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How to make amazing sauerkraut at home

Sauerkraut is shredded and fermented cabbage. It is incredibly simple to make, and provides an amazingly versatile product that is usable as a topping, a side, a flavor enhancer, and many other culinary roles. I love in raw on top of a hot dog or bratwurst — or just as a snack, like pickles. I love to braise sausage or other meats with kraut and onions. I love sauerkraut in a hearty soup (If you’re a West Michigan native, you have probably tried the amazing Reuben Soup at Russ’ Restaurants — yup, it has sauerkraut in it!). Speaking of reuben sandwiches, you can’t make a great one without great sauerkraut.

Do you think you’ve tried sauerkraut before and didn’t like it? Well, all I can say is that the homemade version is a totally different beast than the store bought stuff. Homemade kraut is like a really great homemade pickle — it just doesn’t have a store-bought equivalent, and I really urge you to give this a try. You’ll be surprised — shocked I tell you.

kraut cutterI learned the simple procedure from my dad’s parents (German lineage) who used to make 10 or 15 gallons worth in one big day-long event. Grandpa would use a “kraut cutter” — which was effectively a mandolin type slicing tool with a moving carriage that you would move back and forth over the stationary blade. I’ve still got the kraut cutter, but my cuisinart food processor makes for a lot less labor. I also have an amazing assortment of old crocks (some here on the farm and many more of which are in a collection on display of our family’s collection at Bowens Mills in Yankee Springs), but I find the 5 gallon food grade buckets much more easy to manage (both in terms of weight and worries about breaking those big crocks).

Give this procedure a try…

Get a 5 gallon bucket. Food grade, BPA Free. You can find these for a few bucks at most Tractor Supply Companies and other farm or hardware stores. If it is food grade, it says so on the container. If it is a color other than white, and unmarked, assume that it is NOT food grade (which can leach toxins into your food — bad stuff).

Clean the bucket. If you have some beer making supplies handy, use StarSan or some other acid sanitizer to sanitize the bucket. If you don’t have StarSan (and you can’t buy it at your local brew supply shop), then consider carefully pouring boiling water around the entire interior of the bucket. Sanitizing your fermenting vessel is an essential part of assuring that you end up with a delicious product and not a spoiled one.

Get cabbage. Around 35-38 pounds of cabbage is the amount you’ll need to make a 5 gallon batch. Peel any nasty leaves from the outside and get down to the shiny clean stuff. Cut each cabbage into quarters and then remove the core material by simply slicing it out from the bottom of quarter. You may need to reduce the pieces further to fit them into your mandolin or food processor chute.

Get salt. You want non-iodized salt. I prefer a finer (table) grind of salt, as it disperses faster in the cabbage. Most recently I’ve been purchasing Morton natural sea salt, as it is the same grind as their regular table salt. In the past I’ve used other salts (kosher, canning, etc.) and they all work the same. Some just take longer to act on the cabbage.

Get a kitchen scale. You need to weigh the cabbage after slicing to assure that you don’t over/under apply the salt. This is important. Don’t just “eyeball” it or else you’ll end up with really salty or really spoiled kraut.

Get cheesecloth, a plate, and a weight. Fine cheesecloth works better than the thick weave stuff. You’ll want a food safe plate (like a dinner plate) that fits inside the bucket and covers the interior space as best as possible. You’ll want a one gallon weight. Large pickle jars, gallon wine jugs, or a milk jug works great. You’ll want to clean and sterilize the plate and weight. Fill the weight with room temperature water. To sterilize the cheesecloth, cut it to fit the size of the bucket (with some overlap to spare), and then boil it in a saucepan of water for several minutes. Allow to cool before handling.

cuisinartGet started. Using your mandolin slicer or food processor, you’ll want to slice the cabbage into thick shards. I use the thickest (4mm) blade on my Cuisinart food processor. You can make the kraut thinner, but you’ll lose crunch in the finished product — and crunch is a big part of the mouth feel of good kraut in my opinion.

