Posts tagged farming

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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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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Back in Spring, Lambs were born!

I know it is the middle of August, and clearly I’m behind (as usual) in my blogging. I thought you might be interested in our lambs from this spring.

Our Jacob sheep ewes all twinned this year, and in addition we obtained a Shetland ewe with young ram lamb at the side… so in total, we had 7 lambs on the farm. All three of our Jacob ewes lambed when we were away, and without incident. They are wonderful mothers, and their lambs are now happy and healthy. My only complaint? Of the six lambs born here this year, five were pesky boys.

Cecilia was the first to lamb this year on 4/3/10. She had two very healthy 4 horn rams, Calvin and Hobbes.

Calvin, Hobbes, and Cecilia
Zach and Cecilia's CalvinTop photo – Calvin, Hobbes, and Cecilia

Bottom photo - Zach and Calvin

Baby was the second to lamb with a ram (Bocelli “Bo”, 2 horn) and a ewe (Andrea, 4 horn) on 4/8/10

Baby and her lambs, Andrea (top photo) and Bocelli (bottom front)

Baby and her lambs, Andrea (top photo) and Bocelli (bottom front)

And Finally, Roberta came in third a fitting three weeks later with two playful ram lambs on 4/29/10. We dubbed them Conan (2 horn) and O’brien (4 horn)

Roberta with Conan and O'brien

Roberta with Conan and O'brien

And finally, Jasmine, our black Shetland ewe and her white lamb ram. We named him Jasmine’s Aladdin, but his nickname is “little ramb lamb” forevermore. He is now a wether who will live a long life on our farm as a fiber animal. He is a big fuzzy puppy dog of a sheep, and the highlight of anyone’s visit to our farm.
"Little Ram Lamb" Aladdin

"Little Ram Lamb" Aladdin

Of course, it is August as I write this, so all of the lambs have grown significantly.  Many updated photos can be found on the “For Sale” page!
Zach with "Little Lamb Ram" in August, 2010

Zach with "Little Ram Lamb" in August, 2010

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