Getting Started: Essential Equipment
So you want to make some pickles, do you? Or maybe miso, or beer? There are certain items that I have found essential which serve inter-disciplinary purposes.
The first and most important thing that you must procure is… Time!
I know that’s a snarky way of starting a guide about equipment, but it’s the single underlying principle that makes the whole thing work. In the beginning, I was not sure how I could wait for 3 whole months until I would find out if the mead I’d prepared was even any good! And, to be honest, it was just ok. That’s going to happen—and it can be disheartening when you’ve done everything right and waited until you just couldn’t wait any longer, only for the end result to feel like it may not have been worth the effort.
But I assure you, with just that one first go under your belt, be it mead or pickles or beer, the next one will very likely turn out better than the one before. You might even bottle that first 3-month just ok mead only to find that, when you remember it a year later and give it a taste, it’s much better than you remember!
So, get used to the “set it and forget it” mindset.
Now that I’ve got the time part out of the way, the next most obvious thing would be… the Crock.
The Crock manifests in many different ways, but some of the most versatile forms are your bog-standard Mason jars. They’re great general-purpose containment vessels with a bonus see-through material, so you can easily check in and see what your little project is up to.
You can do any kind of ferment imaginable in a mason jar, and the way that the tops are separated into two parts, the lid and the ring, actually makes them unusually handy. The lid has a rubberized coating around the edge (which creates the seal when doing proper canning), which can be used to our benefit to reduce air (oxygen) intake while allowing air (CO2) to escape. If you put the lid and screw the ring on until it’s almost-but-not-quite closed, the lid will rest with it’s rubberized coating against the lip of the jar, helping to reduce (but not entirely prevent) air intake, while easily allowing pressure building up inside the jar to escape. It’s not an ideal airlock (we’ll get to those in a minute), but it’s a starting point.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to label EVERYTHING. That means giving your project an understandable name (“Dandelion Miso?”) and a date. And don’t try to get creative with your dates, either—just keep it simple and add the current date when writing the label. If there is a secondary bottling, you should still put the current “bottled on” date on the label, maybe add a “aged 1yr” note if you must.
The way I think about labeling and dates is like this: the label codifies a moment in time when the vessel and it’s contents met for the first time.
I really like the rinse-away labels made by the various jar manufacturers, but a piece of tape will work in a pinch.
If you’re interested in brewing beer or other tightly-controlled ferments, I highly recommend buying a jug of Star San. It comes in a liquid concentrate form, and a little goes a long way. I keep my diluted Star San in a spray bottle, which makes sanitizing jars, bottles, equipment, and anything else fairly straightforward.
There are other methods for sanitization, however, and sometimes raining chemical fire down on every innocent microbe isn’t strictly necessary. For lactoferments, like pickled vegetables and even sourdough starter, the Lactobacillus quickly out-compete most of the dangerous stuff by flooding the environment with lactic acid. If your ending PH is 4.6 or below, you’re safe from pathogens and other nasties. For some other things, like miso and related techniques, soju or vodka is traditionally used to wipe down the inside of a container, often times after boiling in water.
Many kinds of ferments need to happen in an anaerobic environment, which simply means without oxygen. There are a couple of reasons for this, some which would take a couple Chemistry courses to understand, and some are just practical necessity. Most commonly, you want to prevent the growth of mold on the surface of your ferment, and starving the surface of oxygen is a good way to accomplish that. In most kinds of ferments, carbon dioxide is a byproduct—which happens to be denser than oxygen and so pushes the oxygen up and out of the crock and blankets the surface without any work on your part.
There are many different kinds of airlocks, and many variations of each. I would recommend having a few different kinds on hand to choose from. I have two main kinds that I employ: cheap s-shaped airlocks and waterless silicone Mason jar lid airlocks.
While you can do everything in your power to prevent oxygen from entering your vessel, many types of ferments come with a built-in oxygen barrier: the brine. Whether making lacto-fermented pickles, sauerkraut, or even miso, there is generally a liquid present, and by simply ensuring that everything is fully submerged you’ve already won half the battle.
Many different kinds of weights can be purchased or created with a little bit of ingenuity. I keep a box of glass weights made for mason jars to put on top of pickles and kraut, but when it comes to miso I generally rig something up involving plastic bags with either salt or rice inside.
If (and when, honestly) mold begins to grow on the surface of your brine, your ferment may not be entirely lost. If things are submerged properly, you should be relatively safe—however, depending on the amount of mold present, there may be detrimental effects to the taste and texture of the final product.