Weigh, salt, pack. You will be applying 3 Tablespoons of salt to 5 pounds of shredded cabbage. If you have a large enough bowl, tare your kitchen scale to the weight of the empty bowl and fill it with 5 pounds of shredded cabbage. Sprinkle the 3 Tbs of salt on the cabbage and mix it thoroughly with your hands (you may want gloves if the salt bothers your skin). Spread a layer of salted cabbage in the bottom of the bucket and pack it down firmly with your hands or a (clean and sterilized) tool (such as a potato masher). Continue this process until your cabbage is gone and your bucket is nearly full. Packing is important. Once the bucket is about 1/2 full you should be able to apply pressure such that water starts appearing. By the time you’re at the top, you’ll want to be packing hard, and you’ll begin to see a significant amount of cabbage water form. If water is slow to form, go grab a frosty beverage and check back on it in 15-20 minutes (sometimes the salt takes a while to draw out the water).

ImageFinish. When the cabbage is all shredded and packed (or when the packed bucket is 80% full — leave a few inches!) you’ll want to get your cheesecloth and gently place it over the top of the bucket. Use a flat (sanitized) paddle or wooden spoon to poke the edges of the cloth down evenly all the way around the bucket. This will create a layer of cloth — a “tent” — that keeps the cabbage underwater. If you get the cloth completely “tucked” and there are still bits of cabbage floating on top, skim all of them off. Place the plate on top of the cheesecloth and push the plate down until it is completely underwater. Place the weight on top of the plate. Leave in an out of the way corner (preferably a temperature stable and relatively dark place).

Fermentation. The cabbage will ferment. This takes anywhere from one week to several. When it stops making bubbles, it is done. Simple as that. Skim any scum that forms. Mold blooms may appear on the surface, and they are not a problem. Just skim.

Enjoy! When it is done, you can scoop it out and store it raw in smaller containers in a fridge (great as a topping), or you can follow standard water bath canning measures to preserve it at peak freshness. Enjoy! You’ll never buy the store bought stuff again.

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Evaluating ethical lambing practices

Tail docking and castrating of ram lambs… is it ethical? Is it necessary?

Last year we decided to embark on an experiment in ethics and best practices. We decided that we would leave all lambs intact, which means that we did not castrate any of the boys, nor did we dock (cut off) tails.

lamb photo for webOne of the primitive traits of Jacob Sheep is their ability to still fully articulate their tails. Common modern farming technique requires the docking of tails, as lore suggests that many modern commercial breeds of sheep no longer have the ability to articulate their tails sufficiently to move it out of the way of feces and urine (which can lead to disease and infection). This is certainly not the case with Jacob Sheep, and after doing some investigating, we have arrived at the conclusion that it is unnecessary.

Removing appendages, such as the tail,  for “looks only” is not ethical care in our opinion. One of the reasons we began to question this practice in the first place was because we lost a lamb to anaphylactic shock after giving her the requisite anti-tetanus injection that is needed to keep them from getting tetanus in their tail when you band them. We watched a perfectly healthy lamb die within minutes in horrible agony and convulsions due to a shot we had given her so that we could perform an unnecessary procedure on her. Was this typical? Obviously, no. Does it happen? Yes. In fact, that same year another breeder friend of ours had a similar experience in two of his lambs.

In 2013 we raised all of our lambs without incident with tails fully intact. They thrived and we did not have any increased incidents of fly strike, infections, or otherwise. They were able to articulate their tails as needed for their bodily functions, and the ewes bred without any trouble. Breeders in some areas of the country have been leaving tails intact for quite some time, so this is not a new idea. We are simply reinforcing the idea that docking is purely an aesthetic choice, and here at Fat Toaster Farm we aren’t in the business of chopping off animal appendages in order to gain style points.

As for castrating, we have not castrated ram lambs since we began our farm in 2009, and the meat lambs taste mild and indistinguishable. As foodies the quality and flavor of our food is very important. We eat the sheep we raise, and so we want the best tasting meat. Castration can be extremely painful for the lamb (if you see them writhing in pain, you realize that yes, they do feel it — there is no way to explain that away and remain honest with yourself). Castration can also open an opportunity for infection, fly strike (trust me, you don’t want to mess with this), increased care, and sometimes death due to aforementioned complications. Again, if there is no practical gain, there is no reason to perform unnecessary surgical processes. Less work for us, less pain for the lambs, and the meat is fine both ways. Win/win.

