Real Food

Savor the flavors of everyday real food, fresh from the garden or stored on your pantry shelves.

Add to My MSN



No, this isn’t about ground beef. This is about flour.

Last year, I became intrigued by grain mills. What a great idea — so I thought. That lasted until sticker-shock set in. The whole idea was put on hold as “nice idea, too expensive.” You can literally spend hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for a grain mill. Some are quite attractive to look at, but still, they’re expensive pieces of kitchen equipment. Trolling through Amazon taught me that there are great varieties out there. Some do a better job — apparently — than others, but at the end of the day, unless you buy one and try it, you don’t really know how it will work or whether it will fit your needs.

Our needs were basic: Just something to grind whole-wheat flour or whatever strikes my fancy. I don’t see myself as a daily grinder, but many do. Who knows, with enough passion, it could happen!

Trying Out the Victorio Grain Mill

In a recent trolling trip through Amazon, I came across a Victorio grain mill, and I checked it out, as I already own their food mill, and love it. It was under $100, so with a click of the mouse, said mill along with some bags of Bob’s Red Mill whole grains, were on their way.

Upon its arrival, it got put to immediate use. Alas, my butcher block table was too thick for the clamp, but the workbench in the garage was perfect. You won’t want to connect this to anything fancy, like your dining room table. Serious force will be applied.

I had ordered a bag of hard red spring wheat berries to make whole-wheat flour, so in went two cups, and I started turning the crank. You will get a very nice upper body workout, which I consider a side benefit. With a bowl underneath to catch the flour as it came out, soon enough, we had flour. It took about 10 minutes to create three cups flour, and that is the normal yield, according to a book I got on grinding (more about that in the next blog post).

Processing Whole-Wheat Flour for Banana Bread

The next step was to bake something. In this case, I chose banana bread. If you have never tasted a baked item made with freshly ground flour, you are in for a real treat. The taste is totally different-fresher, tastier, more what you would expect a baked good should taste like. You just do not get that experience with commercially ground flours and baked products — especially whole-wheat. Many of the commercial ones taste strong, dry and bitter in comparison. For those reasons alone, whole-wheat flour was never popular in our house.

So what are some of things you need to look at when purchasing a grain mill? Certainly cost is a factor, but obviously not the only one. To motorize or not to motorize? Mine is not, but often times you can order a motor to go on it afterward if you wish. Check the model you’re interested in to make sure it can be upgraded.

The other thing to consider about motors is if it’s manual, it will always work. If you’re off the grid, it’s obvious, but if you have 30-hour power outages like we do here, you might want to keep that in mind too. It never hurts to be prepared. You can still make stuff on your camp stove in that situation!

Another thing to consider is speed. Some grind faster than others. Mine is considered a “slow” one, but I thought three cups in 10 minutes pretty adequate. Now if you are baking for a family of six, you might feel differently. Or, get the kids to do it! Mills also grind in different ways: Burr grinders, steel, stone.

Which Grains Can I Grind?

What you can grind is also important. Mine, for example, won’t do large grains like corn, so if cornmeal is what you want, you will have to buy something bigger. Be aware that you are limited by what can fit through the hopper.

Small grains like wheat berries are what mine is designed for. It can handle buckwheat, teff, rice and the like. Oats are not recommended, because they are too light to flow through the hopper.

You need to watch out that the grinding cones don’t overheat when not enough material is being processed through them — hence, the problem with oats. Perhaps a bigger mill would handle oats with no problem. Or, you could run oatmeal flakes through a food processor or blender if you want oat flour.

As you can see, there are a lot of factors that go into the decision to get a grain mill: What you intend to bake/make, size of your family, how often you intend to use it, lots of considerations. I can guarantee one thing though: If you purchase one and try the flour in your baked goodies, you will be won over by the taste!


Bob’s Red Mill carries a dizzying array of whole grains. They often have your harder to find items and more unusual flours, etc. Last accessed May 11, 2016.

Victorio offers sprouters, canners, dehydrators, etc. Last accessed May 11, 2016.

