Tara Whitsitt is crossing the country in a school bus that the former Houstonian has transformed into a traveling culture cultivation station.
The founder ofFermentation on Wheels rolled into Austin for about a week earlier this month as part of a cross-country journey to connect with farmers and fermentos and collect whatever cultures and knowledge she can find. Her trip she started in Oregon in August and will continue until at least this fall in order to teach as many people as she can about cultivating live cultures and using them in food. While here, she parked the bus at HausBar Farm in East Austin.
She sleeps in the back of the bus, but the front is her kitchen and work area, which includes a butcher block-like cutting board as big as a door that is on top of a double-decker jar-and-carboy holder that keeps the ferments from rolling around the bus when she’s on the road. She has dozens of fermented food projects underway at any given time, from sauerkraut and kimchi to cider and wine.
"Everything I make, I harvest myself," she says as she twists off the lid to a kimchi she’d made a few weeks earlier, including the apples for the hard cider taking up some of the bigger spaces below the cutting board.She stores her completed ferments in the space underneath her living and working quarters, and she says she tries to hold on to a jar of everything she makes.
Whitsitt, who left her supply chain management job in Brooklyn to move to an intentional community in Oregon before starting this project, does accept donations in exchange for some of the jars of product and if people want to help her pay for things like gas or bus maintenance, but her mission has nothing to do with money and everything to do with spreading the good word about good bacteria.
She’s also out to gather as many different strains (and stories) as she can. One of her favorites on this trip so far is a kefir culture from Arizona, and she has a particular affection for a rye sourdough that was started more than 10 years ago. (Although she has a wood-fired stove on the bus for heating, I couldn’t figure out how she’d back a loaf of sourdough on the oven-less bus. Instead of baking with it, she uses the starter for sourdough pancakes that she serves with kimchi.)
Before heading off to Elgin and then Houston, Whitsitt got a few samples of live-cultured vinegars from Kate Payne of The Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking, who is hosting a lacto-fermentation workshop ($65, hipgirlshome.com) from noon to 4 p.m. on Feb. 15 at Green Gate Farms, 8310 Canoga Ave. Payne’s class will cover master recipes for dishes including kimchi or sauerruben (a sauerkraut-like dish made with root vegetables), cultured seasonal vegetables in a fermented brine and live-culture vinegars from fruit juices or scraps. The price includes seasonal vegetables from Green Gate that attendees can ferment at home. If you’re already prepared to ferment vegetables at home, here is a recipe from Whitsitt for chipotle carrots fermented in a salt brine.
Fermented Chipotle Carrots
Whitsitt taught this recipe at Skinny Lane Farm in Elgin when she was in Central Texas in January and posted it on her Tumblr page, which, in addition to her Facebook page, is where she shares many of her recipes and stories. This recipe makes about a quart of fermented carrots, and Whitsitt says she usually makes a quadruple batch for a gallon container.
1 lb. carrots
1 tsp. black peppercorn
1 tsp. white peppercorn
1 tsp. coriander seed
2 tsp. cumin seed
2 tsp. caraway seed
2 cloves garlic, halved
1/2 chipotle pepper (more or less, depending on your heat tolerance), cut into inch-long pieces (don’t throw away seeds)
3 Tbsp. unrefined sea salt
Prep your carrots by cutting them in halves and/or quarters, depending on the size you would like your final fermented treats. (I measure each of my cuts at 3-4 bites per pickle)
Slightly crush the peppercorns, coriander, cumin and caraway with a mortar and pestle to intensify the flavor. Put the spices and chipotle in your fermentation vessel, such as a quart glass jar. Pack carrots in your container.
To make the brine, dissolve salt in one quart of the purest water available to you. Pour the brine over the carrots and seal tightly with lid. Gently turn the jar to distribute the spices and then remove the lid.
Now you have an open container of pickles and it’s time for one of the most important parts of keeping your ferment happy: a weight that will keep your carrots underneath the brine. It’s easy to fill a small jar with water and sit it on top of the carrots, but you might have other ideas for weights or even something like a plastic yogurt lid that fits under the neck of the jar that still allow your ferment to get exposure to air but keep the contents below the top of the brine. There are a lot of good methods, and many come straight from our creative common sense. Cover your vessel with a cloth and rubber band, to keep random bugs and dust particles out.
Wait a week and try a carrot. It’s probably going to need another week, but it’s good practice to try your ferments along their journey. Ferments will work at different speeds depending on their environment. Temperature is a huge factor. Most ferments thrive best at 68 to 76 degrees, just like us.
When your ferment is to your liking, cover it with a lid and place in the fridge or other cold storage. Keeping your new pickles cool stalls fermentation process, so you can enjoy the fermented flavor from when you sealed the jar.
— Tara Whitsitt, Fermentation on Wheels (fermentationonwheels.tumblr.com)