in your refrigerator's fruit drawer for weeks as long as you you keep them dry and unwashed. That is a good tip in general for most fruits and veggies - do not wash them when you bring them home from the store. Any additional moisture you leave on the surface or between leaves will hasten their decline, so washing just before use is the way to go.

 As for the honey, booze and water - who doesn't have those typically on hand?

So let's go over each ingredient, its purpose and preparation:

-Lemon:  Whether or not you believe in the power of Vitamin C to significantly boost your immune system -after- you have gotten sick, you can't deny that as a base for this hot beverage, it's a taste super star. But why wait until you already sick? Consumption of lemons as a preventative measure, along with a host of other great health benefits as listed in this Live Science article, proves that Hot Toddys are great anytime!

-Ginger: the stomach soother. I'm fortunate that my flu experience does not often include nausea, but when I do experience an upset stomach, I always reach for ginger. Fresh ginger can be steeped into tea, toddys or Asian style soups. For motion sickness, candied ginger is both incredible and portable. In our flu-fighting Hot Toddy, ginger is also going to do double duty as it helps to clear your sinuses. If you would like more information on how ginger works its magic, check out this article (and its accompanying citations) at HowStuffWorks.  

-Honey: I have already written about the values and virtues of using local honey back in my article on making Young Fruit Mead. In terms of our Toddy, honey has been shown to be -as effective- as a popular OTC cough syrup ingredient, and with less dangerous side effects in children (click to read the University of Missouri-Columbia study abstract). Honey is also prized for its ability to sooth a sore throat, though that claim is more antidotal vs. backed by science.

Water: This one is easy, it fights dehydration that occurs from the expelling of mucus and a general trend to eat and drink less when sick. The more you drink in the form of broth, teas and yes, toddys, the less likely you will be to suffer the effects of dehydration. 

Booze: Ok, this one may be tougher to warrant for some, but alcohol does help to dilate blood vessels which acts as a decongestant. It can also help you fall asleep and we all know that rest is the best medicine. Whiskey, bourbon and brandy are the most commonly used spirits for a Toddy, but anything that pairs well with the flavor of lemon will suffice. Toddys can be made without alcohol for anyone abstaining, or too young to imbibe. Alcohol can also worsen the effects of dehydration, so plan your spiked Toddys accordingly. 

(Some other regional variants might include spices such as clove or cinnamon, so feel free to experiment with new flavors.)

Now that we know why each ingredient has a place in our Hot Toddy, let's get down to making some!



Grab a mug that can hold at least 2 cups of finished Toddy as this recipe produces a finished pint.

Juice 1/2 of a lemon per Toddy. You can strain the pulp if you prefer, but when I'm sick, I just don't have that level of care. I'm so used to Toddy's having pulp now that  I wouldn't make them any other way.

Cut your ginger into pieces that will easily infuse the beverage, but not too small that you might accidentally swallow some. Ginger peels tend to float if you use the outer sections to reduce waste, so cut sizes accordingly.

Add as much honey as you like, you earned it! Two good spoonfuls tend to work for me, but keep adding until it tastes perfect. (Though sugar or stevia can be used instead, just realize that they will not provide the same cough suppressant and sore throat treatment as honey would.) 

Add one shot (1.5oz) of alcohol. You might be tempted to add more, but just remember - you can always make more toddys!

Now add your boiling water, leaving just enough room to give the whole thing a good stir. 

Sweet, delicious relief!

A word of caution before I go on not mixing OTC cold remedies and alcohol. A Hot Toddy should already provide all the same relief, but if your symptoms worsen, its time to get yourself to the doctor. 

Good luck this flu season, and don't forget - Hot Toddys are delicious, so enjoy them any time.


Do you know of any other flavor variations for Hot Toddys? Share your recipes in the comments!

Sat, 21 Jan 2017 00:42:00 +0000
We Are Back!!! Without a few rocks in the road, we wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate the greatness of the journey we’re on. And while the past few months have rolled a few boulders my way, I’m so excited to announce that new content will soon be on the way! I have so many new recipes, crafts and garden projects to share, and you can expect more than a few new adventures in 2017 as well.

It’s going to be a great year.

Before I give just a hint of what’s to come, let me say how thankful I am to everyone for their patience and for checking in on my absence. It is such a gift to be able to share my passions with all of you, and to hear of your own successes. Together, we simply make better things. Together - it’s just more fun!

Here is only a sample of the projects I have been testing, tweaking and prepping:


-Beginners series on canning (and tons of recipes for everyone!)

-Fermentation part 2

-Dehydration- from shopping for a machine to making jerky, fruit leather and more.


-Making a self-watering garden system like the one I use.

-How to start a balcony garden (and when).

-Worm composting.

-Harvest specific cooking series (who likes cherries and apples?!).

-Equipment buying guides (and what products I just can’t live without)

-Home-made gifts galore, and how to give them a store-bought look.

… and so much more!


So let’s get cooking, crafting and gardening in the new year! And as always, send me your tutorial wish lists since you know that I love a challenge.


Sat, 31 Dec 2016 04:26:00 +0000
Young Fruit Mead, Plus Tips for Aging If you have been following along with our fermentation series, then you have already made your own Fermentation Jar, NY Style Deli Pickles and Authentic Sauerkraut. While there are so many other delicious ferments to cover in future articles, we will be concluding this introduction to fermentation series with mead. During my own journey, Melomel, or fruit mead, was where the whole process of fermentation really hooked me. Watching the transformation happening daily gave me that little sense of magic described by most cultures through history. Whether you like it young, aged, plain or infused, I'm pretty sure you're going to agree  - mead making is easy and delicious.  

We are using a few, simple ingredients but we are going to be a little fussy on the quality:

- (1)  Fermentation jar w/ airlock lid.  If you do not have a fermentation jar but have access to other home brew vessels, then feel free to substitute and adjust the ratios accordingly. I would, however, discourage the use of a narrow-mouth carboy for some firmer fruits during the first stage as removing them can be frustrating. Also, while you can produce young mead in an open container, you will likely invite flies, while lossing much of the mead's fizzy, sparkling nature. (Leaving an alcohol ferment exposed to oxygen for a week or more will begin its slide towards vinegar.) 

