What we tried: St. Pete Ferments is a young company, open officially for business since October. Mainly found at local farmers markets with pickles for sale — pickles being any vegetable, not just cucumbers, preserved by acidification — owner Sarah Arrazola recently started holding workshops to teach people about the process. I attended the third installment of her first four-part fermentation series, in which she taught everything from making sauerkraut to brewing kombucha.
How it went: I used to think "ferment" was a dirty word. Saying it always left a bitter taste in my mouth, as if I was still chewing on the sauerkraut my dad forced me to eat when I was little. He'd scoop some onto my plate next to my cut-up kielbasa and coax, "Just try it." I'd nibble on it a little, push it around my plate some, and ultimately turn my nose up at it, to his immense distaste.
Even just talking about the process of fermentation, like in high school chemistry class, made my nose crinkle as the gustatory memory flooded my mouth. "Fermented" was just another word for sour, to me, and I've never liked the distinctly bitter flavor found in those foods. I hated beer for a while; I still pick pickled cucumbers off everything. I think, when I was little, I even turned away from sourdough bread.
So why did I take a pickling class at St. Pete Ferments? While learning to ferment is a particularly good idea when you live on the west coast of Florida, with its half-year hurricane season and token power outages, I mostly wanted to take another stab at acquiring the taste for those sour foods.
Sitting cozy on a couch at the Black Crow Coffee Roasting facility in St. Petersburg, I sipped on ginger hibiscus kombucha, throwing myself in wholeheartedly to the idea of fermentation while Arrazola explained the history and culture behind the food preservation technique. There's sauerkraut in Germany; dua cai chua in Vietnam; misozuke in Japan; kimchi in Korea; curtido in El Salvador; torshi in the Middle East, Turkey and the Balkans.
You can pickle almost anything, she said. Vegetables, fruits, eggs.
The process, she explained, is simple: Prep, salt pack, wait. I watched her cut up a carrot and cauliflower, pack it in a jar with some seasonings, cover it with a brine she had already prepared (3 tablespoons of salt to 4 cups of dechlorinated water) and seal it closed. And that was it.
The hardest part is waiting, she said.
With a colander full of vegetables, I followed the herd of fermentation diehards, some of whom came to previous workshops and others who covered their info packets front to back with notes, out onto the patio where Arrazola had set up folding tables with jars, peelers, knives, brine and spices. While people around me carefully measured out mustard seeds and peppercorns for certain flavor profiles, I dumped handfuls of each into my jar. I painstakingly peeled cloves of garlic and sliced up a ginger root before peeling and chopping four beets, packing them all in tight. I topped that with cauliflower, pressing down as tightly as I could, and filled the jar with brine until it just touched the middle of the rim. I remember screwing the lid on and turning to Arrazola, who had helped me peel the garlic: "I'm done. I think. Right?"
Afterward, I set the jar on the baker's rack in my kitchen, and by morning, the brine had turned the brilliant pinky purple color of beets. I tapped the jar lightly, still unsure I'd done it right, and watched as tiny little bubbles rose to the top of the liquid. Hesitantly, I unscrewed the lid, remembering what Arrazola had said about letting the air out. When it hissed, I smiled triumphantly. I had just burped my beets.
I burped them once a day for seven days, unscrewing the lid slightly to let the air out as the bacteria in the vegetables did their thing. Bacteria are like humans, Arrazola said. They eat carbs and they burp. (According to the packet she gave us in class: Under anaerobic conditions, leuconostoc mesenteroides, a common type of lactic acid bacteria found on all plants, metabolize the carbohydrates in the vegetables and release lactic acid, creating that sour taste.)
After seven days, I unscrewed the top and leaned down to take a whiff. My nose puckered, as always, but this time it was a good thing. I pulled the beets, which were now a deep purple, out of the jar and sliced them into thinner pieces. (My cutting board now sports a glorious purple stain the size of a football.) I slathered some crostini with honey goat cheese, topped it with the beets and sprinkled some tarragon across the top.
The verdict: I took a bite, still skeptical, and my mouth tingled in the best way. The beets were still crunchy, but they were salty and just a little bit sour, which made the honey goat cheese surprisingly complementary. I'll probably have pickled beets for months, and the word "ferment" now produces a different, much more pleasant memory.
I will, however, stay away from pickled cucumbers for as long as I live.
Contact Carlynn Crosby at firstname.lastname@example.org.