Sue Van Slooten teaches cooking and baking classes at her home on beautiful Big Rideau Lake, Ontario, Canada. She specializes in small classes for maximum benefit. Follow her homesteading adventures and check out her class offerings at You can email Sue questions at She'd be thrilled to hear from you! Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

View from kitchen window

In memory, I return to a summer day in a Mediterranean village. I’m sitting on a concrete floor in the kitchen of a two-room stone house. It’s a narrow kitchen, wide enough to contain a small porcelain basin, electric hot plate, and counter space for a dish drain or pan. Above the basin is a window, which looks onto a courtyard, and beyond that onto other houses also built of sand-colored stone. From where I’m sitting, I cannot see out the window. But I can see a rusty refrigerator, which stands, not in the kitchen, but just past the doorway in the hall. I happen to know that the refrigerator doesn’t work, perhaps has never properly worked, and that it serves as a closet for shoes.

Mariam, a full-figured woman in her mid-to-late 60s (no one knows for certain) wearing a long dark dress and diaphanous headscarf, is sitting across from me on the floor. Between us lies a woven straw mat, which holds a mountain of okra. We spent the morning on the farm picking the pods, and then conveying them to the house in a mule cart.

Now, the early noon sun is streaming through the window casting light on what memory has shaped into a still life entitled Okra on Mat. Our task is to remove the stems from the pods. A naïf in the kitchen, I pick up a paring knife and cut deep into the flesh of each one.

Lessons on Food

At the age of 19, I know little about working with food. Mother seldom cooked except if one counts such activities as rehydrating potato flakes, and then mixing them with margarine and salt. Meals in our Brooklyn apartment consisted of that or else of store-brand hot dogs with canned peas and carrots or grilled American cheese on white. My first two years of college, I worked in the cafeteria as a short-order cook. There I learned how to open ten-pound bags of French fries, dump the fries into huge vats of oil, and then lift them out when they browned.

Now, for my third year of college, I’m studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and dating Mariam’s son. I’m also, without quite grasping it yet, getting an education in what will become a lifelong interest in food. I don’t mean by this statement that before then I didn’t like to eat and now I do or that I’ve since become a foodie, a gourmet, or heaven forbid, a gourmand. What I mean is that that day on the farm and in the kitchen marked the beginning of my desire to understand the relationship between agriculture, food, and the good life.

“Shufi,” Mariam says. I speak few words of Arabic and she, despite living in what is now Israel, speaks even fewer of Hebrew, which I do know. In English she can say only “thank you.”

I look. Her hands are those of a farmer with protruding veins, thick calloused fingers, and dirt etched into the lines of her palms. In one of her hands she holds an okra pod, in the other a cheap metal knife. Firmly but lithely, she removes the stem end of the okra without cutting into the flesh. I do the same, and she nods. And so from Mariam, an illiterate sister-wife, I learn my first food preparation technique.

I continue to look as she dices homegrown tomatoes and onions, cubes the lamb, and grinds the cumin in an improvised mortar and pestle (no more than a deep metal bowl and smooth oblong stone from the farm). Since she has no indoor oven, all of her cooking takes place in a weathered cast iron pan on the hot plate.

We spread a large tattered blanket on the floor of the other room. Mariam removes a bowl of homemade sheep’s milk yogurt from under the only piece of furniture, a saggy metal-framed bed. Family and friends sit on the blanket, each takes a mismatched bowl and spoon, and we pass around the bamya (lamb and okra stew), thick tangy yogurt, thyme-scented olives and rice.

There, sitting on the tattered blanket with a towel serving as a communal napkin, I savor a most delectable meal.

Tools of the Food Trade

Since that day, I’ve enjoyed meals in countless restaurants and homes. Most have been decent, some have approached superb. Yet few, despite having been prepared with much more elaborate tools, have come close to Mariam’s spread.

The average American home kitchen contains a microwave oven, toaster oven, gas or electric stove, running water, working refrigerator, dishwasher, and a surfeit of dishes, cups, utensils, pots and pans. Its more upscale counterpart may include as well a food processor, garbage disposal, ice cube maker, stainless steel appliances, and single-function gadgets for hulling strawberries, let’s say, or standing asparagus up in a pot.

I understand the pleasure – and sometimes even the necessity – of having the right tool for the job. Some years ago, I took a culinary knife skills course in which the teacher-chef emphasized the importance of good knives not only for efficiency, but for safety as well. And to be honest, I’d rather chop onions with a sharp-bladed chef knife than with the bendable metal Mariam used. (Given the choice, I imagine she would have as well.)