- 10 oz of raw, good quality honey. The honey you choose will not only affect the flavor, but also your success. I recommend raw, local honey in a flower variety that you find most enjoyable. If local honey is not available, look for a brand that is minimally processed and use terms such as "raw" & "unfiltered". Also be aware that what can be labeled as 'honey' differs from country to country, so be careful if using imported honey. Over-filtered, heated or honey blended with other sweeteners will hinder your fermentation. *more details about honey to follow below.

- 50 oz of filtered water. Chlorine is added to tap water to make it inhospitable to undesirable organisms and does not differentiate between what is bad for your water supply, and what is necessary for successful brewing. Though you can still brew with tap water by first boiling it, using it straight from the tap might lengthen the brew time which could potentially lead to spoilage of any floating fruit.

- Fruit of choice (organics preferred). - Soft, sweet fruits tend to work the best if you want to produce a young fruit mead quickly. Bananas are a perfect starting fruit, as they impart a generous flavor to the mead, offer up sugars and break down visually in a manner that corresponds nicely with the progress of the brew. Any fruit can be used, as well as some peels, but additional stirring and attention might need to be paid as you experiment with other types.

With the basics covered in regards to our ingredients, feel free to skip ahead with the mead video tutorial, or keep reading for a more solid understanding of the process.



So before we get into the technique, let's understand a bit more about the honey which is so essential for our ferment.

Though there is some misinformation circulating, the FDA does, in fact, enforce the term 'Honey' to mean a product that contains only naturally occurring honey thanks in part to the efforts of a 2006 citizen petition lead by the American Beekeeping Federation [1]. If it is a blend of honey and other sweeteners, such as corn syrup, than it must say so on the label. For the sake of our mead, we want pure honey with no additives.

Now let's discuss terms such as "raw" and "unfiltered". Raw simply implies that the honey has not been heated, or else the yeasts lying dormant within the honey would be destroyed. No yeasts, no mead (unless you add replacement yeast). Unfiltered means that most of the natural pollen remains within the honey and that filtering agents such as diatomaceous earth was not used. Filtering honey is done mainly to prevent or limit crystallization, even though this is a natural process of pure honey. Neither of these terms are outlined or enforced in the FDA guidelines, so make sure that you are buying from a reputable company.

So if honey is indeed regulated, why the mention of local honey as being best? For me, it's about taste and supporting local agriculture. By purchasing from your local beekeeper, you support your neighbors and in return, you get a tastier, more natural product. You will know from which crops the honey came from (Blackberry, Wildflower, Clover, etc) and find the flavor that is most appealing to you. If you thought honey was just... well, honey flavored, you're in for a real treat once you try different crop types, rather than the more generic taste of store-bought that does not typically display a crop type. One of my favorites, Tupelo, comes from the southeast US in limited quantities. For more info on honey varietals, check out the National Honey Board's website. 

For the sake of this demonstration, I used a high quality, store-bought raw/unfiltered honey to prove that it does ferment properly. Having made batches with this and my local beekeeper's blackberry varietal honey, I can say that there is a difference. The local honey begins fermentation more quickly but the end result was somewhat similar. As with most Melomels (mead w/ fruit), the unique flavor profile of different honeys does diminish behind the fruit more than in a straight mead. Considering that we are using wild yeast fermentation that originates from the honey itself, results may differ other, lower quality bottles of honey.

Now that we have the honey basics out of the way, let's get brewing!

If you have a kitchen scale, then this process will be effortless, otherwise you will need to use a measuring cup (10 oz = 1.25 cups). Place your fermentation jar on the scale, zero out the ounces and then add at least 10 oz of honey. Mead recipes vary greatly on the honey to water ratio. If making a straight mead (no fruit), 1 part honey to 4 parts water is a good, general start point. Since we'll be adding sweet fruit, I find it best to drop the honey amount to a 1 to 5 ratio to prevent it from being overly sweet. Sugars are consumed during the aging process, but if you intend to drink this young (within the first 2 weeks), starting sweetness should be taken into consideration.

Once your honey is measured out, add 50 oz of water (which should stop just at the point where the bottle begins the curve towards the neck as shown in the pictures below).

Chop your banana (or fruit of choice) into bite sized slices. The smaller the pieces, the quicker the fruit flavors will infuse, but you needn't be too fussy. In the video as well as in the picture below, you'll see that I left my banana pieces quick large, and they still broke down just fine. If using berries or other fruit with skins, give them a good presssing before adding to your honey water to ensure that the juices extract properly. Remove pits and seeds to ensure that no off-flavors are imparted to your mead.


Give your mixture a good stir to ensure that the honey has been fully dissolved into the water. Fermentation of honey only occurs when its hydration level exceeds 17%, at which time the dormant yeasts become active [2]. Yeasts may also be hitching a ride with the fruits you add, making each batch unique.

Of special consideration is that we are, indeed, using wild yeast to produce our mead, which can have differing results from batch to batch. Brewers will often kill off any wild yeasts before adding their own chosen varieties in order to help control this variable. After you have made your first batch or two of wild yeast mead, especially if you age some, you may decide that you want that level on control. In young mead, you won't notice too much of a difference between wild and package yeasts, but aging can make the same fruit and honey batch taste quite different on the scale from dry to sweet depending on the yeast types that are encouraged.

Though I will likely explore aged mead in a future article, my best advice is to make several batches of young mead and decide which flavors are most appealing. Have a honey taste test, try many types of fruit, and when you think you have a really great flavor profile, age it. If you taste your mead months later and it isn't delicious, let it age longer. Some meads can take up to two years to mature, while others are ready in under three months. If you find yourself really enjoying the process, find a friendly homebrew shop who will answer questions. Beyond that, the internet is full of helpful enthusiast sites, message boards and supplier tutorials. 