Overall we encourage breeders to consider the implications of our findings. For one, it is significantly less work for the shepherd when you don’t need to catch every single lamb yet another time to band their tails or castrate. It is one or two less shots that you must catch them to give (and less risk of anaphylaxis). Certainly it is best for the critters this way also, as they endure less pain, enjoy a higher quality of life, and you don’t have to listen to their cries of pain. Again, win/win.

Happy lambing!

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October Shandy

October is one of our favorite months here at Fat Toaster Farm. Ahh, freshly pressed cider is a Michigan classic. Local orchards brim with the sweet delicious nectar. Personally, we’re fans of finding orchards who sell unpasteurized and undiluted cider.

Prost!

Above what we purchase for fermenting into hard cider, we usually buy at least a 1/2 dozen gallons for fresh consumption and a few for the freezer. A note for those who wish to freeze fresh cider — it works great, but make sure you open each gallon and pour off around 8 oz. (liquid expands as it freezes, and if you don’t pour a little off, it will make a mess of your freezer).

One of my favorite drinks in the summertime is a summer shandy — which is the mixture of lemonade and beer. It is such a simple combination, yet it tastes so great and refreshing.

With all of this fresh cider around I was thinking, “would cider make a good shandy beverage?” Yes. Yes it does. I give the world October Shandy. Here is the recipe:

Mix your favorite Oktoberfest beer (I really like Sam Adams Octoberfest) with fresh apple cider at the ratio of 2 parts beer to 1 part cider. It is an incredibly simple and delicious fall beverage. Want to add a bit of flavor? Toss in a dash of cinnamon!

There you have it.

Möge dir dein Weg leicht werden
Möge dir der Wind immer von hinten kommen
Möge dir die Sonne warm ins Gesicht scheinen
Möge dir ein sanfter Regen auf die Felder fallen

und bis wir uns wiedersehen
möge Gott dich in seiner Hand halten.

Prost!

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How to Make Hard Cider

Here is a quick wiki for how to ferment your own delicious hard cider at home. No cooking is necessary. This method offers a few simple add-ins to help you make good cider the first time.

Step 1: Find a source for good quality apple cider.
The best places to find good apple cider include farmers markets, orchards, cider mills, and roadside farm stands. The best cider for fermenting into hard cider is unpasteurized and not purchased from a supermarket. Most supermarket cider is watered down and has undergone heat treatment. Sometimes it even contains preservatives and other unwanted additives. You want the good stuff from a reliable source that still has all of the original sugar content found in good *fresh* (recently pressed) cider. The later in the season that apples are harvested, the higher the sugar content in the cider — thus to maximize your alcohol content in the finished product, you want to start with the highest level of sugar.

Step 2: Obtain a fermenting bucket and a few basic add-ins.Image
Your local brew shop can help you find the following items:
— A 6 gallon fermenting bucket with lid and airlock
— Acid Sanitizer (like “StarSan”)
— Campden tablets (you’ll need at least 1 per gallon)
— Fermax Yeast Nutrient (helps the yeast to do a good job)
— Pectic Enzyme (helps the cider clarify faster)
— Yeast (I recommend Safale S04 as a good starting point)

Step 3: Prep your bucket.Image
Follow the instructions on the StarSan packaging for the proper ratio of sanitizer to water. Fill your bucket with warm water and add the necessary amount of StarSan. Place your airlock and lid inside the bucket of sanitizer water and allow it to sit for the recommended time. Pour out the sanitizer — it does not require additional rinsing (some suds are normal and will not affect the product).

Step 4: Get the bucket filled.
If you take your bucket to the cider mill or orchard, some places will fill your container — usually at a discount. Just bring your sanitized bucket and lid to the mill (try to keep them clean), fill it to the 5 gallon mark (DO NOT fill the bucket to the top — you need several inches of headspace or else you’ll have a mess during fermentation). If you can’t bring the bucket, just buy 5 gallons of cider and bring it home — pour it in the bucket.

Step 5: Day one – Add Campden Tablets.ImageImage
Your bucket is full. Set it in a place where it can sit for at least 24 hours. Take 5 campden tablets (one per gallon of cider), crush them up into powder, and add them into the cider. Use a clean metal spoon to gently stir the powder into the cider. Place the lid on gently to keep out dust, and allow to sit for 24 hours undisturbed.