As a mindful homesteader, I ask myself which tools are necessary, and which merely a waste. Can I prepare simple meals without a certain gadget or will its lack prevent me from doing so safely and well?

The kitchen I prefer (and have) exists somewhere on the spectrum between that of Mariam and the average American home. I’m grateful for potable running water, for instance, and for the infrastructure of water treatment plants and pipes that permits it. As romantic as an image may be of a woman carrying water from the stream in an urn, I know there is only so much I can do or am willing to do, and fetching water on a regular basis is not a task I want.

Yet, I shun many labor-saving devices because of expense or environmental impact or the human conditions in which they were made. But there’s more. Even if I could afford certain gadgets or buy them used, I would still reject them. The fact is I do not always want to “save labor.” I enjoy my body in action. I take pleasure in the sensory – and sensual – process of chopping fruit and vegetables by hand, grinding spices with a mortar and pestle, washing dishes as I look out the window at laundry hanging on the line.

I think of Mariam stooping to pick peppers, okra and beans, lifting heavy boxes of guavas into a cart, sitting cross-legged on the concrete floor. No doubt, she could accomplish these tasks in her sixties because she had always done them. She continued to do them until she died sometime in her mid-to-late eighties. Given the choice, would she have opted for labor-saving devices? Some, I imagine, though I don’t know for certain.

It’s May now some thirty years after that day. Our northern Utah homestead is alive with asparagus, rhubarb, radishes, lettuces, arugula and herbs. Yesterday we had asparagus (steamed lying down) with eggs from our hens. Today’s breakfast included stewed rhubarb and berries. As I stood by the sink hulling the berries with an ordinary teaspoon, I thought of Mariam’s kitchen with its few simple tools. And once again I was reminded of what matters most in preparing good food: healthful ingredients grown or raised well, adequate skill, and love. Would that I could say “thank you” to Mariam for showing me this path.

A native New Yorker, Felicia Rose now lives on a homestead in northern Utah where she and her spouse  live a bountiful life on a limited budget. Find all of Felicia’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


If people knew how easy and delicious homemade salad dressings can be, store-bought dressing sales would plummet. You, too, can make your own salad dressings without having a culinary school degree or cooking experience. There are some dressings that take less than 5 minutes to make and some that take a bit longer. Most are simple and worth the time after you get the hang of it.

Simple is Best

The easiest of the salad dressings are the simple oil-and-vinegar types. The secret is to use good-tasting vinegar, not the industrial-strength cleaning vinegar most shoppers buy. Some of the best are: Bragg’s apple cider vinegar; flavored vinegar, like champagne, red wine, or herb-infused; specialty vinegar from any number of oil-and-vinegar stores popping up across North America.

Just mixing a great-tasting vinegar with olive oil, avocado oil, or walnut oil makes a delicious and healthy alternative to store-bought dressings. When you make your own dressings, gone are the chemical additives and preservatives sometimes found in store-bought dressings. And it’s pretty cool to show off to friends and family how easy these are to make.


Let’s take the flavor profile a bit farther and add garden-fresh herbs to the oil-and-vinegar base. The French consider tarragon the “King of Herbs” and use it often in salad dressings. Add a teaspoon or two to your oil and vinegar and the aroma builds quickly.

Go a step beyond and put a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and now you have a flavor explosion to rock your taste buds. Poured over a mixed green, romaine, or even a kale salad, this dressing is a winner.

salad with dressing

Consider creamy dressing for a tasty alternative to oil-and-vinegar-based types if you don’t mind the extra calories. Take some mayonnaise, buttermilk, roasted garlic cloves, and chopped parsley to make a savory dressing tasting way better than store-bought ranch-style.

This type takes a little longer, but is worth it. If you follow the directions for my garlic-infused olive oil, you will have perfect garlic cloves for use in this dressing just hanging out in your fridge.

So give it a whirl and see if you agree with me. There’s no dressing like homemade!

Oil and Vinegar with Fresh Tarragon Recipe


• 4 oz. corn oil, avocado oil or olive oil
• 2 oz. apple cider vinegar, or champagne vinegar
• 1 tsp fresh tarragon chopped fine
• 1 tsp chopped fresh chives, optional
• 1/2 tsp Dijon mustard, optional


Mix all ingredients and serve over your favorite green salad. Try my pan-toasted spicy croutons for a kick.