But how long until I can drink... something?


This is young banana mead after about 1 week. I did stir it daily to avoid any chance of the fruit molding since this was done during the summer. Heat will not only speed your fermentation, but can cause anything floating at the top to break down faster than expected. Ideally, you would keep your mead between 65 - 70 degrees F. Over 75 degrees F and you run the risk of developing off flavors, and in the case of some yeasts, a die off. This batch was intentionally made during a heat wave that taxed our climate control, where the room did hit 80 degrees F more than once. As a young fruit mead, it was delicious. Having aged some of it for six months, however, you could tell something had gone wrong. Rather than a well rounded mead, it had adopted a slight grain alcohol taste, and to date, has been the only batch to take on that characteristic. 


This is a winter batch that I allowed to ferment with banana for 2 weeks without stirring. It is also the batch displayed in the demonstration video. The temperature of the room never exceeded 70 degrees F, and I could keep a close eye on the state of the floating fruit. Normally, you would consider removing a fruit like banana after the first week, but I wondered how long it could go without being disturbed. Under controlled room conditions and sealed within an airlock container, the fruit did brown, but was never in danger of fully spoiling. 

When young mead begins to press up into the airlock, however, it's time to strain. (For clarification, you can strain and enjoy your mead at nearly any point during the first two weeks based on taste, but if contents are being pressed into the airlock, it is best to regain head-space by removing the fruit before it floods the air lock.)

Though I used a slotted spoon here, you can certainly use a fine mesh stainer. You do not have to be very picky about getting all of the fine pieces out if you intend to continue aging, as they will sink to the bottom. Larger pieces, however, can remain floating for a time and cause issue. If serving young, strain a day in advance and it will likely clarify a bit for better presentation. Return the airlock lid to preserve fizziness. Young mead can be served at room temperature or chilled and mixed with other juices for a refreshing beverage. 

If you decide to age your young mead, this is what you can expect after a few months. Most mead with clarify on its own, with the debris falling neatly to the bottom. In order to keep from mixing the sediment back in, consider purchasing an inexpensive siphon from your local homebrew store. If your mead hasn't fully matured at the time of siphoning into a fresh jar, simply replace the lid and give it more time. You can also choose to bottle your mead, but this will require additional space and equipment. If brewing in small batches with limited space, your fermentation jar will work just fine as long as you check the water level on your airlock from time to time. 

We have covered so much in this tutorial, but there is always so much more to learn. If you have a favorite recipe, technique or resource, please share in the comments below. Happy brewing!



[2] The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz pg72

* Additional reading on the honey controversy:


Sun, 06 Mar 2016 15:35:00 +0000
Authentic Sauerkraut with Apples or Caraway So far in the series we have learned to make our very own fermentation jar, along with deli style lacto-fermented pickles. If you have already mastered these two projects, then sauerkraut is going to be breeze. In fact, its as easy as chop, salt, pack.

Let's gather our ingredients:


- 2 average size heads of cabbage (red or green).   

- 2 tsp of salt per lb of chopped cabbage. 

- 1 apple (optional)

- 1 tbsp caraway seeds (optional)

- 1 half gallon fermentation jar or crock.  (Need a fermentation jar? Click here for my easy tutorial.) 


Before we get chopping, let's take a look at these ingredients.

In my demonstration, I chose to use red cabbage to highlight its incredible color, but sauerkraut is more commonly made with green cabbage. In a blind taste test from the jars of red and green sauerkraut in my fridge, I couldn't tell them apart, so use what is most accessible for you, or what will be most visually appealing for your dish.

Next we look at our choice of salt. As with the deli pickles, I used sea salt, since it is what I most often have on hand for cooking. Any salt will work, but I would suggest using non-iodized salt, as it can sometimes cause a slight discoloration. If you don't have a kitchen scale, try to get a weight on your cabbage before leaving the store. We will be removing some outer leaves and the core, but it is better to over salt rather than under salt you sauerkraut. 

Depending on your tastes, you can choose to add a chopped apple, caraway seeds or both. When I make sauerkraut, I tend to add apples to red cabbage and caraway to green so that I can easily tell the two apart. While the apples add only a small amount of flavor, the caraway is quite noticeable and may not be preferred by everyone. If you go with apples and would like a little more flavor, consider mixing in a little boiled cider just before serving. 


Begin by removing the skin and core of your apple, then chop into small pieces. If you have an apple corer/peeler tool, you'll save yourself some time and waste. 

Next, remove the outer leaves of your cabbage, but save the best one for later use. 

Cut your cabbage into quarters as shown above. With the red cabbage, it's easy to see the white core, which will be cut away before finely chopping the rest of the segment. You can certainly choose to fine chop the core so as to reduce waste, but I find it to be a little tougher and prefer to just compost it. Additionally, you may wind up with too much cabbage for the half gallon jar if you use them. 

After you finish chopping the first segment, sprinkle with 1/8 of your salt. Using a rolling pin or your hands, crush and squeeze the cabbage to allow for a release of its juices before adding to the jar. To see this technique demonstrated, click the video below:



Add 1/8 of your chopped apples or caraway seeds to the jar after each layer of chopped, salted and crushed cabbage.   

With 2-3 segments of cabbage remaining, your jar will appear quite full, but that just means its time to pack the jar. If you have your grandmother's old sauerkraut tamper/pounder handy, then you can just start shoving and crowding your cabbage deeper into the jar. For everyone else, I recommend using a half pint mason jar. It may not have the maneuverability of the wooden pounder, but it will certainly get the job done. As you pack the cabbage, you will notice that it releases a surprising amount of juice thanks to the crushing you did earlier. Keep packing the jar until the brine crests over the cabbage when compressed by your half pint jar. (This is also demonstrated in the video above).