Step 6: Day two – AdditionsImage
When 24 hours have passed, add the amount of pectic enzyme (usually 1/2 tsp per gallon) and yeast nutrient (usually 1 tsp per gallon) to the cider. Wait around one hour.

Step 7: Day two – Casting your yeast, away you go!
Cut open the package of yeast. If you’re using Safale S04 or any other dry beer yeast, you can usually just sprinkle it evenly on top of the cider. If you’re using a wine yeast or a wet yeast (like Wyeast), follow the package instructions. Place the lid on top of the bucket and make sure it is snapped down. Insert the airlock and fill it to the line with vodka or sanitizer water. Put the bucket in a place where it can sit undisturbed for about a month, and off it goes. Bubbling should begin in around 2 days.

Step 8: FermentImageImage
Allow your cider to ferment, checking the airlock occasionally to make sure that it is properly filled. Fermentation may take several weeks; possibly a month. Do not proceed until the cider has absolutely stopped bubbling for at least a week.

Step 9: Allow to clarify
You can leave the cider in the bucket to clarify or you can transfer it to a “secondary” conditioning vessel (which would require a siphon and a glass carboy). Ask your local brew shop for more advice about secondary conditioning. Ultimately, you want to leave the cider alone for another several weeks past the end of fermentation to allow the suspended matter to drop to the bottom. The end result will be a glassy and opaque coppery liquid. This step is not necessary, but it improves the taste and appearance of your finished product. From this point forward your cider is “still” (isn’t fizzy) but ready to drink.

Step 10: Bottle your cider
You could just place your hard cider in jars in the fridge or some quick storage method. Alternately, with some additional equipment from your local brew shop, you can bottle your cider and even make it fizzy! Get bottles, a bottle capper, and bottle caps. Clean (wash/sanitize) the bottles (ask your brew shop for the best way). Use sanitizer to sanitize your caps. If you can obtain a bottling bucket, siphon your cider into a bottling bucket. Boil 5 oz. of bottling sugar (not table sugar) in two cups of water. Allow to cool, and then add to the cider. Fill and cap your bottles with the cider and allow them to sit at room temp for at least two weeks before drinking.

Step 11: Enjoy!

This year I am fermenting 25 gallons of cider. This is what our kitchen counter looks like...

This year I am fermenting 25 gallons of cider. This is what our kitchen counter looks like…

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Recipe: Local Lamb Chops with Red Wine Reduction

Local Lamb Chops with Red Wine Reduction… a perfect and well-balanced preparation for our Fat Toaster Farm Jacob Sheep lamb chops. With hints of middle eastern spices, this is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever put in your mouth. Here is how to make it in less than 30 minutes.

Ingredients:

6-8 small lamb chops (cut 3/4″ – 1″ thick)
1 cup of your favorite red wine
1 Tbs butter
2 Tbs canola oil
2 Tbs garlic powder
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt
pinch of fresh ground pepper

Procedure:
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
Mix the garlic powder, thyme, cardamom, and cinnamon in a mortar and use pestle to mix up the ingredients and crush the thyme. Lay chops out on a flat surface and place 1/2 of the salt across the surface of one side of the chops. Liberally sprinkle the spice mixture across the surface of the chops. Turn the chops over and season the other side with the other 1/2 of the salt and a coating of the spices.

On the stovetop place a cast iron or other oven-safe 10″ (or larger) saute/frying pan over high heat. When the pan is very hot, put the canola oil in the pan and immediately add the seasoned chops. Sear for 2 minutes on one side, turn the chops, and then place in the preheated oven. Bake for 6 minutes for medium rare (recommended).

Remove pan from oven and immediately move chops to a single layer on a plate. Cover with foil for 5-8 minutes to rest. While the chops are resting you will make your wine reduction sauce. Heat the pan over medium-high heat and add the wine. Use a spoon or whisk to scrape the bits in the bottom of the pan as the wine reduces. When the wine is reduced by at least 1/2, turn off the heat and whisk-in the butter until incorporated. Arrange 2-3 chops per serving and spoon the wine reduction over each chop. Freshly cracked pepper over the top and you have completed this amazing dish.