Homemade Ranch Dressing with Roasted Garlic Recipe


• 1 cup mayonnaise
• 1 cup buttermilk, more or less depending on how thick you want the dressing
• 4-6 cloves minced roasted garlic, about 1-2 tablespoons
• 1/4 cup finely minced parsley

dip with carrot sticks


In a mixing bowl mix all ingredients with a wire whip. Thin as needed with additional buttermilk if desired. This can be used right away or refrigerate for an hour before using for best results. Makes about 2 cups

Note: Make it thicker if you want to use it as a dip for carrot sticks, celery, and other vegetables. Don’t be afraid of adding more garlic if, after mixing and tasting, it tastes too weak. Only use fresh garlic if you are going to use all the dressing within 24 hours. Otherwise it will become too strong in raw garlic flavor.

Kurt Jacobson has been a chef for 40 years and, after being schooled in the U.S. Coast Guard, he trained in many restaurants under both kind and maniac chefs. Kurt is starting his fourth year of container and raised-bed organic gardening and is volunteering at Wilbur’s Farm in Kingsville, Maryland, to learn real organic gardening. Find him online at Fast and Furious Cook and Taste of Travel 2, and read all of Kurt's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.



For this huge celebratory feast, invite a dozen or more of your best friends. Stock up a supply of your favorite beverages, including iced tea, lemonade and some adult drinks, and get ready to party!

We set up with a 20-gallon boil pot with strainer basket on a propane burner. After filling the pot to a little less than the halfway mark with the water hose, cover the pot and wait. It takes nearly 2 hours for the pot to come to a boil, so start it up in plenty of time. These huge pots are available at Bayou Classics. Obviously, a boil doesn’t have to be this huge, and you can certainly do a very successful boil on the stovetop in your kitchen. A pasta pot complete with the strainer basket will be ideal. My pasta pot is 8-quart and would do a nice meal for a family of four.

Set up your table — a picnic table is good. Cover the table with a cheap plastic drop cloth and layers of paper, taped down on the corners. Doing this lets you just roll up the whole mess of empty shells and dump it all into a trash bag in one fell swoop. Set out some bowls for shells and a couple rolls of paper towels for messy hands.

Crawfish Boil Recipe


• Cajun Land Crab Shrimp Crawfish Boil seasoning
• crawfish and/or shrimp, unpeeled, preferably heads on
• vegetables of your choice (see below)

Note: If the boil spice is not available at your local store, it is available at as well as other utensils you may need.


1. When the water finally comes to a full boil, add in the spices. When you use the spice mix from Cajun Land or Zatarains, do not try to add to it! As they say in Louisiana, “I guarantee” you will mess it up! Just follow the directions that are clearly written on the package. Use the right amount for the size of your boil: It’s all right on the label of the package.

2. With water to a full boil with spices, add the crawfish and whole, unpeeled heads of garlic and small chunks (about 2-inch square) of sweet potatoes.

3. If you are also cooking shrimp, add it when 2 to 5 minutes are left on the crawfish time, depending on size of the shrimps. We like them pretty big — 20 to 25 count.

4. Stir the pot gently, cover and return to a boil. Stir gently every few minutes. Boil for 5 to 7 minutes. Turn off the fire and stir another time.

Now, add in as many of these below as you’d like:

• small red potatoes
• sausage, usually smoked (some people even toss in hot dogs)
• whole mushrooms
• whole stalks of celery
• small whole onions, unpeeled
• frozen little ears of corn
• whole artichokes, fully cooked by steaming or boiling and chilled or frozen

Let the whole bountiful mix “soak” for anywhere from 15 minutes to 45 minutes, depending on how spicy you want your food. We left it for 45 minutes and most of our group was very happy. If there are non-spicy guests, you might scoop some out earlier.

Now — and this took two strong men — lift the strainer from the pot, and set it on top of two sturdy boards or paddles on the pot.  Let it drain for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until it stops dripping.

Again, with two strong men, dump the whole meal right down the center of the table and everybody can dig in. In our group, some just stood at the table, others pulled up chairs.

Optional: butter for the corn. This meal is not for fancy people — I just put a stick of butter on a plate and tell folks to twirl their corn right on the stick.