Now you will have plenty of room to fit the remaining cabbage. Chop, salt, crush and pack the last two segments until the brine covers your cabbage. If you do not have enough brine, just keep tamping to release juices. Even older heads of cabbage will make enough brine, so just be patient. To prove this point, the cabbage used in my demonstration were intentionally left in the refrigerator for two weeks before using, with an unknown time from farm to store. Though fresher heads of cabbage will release juice more easily, sauerkraut is the perfect solution to that cabbage that has been languishing in your fridge. 

Now you'll recall at the beginning that I suggested that we keep one of the outer leaves of your cabbage for later use? We are going to use it to make a sort of 'cabbage umbrella' that will keep all of your floaty bits submerged below the brine so as to avoid encouraging any yeast or molds from developing. Just trim your leaf down a bit and place it over top of your shredded cabbage. You can tuck any overhang down into the jar, or just leave it as a bowl shape, as this leaf will be discarded a the conclusion of fermentation. 

Now place your weight on top of the leaf and you should see that brine covers the entire surface. If anything is still peaking up, just give it a little trim. If for some reason, despite an amazing amount of effort to pack your cabbage you still lack enough brine to cover the top, add some water (you will have sufficient salt throughout your jar, so don't worry about dilution). 

Apply your airlock lid and smile, you just made traditional, old world sauerkraut!

A word of caution, however:

Fermentation creates gases that we release through use of our airlock, otherwise we risk that our sealed jar might shatter under the pressure. Within 24 hours of packing your jar, your sauerkraut should become very active and could very well force brine up through your airlock. While any ferment can do the same, saurkraut is compressed into the jar, creating much more pressure. Always place your jar in a cake pan or plastic bin to catch overflow. Should this happen to you, remove the lid, clean your air lock and return the lid to your jar. Any small bits of cabbage left in your airlock will mold quickly, so check daily. If possible, burp your jar a couple times over the first 48 hours so as to lessen the chance of brine loss. If you do lose an excessive amount of brine, follow the ratio in NY Deli Style Pickles and fill until all cabbage is again submerged.

Taste your sauerkraut after the first week to assess its progress. I tend to like younger kraut which is done in 1-2 weeks, but many will leave the ferment going in excess of 6 weeks. Once it is to your liking, replace your airlock lid with a solid one and store in the fridge. I have enjoyed mine up to 6 months later, but the jar never lasts longer than that. 

So go out and grill some Brats, cook up some Spatzel and crack open a fine brew. It's now Oktoberfest, anytime!  




Thu, 29 Oct 2015 21:25:00 +0000
The Northwest Chocolate Festival There are so many great reasons to live in the Pacific Northwest; amazing hikes, talented artisans and of course, the food. And so its little wonder that Seattle would be chosen to host some of the world's top culinary professionals and award winning artisan chocolatiers for an amazing weekend full of demonstrations, workshops and of course, a whole lot of tasting! Without further delay, let's explore the 2015 Northwest Chocolate Festival.



After enduring a substantial line of chocolate lovers just to get in the door, you realize the sheer size of this festival. Spanning most of three floors within the Bell Harbor International Convention Center, located on Pier 66, you immediately begin to enact a strategy for not dropping too quickly into chocolate overload. This will happen, undoubtedly, but with any hope you will at least get to visit all of the artisans on your list first. Fortunate for me, I had only a short time to locate my first workshop and could only sample limitedly along the way.



I had heard in advance that the workshops being offered were not to be missed, and were a huge factor in me attending the festival. As anyone who lives here knows, the area around Pike's Market is very popular during fall weekends but I am so glad that we attended despite the traffic concerns. Our day began with an incredibly informative presentation by Dandelion Chocolates, located in San Francisco, CA. Explaining how to go from bean to bar in small batches with relatively inexpensive equipment, I left feeling both inspired and well informed as to the process. Aside from the $250.00 chocolate refiner (seen in the photo above), the rest of the tools were common household items; rolling pin, hair drier, shallow bowl and a heat gun. At the conclusion of the demonstration, we were given samples of the type of chocolate you can expect to make given these methods and I have to admit, I'm pretty sold on embarking on my own at home bean to bar chocolate making adventure. 



While each hour you have upwards of 6 different presentations you could choose to attend, we decided to hit the trade floor and begin a round of sampling. While each vendor gladly offered tastes of their premier products, many also sought to expose visitors to both the process of chocolate making and cacao at varies stages. Pictured above at the Mindo Chocolate table were bowls of cacao nibs to highlight what unsweetened chocolate tastes like from different regions. 



Visiting the Seleuss Chocolates booth was an especially decadent treat in a room full of decadent treats. While it is a common claim to "source only the best ingredients", Alexander Long's micro batch truffles were undoubtedly created with the utmost of quality and attention. After sampling both the Wild Lavender Honey and the Greek Rose, I couldn"t choose as both had such incredibly distinctive tastes. My first purchase of the day was a box that contained both. 



While this is a public celebration of all things chocolate, the Northwest Chocolate Festival also doubles as an industry gathering where one can view that latest machines, molds and ingredients. While I don't think this will fit in my small space kitchen, I did pick up a silicone mold from Truffly Made (which is produced in the US!)



As to be expected, the crowd around the Forte Chocolate tables were quite thick all day, but this only intensified after Forte's owner, Chef Karen Neugebauer, took the mic to teach a packed room the secrets of chocolate tempering. When you have a multi award winning master chocolatier willing to speak to you on just about anything, it's going to be a great afternoon, but tempering? Now that was a dream come true, especially after a few failures this year in my own chocolate endeavors. Though Chef Karen gave us a great deal of practical advice, what was most surprising is her practice of hand tempering everything she makes to ensure that each batch is of prime quality. So many facets of the process clicked into place as she explained her methods. At the end of her presentation, I felt genuinely inspired to return to my chocolate failures with a fresh new perspective and turn them into something wonderful. 



