Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Smokehouse - Old Schoolin' It!

One of the most awesome features of our new-to-us homestead is the original smokehouse in the back yard! You just can't get more much more cooler than that! If you're a homesteading buff with a side of love of the days-of-old,  like us, then you understand our excitement to revive this old relic!

Well, it wasn't very easy to put the pieces together. Luckily the smokehouse had been preserved near its original state. This is a picture of it from the real-estate listing next to the carport for size-comparison.

It has extremely thick interior walls, leaving the interior dimensions at 5'W x 6.5'L. There is an odd "slit" in the interior walls about 2-3' in and about 2' tall - two slots recessed in the concrete opposite each other. We were very confused about this feature.  

So, the other-half researched smokehouses and he learned that in the old days they smoked for preservation.  (follow me here!) When you smoke for preservation (versus flavor) you have to use a low-temperature smoke so as to not scorch the outside of the meat and form a layer that the smoke can't penetrate. The smoke has to penetrate through the whole of the meat to preserve it.  Therefore, most smokehouses were designed so that the fire was outside the building and then piped into the smokehouse. 

But we could find no holes where the smoke was piped in; no repaired-over holes, nothing! Also, the smoke does best to travel up hill, so usually the smokebox is recessed or down hill from the smokehouse itself, but the ground is all level around ours and no recessed holes where a smokebox had once been were to be found. We were boggled and stumped!

Until we visited The Farmers Museum in Cooperstown, NY. They have a smokehouse there; at this link you can read their blog about it. Their smokehouse is designed for a fire inside the smokehouse and what do you know! - their smokehouse has the same slots as ours, but with a stone divider installed in it! A-ha! Now we knew what the slots were for; to separate the fuel from the fire pit. A talk with the lady there helped us come home ready to start smokin'!!!

This is what we learned about the smoke temperature at the museum: They are successful at smoking for preservation by burning green wood and wet wood chips/corn cobs. So, they keep the temperature low by having a smoldering more than a fire. 

So, we came home and the other-half picked up a pork-shoulder and collected some old aged applewood on the property (stacked by the previous owner) with the goal of smoking for flavor (because that's easier). 

He set up the fire and got it going and once it was lowered to a temperature between 180-215 degrees F. He hung up the shoulder by wrapping it in chicken wire and stringing it up with an non-coated wire. The internal temperature of the meat needs to be around 180 degrees F to be complete. If you smoke it near the 180 end, then it will take longer to cook but have more smoke-flavor - hotter is shorter time and less smoke flavor. Pretty logical. He smoked ours for 36 hrs and the fire ranged between 180-215.                     

He says if he were smoking for preservation he would use green wood and soaked wood-chips instead of the dried wood he used this time. We will certainly be doing that, but since it will smoke for 7-10 days (24-7) we want it to be efficient so we'll probably get a hog to butcher for that purpose. It's also easier to keep the temp. down in the cold weather, so we're probably looking at late fall for this :)
As for this latest experiment - the rewards were aplenty! The pulled pork from the shoulder was amazingly delicious! Yyyyuuummm!!! Don't forget to check out our pork shoulder bacon process in a subsequent post (or click PORK SHOULDER BACON).

Delicious smoked pork from our very own old-school smokehouse! With our  homemade fresh coleslaw, homemade sauerkraut, and the fermented-style pickles you can read about on the previous two posts!

Peck of Pickles - Fermented Style Follow-Up!

It is funny how "pickles" has evolved to mean pickled cucumbers. Back in the day, apparently, "pickles" meant anything that was pickled - so even cucumbers were called "pickled cucumbers." Funny, at least to me. ;-)

So, anyway, here is the follow-up on those fermented pickles - 4 to 5 days was enough in the summer on the kitchen counter to make them sufficiently pickle-like for our tastes. They are delicious and in jars in the fridge now. The only lessons I have to pass on are these:

1) If you cut the cucumbers for pickling, be sure to cut them larger than you want the final eating size to be because the brine will shrink them. Kinda one of those "duh" things, but yeah...there it is.

2) Our skins are tough on some of our pickles. My theory is that they were not processed the day they were harvested and my other-half's theory is that they grew too long/over-grew. I picked two "over-grown" cucumbers the other day and put them in the brine to ferment after removing the others. And the results are.....oh! Yum! (yes, I did in fact just go test them for the first time!) So, the ruling is that the tough skins were a result of starting the brine when the cucumbers were not fresh. Fresh cucumbers + tannin leaves (see previous post) = crunchy pickles!