Recipe Alternative: Crab Boil

A Cajun-style crab dinner is made much the same way. To a hamper (bushel) of crabs, use the same amount of water and seasoning as for the crawfish. When the water comes to a boil, put in the seasoning, then the crabs and as many whole heads of garlic and small sweet potatoes as you want. Boil for 10 to 12 minutes, and then turn off the fire. Add in your choices of:

• oranges, quartered
• lemons, halved
• smoked sausages
• mushrooms
• artichokes, fully cooked and frozen
• little ears of corn

Soak and drain as above. Grab the claw crackers and dig in!

Wendy Akin is happy to share her years of traditional skills knowledge. Over the years, she’s earned many state fair ribbons for pickles, relishes, preserves and special condiments, and even a few for breads. Read all of Wendy’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn


Chef Miguel Valdez in The Red Door's farm

“How many chefs have half an acre to work with?” asks Miguel Valdez, Executive Chef of The Red Door Restaurant and Wine Bar in the Mission Hills district of San Diego, California. Among his many tattoos, he sports one on his forearm that reads “Bon Appetit,” making his commitment to food no secret.

With a menu built around local, organic, sustainable and ethically-sourced seasonal cuisine, The Red Door opens to an ever-changing menu of appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts crafted by Chef Valdez. He transforms what’s seasonally available into unique dishes like a fried cauliflower with savory ginger soy glaze, a garden chard and kale salad with warm bacon vinaigrette or pepitas-crusted Catalina Offshore fresh catch.

Trish Watlington at the entrance of her restaurant's farm fields.

To make this all possible, Trish and Tom Watlington, owners of The Red Door, have turned their property in nearby La Mesa into a small farm in 2011, now producing a cornucopia of fresh vegetables, small fruits and herbs 365 days a year, thanks to the area’s ideal climate. They harvest about 6,000 pounds of produce a year for the restaurant, likely among the top farmer-producers of any restaurant in the U.S.

What they don’t grow enough of to keep up with their needs, or for various meat and seafood items, they source locally from partners like Suzie’s Farm, Catalina Offshore or Stehly Farms. With eighteen partners in all (they’re all listed by name on the menu), there is no shortage of perfectly ripe or in season ingredients. Chef Valdez also hits local farmers’ markets accompanied by his son, too.

“Our guests understand what we get at the markets, from our farm, or partners – whether tomatoes, persimmons or beets. These ingredients will be on the menu,” explains Valdez. “The dishes will have a unique twist to them. I have to be creative. It keeps me learning.”

His Herbed Gnocchi with Squash Pomodora Sauce captures this mantra, blending the flavors, textures and richness of this popular Italian dish. Chef Valdez shares his recipe below. We can't wait to try it with fresh, in-season ingredients that we organically grow ourselves later this year.

Herbed gnocchi with squash pomodora sauce at The Red Door. 

Herbed Gnocchi with Squash Pomodora Sauce Recipe

Chef Miguel Valdez, The Red Door Restaurant, San Diego, California

For Herbed Gnocchi

Yield: serves 10


• 1 ½  cups water
• 12 tbsp  (12oz) butter unsalted
• 2 cups flour
• 2 tbsp Dijon mustard (whole grain works too)
• 1 tbsp chopped chives
• 1 tbsp chopped parsley
• 1 cup shredded Gruyere cheese
• 5 large eggs


Mixing Gnocchi Dough

1. Set up a mixer with the paddle and have everything ready to go before you start.

2. Combine water and butter in a saucepan and bring to a full simmer.  Add the flour at once when simmering and stir well using a wooden spoon until the mix comes together and pulls away from the side. 

3. Transfer the mixture to mixer, adding mustard, chives and parsley and let mix for few seconds to incorporate.

4. Add cheese and mix again to incorporate.

5. On low speed, add one egg at a time and then increase speed to medium for a few seconds.   

6. Turn off mixer; if the gnocchi dough mixture is sticky, it’s ready.

Cooking Poached and Pan-Fried Gnocchi

1. In a large pot, bring water to a boil. Then place dough in a piping bag (pastry bag), leaving a half-inch opening. Place bag over pot and start to squeeze dough out, cutting it as the dough comes out into 2-inch gnocchi. Depending on the size of the pot, you will put at least half the bag of dough in pot.

2. When the gnocchi start to float to the top of the water, pull them out with slotted spoon or spider. Place on sheet to dry; drizzle a little bit of olive oil over them so they don't stick.  Let cool.