So after a long afternoon of both learning and tasting, here are my impressions of the Northwest Chocolate Festival:

- Be prepared for a huge crowd, despite the $30.00+ entrance fee. Whether people attend for the top notch classes or just to go nuts eating chocolate, you will have to contend with a lot of people who seem quite uninterested in moving along. 

- Though I would have loved to attend more of the classes, the ones that most interested me tended to be spread out quite evenly over the two days. If I lived closer to the venue, I would certainly have returned on Sunday.

- Nearly every vendor that I visited seemed genuinely happy to be there and interacting with attendees. Even in the midst of such huge crowds, they were very approachable (well, once you could get to the table), and gladly answered questions. 

-The venue itself was very accommodating and kept attendees well hydrated with water stations throughout the festival. Despite the huge crowds, the temperature was also very comfortable. 

-Did I mention how amazing the classes were? For the $30.00 entrance fee, I was able to sit in on two amazing sessions and ask a few questions as well, what a bargain! 

Would I attend in the future? This would depend greatly on the presentation schedule. While I very much enjoyed sampling all of the different brands of chocolate, the sessions are the real draw for me in returning, especially considering how packed the trade floors were. If you are interested in improving your chocolate preparation, then the Northwest Chocolate Festival is likely to be a worthwhile event for you to attend. If you're just looking to indulge in a lot of samples, you might be a little disappointed as the table crowds simply don't move along. 


Sun, 04 Oct 2015 19:39:00 +0000
What is Baked or Half Baked? Cook long enough and you will eventually make an utter kitchen failure. Whether you read the ingredient proportions wrong, make an unfortunate substitution or just plain vaporized it, you just have to shrug it off and move on. But what if the dozen muffin-shaped bricks feeding your trash can were the product of a recipe that you followed to the letter? Were you just a terrible baker, giving the touch of death to what should have been twelve angelic pillows of surgery wonder? Heck, they even looked just like the one's from the blog! Hmmm.....

Let's pause for a little reality check here:

You were supposed to be delicious. =*(
You were supposed to be delicious.  =*(


- Most professionals of the culinary or crafting arts are, in fact, too busy to run a blog unless they really enjoy the aspects of writing and reader engagement in their spare time. Content production similarly takes a surprising amount of time and effort, and we only have just so much time in the day.While we never stop learning and improving, its far too easy to assume that a blogger with excellent photography skills never fails at cooking (or crafting and gardening for that matter!). 

While some bloggers may have some level of training (I'm a jeweler, for example), most are simply passionate about their topics and seek to share their experiences with others. Lack of formal training does not by any means disqualify someone from writing about food, crafting, gardening, etc, but where we lack in professional training we must make up for in quality and diligence. Have we tested our tutorials repeatedly under varying conditions, thinking of the many ways our wording may confuse our readers? Is this recipe truly as good as it can be considering the technique and ingredients? Have we removed all the needless complexity that can lead to failure? Have we even served the food to another human being for feedback?

I might need to attend a decorating course, but these hand pies didn't survive 5 minutes after this photo was taken.


It can be disappointing to make, film and photograph a recipe or tutorial, only to find it really doesn't work in the end. There is expense, time and for some sites, a whole production schedule that needs to be written off entirely. While failure should have been realized in the testing phase, clunkers somehow still make it live. I'm not sure what the production cycle is like for other sites, but my articles average 2 months from conception to publication with a 25% abandon rate. Fortunately, I have several ideas working at once between research, testing, production, etc, but it can be very difficult to pull the plug on something that just isn't meeting my standards.    

While integrity is indeed the rule rather than the exception for most sites, I have encounter a number of recipes over the years that left me wondering "Did they even try eating this?" Right from the get go, ratios were off, leaveners excluded (or overly increased!), techniques utterly glazed over, but somehow, a picture perfect cake in the end. When I first started cooking, I just assumed that I was at fault and left the kitchen frustrated and defeated. Fortunately, I was stubborn and kept trying, building my confidence from a few trusted sites (especially King Arthur Flour, they are seriously amazing), but how many people might have been turned off to cooking entirely by these sub standard recipes? I have met more than a few, which was the catalyst for the way in which I chose to treat my articles as both recipes and a chance for learning something new about the process.

Baked or Half Baked is not intended to shame anyone, which is why I will never link back to the site that originally posted the recipe or tutorial. This series is intended to open dialog about what went wrong with a recipe or tutorial and ways in which it can be improved. While I'll offer my impressions and thoughts, my hope is that the comments will be filled with helpful tips that will make us all better at cooking, crafting and gardening.

Oh, so this is why you shouldn't put chocolate in the freezer to cool it quicker.


Wed, 30 Sep 2015 18:54:00 +0000
NY Deli Style Lacto-Fermented Dill Pickles Query most people and they will say that pickles come from jars filled with vinegar and spices. Growing up in the northeast, however, my first pickle was of a whole different sort. Salty and sour, but not tart, they would be served from the depths of a cloudy brine, either in barrels or countertop glass jars. As time went on, it became harder and harder to find sources of these fermented to perfection pickles. After moving away from the northeast, it seemed all but impossible. 

Fortunately, there has been a bit of a revival in all things fermented. Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, and others, have shined a light on such culinary treasures that were slowly slipping from our collective grasp. Nothing could be so simple as preservation through a salt brine, and yet I had gone for years without realizing that I could make those same pickles that I craved from my youth with ease. The fact that lacto-fermented foods support digestive health practically ensured that a fermentation jar would become a permanent fixture in my kitchen.

So without further delay, let's make some pickles!

While there are a lot of ingredients shown in the picture above, most of them are optional. In order to make a basic pickle, all you need is a jar, salt, water and cucumbers.

