Our ancestors lacked a local grocer easily accessible by a quick trip to town, they grew their own produce and meat or hunted for meat and had to have ways to preserve it for the winter. When the garden comes in, it is a busy time. They also lacked electric refrigerators and gas or electric stoves and heating the stove that provided both heat and cooking surface was undesirable in mid summer. Canning in jars was done, usually over an open fire outdoors and some foods don’t safely can in boiling water, pressure canners were a product of the future. Sugar when it was available and salt were found to be great preservers of foods. Meats were smoked and hung in the smokehouse. Most homes had either a spring house, root cellar, or basement that stayed cool and dark thus was a good place to store home canned foods. Fruits were made into jams and butters, or canned in syrups. Beans were often left to dry and shelled or strung in long strings whole while green to become leather britches and reconstituted when desired, they are a vegetable that does not safely can in boiling water. Potatoes, yams, carrots, onions, garlic, pumpkins, and whole apples can be put in the cool dark and used as needed without further processing. Some greens will grow well into the fall or winter, if covered with straw and some, like cabbages will store in the cool dark for a while, but not all winter.
Storing whole green beans, whole or cut cucumbers in heavily salted water in crocks in the cool storage produced very desirable pickled vegetables that could be enjoyed until the garden produced again the next season. Cabbage, sliced thin and salted then mashed into a crock did the same thing. Though they didn’t know what the processes was called or why it worked, they knew it did produce safe delicious food.
The process we now know is lacto fermentation. In the absence of air, anaerobic, the salted vegetables produce lactic acid which ferments the vegetables into pickles or sauerkraut. Kraut can be seasoned with caraway seed, mixed with shredded beets, or left plain, and nothing is better than Farmers’ Market brats with homemade sauerkraut on a crisp fall day. The cucumbers can be spiced up with crushed red pepper, black peppercorns, heads of dill, garlic, whole cloves, and ground ginger. Green beans are best with dill and crushed red pepper. What is best is this process doesn’t heat up the kitchen. It can be done a quart jar at a time or in a crock (even a food safe plastic bucket if you use them, I don’t).
Some vegetables can be lacto fermented, but don’t last as long on the shelf, even have to be refrigerated such as the tiny heirloom tomatoes with basil, or eggplant. They are best done in smaller batches that can be enjoyed within a couple of weeks.
Lacto fermenting is a newer passion with me. I made sure that there were pickling cucumbers in the garden this year, and they are doing nicely. It only takes 4 or 5 to make one quart jar and about 10 minutes prep time, no heat, no mess.
Though the fall garden will have a few cabbages for cold storage, the Farmers Market already has some, so a small, about 2 pound one was shredded and salted this morning to produce a quart of saukerkraut.
The cucumbers only take 2 to 5 days to be ready to enjoy dill slices or quarters, the dilly beans and kraut take about two weeks to fully finish their ferment. The longer you leave them at room temperature, the stronger the flavor.
We do have an unheated section of our basement that is good for water bath or pressure canned goods, onions, garlic, pumpkins, and the like, it is a bit too warm to stop the fermentation, so those vegetables are stored in the extra refrigerator in the basement along with the vinegar brine pickled jalapenos. If the power fails, they are still safe in the cool dark space, just like when the pioneers in this region and their ancestors did in their spring houses and root cellars.