3. To finalize the cooking of the gnocchi, have a hot non-stick pan with a teaspoon of oil. Pan fry small batches of gnocchi at a time until they are golden brown on all sides.

4. Add salt and pepper to taste.

For Butternut Squash Pomodora

Yield: 1.5 quarts


• 5 tbsp olive oil
• 12 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
• 2 small (28-ounce) butternut squash
• 1 chopped onion
• 1 cup vegetable stock
• 2 1/2 tsp sugar
• Kosher salt
• 1 small bunch fresh basil (chopped)


1. In a large heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat.

2. Add the onion, butternut squash and cook until softened but not browned, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the garlic, vegetable stock bring to a simmer, and cook until thickened slightly, about 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in sugar, and season with salt, to taste.

3. Add all ingredients to blender and lightly pulse it.  Add fresh basil and mix in sauce for extra freshness.

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently,9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living”. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10-kW Bergey wind turbine. Read all of John's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


canning journalHave you ever made a truly superb batch of jam – and then forgotten which recipe you used? Ever lost track of how long a bag of frozen peaches has been lurking in the bottom of the chest freezer?

You aren’t alone. Years ago I made some exquisite plum preserves. I have no idea what kind of plums I used. Ever since, I have been trying to re-create the recipe with no luck. After many summers of trying to perfect my great-grandmother’s ripe pickle recipe I finally got it right. But then promptly lost the sticky note I wrote everything on.

I needed a Canning and Preserving Journal. Maybe you do too. Just like a personal journal can help you keep track of your life events, and a gardening journal will keep your backyard garden organized, a canning journal is a valuable resource for those of us who can and preserve fresh food.

A Canning Journal Keeps Us Organized

If I had started my journal 20 years ago, I would know what kind of plums to pick up at the Farmer’s Market. My great-grandmother’s pickles would be on my table this year, and that forgotten bag of frozen peaches might be used, not sent to the compost pile.

No matter if we have one canning project a year, or one hundred, it helps to have a place to keep track of them. It’s our self-sufficiency version of including a “best buy” date on each jar.

None of us wants to waste food, especially when that food has been preserved by our own two hands. A canning journal helps us stay organized so that we preserve just the right amount of food each year.

A Canning Journal Jogs Our Memory

When I was a child my grandmother and her sisters made their mother’s Russian Bear pickles every summer. The whole large family loved them. They are made with the overgrown cucumbers that get lost under the leaves and are usually thrown into the compost pile or to the hogs!

But apparently, none of the next generation made the pickles. The sisters aged, their children and grandchildren grew up and moved away, and the pickle making tradition stopped.

By the time my children were grown, I was wondering how to make those wonderful pickles from my youth. The recipe was found. Only problem – the recipe was simply a list of ingredients, sort of. It says, “make brine, add vinegar and cloves and cinnamon.” Not much to go on.

I researched and tweaked those ingredients for years, until I made a big batch of Grammie’s Russian Bear Pickles. If only I had written it down in a canning journal. The next year I had to start almost all over again, because I lost my recipe. Now it is safely written down to help jog my memory. Writing down your projects saves you lots of time.

A Canning Journal is a Family Heirloom

As the above story shows, you never know which family member will want to re-create your specialties years from now. Although I started canning while in my 20s, I was in my 40s by the time I really started canning more unique items, and wanted to share the canned goods from my youth. By that time, most of my grandmother’s sisters were gone, and my grandmother could no longer remember the exact recipes.

A canning and preserving journal will become a treasured family heirloom. It will show future generations not only how to make your special Frozen Green Tomato Enchilada Sauce, but also is a window into what we ate, how often we enjoyed each product, what kind of produce was popular, and what processes were considered safe.

Wouldn’t you love to have a written record of your mother or grandmother’s favorites? I certainly would. A canning journal helps keep the future connected to the past. Food is love, and a canning journal is the bridge between the two.

Find Your Own Canning Journal

For some reason, finding a canning journal is not an easy task. You can adapt a pantry journal, although that is more of an inventory list and less of an information guide. You could make your own canning journal or purchase a canning log book on Etsy. Also on Etsy you will find my handcrafted Canning and Preserving Journals, like the one I have made for my own use.

The time to start a journal isn’t sometime this summer, the time is now – while we are getting ready for a new canning and preserving season.