Oh yum, we do love these fermented pickles! Hard to believe the fresh-pack will be as good or better, but we'll see soon! Waiting on those cucumbers to grow :)

Monday, August 6, 2012

Peck of Pickles! - Fermented Style

So, we have finally gotten around to the matter of these harvested cucumbers...

Now, you might think something along the lines of, "Pickles? How hard can this be?" but let me assure you that it's not as simple as one might think. This is actually my second time making pickles (did once a couple years ago) and there are, in fact, follies to be had by the newbie. ;) So let my lessons benefit you, here ya go:

Lesson #1 - The variety of cucumber you grow/pick for this purpose should be a pickling type and not a slicing type. The slicing type tend to not be firm enough for pickles.

Lesson #2 - Do Not let them grow to plumping. Basically, when they look to be the size of a good whole pickle, harvest them then. When they start to "plump" (grow out more in the middle than the ends) you get a mushy middle. No Goodyear blimp cukes, mkay?

Lesson #3 - Try to harvest when you are going to have 20 mins to prep them because they are fresher and better for pickling that way. But if it comes down to pickling cucumbers after harvesting to prevent the above blimping situation, then indeed, choose to harvest them on time and pickle later - just soak them in very cold water for a couple hours before starting your pickling process and you're okay. This puts any lost moisture back in them.

Lesson #4 - Spines. Most varieties have bumps and on the peak of that bump is a tiny pokey spine. I just put the cucumbers in a bowl of water and rubbed them off with the backs my nails - a slow process, but better than an unpleasant pickle-eating-experience! Now, I do not know if I left those on there if the pickling process would dissolve them or not...anyone know? I will experiment next time I think and see what happens :)

Lesson #5 - Not all pickles are alike! Decision time - first off you have to decide if you want fresh pack pickles or fermented pickles. Fresh pack are made using vinegar and fermented are made using brine. They comes out different and are a matter of taste-preference. Now, that's the simple version - when you feel ready there are also combos like icebox and half-sour, oh my!

We chose to try the fermented style and then, next time, we will try the fresh-pack. There are more cucumbers about ready to be harvested, so the next blog post may just well be about that! After it's all said and done, we will post the results, comparisons, and more lessons learned! So keep an eye out for that.

Here are the steps (with pictures) of the Fermented Pickles we made:

1 - Wash (and de-spine, if necc.) and slice (if wished) about 3lbs of cucumbers.

2 - Get a crock - crockpot, old crock from antique shop, etc. Fill it with your spices/herbs. We wanted garlic dill - so we put in a diced head of garlic, 3 tbsp dried dill (no fresh on hand), and a pinch of peppercorns. There are other additions that are wonderful in pickles: mustard seed, chili peppers, etc. Our goal is to start simple and go from there as we experiment. 

3 - There's an old trick that I've heard form several sources that will keep your fermenting pickles crispy! Put in a handful of leaves of a tree/vine that has tannin in it. Grape leaves are the classic - if you have access to those (wild grapes are great too!), then use those. Sour cherry, white oak, or horseradish leaves all will work too. Place these leaves and the herbs/spices/additions in the bottom of the crock. Place your cucumbers on top of these. 

4 - Make your brine by mixing together 1/2 gal water and 6tbsp sea salt. Do not use salt with iodine - it will kill the critters needed for fermentation. Sea salt is best. Kosher or pickling salt will work as well. Pour the brine over the other things in the crock. 

5 - Congratulate yourself because you did it! Now, fermenting food needs to be tended to carefully and protected from building up nasties. So, here is what you have to do:
  • Make sure the cucumbers are submerged in the brine at all times - to do this get a plate that is a little smaller than the opening of the crock and place it (face up, no air pockets) on top of the cucumbers/pickles. No fruit should poke up above the brine level.
  • Weigh down the plate with a clean container filled with water. If you need more liquid to submerge the fruit, then mix more brine (1 1/2 cup water to 1 tbsp salt). 
  • Cover the whole shebang with a cloth - we used cheesecloth - to keep any flies or other wandering creatures out. The kitchen counter is a good place if you have room because it is warm and easy to access.
  • Check it everyday - skim off any mold you can (a little won't hurt), taste the pickles as they ferment and in a couple-few weeks you should have yourself some mighty yummy pickles!
  • Once they get to the point you like - you can put them in clean jars and keep them in the fridge for up to a year. The fermentation will continue for a bit longer in the fridge, but it will slow significantly and stop soon after moving them to the lower temperature.

Okay, we'll report back and post the results of our pickling adventure :) We also have to make the next batch of fresh-pack soon as well! See you then!