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Kate Payne Picked a Pickled Profession

Payne's workshop at JBG inspires a second chance for sauerkraut
Jessi Cape, 11:40am, Tue. Apr. 16, 2013
Much to the continued dismay of my friends and family, I swore off sauerkraut at Disney World when I was 12. When invited to participate in a class taught by Kate Payne at the gorgeous sprawling acres of Johnson’s Backyard Garden this past Saturday, I jumped at the chance to reinvent my relationship with kraut.

For half my life, I've vehemently proclaimed my distaste for kraut, although I remain a champion of pickled-everything and kombucha addict. If anything was going to turn me around on kraut, it was Kate Payne's session. The weather was gorgeous, and the large crowd’s interest was palpable.

photo by Jessi Cape

Payne delivered a two-hour session in the great outdoors, every ounce of time brimming with sweetly delivered tidbits and tips of her trade. I am certain it was not only me that walked away ready to pickle and ferment every farmer's market vegetable I can carry home.

Saving money, boosting immunity and digestive health with probiotics, and finding an outlet for pent-up creativity are but a few bonuses reaped with the implementation and improvement in time-honored canning methods and fridge experiments gone tasty.

Kate Payne is the author of The Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking: Decorating, Dining, and the Gratifying Pleasures of Self-Sufficiency – on a Budget!; her new book, Hip Girl's Guide to the Kitchen is slated for a 2014 release from Harper Collins. At the April 13 workshop, Payne demonstrated four pickling recipes that feature spring and summer veggies; attendees scored a print-out of the easy-to-follow recipes.

Payne’s quirky charm and down-to-earth nature had the audience chuckling while we watched rapt with attention. First up was Stella’s Beets, a pickled beet recipe she adapted from a friend’s story of her family’s suitcase beets. A Stella pro-tip: "Never cut off the tail. You'll bleed out the goodness." Payne went on to mention that checking for nicks in jars at the local Goodwill is a great idea, and one that will certainly yield some strange looks from shoppers not in-the-know about canning.

Her suggested utensils are reasonably priced, and not always traditionally meant for pickling. She uses cookie sheets for trays, lobster pots for big orders. In one of many funny moments, she informed us the tool she uses to smash down cabbage in the kraut is actually a cocktail muddler. Don’t worry, Kate: We love cocktails, too.

In my first experience pickling beets with a friend last year, I was a nervous wreck. Botulism can be deadly, after all! Not to worry, Payne reassured us, “plenty of vinegar makes safe pickles,” but try not to pickle after Bloody Mary Sunday brunch. She laid out the safety basics, promising, "It's not easy to kill your friends and family" from pickled goods.

We learned that 212 is the “magic number” in the pickle kitchen: For pantry canning, aim for 212 degrees to kill the bacteria, whereas in fermentation, aim for less to inspire the growth. She suggests as a matter of precaution, to “experiment and get creative with fridge pickles but stick with trusted recipes for sealed ones.” Quick, interesting facts about anaerobic environments and osmosis also peppered the workshop.

"There's always a moment when you think, ‘Oh no! It's not going to work out’ because it's too stressful. But it will!"

photo by Jessi Cape

Next, she showed us how to raw pack some JBG carrots for the refrigerator. She seemed even more excited with these next three recipes, and the feeling was contagious. Payne discussed many different flavor components and expressed how much fun it is to “go crazy” with the combinations. She suggested using whole spices whenever possible. Payne mentioned that she prefers very crispy pickled carrots, but for softer carrots, add them to the brine for a bit before packing. For us pickling newbies, her expert tips were invaluable. For example, the tighter you pack the jar, the more accurate the brine ratio, of which about 1/2 jar of brine is a good goal.

The sun was shifting overhead as we sat alongside the Colorado River (I left with my first unintentional sunburn of 2013), and class time was running out, so I was particularly excited when she got to the fermentation section. Payne talked a bit about the merit of the process and explained that by safely encouraging bacterial growth, we enhance the nutritional value because probiotics are born.

She simultaneously demonstrated her recipe for Lower East Side Fermented Dills and her version of Sauerkraut. A few tips she shared: A thin layer of white mold on top of the fermenting veggies is normal – just skim it off; other colors of mold are no good; use a cabbage leaf as an anti-flotation device and the cabbage core as a weight; it's done when you think it's tasty; if it’s too salty, it’s not done; the average time it takes to ferment is 7-10 days but in the heat of Austin’s summer it might be sooner.

Once again, Payne’s friendly expertise won me over and gave me confidence in not killing my friends and family with my pickling experiments. At the end of class, I wrote in my notes, “Ha! I can totally do this!" I called my octogenarian grandmother, knowing she would be thrilled to hear about my latest obsession – one she has incorporated into seasonal routines since childhood. I’ll start with cucumbers, carrots, onions, and peppers.

One more thing: Thank you, Kate Payne, for inspiring me to give sauerkraut a second chance. I’ll report back with my final verdict.

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