Let's discuss each primary item in greater detail:

-a fermentation jar- While you could certainly get started on your first batch of pickles with just a glass jar and some cheesecloth secured over top, lacto-fermentation does emit a distinct odor. It's not unpleasant, but it could make guests wonder what you're up to. If you have a pickling crock, this will of course work as well. **Screwing a lid on any ferment could be dangerous due to the build up of gases.** Opening a closed and air-tight fermentation could soak you in brine at best, or shatter the jar given enough time. My recommendation is to produce your own fermentation jar that uses a brewing airlock to release gases, control odor and prevent curious bugs from entering. An easy tutorial and video can be found here: DIY Fermentation Jar  

-salt- You can use any type of salt, but for best results, use only non-iodized varieties as regular table salt can cause discoloration. I tend to use sea salt since it is what I most often have on hand, but feel free to use pure canning or kosher salts as well.  

-cucumbers- As summer winds down, it is relatively easy to find small sized pickling cucumbers at farmers markets, grocery stores and within your own garden. I tend to make several batches in August and keep them in the fridge. While I have not been able to find a 'best before' timeframe for lacto-fermented foods, I have eaten my own pickles up to 9 months later. Could they last longer? If kept under stable conditions, I see no reason why a batch wouldn't last until the following harvest though they may be rather sour by that point. While refrigeration does greatly slow the fermentation process, it does continue.  

-filtered water- Chlorine from tap water can interfere with fermentation and potentially affect the overall taste of your pickles. While I use water from a reverse osmosis system, Brita or Pur filters rated to remove chlorine should be sufficient.   

Now that you have the basics, this short video will give you all need if you would prefer to skip right to making some pickles: 



With the four main components squared away, let's discuss some ways in which to make your pickles outstanding.


Listed above is the recipe I prefer for a basic, year round pickle. When making a large batch in August, I will add fresh dill and grape leaves if I can find some (more about the grape leaves later).

- 1 tbsp pickling spice - If you have a brand you enjoy for canning pickles in vinegar, feel free to use it here. After trying a number of brands, I actually prefer the generic Kroger pickling spice though it is only available regionally. You can also find a number of basic recipes on the internet, though I would avoid adding cinnamon as it could turn bitter if left in the brine too long. 

- 1 to 3 dried chilies (opt) - if you like your pickles spicy, then add either whole, dried chilies or pepper flakes and remove once your pickles are ready for the refrigerator. Do you like your pickles really hot? Then don't remove the chilies and they will continue to increase the heat of your pickles over time. 

- .5 tsp extra mustard seeds - These are optional, as mustard seeds will already be in your pickling spice, but I prefer a little extra.  

- 2 bay leaves - As with everything else in this section, these are optional but serve to add a certain depth. Be sure that you are using dried bay laurel leaves (which are the most common), and not fresh California bay leaves. The later is likely to overwhelm your brine.  

- 1/4 to 1/2 onion sliced thin - These are highly recommended, as long as you like onions. They impart a nice flavor into the brine that your pickles will adopt, and its easy to save a few slices when preparing a meal.  

- 15-20 garlic cloves - Most of the time, I recall pickles being referenced to as 'Garlic Dills', so don't forget to throw in a few cloves. Do you really need so many? You can of course use fewer cloves, but to hit that traditional baseline, go with at lease 15. As a bonus, you can always cook the fermented cloves later. In fact, if you purchase the larger club sized bag of garlic cloves and find that you can't get through them in time, fermentation is a great way to avoid waste. 

-.5 cup brine from previous batch - While this is unnecessary as your salt brine will do all of the magic, starting future batches with some of the previous brine will speed up your pickles by about a day. You do want pickles a day faster, don't you?

- Fresh dill - If you want to make a true dill pickle, you will of course need to add some dill. Fortunately, this herb is readily available when cucumbers are at their peak, meaning that a well stocked store or CSA program should offer fresh bunches. Dried can be used when fresh is unavailable, but as with most recipes, fresh is best.

**A note about tannins, freshness and crispiness: Pickles can be notoriously difficult to keep crispy, and while some aspects are within your control, others may not be. Soon after a cucumber is picked, enzymes within the vegetable set to work on breaking it down which pits you in a race against time. In winter, you'll be at the mercy of your local store's availability, but when possible, choose hot house grown cucumbers, especially if they originate from from a nearby location. The longer the distance (and thus, the time) your cucumber has traveled, the less crispy it will be once fermented.

Even with cucumbers picked locally, however, you might find that a batch isn't as crunchy as you would prefer. One way to halt the enzyme activity is with the addition of tannins. Adding a grape leaf is the preferred method of introducing tannins, but if they are not available, I have heard of success with used black tea bags. 

With your ingredients assembled, start by wedging the cucumbers into your 1/2 gallon fermentation jar. In the picture above, you'll see how difficult it can be to maximize space when using larger pickles. I prefer to keep my pickles uncut since it helps to preserve the crispiness, but if your cucumbers are any larger than these, you'll have to cut them into spears. 

Once your cucumbers are positioned in the best possible configuration, start stuffing in your larger ingredients: onion, garlic, bay leaves & grape leaves if you found some. 

Next, pour in your spices followed by your salt. **If using smaller, pickling cucumbers, it is generally easier to add your spices after the first level of cucumbers, as seen in the video tutorial.**


Before we add our water, we do need to take a moment to discuss the salt.

For lacto-fermentation, you want to reach an ideal salinity of around 5%, as this will allow only the beneficial bacteria to survive and thrive. Too little salt and you invite a host of molds, yeasts and other undesirable guests; too much salt and you affect not only flavor, but potentially the ability for fermentation to occur. No need to do math every time you endeavor to make pickles though, if you follow this easy formula:

For each 1/2 gallon fermentation jar = Add 2 tbsp & 2 tsp salt to your packed jar, and then add 1 quart of water. 

As I have every size of canning jar on hand, I just use a quart jar (1 quart = 4 cups). Add your salt to the packed fermentation jar and then pour your water over the contents. Unless you displayed an incredible aptitude for spacial relations, most of the quart jar of water should fit. If you have water left over, don't worry, your pickles will be just fine. I have made pickles with 3 tbsp of salt so as to make a saltier pickle, and they fermented perfectly. 