Renee Pottle is an author, Family and Consumer Scientist, and Master Food Preserver. She writes about canning, baking, and real food at Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.


Depending on your Internet prowess, your social media connections and your inbox, you may have noticed the last few years have brought about a number of new products for fermentation — more specifically, for fermenting in a mason jar.

All you need for lacto-fermentation is salt, a vessel, and some time. It is a pretty simple, ancient technique for processing and preserving our food — after all, humans came up with clay pots some time ago. For tens of thousands of years those clay pots served us well with very little improvement or innovation.

At some point, a potter or a fermenter figured out a water seal crock. This is a ceramic crock with a moat in the rim that holds a bit of water and the lid. This creates a one-way door for the carbon dioxide (created by the fermentation process) — it can leave but air cannot come back in. This helps to produce the anaerobic environment necessary for successful fermentation. 

It is crucial that the vegetables are kept submerged in the brine, but for some the question is should the whole system be anaerobic? It doesn’t have to be — think of regular crocks (not the fancy ones with the water trough), Korean Onggi pots and all the vessels that have an open top with just a weight and a towel.

However, many people prefer not to deal with the yeasts and molds that can take up residence on that exposed top layer of the brine. This can be diminished with the use of a system that allows the carbon dioxide gas, which is created as the bacteria break down the sugars and starches, to escape the fermentation vessel without letting new air into the environment.

Fermenting in a Mason Jar

Fermenting in a big crock can be daunting and unwieldy so most people now-a-days choose to ferment in a mason jar. Fermenting in a jar is great for a number of reasons beyond the approachable size.

The biggest benefit is you can see what is going on with your ferment, which is especially handy if you are teaching yourself this craft. For example, it is important to keep the ferment under the brine. You may wake up and see a huge layer of brine on top of your veggies and think “cool, my ferment is making brine.”

However, in the glass jar, you can see what is actually happening: Is the brine getting pushed out due to the trapped CO2? This is called a “heave” or a “surge.” When you see this in the jar you will see the trapped air pockets in the ferment where the brine used to be. If you are using an open fermentation method it is critical that you press on your ferment allowing the brine to sink back down into the ferment, submerging the vegetables.

This becomes less critical with a system that allows the carbon dioxide to escape without letting air in because those air pockets are generally CO2 and not air. That said the flavor can be affected and it is best to press everything back down when this happens, regardless of the system.

Fermentation works in many environments — that is part of what makes it so incredible. If you ferment without a system that allows the air to escape, you have to burp your jar manually during the process, because the CO2 gas molecules wiggle free from the liquid and have no place to go. They are held in by pressure that is released as soon as they shake free.

This actually takes a bit of energy, which we all know from when we were kids and shook a soda before opening the can. This is what creates that fizz that you get when you open an airtight container without an airlock as the millions of CO2 are molecules rushing to get out the door. (If they were bigger it would be a stampede.)

The systems that we are looking at here all do the same thing in that when the pressure builds up as the carbon dioxide is produced, the air already in the vessel gets pushed out — making the whole environment inside the jar anaerobic. The difference is simple in how this is achieved.

Fermentation Airlock System Comparisons

Click here for a larger look at this chart

Do I Need an Airlock?

As mentioned above, fermentation is a process that is ancient and very low tech and forgiving, so the answer lies with you and what you are comfortable with.  Fermentation should be a fun and relaxing process — yes, relaxing. There should be no fear of killing your loved ones. (Don’t worry — you can’t. If it is bad, you will know.)

What a fermentation system will do for you is take some of the babysitting out of monitoring for air pockets and allow you to “forget” about your little jar temporarily while the good bacteria are processing your veggies.

Also, there is less waste because these systems reduce the chances of discolored kraut or scum on top of the ferment that needs to be thrown away, which can happen with open ferments.

Mara Rose, of, collaborated to review some of the more popular jar systems out there. Here you will meet the ceramicist, the classically trained chef and nutritionist, the former ad sales exec, and the reformed business analyst who left all that behind to build a better fermentation lid.

Kirsten K. Shockey is a post-modern homesteader who lives in the mountains of Southern Oregon. She writes about sauerkraut and life — but not necessarily in that order. She’s written a complete book of Fermented Vegetables and maintains the website Read all of Kirsten's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Subscribe Today!

Pay Now & Save 67% Off the Cover Price

(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here