Wonderful when served with creamy au gratin potatoes or your favorite vegetable.

lamb chops

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Farming is hard

When I first tell friends that I have a small farm, I often hear the response, “Sounds neat, but hey, isn’t that hard? Like, a lot of work?”

My response isn’t typically what they expect. I tell them, “Yeah, farming and caring for these critters is a lot of work, but that is the fun part! The parts of farming that aren’t easy often have to do with the unpleasant things that don’t often come to mind until you’ve lived ’em.”

We’ve been doing this for about three years, and we’ve experienced great joy — The first time you have lambs born on the farm, and the first time that one of those lambs becomes your best friend. The times when you have 50 peeping little chicks making the most ridiculous racket in a box in your garage. The times that you can invite friends over to enjoy your space, comforts, and good eats.

Then there are the times that don’t come to mind but will be experienced, ready or not. These are the times that are hard — The time when a dog gets in to your chicken coop and kills every single last one before you go out to find the dog gone, and the carnage left behind. The time that a sheep gets injured by some freak accident and you have to spend hours and late nights calling vets and wondering if it will live. The times when an animal gets randomly sick and needs daily antibiotic shots for weeks to get better. The days filled with great joy as new life is born, and then the sadness of seeing such fragile new life perish. There are the times many pet owners know — when you lose your old friend. When you have a whole pasture full of friends, you have that many more to lose. Then there are the times of great unpleasantness, like having to save your sheep in distress from an attacking dog in your pasture, knowing that you are likely shooting someone else’s beloved pet out of horrible necessity.

All farmers experience such things, and the smaller and more sustainably you farm, the closer you are to each animal and their daily care. So, next time you eat that locally grown meat or enjoy the beauty and wondrousness of a small family farm, realize that the farmers who so lovingly share that experience with you have a deep well of experience — both joy and pain — that go unseen with each moment.

Farming and animal husbandry are worthwhile and wondrous undertakings, yet the difficult times will come with surety. Weathering them takes far more energy than cleaning out the barn or hauling some feed out to a flock of eager faces.

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Making Hot Sauce… a recipe for yum (and a bad time to touch your eyes)

Lindsay and I concocted and canned a large pot of homemade hot sauce. It turned out nice. A fair hit of heat (but not crazy… about on-par with Tabasco or Red Hot), but with a touch of sweet and a nice full mouth flavor. It would be great on tortilla chips, as an add-in for goulash, or on some fried/grilled chicken (or of course with other meats… a lovely thick pork chop or roasted loin, for example). This recipe is based on the one found here, but modified. Here is the recipe:

1/2 cup of minced garlic
3 cups of diced onion
4 cups of diced tomatoes
6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
6 cups assorted rough-chopped hot peppers (we used equal parts scotch bonnet, jalapeno, and hungarian)
3 cups of cider vinegar
6 teaspoons of kosher salt
2 1/2 tablespoons of sorghum molasses

1. Over high heat in a large saucepan, heat oil and add the onion and peppers. Saute for several minutes until soft. Add garlic. Cook for 2-3 more minutes. Stir continuously.

2. Add the vinegar, tomatoes, salt and molasses. Stir until the tomatoes break down. Roughly 6 minutes. Reduce heat and simmer mixture for an additional 15-30 minutes until all of the peppers are soft and sloppy.

3. Place mixture in blender and blend until a puree is formed (careful, a drop in your eyes will mean a trip to the hospital, and even breathing the steam will burn your lungs and cause intense coughing).

4. Pour mixture through a fine mesh sieve, or run through a Foley food mill.

5. Store in refrigerator or water bath can (we canned ours by processing it in small sterile jelly jars for around 30 minutes). Makes about 10 8oz. jars.

It is advised that you wear kitchen/latex gloves while chopping and handling hot peppers, as some may find their hands very sensitive to the capsaicin in the peppers (skin that feels like it is burning is an undesirable outcome, and even if you’re not one of those persons, consider that you can’t touch your eyes for about 2 days… even after washing multiple times).

Ours came out a lovely orange color.

Image

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