The pickles above are now fully assembled, with the addition of a clay weight. While it is ideal to keep all of your produce under the surface of the brine to avoid the chance of mold and yeast developing, I haven't experienced any issues with the relatively short ferment time required for pickles. Still, it is a good practice to develop. In the Fermentation Jar tutorial, I listed a number of suggestions for making or purchasing weights for your own jar. 

The water level in the completed jar is at the maximum height possible to avoid brine overflowing through the airlock once fermentation begins. In fact, if I were to ferment this jar in a warm room, I would be sure to set the jar into a baking pan just to be safe. Ideally your water level would be at or below the first ridge of the jar's neck, but sometimes your larger pickles may not cooperate. Better to have your cucumbers submerged and deal with a little overflow than have your contents exposed for the duration of the fermentation. Just be sure that the stem of your airlock is not making contact with the water level or it will not function as intended.  

If using the fermentation jar from the linked tutorial:  Assemble your lid by applying first the red sealing ring that came with the Tattler lid, followed by the lid itself and then secure with the metal band that comes with the 1/2 gallon canning jar. Insert your airlock, fill with water to the fill line and apply the air lock cap.

If using a jar with cheesecloth: Make sure that your cucumbers are fully submerged and will not make contact with the cloth. Cover and secure with a rubber band. Watch throughout the week for unexpected mold & yeast growth and add more brine if levels decrease. 


And now the hardest part... waiting. Ideal fermentation occurs between 65 and 75 degrees F and will take between 1-2 weeks. At higher temperatures, your ferment will occur more quickly, but not always with the best quality, so its best to let your pickles develop at their preferred pace. The size of your cucumbers will exert a significant impact on the length of your ferment. The large cucumbers from my garden shown here took nearly 2 weeks, while the smaller ones picked later in the season for the video took only 1 week.

So how will you know when your pickles are ready? This is going to be as much about observation as it is your personal preference. The jar pictured above is only slightly cloudy from the seeding of 1/2 cup of brine from a former batch, but it will become much more opaque over the first few days. Gases will release pretty regularly from the airlock, and then begin to ebb off towards the end of the first week. By this point, I will generally sample the progress by cutting off a chunk. If it tastes like pickles, then the jar is ready to move into the fridge to drastically slow the fermentation. (Of note, fermentation does not end, and your pickles will continue to sour even in the fridge over the course of weeks and months). If your sample still tastes like a cucumber in the center, just return the remainder of the pickle to the jar and replace the lid. Never be reluctant to taste your ferment as it develops or else you might wind up with pickles that are too salty, spicy or sour. 

Once your pickles have developed to meet your preference, remove the airlock lid and apply either an undrilled Tattler lid, or use one of the screw top white lids from Ball. While you can use the metal lid from your canning jar, it will begin to rust after about 3 weeks in your fridge. 

After you have tried your hand at pickles, feel free to try a host of other veggies with the same brine recipe. My favorites so far are thin sliced gypsy peppers (pictured below) and radishes.

The key to great fermentation is definitely patience and a sense of curiosity which is only possible once we remove the fear surrounding such natural processes. In the case of these pickles, we are controlling the environment through salt level in order to cultivate the lactic acid producing bacteria that is beneficial to the process of preservation by lowering pH to a level inhospitable to C. botulinum. For more information, check out this great handout from Oregon Health and Science University.   

Next in the series we will explore another lacto-fermented food, sauerkraut, that is prepared not with a prepared brine, but through a salt packing method that utilizes the cabbage's own juices. Ready in as little as 2 weeks, you can't beat this Oktoberfest essential.


Do you miss any foods (fermented or otherwise) from your childhood? Post about it below and I'll see what I can do to rekindle the magic in a future article/video.

Wed, 23 Sep 2015 19:57:00 +0000
Making a Fermentation Jar for Pickles, Sauerkraut and other Probiotic Foods. Fermented foods are experiencing a bit of a resurgence as more people turn away from processed foods and seek to improve their overall health through better and varied nutrition. New studies on probiotic foods seem to be coming in near weekly linking a healthy gut microbiom to not only maintaining a proper weight and having sufficient nutrient reserves, but also more unexpected areas like depression, auto-immune disorders, inflammation and even skin health. If you are new to the world of probiotic foods, this article published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology will provide a good starting point:

Fermented foods, microbiota, and mental health: ancient practice meets nutritional psychiatry    

Beyond just great nutrition, however, fermented foods can help us reestablish links to our heritage and act as a bridge to exploring others. As fermentation is a common, natural occurrence, most cultures have deep-rooted traditions involving the preparation of unique foods and drinks that can serve as engaging links to the past. Holidays serve as especially wonderful times to explore these special ferments with friends and family. 

And while store bought versions of many fermented foods do exist, they tend to be sterile approximations that any old world grandmother would scoff at. Yogurt, Kimchi, Sauerkraut, pickles and even alcohol have been beaten into submission in our modern world which treats all bacteria as invaders and values consistency above all else. In the process, many people have lost not just the old recipes and practices, but also fear that making healthy ferments at home is beyond their ability. With the aid of this DIY fermentation jar, however, you'll be making a variety of amazing probiotic foods in no time, so let's discuss the parts and tools that you'll need. 


- 1 glass jar. I use Ball canning jars all the time for preservation, fridge storage, and crafts, so they were the natural choice for making my fermentation jar. Pictured here is the 1/2 gallon size, which will come in a box of 6. If you do not need six jars, some alternative options would be garage sales & thrift stores in which you may be able to purchase a single jar, or consider having a fermentation jar party to split the cost amongst your friends or family. These also make a unique gift, especially for any chefs, vegetarians/vegans or healthy eaters on your list.  **While I recommend the 1/2 gallon size, you certainly can use a smaller canning jar that you already own. Just pay special attention to the size of jar's mouth, being referred to as either 'regular' or 'wide'. Examples of both will be shown later if you are uncertain of which size your jar may be. 

- 1 box of Tattler reusable canning lids in the correct size for your jar. If using the 1/2 half gallon sized jar, you will need a box of the wide lids. If creating a smaller jar with a small opening, you will instead need to purchase a box of regular sized lids. While many hardware stores do stock Tattler lids in the fall, they can be a bit challenging to find locally and you might just want to just order these online. **Now you may be wondering why I do not use the metal lid that comes with the jar. In truth, you could certainly use it -but- it will rust in time under most fermentation conditions. Best to make a lid from materials that will not break down under regular wear.

- 1 brewing airlock per jar. These great little devices are the key to releasing the gases that occur naturally inside your jar during the course of fermentation while keeping bugs and other contaminants out. As many fermentationists have discovered, the gas build up inside a sealed jar or bottle can become great enough to shatter glass, so an airlock is not only convenient, but much safer. An airlock will also help to control the level of oxygen present, preventing any young alcohol ferments you may attempt from turning to vinegar instead. Airlocks can be purchased from your local brew supply store for less than $2.00.  *** If your local store only carries the 'S' style airlock, those will work just fine. 

- 1 food safe silicone grommet size 3/8 in (9.5mm). While it is relatively easy to find this size grommet at any hardware store, I would strongly recommend using one that is made from a food safe material. Even though this is part of the lid, your ferments will come into contact with it. Most brew supply stores will stock this size, or you can find them on Amazon. 

Optional but helpful:

- Weights. While not essential for pickles that can be wedged below the level of the brine, weights are necessary for sauerkraut. Any food allowed to float and make contact with air will develop unsightly yeasts and molds. While you could always scoop out the affected pieces, this is unnecessarily wasteful. You can purchase ceramic weights from Ohio StonewareCultures for Health, from artisans on Etsy or most ceramics shops (just make sure that they are food safe). You can also fashion your own from:

glass jar lids (Emma jar lids work well, but they have become very hard to find lately). 

food safe cooking bags filled with pie weights

even food safe bags filled with brine can work in a pinch. (Why not water? Because a leaking bag could dilute your brine and ruin your ferment)   

Just remember that this weight will be sitting on your food for the length of the ferment, so make sure it is made from a safe material. Glass is usually a good substance as it will not stain or leech into your brine. 

- Ball brand plastic lids. After your ferment has completed, you will need to remove your airlock lid and place a normal lid on the jar in order to fit it within most refrigerators. While you can use the metal canning lid that comes with the jar, after about 2-3 weeks it may begin to rust. These white, plastic lids are a great alternative and are relatively cheap. (Do not be tempted to use one of these lids in place of the Tattler lid for your airlock. They are not airtight and require more attention than necessary. If making a young alcohol ferment, you may even wind up with vinegar, so it's just not worth it.) 


- Drill. Basically anything that can spin a drill bit will do the job. 

- 1/2" drill bit, preferably one that tappers smoothly to a point (twist bit, or multipurpose). If your drill bit does not, be absolutely certain that you are using eye protection. I attempted to make my first lid with a notched woodworking bit because it was what I had on hand, but the flares caught on the plastic, cracked a chunk out and threw it at high speed.

-a piece of scrap wood to sit below your lid as you drill.   


The picture above shows both the regular and wide sized lids. The instructions, grommets and airlocks are the same regardless of which size you use. 

With careful and even speed, drill a hole into the center of your Tattler lid until the drill has gone completely through. Being that the lids are a very rigid plastic, some drill bits can become caught at the very end. Should this occur, I have had the best success by removing the drill bit and slowly rotating the bit by hand to remove the remaining bur. Forcing the bur can result in cracking of the lid, so be patient, and again, use eye protection. 

Once you have made your hole, you will have to press the grommet into place. Imagining the hole as the face of a clock, press the grommet's inner grove into the twelve o'clock position and with firm, even pressure, work the rest of the grommet clockwise until it snaps fully into place. I often find that using the long arm of my drill's chuck key works better than my fingers towards the end. If you are having any difficulty, watch the accompanying video for a demonstration. 



After you have your grommet in place, you are ready to assemble your jar. Place the red rubber ring of your Tattler lid on the glass rim of your jar and then stack your white lid on top, with the name facing upwards. Screw the metal ring that came with your canning jar in place over the lid. Lastly, lightly press your airlock into the center of your grommet. 

Congratulations, you have made your very own fermentation jar!

You are now free to load your jar with the veggies of your choice and cover with a 5% salt brine solution. The easy recipe I follow for brine is to fill a 1 quart jar (4 cups) with fresh, filtered water and then add 2 tbsp+ 2 tsp of non-iodized salt. (Iodized salt can cause odd color changes, so it is generally best to use canning or sea salt when possible).

Place your veggies into the jar and then add your brine, leaving about an inch of head space. Add water to your airlock until you have reached the fill line. (If your airlock does not have a fill line, fill the chamber nearly half way with water).

Feel free to add herbs and spices such as mustard seeds, peppercorn, pickling spice or fresh dill. Garlic and onion slices are always a welcomed addition. Cucumbers are an obviously tasty choice, but I've also enjoyed grabbing whatever was fresh at the farmer's market and seeing what works. Sliced peppers tend to make nice, mild pickles while radishes offer an incredible crunch, not to mention a beautiful red colored brine. While strong tastes can interject themselves into milder veggies, I have done mixed ferments as a way to experiment and save time with great results. Best of all, I have found that some vegetables that I don't tend to enjoy fresh are amazing after fermentation. 

In part two of this fermentation series, I'll show how to make amazing deli style pickles in your new fermentation jar. But don't wait to get started, cram some veggies into your new jar right now and they'll be done before you need your airlock lid again. Later in the month, we'll also explore how to make traditional sauerkraut that will be ready just in time to host an Oktoberfest themed party.  

Do you have any traditional or cultural ferments that you and your family enjoy? Please share recipes and stories in the comments below.


Mon, 07 Sep 2015 19:22:00 +0000